Few measure up to Spahn

Warren Spahn didn't have the best single season ever. But it's hard to top his entire career.

Originally Published: November 24, 2003
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

My editors have asked me to "put the career of Warren Spahn" -- who died on Nov. 24 -- "into context."

Warren Spahn
Workhorse Warren Spahn led the NL in complete games for six straight seasons.

I'll do that ... and then I'll spend some time on the interesting stuff.

Spahn won 363 games. That's impressive.

Those 363 wins place him fifth on the all-time list. That's impressive, too.

Context? Exactly zero major-league pitchers with more wins than Warren Spahn recorded one of those wins after 1930. Which is to say, Spahn is the biggest winner over the last seven decades ... and there aren't any challengers on the horizon.

He was as durable a pitcher as there's ever been (or at least since Walter Johnson). In 1947, Spahn began a streak of 17 seasons in which he started at least 32 games and pitched at least 245 innings (most seasons, he cleared both marks with plenty to spare). And Spahn generally finished what he started. Interestingly, though he somehow never led the National League in games started, he led the league in complete games nine times (and yes, maybe I'm overdoing the italics, but Spahn had that sort of career).

Spahn was obviously (to me, at least) a more valuable pitcher than Steve Carlton, but Spahn never had a season like Carlton's 1972. Spahn was a more valuable pitcher than Randy Johnson, but Spahn never had a season like Randy Johnson's 2002. One might argue that Spahn was a more valuable pitcher than Roger Clemens -- certainly, Spahn was more durable -- but Spahn never had a season quite like Clemens' 1997.

It's not that Spahn couldn't pitch brilliantly; he did, in 1947 and 1952. But that really wasn't the sort of pitcher he was. He wasn't going to come out and put the fear of God into the hitters. He was just going to get them out, and win games. Year after year after year.

Warren Spahn into context? Imagine a left-handed version of Mike Mussina ... but finishing half the games he starts and pitching like a Hall of Famer well into his 40s. If you can imagine that, you've got a good start.

Now, a few of the things you won't find in the record books:

  • Do you know about the bridge at Remagen? For a while, it was the most famous bridge in the Western world. They even made a movie about it. On March 7, 1945, with the Germans in full retreat in both Western and Eastern Europe, they'd blown every bridge across the Rhine River. Except one. The Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen, and American troops managed to surprise the bridge's defenders and capture it.

    Technically, Spahn wasn't a combat soldier. He was a platoon sergeant in the 276th Engineer Battalion. Once the bridge had been forced, Spahn's unit was ordered to keep it open to traffic. Meanwhile, the Germans were desperately trying to destroy the bridge with air and artillery attacks. Spahn took an artillery fragment in the foot, but had the wound patched up and returned to his troops. On March 17, Spahn walked on to the bridge to consult with his superiors, then turned and left the bridge to brief his men. Moments later it collapsed into the Rhine, killing 28 soldiers and wounding 93 others.

    "Something like that," Spahn would later say, "makes you a fatalist."

  • Spahn pitched in the major leagues before World War II, but just briefly. After the war, he almost immediately became one of the National League's best pitchers, thanks to a picturesque motion and an excellent fastball (he also featured one of the best pick-off moves that anybody had ever seen).

    By the mid-1950s, Spahn's fastball had faded some -- after all, by the standards of professional athletes he was no longer a young man -- but he missed barely a beat. After a bit of experimentation, Spahn perfected a "screwball" (which may have been more akin to the pitch we today call a "circle change"), and a few years later he added an effective slider to his repertoire, which had always included a curve and changeup. Eventually, Spahn also picked up a knuckleball, which helped him win 23 games in 1963 ... when he was 43 years old.

  • There's a famous saying: "Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing."

    That's Spahn. And I don't mean that's what Spahn did. I mean, that's what he said. That's his saying.

    Spahn said a lot of things, actually. For some reason, today he's not remembered for his intelligence and his wit, but Spahn was blessed with healthy supplies of both. He pitched for Casey Stengel twice, in 1942 with the Braves and in 1965 with the Mets. Later, Spahn would say, "I'm probably the only guy who worked for Stengel before and after he was a genius.

  • Spahn was one of the last great major leaguers who returned to the minor leagues after nobody in the major leagues wanted him. After going 4-12 for the Mets in '65, Spahn joined the Giants late that summer and pitched fairly well. But he was 44, and nobody signed him for '66. So Spahn hooked up with the Mexico City Tigers as pitching coach ... and occasional pitcher, winning once as the Tigers won the Mexican League championship. Warren Spahn was a pitcher, and he would pitch as long as they would let him pitch.

    In the early 1960s, Al Silverman wrote a book about Spahn and subtitled it "Immortal Southpaw." Silverman didn't really think that Spahn would live forever (even if, at that point, it seemed that Spahn might pitch forever). Rather, Silverman meant that Spahn's deeds on the mound would live for as long as people talked about baseball. He was right.

    Senior writer Rob Neyer writes three columns per week during baseball's offseason. Next spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-authored with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

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