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Spahn and Sain

February 18, 2010
 
Take a look at Warren Spahn’s seasonal statistics sometime. Just whenever you have a free minute.
 
He’s, well, steady. He’s about as steady as they come. I’ve packed away my copy of Bill’s Goldmine that measures player consistency, but Spahn certainly has to rate an ‘A’ by his system. Between 1947 and 1963, a stretch of seventeen major league seasons, Spahn reached twenty wins thirteen times. In the years he didn’t reach twenty, he had totals of 15, 14, 17 and 18 wins.
 
Okay: here are his W-L record over a six-year stretch, 1956-1961:
 
20-11
21-11
22-11
21-15
21-10
21-13
 
I mean, how much more consistent can you be?
 
Warren Spahn was focused on twenty wins: it was his goal every season. He is quoted in a few places talking about winning twenty, about how much that mattered. He likened it to hitting .300: if you hit .300 someone will pay you. If you win twenty, someone will pay you.
 
Spahn wasn’t a dummy: in his quotes on the subject you get the sense that he thought it was absurd that fans and owners and writers were so caught up with that one number. But he wasn’t out to change the hearts and minds, either: if people thought twenty wins meant something, well then he’d go out and win those twenty.
 
Another fun one: in 1947, during his first big season, Spahn went 21-10, 2.33 ERA. He was twenty-six years old. A decade later he posted almost the same record: 21-11, 2.67 ERA. Here’s the thing: his rate stats are also identical:
 
 
IP
WHIP
H/9
BB/9
SO/9
1947
289.2
1.136
7.6
2.6
3.8
1957
271.1
1.177
8.0
2.6
3.7
 
Warren Spahn…Spahn is one of my grandfather’s favorite players. I remember that early on in my baseball learning he’d often muse about why everyone talked about Sandy Koufax. “Spahn used to do that every year,” he’d complain.
 
That’s not true, of course: Spahn never quite reached the peaks of Koufax. He was excellent for a long time, but at his peak he was never as great as Grove or Koufax.
 
This is an aside, so feel free to skip down…Spahn was sort of a reflection of his time, wasn’t he? I mean, weren’t the 1950’s in America a hard fight for consistency, for a kind of impossible permanence?
 
I suppose that each generation carries a specific number of wants or desires, wants that are shaped by external forces and experiences. Spahn’s generation bore witness to the terrors of the Second World War, and suffered the subsequent anxieties of the nuclear age. It is unsurprising that when they returned home, they sought stability over all else. It’s a generalization, of course, but I think that the desires of that era were stable desires: a family and a house in the suburbs and a job to work for forty years. They didn’t come back from the Second World War intent on changing the country. No: they just wanted to keep things together as best they could, for as long as they could.
 
Spahn, more than Williams or Musial or DiMaggio, seems the perfect embodiment of that generation: having seen the war first-hand, he was returned to baseball with a good bit of perspective. He talked about it all the time: decades after he retired Spahn told the USA Today: “I felt like, wow, what a great way to make a living. If I goof up, there’s going to be a relief pitcher coming in there. Nobody’s going to shoot me.”
 
He was steady in a time when steadiness was considered the best, most noble attribute a man could possess. You never hear that anymore: we don’t describe our friends or loved ones as ‘steady’ or ‘reliable.’ Frankly, it sounds a trifle boring. But in the 1950’s steady and reliable meant something: it was a good quality. And Spahn was nothing if not steady.
 
Maybe I’m going too far with this, but apply the same thinking to Sandy Koufax, one of the great idols of the next generation. Koufax wasn’t steady: he was wild, and then he was brilliant. His career was short, but his peak was spectacular. He was Jewish and he didn’t go out of his way to make apologies for it. He was a star in California, which was the ‘new’ land then. Different generation, different kind of star to fit that generation.
 
Anyway, returning to our regular programming….there are a few pitchers who, for one reasons or another, get ‘linked’ to others. Koufax and Drysdale are the most famous example, I suppose. Maddux and Glavine and Smoltz. Often it’s a lefty-righty combination that is linked: Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, McLain and Lolich. Nolan Ryan and Mike Scott were talked about a bit during the 1980’s.
 
Warren Spahn is linked in history, of course, to Johnny Sain. That’s what this article is about.

Pray For Rain
 
Like the double-play combination of Tinker, Evers, and Chance, Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain were linked together in verse. The poet responsible for this pairing was Gerald V. Hern, an editor of the Boston Post. In September of the 1948 season he penned an ode to the Boston Braves aces:
 
First we’ll use Spahn, then we’ll use Sain,
Then an off day, followed by rain.
Back will come Spahn, followed by Sain,
And followed, we hope, by two days of rain.
 
