From left, Spahn remains in league of his own

June 11, 2000|By JOHN STEADMAN

His performance chart doesn't distort or exaggerate. It provides an all-encompassing testimonial to Warren Spahn as absolutely having nothing to share with all the rest - be they antiquated predecessors, challenging contemporaries or ambitious pursuers from succeeding generations.

Spahn stands alone, maintaining exclusive territory in an unprecedented climb that enabled him to achieve 363 victories - more than any other left-handed pitcher born to baseball.

Forget Grove, Plank, Hubbell, Koufax, Carlton, all the rest. They also had genuine Hall of Fame credentials, but their resumes fall short of Spahn's, who completed 382 games, exceeded 20 wins for 13 seasons, and, during 16 of his 21 years, pitched between 257 and 310 innings in the National League.

His epic delivery was a symphony in motion. His windup constituted a form of art, free of distortion. He conditioned himself to pitch the full distance, never to give way to a middle reliever, or, in late stages, a closer.

"You hear of more bad arms now than ever before," he said before a visit this afternoon for a personal appearance at the A. J. Wright department store at HarundalePlaza. "Coaches even limit the number of pitches, but does that work? Look at all the pitchers on the physical disability lists. It goes on and on."

Any recollection of the highest number of pitches you threw in a game? "No idea. Never. If you didn't pitch, then you were out of a job. Maybe free agency and player agents, interested in protecting their clients, have brought some of this about, but I don't know."

All the emphasis on strength and lifting weights causes him dubious wonderment regarding home run totals. "It might help, but what kind of biceps did Willie Mays and Henry Aaron have? There was no muscle mass, just quick, natural swings from great athletes. Look how far and often they drove the ball. What we are seeing in baseball is the modern trend."

Then there's a brief pause and he adds, "Maybe just lousy pitching."

With Spahn's record total of victories by a left-hander, it must be reminded he didn't win a game until he was age 25 in 1946. There was World War II to be won, and he contributed - 3 1/2 years' worth.

"I was a young kid drafted into the Army," he said when asked to recall a modicum of his experiences. "Our country was in trouble and it was an obligation to fight. You had to live like an animal. Kill or get killed. It was hell."

He doesn't like to be perceived as any kind of a hero, but Spahn was both a decorated soldier and officer, without formal candidate school training, but promoted out of dire necessity. It meant a field commission while bullets were spraying and bombs falling during the fighting in Europe, including the Battle of the Bulge. That was more than 50 years ago, but his military record shows:

Three battle stars, a Purple Heart, a citation for bravery and a near-miss with death as a combat engineer when the Americans were trying to hold the Remagen bridge to keep the Germans from blowing it up to prevent the Allies crossing the Rhine with men and supplies.

The Nazis had bombed it to a point of weakness, hoping it would self-destruct. American survivors had to run for their lives, with debris and equipment tumbling all around. "I was lucky that day," he was to say for then and evermore.

Spahn slept in foxholes and wore the same army uniform without taking it off for six or more weeks during the Battle of the Bulge, the same as so many others were doing. They carried out the effort of pushing the Germans into retreat, not caring about when they had their last bath or how many turnips, hot or cold, were coming out of the mess tent.

"Coming back to baseball was easy, a joy, when the war ended," he said. "How could you get worried over that? I could be out there pitching and knew nobody was going to shoot me. I could take a shower and change clothes when the game was over and go to dinner. And a lot of blessings happened along the way."

His pitching fame evolved later. In 1956, he remarkably took the Milwaukee Braves down to the second-to-last-game of the season in a bid for the pennant. Another left-hander on the team, Lou Sleater, a St. Louis-born, but Baltimore-raised resident, watched from the bullpen as Spahn produced a near spellbinding performance.

"Had we won Saturday night against the Cardinals, it would have tied us for first and the pennant with the Brooklyn Dodgers, who beat the Pittsburgh Pirates that afternoon," recalled Sleater.

"Spahn was in command. A master. A competitor. Billy Bruton gave us a home run early, and it was 1-0. Line drives were exploding off St. Louis' Herman Wehmeier, but Bobby Del Greco in center field kept making fantastic catches or we would have piled up a lot of runs. Del Greco made one catch 422 feet in center field off Eddie Mathews in the ninth inning and bounced off the fence."

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