- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 2, 2003

In baseball’s recent ancient past, meaning the sleepy 1950s, there were two unfortunate things about being a fan in Washington. One, of course, was that the Senators were customarily comatose. The other was that we didn’t get to see National League stars except during All-Star or World Series games.

Nonetheless, Warren Spahn was a hero of mine because of his consistency and longevity. I didn’t give a rodent’s rump about the Braves, for whom he pitched most of his career, but you had to admire a guy who went out and won 20 games nearly every year. Thus his death last week at 82 in Broken Arrow, Okla., was cause for sorrow — and a reminder of how much older the rest of us are getting.

I always regarded Spahnie as a giant among men, so it was a surprise to encounter him some years back at one of those Cracker Jack Old-Timers Games at RFK Stadium and discover that he was just a little guy by today’s standards, maybe 5-foot-11, 170 pounds. But he was so dauntingly dominant on the mound, with a crackling fastball, a deadly curve and a leg kick that seemingly reached toward the moon. Oh yes, and control, too.

Because he played most of his career in Milwaukee and was a relatively quiet, modest guy, Spahn never got the acclaim that showered down on contemporary left-handers like Whitey Ford of the Yankees or Sandy Koufax of the Dodgers. But oh how he could pitch. In 21 seasons, he won 363 games — fifth on the all-time list and more than any other southpaw — with a dazzling 3.09 ERA and 63 shutouts. He got a National League-record 5,243 innings from that scrawny arm, completing 382 of 665 starts, or 57 percent. Try that stat on some of today’s pampered portsiders who consider six innings a night’s work and earn millions for not finishing the job.

I misstated the case when I said Spahn won 20 games nearly every year. Actually, he won 21 games nearly every year, eight times in all. He also won 20 once, 22 twice and 23 twice. His second 23-gamer came in 1963, when he was 42 years old. Said Cardinals slugger Stan Musial, another Hall of Famer who put in more than two decades: “I don’t think Spahn will ever make the Hall of Fame, because he’ll never stop pitching.”

Spahn was with the Boston Braves briefly in 1942 but was sent down by his manager, none other than Casey Stengel, for refusing to brush back Pee Wee Reese of the Dodgers. Obviously, though, Casey didn’t hold a grudge. Stengel gave Spahn a job with the Mets in 1965, when the pitcher was just about through.

After a three-year Army gig during World War II, Spahn won eight games for the Braves in 1946 at age 25, then blossomed as a 21-game winner in 1947. When Boston won its first pennant in 34 years the next season, people joked that the pitching staff consisted of “Spahn and [Johnny] Sain and two days of rain.” Oddly, Spahn went only 15-12 in ‘48 for one of only three pennant winners for which he labored, along with the ‘57 and ‘58 Milwaukee Braves.

Spahn often claimed the key to his longevity was that he was soldiering rather than pitching from the ages of 22 through 24. That and the fact that he kept things in perspective. “After what I went through overseas, I never thought of anything in baseball as hard work,” said Spahn, who was awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star in the European theater.

In fact, Spahn was a loosey-goosey sort when he wasn’t pitching. He and fellow pitcher Lew Burdette were relentless practical jokers on the Braves’ good teams of the late ‘50s. Even in the ‘90s, when he was beset by one health problem after another, he was still cracking one-liners. When a sculptor was planning a statue of him for an award given annually to baseball’s best left-hander, the hawk-beaked Spahn told him, “Listen, I don’t have a big nose — I have a small face.”

Spahn’s last years were difficult. He was hospitalized twice for internal bleeding, endured four broken ribs after being dropped during a medical test and suffered a punctured lung. When an Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer visited him in August, Spahn held a 5-ounce baseball while posing for a picture and observed, “Darn thing’s heavy. I’m glad I don’t have to make my living with this thing now.”

Sad, so sad. But time waits for no man — although Spahn the pitcher held it off for longer than anyone had a right to expect.

During the same interview, Spahn said, “Have you ever sat down and asked yourself why you did what you did for a living? … Was I really that good? I never knew how good I was.”

Everybody else did, even those of us in Washington.

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