The poem was quickly shortened to “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain,” which became a rallying cry for the 1948 Boston Braves.
 
I don’t know for sure, but I think it remains a well-remembered line of verse….I grew up in Boston, and certainly I heard the line just about every time Warren Spahn was mentioned. But it could be that the old rhyme is remembered mostly around Boston.  
 
Another brief aside: for a long time I interpreted the rhyme as something the opponents of the Braves would say: I thought that some opposing hitter had uttered the line: appealing to the heavens to save him from having to face the two aces.
 
Which might explain why the (shortened) verse has endured: it works on two levels. It captures the sentiments of Braves fans who recognized the team’s lack of pitching depth, and it depicts the fear that the opposition would feel at seeing Sain and Spahn as the likely starters on a doubleheader. It works both ways.
 
Spahn and Sain
 
Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain, as individuals, were about as different in temperament as two individuals could be. Warren Spahn was a funny man, a joker. There are hundreds of quotes that reveal his humor, and his intelligence. As far as looks go, Spahn wasn’t handsome: he had a big nose that was broken during a spring training game in 1941, and he was bald at a young age and looked older than his years. He has a distinctive profile, to put it kindly. Spahn was from Buffalo, New York: I don’t know if being from Buffalo makes him an East Coaster or a mid-westerner. In temperament he was probably closer to Canadian than anything else.
 
Johnny Sain, by contrast, was a serious man, someone who was terse with teammates and focused on the diamond. If Spahn’s temperament was reminiscent of Dizzy Dean, then Sain was cut from the same cloth as Lefty Grove or Bob Gibson. Physically, he was taller than Spahn and more muscular: by no means was Sain big, but he was bigger than Spahn. Sain, who was the first pitcher to pitch to Jackie Robinson, was a Southerner, born in Arkansas.
 
As pitchers they were different, too. Spahn was left-handed and Sain was a righty. Sain was a curveball specialist: the nickname “The Man of A Thousand Curves” is mentioned in the literature. Spahn was more conventional, throwing a fastball, curve, and change-up. Later in his career he learned new pitches to aid his fading fastball, but early he was a hard thrower. Their windups were different: Sain threw overhand in a ‘windmill’ fashion: left arm going up and the right arm following through, a little like a ballet dancer. Spahn, who couldn’t lift his right arm higher than his shoulder, kept his glove hand more within the hitter’s line of sight. I’m speculating a little bit, but I suppose that Spahn’s delivery was a bit smoother than Sain’s.
 
Most of you know that Spahn was an excellent hitter: from 1948 to 1964 Spahn hit at least one homerun each year, and totaled 35 over his career, which is second among career pitchers.
 
But Johnny Sain was actually the better hitter: he didn’t hit homeruns at the same rate as Spahn did, but he was an excellent contact hitter. Actually, excellent doesn’t do him justice: in 594 at-bats Johnny Sain struck out just twenty times, or once every 29.7 at-bats. That is almost certainly a record among pitchers. Joe DiMaggio was famous for never striking out, but the Clipper struck out once every 18.5 at-bats.
 
Warren Spahn whiffed 487 times in 1872 at-bats, which is a more expected rate of once every 3.8 at-bats. Sain also outpaced Spahn in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. 
 
Wartime: both Spahn and Sain served during World War II, losing the 1943-1945 seasons. Sain was drafted into the Navy: he learned how to fly planes with Ted Williams, and was a flight instructor in Texas through the end of the war.
 
Spahn, as most of you know, saw action during the Battle of the Bulge, where he served as a staff sergeant to an engineering battalion tasked with keeping a bridge up so that Allied tanks could pass into Germany. The bridge, under constant bombardment and stressed from the weight of tanks, eventually collapsed, killing 28 soldiers and leaving another 93 injured. Spahn, who had been nicked already by bullets, suffered shrapnel in his foot. The bridge proved a key foothold for the Allied Forces, and Spahn’s efforts led to his being promoted to Second Lieutenant. Later he was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star, and is acknowledged as the most decorated ballplayer of World War II.
 
I wonder how they got along, Spahn and Sain. I haven’t come across anything that comments about their relationship, which is revealing. Think about it: Spahn and Sain were the two most prominent players on those Boston Braves teams. Had they been friends, it’s likely that it would’ve been talked about a great deal, and even exaggerated some by the press of the time. It would have trickled down in the literature. It would be a remembered part of their narrative.
 
But it’s not there, at least as far as I know. I haven’t looked too hard, but I can’t find any account about Spahn or Sain saying anything about the other. If they liked each other, I’d sure like to know.
 
