Warren Spahn, who in a career spanning 21 seasons won 363 games, the major league record for a left-handed pitcher, died yesterday at his home in Broken Arrow, Okla. He was 82.
Confounding batters with a fluid, high-kicking motion and an assortment of pitches that nicked the corners of the plate or darted just outside the strike zone, Spahn was a craftsman on the mound.
He did not win a major league game until he was 25 and had served in World War II. But when he retired after the 1965 season at age 44, he owned a host of records.
Pitching 20 seasons for the Braves — 8 in Boston and 12 in Milwaukee — and a final season with the Mets and the San Francisco Giants, Spahn had a record of 363-245, fifth on the career victory list. He won the Cy Young award as baseball's best pitcher in 1957, was an All-Star 14 times and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1973, his first year of eligibility.
"For the years I was watching him, Koufax was tops," Johnny Podres, a Dodgers pitcher and later a pitching coach, told Donald Honig in "October Heroes." "But for the long haul, for year-after-year performance, Warren Spahn was the best I ever saw. He was just a master of his trade. I couldn't take my eyes off him. Watching him was an education."
Whitlow Wyatt, Spahn's pitching coach at Milwaukee, once said: "He makes my job easy. Every pitch he throws has an idea behind it."
Spahn won at least 20 games 13 times, a record for a lefty. He holds the records for most times leading a league in victories (eight, including five consecutive years, from 1957 to 1961) and complete games (nine). He pitched 382 complete games in 665 starts, and his 5,243 innings pitched places him No. 1 among left-handers.
He pitched 63 shutouts, a National League record for a left-hander, and had a career earned run average of 3.09.
At 6 feet and 175 pounds, Spahn was not regarded as a power pitcher, but he led the N.L. in strikeouts every season from 1949 to 1952.
He pitched two no-hitters, against the Philadelphia Phillies in September 1960, at age 39, and against the Giants in April 1961, five days after his 40th birthday.
In 1963, he matched his season high in victories with 23.
He could hit, too. His 35 career home runs are an N.L. record for a pitcher, and he had a .333 batting average in 1958.
Spahn was honored in August by the Braves, who unveiled a bronze statue of him at Turner Field in Atlanta, where they now play. It depicts his pitching motion, right leg pointed toward the sky.
Warren Edward Spahn was born in Buffalo on April 23, 1921. His father, Edward, a former semipro baseball player who sold wallpaper, built a pitcher's mound in the family's backyard and developed his son's pitching style.
"He insisted that I throw with a fluid motion, and the high leg kick was a part of the deception to the hitter," Spahn told The Sunday Oklahoman in 1998. "Hitters said the ball seemed to come out of my uniform."
Spahn signed with the Boston Braves organization in 1940. He made his major league debut in 1942, pitching briefly for Manager Casey Stengel, who had banished him to the minors in the spring for refusing to throw at the Dodgers' Pee Wee Reese, as Spahn told it.
Spahn was drafted into the Army's combat engineers in 1943. He took part in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 and the seizure of the bridge at Remagen, enabling Allied troops to begin crossing the Rhine. One minute before that bridge collapsed, on the afternoon of March 17, 1945, killing many American soldiers, Spahn had been alongside it. He emerged from World War II with a battlefield commission, a Bronze Star, and a Purple Heart for a shrapnel wound.
He returned to the Braves in 1946, posting an 8-5 record, then emerged as one of baseball's best pitchers with a 21-10 record the next year.
In 1948, Spahn teamed with the right-hander Johnny Sain to pitch the Braves to a pennant in a race inspiring an enduring baseball rhyme.
On Sept. 14 of that season, The Boston Post carried a four-line poem by Gerry Hern, its sports editor, beseeching Spahn and Sain to assume the pitching burden in the final weeks and hoping for some rain to give them enough rest between outings.
The rhyme was shortened among Braves fans to "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain."
Over the next 12 days, Spahn and Sain each started three games and each won twice, with three days off and one rainout in between, as the Braves captured their first pennant in 34 years.
Sain won 24 games that season, Spahn 15.
Spahn was outpitched by the Indians' Bob Lemon in Game 2 of the World Series, then won Game 5 in relief, but Cleveland captured the Series in six games.
The Braves endured lackluster years after that, then moved to Milwaukee in 1953 and enjoyed a stunning revival behind the pitching of Spahn, Lew Burdette and Bob Buhl, the power hitting of Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews and the catching of Del Crandall. Spahn's pitching helped the Braves win the World Series in 1957 and a pennant in 1958. He was 1-1 in the 1957 World Series and 2-1 in the '58 Series, both against the Yankees.
Relying on guile long after he had lost the velocity on his fastball, Spahn continued to thrive past age 40. But in 1964, he slipped to 6-13.
The Braves sold him in November to the Mets, who made him the highest-paid player in their three-year history with a $70,000 salary. Also serving as a coach and pitching once more for Stengel, Spahn was 4-12.
After having lost 11 straight on a last-place team, he was released in mid-July 1965, joined the Giants and went 3-4 for them to close out his pitching career.
Spahn later managed the minor league Tulsa Oilers, served as a pitching coach for the Indians and in Mexico and Japan, and was a minor league instructor for Cleveland and the Angels. He operated a cattle ranch in Hartshorne, Okla.
He is survived by a son, Gregory, and two granddaughters. His wife, LoRene, died in 1978.
Spahn was a master of control — or the deliberate lack thereof.
"Home plate is 17 inches wide," he once remarked. "I give the batter the middle 13 inches. That belongs to him. But the two outside inches on either side belong to me. That's where I throw the ball."
Even better, he often made the batter swing at a pitch he could not hit solidly. "You have to be able to throw strikes," Spahn said. "But you try not to whenever possible."
Spahn complemented his fastball with a curveball, a screwball, a slider and changeups, all thrown with the same overhand motion.
"I'm smarter now than when I had the big fastball," he told Time magazine in 1960. "Sometimes I get behind hitters on purpose. That makes them hungry hitters. They start looking for fat pitches. I make my living off hungry hitters."
Interviewed in 1999 at the All-Star Game in Boston's Fenway Park, Spahn took a dim view of modern-day pitching, particularly in the American League with its designated hitter.
"One of the things I dislike about baseball today is we've made nonathletes out of pitchers," he said. "They pitch once a week. They count the pitches. They don't hit. They don't run the bases. That's not my kind of baseball."