Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
November 25, 2003
BASEBALL: A Lefty Moves On
Too busy to blog this morning -- I was late at the office last night and never got around to wrapping up my analysis of the Aleto opinion, which will have to wait until after Thanksgiving -- but I couldn't let the day pass without saying a word or two about Warren Spahn, who died yesterday at age 82. You probably know the details, but the key facts about Spahn:
*You can draw the line for "modern" baseball in a number of places, but for pitching records the clearest dividing line is the arrival of the lively ball in 1920, which required pitchers to bear down against every hitter or risk allowing a home run. Since 1920, Steve Carlton is second all time in wins with 329; Spahn is first, 34 wins ahead of him at 363. And unlike the stars of the 1960s-70s, only one season of Spahn's prime (1963) overlapped with a pitcher-dominated era.
*Winningest lefthander in baseball history.
*Served his country with honor and distinction in World War II:
In 1943, Spahn went into the Army. He served in Europe, where he was wounded, decorated for bravery with a Bronze Star and Purple Heart and was awarded a battlefield commission. He fought at the Battle of the Bulge and in the battle for the bridge at Remagen, Germany, where many men in his company were lost.
*Spahn's military service had the added result that he didn't win a game until age 25. Perhaps that helped him -- his arm didn't get worked hard until he was old enough to handle it -- but it's just as possible that he would have won 380-390 games if he hadn't served (much like Grover Alexander, who would have won 400 if he hadn't taken a year away at the pinnacle of his career to go to the front in World War I).
*Won 20 games a staggering 13 times.
*Loved the game so much he went back to the minor leagues for a few years after being cut by the Mets and Giants at age 44.
Now, to be fair, Spahn had a few advantages in his major league career; he pitched in pitcher's parks most of his career, and almost always had outstanding offenses behind him, led by Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews. Baseball-reference.com doesn't list his context-adjusted career ERA in the top hundred. But then, between 1946 and 1963, his "ERA+" rates as better than the league by 10% or more 16 times in 18 years, and in all but two of those years he threw at least 257 innings (and the offseasons were one of 245 and the 1946 season, when he wasn't yet an established starter). He faced 1000 batters in a season 17 years in a row. That kind of consistency in a starting pitcher is one of baseball's rarest gifts in any era.