Spahn won games, fans
Tom Glavine's palms were sweaty and he looked a little anxious. He was at a Boston Baseball Writers dinner in the early '90s, wearing a black tuxedo, and he was about to spend an evening with Warren Spahn.
During Glavine's childhood in Billerica, his father, Fred, a diehard Boston Braves fan, talked about Spahn as if there were no one else. Glavine, also a lefthander who would pitch for the Braves 30 years after Spahn did, knew all about "Spahn and Sain and two days of rain." He knew about the high leg kick. He knew that Spahn didn't even win his first game in the majors until he was 25 years old, and that he won 23 games at age 42.
Fred Glavine loved the fact that his son was a lefthanded pitcher for the Braves, just as Fred's boyhood hero had been.
For the younger Glavine, meeting Spahn was more nerve-wracking than if he had been sitting with one of his own boyhood heroes. But once they met, Glavine eased up and they were able to joke. Glavine spent the evening thoroughly entertained by story after story that Spahn could spin so quickly and so smoothly, reciting memories as vividly as if they had happened the day before.
By the end of the evening, Glavine realized why his dad had been so enamored with Spahn.
"I never thought he got the credit he deserved for his incredible record in baseball," said Glavine. "Just talking to him, you can feel the passion he had for pitching and how much he loved to take the ball and win a ballgame for his team. My dad told me a long time ago that Warren Spahn is someone to look up to. And now I know it's true."
Spahn, who was the biggest pitching star in Boston before Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez were even born, died at his home in Broken Arrow, Okla., yesterday at the age of 82. To so many baseball fans of his generation, Spahn, who won 363 games in 21 seasons, was an icon.
Johnny Pesky played for the Red Sox at a time when Spahn played for the Braves in Boston until they moved to Milwaukee in 1953. Pesky recalled that the Sox and Braves would square off in spring training games when the Sox trained in Sarasota and the Braves in nearby Bradenton. And every year the teams would play each other in one game at Fenway Park and one game at Braves Field.
"I don't think I ever got a hit against him," said Pesky. "That leg kick made it hard to pick up the ball. He had great control and great command and he threw hard. But a while back, in some old-timers game we played, I got one and he didn't let me hear the end of it.
"He was a very funny man. He kept everybody loose and told great stories."
Pesky saw Spahn at a Braves reunion last year.
"Last time I saw him, he looked pretty good," said Pesky. "He said he hadn't been feeling well but I didn't know he was sick."
Spahn had an amazing career and life. When he came up in '42, Casey Stengel was the Braves' manager, and he was so infuriated when Spahn wouldn't brush back Pee Wee Reese that he sent him back to the minors.
In 1943, he served with the Army in World War II. He went to Germany, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.
His baseball career resumed in 1946. He played in Boston with the likes of Andy Pafko and Sibby Sisti and Chet Nichols, and when he went to Milwaukee, he was teammates with Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews. Right around the time Braves owner Lou Perini announced that the team was moving to Milwaukee, Spahn opened a diner on Commonwealth Avenue called Spahn's Diner, but he had to sell it as quickly as he opened it.
Spahn grew up in Buffalo. His father taught him the leg kick, and Spahn explained at one of the writers' dinners that he avoided arm problems because "I kept my weight back and transferred it from the back leg to the front leg."
He had four 20-win seasons in Boston, 13 altogether. He was a big part of the '48 National League pennant winners (and would have faced the Red Sox in a Subway Series had they not fallen short). Only Cy Young (511), Walter Johnson (416), Christy Mathewson (373), and Grover Cleveland Alexander (373) won more games.
He was outspoken over the years about changes to the game that he disliked. He never could accept the era of specialization. He thought a starting pitcher should finish the game if he was pitching well. He pitched 382 complete games.
In one of his last interviews this summer, with the New York Daily News's Bill Madden, he said, "It seems pitchers are too anxious to come out. In my opinion, it's getting crazy."
He went on, "It seems they're putting the whole game into a test tube. I know this probably sounds like someone who can't enjoy the game, but when I pitched, I believed it was my ballgame."
Because of his great accomplishments, there is a Warren Spahn Award given annually to the best lefthanded pitcher in the game.
Over the summer, Spahn's physical decline was noticeable to friends and family. He was recovering from a broken leg. He had suffered bouts of internal bleeding and fluid was building up in his lungs. He was using a wheelchair.
Glavine, too, may find himself in Cooperstown someday, and he knows there's something in his pitching style that is based, in part, on the images his father conjured up in his mind about Spahn, a hero to a lost National League generation of Bostonians who watched perhaps the best lefty there ever was.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.