They had very different personalities: sometimes that works out and sometimes it doesn’t. I’m guessing here, but I don’t think they liked each other too much.
 
Summer of ‘48
 
Getting to the baseball: both Spahn and Sain made their debuts in 1942. Sain spent a year in the bullpen, appearing in 40 games and posting a 3.90 ERA. Spahn, who was three years younger than Sain, appeared in four games late in the season, walking eleven batters in 15.2 innings. Before the next season could start, both men were drafted into War.
 
Returning in 1946, Sain immediately became one of the premier pitchers in the Senior Circuit, going 20-14 with a 2.21 ERA. He finished fifth in the NL MVP vote, behind Musial and a few others. Spahn had less success, finishing 8-5 in sixteen starts, while posting a 2.94 ERA.
 
In 1947, Spahn began his seventeen-year run of baffling the National League. In addition to finishing 21-10, Spahn led the NL in earned-run average (2.33) and innings pitched (289.2). Johnny Sain posted his second consecutive 20-win season, matching Spahn’s twenty-one wins and posting an ERA of 3.52. Spahn and Sain finished 15th and 16th, respectfully, in the year’s MVP vote. Teammate Bob Elliott won the award.
 
At that point, I think it’s safe to say that the Braves had the best 1-2 combination in the National League, though the American League had Feller and Lemon pitching for Cleveland, and Newhouser and Virgil Trucks in Detroit.
 
The American League pennant race was terrific in 1948. This was the year the Red Sox chased down the Cleveland Indians on the last day of the season, setting up the first winner-take-all playoff game in the league’s history. The AL race actually had three teams contending down to the wire: the Yankees, coming off a World Series victory in 1947, finished just two back of the Red Sox and Cleveland. Cleveland’s win in Game 155 ruined the chances of a Boston-Boston World Series, a Green Line series. That would’ve been something.
 
The National League pennant race wasn’t a down-to-the wire race, but it was a good race all-the-same. The New York Giants started off hot, and were in first place into June. Here are the standings, June 1st, 1948:
 
Team
GB
Giants
--
Cardinals
0.5
Pirates
1
Braves
3
Phillies
3
Reds
4.5
Dodgers
5
Cubs
7
 
The Cardinals and Pirates pressed the Giants at the start of summer, with the Braves and Phillies lurking just a hair back. At that point, it would’ve been hard to consider any of the NL teams out of the race.
 
In the dog days of summer, the Braves emerged as the best of the pack: by July 1st they rose to first place, and they started August with a good lead. Here are the National League standings on August 1st:
 
Team
GB
Braves
--
Giants
5.5
Dodgers
6.5
Cardinals
8
Pirates
8.5
Phillies
9.5
Reds
16
Cubs
18
 
Were there a Wild Card, it would’ve been an interesting race for that title, but the Braves had a decent lead in the Senior Circuit.
 
A month later things had tightened up considerable. Here are the standing on September 1st, with a month to go in the season:
 
Team
GB
Braves
--
Dodgers
--
Pirates
1.5
Cardinals
2
Giants
7.5
Phillies
14
Reds
17
Cubs
17.5
 
Da Bums had caught up with Boston, and the Pirates and Cardinals were both within sight of the pack. The Giants had fallen from grace and the Phillies, who a month earlier had been just a game behind Pittsburgh, now joined the Reds and Cubs at the bottom of the NL barrel. 
 
On September 1st, the Braves split a doubleheader against Cincinnati. Warren Spahn lost to Johnny Van Meer in the first game, and Glenn Elliott beat Ken Raffensberger in the second. At the end of play the Braves were still tied with Brooklyn, and the National League Pennant was up for grabs. 
 
On September 3rd, Johnny Sain took the mound against Philadelphia’s Dutch Leonard. Leonard was in the midst of a tough-luck season: he posted a 2.51 ERA in 1948, but a record of just 12-17. Sain beat the Phillies, holding them to one run in nine innings. The game took an hour and thirty-one minutes.  
 
This game marked the beginning of one of the most superlative stretch runs any pitcher has had. And although no one at the time knew it, Sain’s victory marked the end of the NL pennant race: at days end the Braves were two games up in the pennant race, a lead they would not ever relinquish.
 
On Saturday, September 4th, the Braves’ Bill Voiselle lost the first game of a doubleheader to Schoolboy Rowe of the Phillies. The Braves won the second game. They won their next game, on Sunday the fifth.
 
We come, then, to September 6th. This was Labor Day, a Monday holiday for the denizens of Beantown. The Braves were scheduled to play a doubleheader against the second-place Brooklyn Dodgers. The stakes were high: the Braves started the day just 2.5 games ahead of Brooklyn.
 
