'People were crazy about him'

Updated: November 25, 2003, 9:48 PM ET
Associated Press

MILWAUKEE -- More than a decade before the Milwaukee Brewers came to town, the World Series champion Braves were the pride of the city and Warren Spahn was its favorite star.

Spahn, who died Monday at his Broken Arrow, Okla., home at the age of 82, spent 12 seasons pitching for the Braves during the team's glory years in the 1950s.

"He was the most popular guy here," said Lou Chapman, who covered the Braves for the Milwaukee Sentinel. "He was a little cocky but people were crazy about him."

In contrast to today's losing Brewers, fans remember Spahn and the Braves for the esteem they brought the city. The Braves never had a losing season at County Stadium, where the team played from 1953 to 1965.

In 1957, the Braves defeated the New York Yankees in seven games for the league title. Afterward, players in convertibles paraded through downtown while cheering fans mobbed both sides of the street.

The scene was like a celebration at the end of a war, said Bud Lea, a former Milwaukee Sentinel sports columnist and vice president of the Milwaukee Braves Historical Association.

"Little Milwaukee was all of a sudden on top of the sports world," Lea said. "Milwaukee was where it was at."

After that victory, fans who spotted Braves players around town treated them to free meals, free gas and other gifts, Lea said.

Spahn, the winningest left-hander in baseball history, stood out even among fellow future Hall of Famers Hank Aaron and Eddie Matthews. A 14-time All-Star, Spahn won 20 games a season 13 times, tying Christy Matthewson for the most in National League history.

Spahn led the NL in wins (23) in 1953, the Braves first season in Milwaukee. That season the Braves drew an NL record 1.8 million fans.

During the season, Spahn lived in the suburb of Wauwatosa, and he was a workhorse just like the blue-collar fans of the surrounding community. He completed an extraordinary 382 of the 750 games he started.

Spahn also was a war hero who fought in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II and earned the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

"The fans put the Milwaukee Braves on a pedestal, and Spahn was put on the highest pedestal," Lea said. "He was their icon."

Bill Thorn, a journalism professor at Marquette University, said Spahn was his boyhood hero. Thorn said he tried to imitate Spahn's famous screwball and high leg kick while playing sandlot baseball in Janesville.

Thorn's family scheduled visits to the ballpark on days Spahn was pitching. There, Thorn met his hero several times and received an autographed baseball from him.

"He was always someone you felt you could talk to," Thorn said. "He just loved the game and was willing to chat with anyone else who felt the same way."

Former teammate Johnny Logan remembers Spahn as a comedian in the clubhouse and a friend and mentor to other players.

Logan said he pictures Spahn in heaven playing cards, drinking beer and talking baseball with teammates.

"We lost a good one," he said.

Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press