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Spahn, baseball's lefty wins king, dies

Hall of Famer with 363 wins and exaggerated leg kick was 82.

By wire services
Published November 25, 2003

BROKEN ARROW, Okla. - Restricted to a wheelchair but as crusty as ever, Warren Spahn had one complaint when his bronze statue was unveiled outside Turner Field in August.

"That nose is a little too big," baseball's winningest left-hander said, his face breaking into that familiar smirk.

But it won't be Mr. Spahn's hawk-like nose that fans notice as they pass en route to future Braves games. It will be Mr. Spahn's right foot shooting skyward forever in his classic high-kick pitching delivery.

The Hall of Famer, considered by many the greatest left-hander in history and a key component of the Milwaukee Braves' powerhouse teams in the late 1950s, died Monday at his home. He was 82.

During his brilliant 21-year career, Mr. Spahn won 363 games, 356 with the Braves in Boston and Milwaukee, and put together 13 20-victory seasons. He was known for his longevity, winning 177 games after his 35th birthday, including his 300th in 1961 at the age of 40.

"He's the modern-day king," said catcher Del Crandall, who joined Mr. Spahn in the Braves Hall of Fame the day his former teammate's statue was unveiled. "I really don't think he gets the credit he deserves.

"Nobody else could pitch like that, but his delivery was so much a part of his success. The higher he kicked, the better he pitched. Of course, if he had kicked any higher, be might have fallen over backward."

"In my mind, he was the greatest left-hander of all time," said fellow Hall of Famer Bob Feller, who pitched against Mr. Spahn in the 1948 World Series. Mr. Spahn helped pitch the Braves to National League pennants in 1948, 1957 and 1958. The Braves played seven-game World Series against the Yankees in the latter two years, winning the first and losing the second.

Like Feller, Mr. Spahn's career was impacted by World War II. He served with the Army in Europe, winning a Bronze Star and Purple Heart and earning a commission as a second lieutenant.

Mr. Spahn was 25 before he got his first major-league win.

"He was a war hero," Feller said. "Who knows how many games he would have won if it wasn't for World War II."

Making up for a late start, Mr. Spahn pitched in the majors until he was 44, finishing his career with the Mets and Giants in 1965.

Yankees manager Joe Torre was a young catcher with the Braves when Mr. Spahn was at the top of his game.

"Warren Spahn was a fighter and a winner," Torre said. "He made catching in the big leagues a lot easier for me because he took me under his wing along with Lew Burdette."

Mr. Spahn was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1973, his first year of eligibility.

A native of Buffalo, N.Y., Mr. Spahn signed with the Braves out of high school, receiving a $150 bonus and two suits of clothes. He made his debut for Boston in 1942 but was sent to the minors after he refused an order from manager Casey Stengel to intentionally throw at Brooklyn's Pee Wee Reese during an exhibition game.

In 1947, at 26, Mr. Spahn became a big winner, collecting 21 victories and making the first of 14 trips to the All-Star Game.

Mr. Spahn helped the Braves win the pennant in 1948, sparking the famous battle cry, "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain," referring to pitching partner Johnny Sain and the club's lack of pitching depth.

Sain, who had a stroke last year, learned of Spahn's death at his home near Chicago.

Mr. Spahn won 78 the last four years the club was in Boston, then won 23 in its first year in Milwaukee. He won 20 in eight of the next 10 seasons, and in 1957 he won the Cy Young Award, then presented to one pitcher from both leagues.

His most memorable start may have come in 1963, when he dueled the Giants' Juan Marichal for 15 scoreless innings. In the 16th, on his 201st pitch, the 42-year-old Mr. Spahn hung a pitch to Willie Mays, whose homer won it 1-0.

"It became rhythmic that one out followed another," Mr. Spahn recalled. "I thought I had to get ahead of Mays and I hung that screwball. Afterward, I was beat. Oh, man. Gangrene set in after I got in the clubhouse. Marichal was 25, and said the only reason he stayed in was he didn't want an old guy to beat him."

[Last modified November 25, 2003, 02:06:38]


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