The first game matched Warren Spahn against the Ralph Branca. Branca was twenty-two years old in 1948, and was coming off a 21-win season and a World Series appearance a year earlier. One imagines that the future would have looked quite bright to the star-crossed hurler.
 
Braves Field was packed for the holiday: the attendance was recorded as 39,670, which was the second-highest total of the season. And the fans certainly got their money’s worth: the first game was a fourteen-inning pitcher’s duel between Spahn and Branca that ended in a 2-1 walkoff for the Braves.
 
Johnny Sain pitched the second game, against a rookie starter named Harry Taylor. Sain won, shutting the Dodgers out for seven innings. The game was called in the seventh, with the Braves up 4-0. I presume it was called because of darkness.
 
It rained after that. Actually, it rained for an entire week, forcing the Braves indoors. Many Bostonians, fearing a flood, started collecting animals two-by-two. A sportswriter for the Boston Post, with no ballgames to follow, started working on his poetry.

The next game wasn’t until September 11th, a Saturday doubleheader in Philly. Braves manager Billy Southworth decided to give the ball, again, to his Labor Day heroes: this time Sain would start the first game, against the aging Schoolboy Rowe. Spahn would get the ball in act two, against an unknown rookie.
 
Sain’s game was an exciting game, won by the Braves 3-1. Only 4,000 fans showed up to watch. In the second game, the Braves battered the rookie hurler for Philadelphia to a bloody pulp, winning the game by an astonishing score of 13-2.
 
I suppose that none of the 4,000 fans who attended that game would have been optimistic about the future of that Philly starter, but he and Spahn would spend the better part of the next decade competing for recognition as the best pitcher in the National League. The young Philly was Robin Roberts, and he and Spahn would combine to win 649 major league games.
 
On Sunday, the 12th of September, the Braves split a doubleheader with the Phillies, with Red Barrett losing to knuckleballer Dutch Leonard in the first game, and Vern Bickford and Nels Potter beating Blix Donnelly in the second.
 
On Tuesday, September 14th, Gerald V. Hern’s poem appeared in the Boston Post. The poem proved somewhat prophetic, as Sain pitched the Braves to a 10-3 victory over the Cubs that night, and Spahn beat them the next day, 5-2. No rain was involved.
 
Following an off day in the schedule, Southworth skipped the rest of his pitchers, opting instead to follow the mandates of the poem. On Friday, September 17th, Sain pitched the Braves to a 6-2 win over the Pirates. On Saturday, Spahn defeated the Bucs 2-1, outdueling Fritz Ostermueller.
 
At that point the Braves were six games ahead in the National League, with just twelve games to go.
 
Just to recap: from the Labor Day doubleheader to September 18th, the Braves played ten games. Of those ten games, Sain and Spahn made eight starts, going a perfect 8-0, with a combined ERA under 2.00.
 
Here, in bullet form, are the rest of their starts over the season:
 
9/21 – Sain defeats St. Louis 11-3.
9/22 – Spahn loses to St. Louis, 2-8.
9/25 – Sain loses against the Giants, 2-3. A day later the Braves, ahead in the league by six games, clinch a tie for the NL pennant.
9/28 – Spahn loses to Brooklyn, 8-9. This is another extra inning game, and Spahn goes the full 13 innings.
9/29 – Sain beats the Dodgers 4-3.
 
Finally, on October 2nd, Billy Southworth slots Spahn and Sain into a Saturday doubleheader at the Polo Grounds. It’s a meaningless doubleheader: the pennant is clinched and the World Series starts in Boston in just four days, but Southworth starts his aces. Spahn loses the first game by a score of 8-2. Sain, who has been excellent down the stretch, wins yet another close game, defeating the Giants 2-1 in seven innings.
 
In Johnny Sain’s nine starts in September and October, he went 8-1, never allowing the opposition more than three runs on the scoreboard. On the year he would finish 24-15, with an ERA of 2.60, 28 complete games, and 314.2 innings pitched. At years end, he would finish second in the NL MVP vote, behind Stan Musial.
 
Spahn did not do as well: during the same stretch he was just 4-4 in eight starts, and his poor performance down the stretch and in Game 2 of the World Series let to Spahn being relegated to the bullpen for the rest of the Series. On the year, Spahn finished just 15-12, with an ERA of 3.71. He wouldn’t post an ERA higher than that for sixteen years.
 
The World Series
 
Johnny Sain got the start in Game 1 of the 1948 World Series, matched against Cleveland’s Bob Feller. This was the marquee matchup: Sain was the winningest pitcher in baseball, while Feller was baseball’s great fireballer, and the league leader in strikeouts. Pitching at home, Sain continued his incredible season, shutting out the Indians through nine innings. Feller was almost as effective; giving up the game’s only run on a two-out single in the bottom of the eighth. Sain needed just 95 pitches to shut out the Indians, while Feller threw 85 pitches in his eight innings of work.
 
Spahn, coming off three consecutive loses, pitched into the fifth inning of Game 2, allowing three runs. But Cleveland’s Bob Lemon held the Braves to just one run in his complete game, and the Indians won Game 2 by a score of 4-1.
 
Moving to Cleveland for Game 3, the Indians Gene Bearden, a 20-game winning during the regular season, shutout the Braves by a score of 2-0. Vern Bickford started for the Braves, and was relieved by Voiselle and then Red Barrett. I should mention that these World Series games were played consecutively: there were no off-days in the schedule
 
Through Game 3, the teams were playing small-ball: no one had hit a homerun, and most of the scoring was done with sacrifices and singles and walks.
 
In Game 4, Cleveland skipper Lou Boudreau, enjoying a 2-1 series lead, opted to give Bob Feller an extra day’s rest, so Johnny Sain made his second start against Steve Gromek. It was another pitchers’ duel: Sain went the full distance, allowing just two Cleveland runs to score. But Gromek was better, holding the Braves to just one run in his nine innings of work. Larry Doby of Cleveland and Marv Rickett of Boston hit the first homers of the series, both solo shots.
 
At this point, you could say that pitching was the storyline if the World Series: in sixty-nine innings of baseball, just 11 runs had been scored, a collective ERA of 1.43. Six of the eight pitchers had completed their starts, two starters had thrown shutouts, and three more had allowed just one opposing run to score. It was a well-pitched series.
 
This wasn’t particularly surprising, as both the Braves and Indians were pitching-heavy teams. Both clubs led their respective leagues in earned run average, and each team led by a wide margin. Boston’s team ERA was 3.38; Brooklyn was second at 3.76. Cleveland had an ERA of 3.23, and the only other American League team under 4.00 were the Giants at 3.75.
 
In Game 5, Bob Feller took the hill in what looked to be a mismatch with 36-year old journeyman Nels Potter. The Braves were Potter’s third team in 1948, having served time with the Browns and Phillies before making his way north to Boston.
 
The bats finally came alive in Game 5: the Braves scored three runs off Feller in the first inning alone, which was more scoring than they had managed in any of the previous four games. Bob Elliott hit a two-run shot in the first inning, and added another against Feller in the third. Apparently the rest hadn’t helped Feller any.
 
Nels Potter, who had taken Spahn’s spot in the rotation, pitched as well as could be expected, giving up five runs in 3 and 1/3 innings. The crushing blow was a three-run homerun hit by Cleveland catcher Jim Hegan in the fourth inning, which put Cleveland ahead 5-4 in the game.
 
Spahn came in to relieve Potter. With the Braves down a run and facing elimination, Spahn pitched brilliantly: in 5 and 2/3 innings he allowed just a single hit, shutting down the Cleveland hitters and striking out seven of the nineteen batters he faced. The Braves continues to hit Feller hard: in the 6th Bill Salkeld hit a solo homerun to tie the game, and in the 7th the Braves scored six runs off Feller and the bullpen, dampening spirits in Cleveland and sending the Series back to Boston.
 
Bill Voiselle got the start against Bob Lemon in Game 6. In the eighth inning, with Cleveland up 4-1, the Braves mounted a last desperate comeback: starter Bob Lemon allowed a single, lineout, double, and then a walk, loading the bases for the Braves. Gene Bearden was brought in from the bullpen to face pinch-hitter Clint Conatser, a rookie outfielder. Conatser hit a sacrifice fly, scoring a run, but putting the second out on the board. Phil Masi was up next: he hit a double to left that scored the runner from third. The score was 4-3 Cleveland, and the Braves had runners on second and third, two outs. It didn’t matter: Mike McCormick, the Braves centerfielder, grounded out to third base.
 
In the bottom of the 9th, Bearden walked the leadoff batter, Eddie Stanky. Spahn was due up, but Boston manager Billy Southworth decided to pinch hit Sibby Sisti for Spahn. Sisti, in 83 games that year, had posted a .244/.340/.290 line, which is about what you’d expect from a guy named Sibby Sisti. They tried to sacrifice the runner to second, but Sibby Sisti popped the bunt up in the air, and the base runner was doubled off first. Small ball failed, and the Series was over.
 
The Aftermath
 
In 1949, the Braves fell to fourth place in the NL, finishing under .500. Johnny Sain, coming off a terrific season, suffered shoulder problems for much of the season, which he attributed to trying to learn a screwball. On the year, Sain posted a dismal 10-17 record, with an ERA of 4.81.
 
Warren Spahn was the sole bright spot for the Braves in 1949, posting a 21-14 record and an ERA of 3.07. He led the NL in wins: actually he and Howie Pollet were the only 20-game winners in the Senior Circuit that year. You remember Howie Pollet, right? Me neither.
 
Actually, Howie Pollet had very similar numbers to Sain: Pollet, a lefty for the Cardinals and a few other teams, had a career record of 131-116, 3.31 ERA, 934 strikeouts. Sain finished at 139-116, 3.49 ERA, 910 strikeouts. Pollet twice won twenty games in a season,, and led the NL in wins 1946. I’m just saying.
 
In 1950 Johnny Sain had something of a comeback year, going 20-13 on the season. For the second time, Spahn and Sain were both 20-game winners, but Sain’s 3.95 ERA suggests that he was more lucky than good that year. He gave up thirty-four homeruns, most in the National League.
 
Halfway through the 1951 season the Braves traded Johnny Sain to the Yankees. It was a steal for the Braves: in return for Sain the Braves received cash and a young pitcher named Lew Burdette, who’d go on to win 203 major league games.
 
With the Yankees, Sain was a reliever/spot starter, making World Series appearances out of the bullpen in 1951, 1952, and 1953. In 1955 he and Enos Slaughter were traded to the Kansas City A’s for a pitcher named John Dixon. Dixon went 11-18 in his major league career, but he got to tell the grandkids that the Yankees traded Enos Slaughter and Johnny Sain to get him into pinstripes.
 
Sain was a pitching coach up a pitching coach, first for the Yankees and then with the Twins. His record as a pitching coach is, well, astonishing.
 
He started with the Yankees in 1961. That was Whitey Ford’s breakthrough year, when Ford went 25-4. It was the first time in Ford’s career he reached 20 wins. I mention twenty wins because it becomes a running theme to Sain’s coaching career.
 
He returned as pitching coach for the Yankees in 1962, and Ralph Terry won 23 games for the first time in his career. A year after that, in 1963, Jim Bouton won 21 games. Three years as a coach, and each year a new pitcher crossed the 20-win mark.
 
Sain was fired after that: I don’t know nearly enough about it, and nobody is talking. Okay: Jim Bouton talked. You can read his book.
 
Sain was away from baseball for a few years, and then he was hired by the Twins in 1965. In his first year in Minneapolis, Mudcat Grant went from 11 wins to 21. You guessed it: it was the first time Grant went over twenty wins in his career.
 
In 1966, Jim Kaat won 25 games. It was the first time he collected over twenty wins. I don’t know if you’ve noticed the trend yet. Carrying on…
 
In 1967 Sain went to the Tigers, where pitcher Earl Wilson went from 13 wins to 21
 
A year after that, still with Detroit, Sain finally started really working his magic, and Denny McLain wound up winning 31 games, a Cy Young Award, and an MVP. Counting his three World Series wins, Mickey Lolich was also at twenty: 17-9 in the regular season and 3-0 against the Cardinals.
 
In 1969, due to a personality conflict with the Tigers management, Sain was fired in August. Without Sain, the Tigers pitching went from strength to weakness: after finishing fourth, first, and second in staff ERA under Sain, the Tigers fell to 10th in team ERA in 1970. Mickey Lolich went from a 19-game winner to a 19-game loser. Denny McLain went to prison.
 
Out of the major leagues for a few years, Sain signed on with the White Sox in 1971. And again Sain’s pitchers were extraordinarily successful. Wilbur Wood went from 9-13 before Sain to the South Side. With Sain coaching, Wilbur Wood went 21-13, throwing an astonishing 344 innings. The next year he was 24-17, with  377 inning pitched. The year after that Wilber Wood went 24-20 with 359 innings pitched. The year after that Wood was 20-19, 305 innings pitched. It was astonishing: Wilbur Wood went from a sub-.500 pitcher to winning 20 games and pitching 300 innings like he was put on the earth with no other purpose than to throw innings and win games.
 
Wood wasn’t the only surprise success for Sain in Chicago. Stan Bahnsen, who couldn’t make it with the Yankees, won 21 games for Sain in 1972, and another 18 in 1973.
 
Jim Kaat, who had little success in Minnesota without Sain, was traded to the White Sox at the tail end of 1973. With Sain’s guidance, Kaat went 21-13 in 1974, and then 20-14 in 1975.  Okay…here’s Jim Kaat’s W-L records from 1963-1975. His years with Sain appear in italics
 
 
Year
Record
 
1963
10-10
 
1964
17-11
 
1965
 18-11
 (Sain hired by Twins)
1966
25-13
 
1967
16-13
 
1968
14-12
 
1969
14-13
 
1970
14-10
 
1971
13-14
 
1972
10-2
 
1973
11-12
 
1973
4-1
(Kaat traded to White Sox)
1974
21-13
 
1975
20-14
 
 
In four-plus seasons under Sain, Jim Kaat posted an 88-52 record. I’m just saying.
 
A few other pitchers of note studied under Sain during his years on the White Sox. Tommy John pitched under Sain. Goose Gossage tried and failed as a starter under Sain. Well, they can’t all be winners.
 
Sain coached a Mudcat, a Kaat, and a Goose…there were a lot of animal names in the 1970’s.

His pitchers, by and large, respected and admired him. But Johnny Sain was, by most accounts, a hard man to get along with. His loyalty was strictly with his pitchers, a fact that probably led to a few disagreements with the managers of the teams. He had a few contract battles during his playing years, and as a coach he probably talked more than a few of his 20-game winners into asking management for wages commensurate to their services.
 
Sain trained in flight school with Ted Williams, and one gets the sense that they had similar personalities. Like Williams, Sain was a thinker: he was almost always thinking about how to win, how to gain that competitive edge. Sain came up with an interesting invention, something called the ‘Baseball Spinner”, which I’d love to find a picture of: it was a machine that had baseballs mounted on an axis that allowed the user to practice wrist rotations. Sain was a teacher; he loved to talk about pitching, and had millions of theoriesand ideas about pitching, in the same way that Williams had theories and ideas about hitting. I suppose that I should look up how well they did against each other. Like Williams, Sain had little patience for stupidity, and couldn’t stand doing things just for the sake of doing something: he famously didn’t like his pitchers to run. He wanted them to pitch.
 
In 1975, in his last year of eligibility, Johnny Sain received 34% of the BBWAA vote for the Hall of Fame, a sharp uptick from the previous years. As a pitcher, he is obviously not a Hall-of-Famer. He was 139-116 over his career, with a 3.49 ERA. He posted four 20-win seasons and a terrific 1948 campaign. As a pitcher, he is perhaps the most interesting hitter outside of Babe Ruth, a fact that nets him no further points.
 
I don’t know coaches can get into the Hall of Fame. I think that they should, obviously, but then again my view of the Hall of Fame is somewhat expansive: I’d like to see Sadaharu Oh in Cooperstown. And Julio Franco.
 
Sain had a significant influence on the game of baseball. His years of success on the diamond were short-lived, and his career numbers aren’t close to the standards of the Hall. His years as a coach are remembered in the anecdotes of a dozen 20-game winners, but by-and-large his string of success is unknown to most fans. We don’t remember the coaches, not really.
`
I doubt Sain will ever make the Hall of Fame, and I have no idea whether he is deserving of such an honor. I don’t know if his record as a pitching coach is as spectacular as it seems, or if there are other coaches with even more dramatic histories.
 
As for Warren Spahn…Spahn played a few years for the Braves, doing nothing of any particular note. You’re more than welcome to look it up.
 
Wrapping It Up
 
Here is the history of Spahn and Sain, the Doubleheader Duo:
 
 
Spahn
 
 
Sain
 
 
 
W-L
ERA
IP
W-L
ERA
IP
1946
8-5
2.94
125.2
20-14
2.21
265
1947
21-10
2.33
289.2
21-12
3.52
266
1948
15-12
3.71
257
24-15
2.60
314.2
1949
21-14
3.07
302.1
10-17
4.81
243
1950
21-17
3.16
293
20-13
3.94
278.1
 
86-58
3.04
1267.2
95-71
3.37
1367
 
Pray for rain, indeed.
 
Sorry…this has gone on longer than I thought it would. When I started, my intention was to find out a little bit about the origins of that ‘Spahn and Sain’ line. You know what they say about intentions.
 
You’ve come this far, so I’ll add that a lot of information for this article comes from the terrific biographies on Spahn and Sain over at SABR’s Baseball Biography Project. Those essays, written by Jim Kaplan and Jan Finkel, respectively, are better than this one, and are worth looking up. The stats come from baseballreference.com, which is a terrific site.
 
Lastly, if anyone knows where to find game data for Spahn’s epic duel with Ralph Branca on September 6th, 1948, I’d love to see it.
 
Dave Fleming is a writer living in Chicago. He welcomes comments, questions, and antique versions of Sain’s ‘Baseball Spinner’ here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com.
 
 

COMMENTS (12 Comments, most recent shown first)

Cooldrive
Just as Spahn was doing the same things 10 years after his years with Sain, someone wrote these lines:

"Spahn and Burdette,
Then pray for wet."
10:21 PM Jan 28th
 
mskarpelos
Excellent article, Dave. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 60s & 70s, but I certainly knew about Spahn and Sain in a peripheral way. I sent in my own updated version of the verse called "Lincecum and Cain" awhile back, which Bill was kind enough to post on the Ask Bill section of this site. I didn't know the full story of the Spahn and Sain poem, but I was pleased to learn more from your article. Well done.

One minor quibble. You said, "... the only other American League team under 4.00 were the Giants at 3.75." Of course, the Giants are a National League team, so that had to have been a minor lapse. I looked up the league totals, and you meant to say the Yankees, who had a team ERA of 3.75 in 1948.
1:18 PM Mar 11th
 
AJD600
Dave,
I don't know anything about Spahn's duel with Branca butI do seem to remember a duel with Jim Bunning around 1965. Bunning hit a home run and won 1-0 over Spahn pitching for the Mets(!). I even think Yogi caught that game. One of them (Yogi ?) said "I don't know if we're the oldest battery ever, but we're certainly the ugliest".

I sometimes wonder about my memory.
6:36 PM Feb 24th
 
DaveFleming
I think you're right, Adrian...the phrase is pretty well known by baseball fans. And thanks to reader Claude P., who passed along a copy of the NY Times sports page from the Spahn/Branca game. The title is: "Braves Halt Dodgers Twice, Lead By Four Games; Gaints Annex Double Bill." Which is cool: you don't hear about teams annexing their opponents anymore.

Thanks, all, for the feedback.
1:06 PM Feb 21st
 
belewfripp
Dave - nice article. Just as an aside - I've only ever been to Boston once in my life and I've heard the "Spahn and Sain etc" line many, many times. Then again, I've always been big into the history of the game, but I think it's a pretty well-known line amongst baseball fans all the same.
12:03 PM Feb 21st
 
those
Sept. 6, 1948: Spahn 14 5 0 0 4 8. Branca 9.3 9 0 0 4 4.
9:23 PM Feb 20th
 
evanecurb
I read a one page article in either SPORT magazine when I was a teenager, titled "The Day or Rain." The article was about Nels Potter, I think, but it could have been Bill Voiselle. The thesis was that here was a pretty good pitcher who had a pretty good year, made a contribution to a pennant winner, had won 18 or 19 games on one or two other occasions (both Voiselle and Potter fit these parameters), but he is utterly unknown today because of this poem. The author compared him to Harry Seinfeldt (third baseman of the Tinker-Evers-Chance Cubs and only member of that infield not in the HOF).

In reality, both Voiselle and Potter pitched well for the Braves in '48, but neither was nearly as good as Sain over the course of their careers.
1:31 PM Feb 20th
 
evanecurb
Very nice article, Dave. Thanks. How do we access SABR's baseball biography project? Is it on the web?

Howie Pollett was the pitching coach of Jim Brosnan's Cincinnati Reds in The Long Season. His nickname, which was given by the pitchers and was meant to be derogatory, was "Ol' 2 and 2" which had something to do with his obsession on what to throw (certainly nothing down the middle, but otherwise I don't remember the specifics) on that count.
1:07 PM Feb 20th
 
Kev
If I remember correctly, Spahn, finishing up with the Mets, got into a pitcher' duel with I believe Jim Bunning. Bunning homered off Spahn and took a 1-0 lead into the 9th at Shea. Bunning got the first 2 outs and Casey did not send up a hitter for Spahn. Bunning got Spahn and won 1-0 in a masterpiece in which the loser went 9, hit for himself, and was a threat ro tie the game. Great game. I hope I got the details right.
6:22 PM Feb 19th
 
macthomason
Leo Mazzone has credited Sain as his mentor.
2:16 PM Feb 19th
 
Richie
What Mariner fan says. It was Remagen Bridge, no Battle of the Bulge but a very famous action in its own right.

Thanks very much for the article, Dave!
12:03 PM Feb 19th
 
Marinerfan1986
I think a small error about Spahn's military sewvoce. If he was at the Battle of the bulge he wasen't holding any bridge open into Germany. That action would take place in crossing the Rhine river into Germany a long distance away and several months after the Battle of the bulge, fought in the wooded area in Belgim I think,around Christmas of 1944.
2:00 AM Feb 19th
 
 
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