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Mind Over Batter No one had a better head for pitching than Warren Spahn

Dec. 08, 2003
Dec. 08, 2003

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Dec. 8, 2003

Mind Over Batter No one had a better head for pitching than Warren Spahn

Warren Spahn seldom forgot a name, a face, a batter's tendencies
or an insult. More than once he recalled the trauma of his major
league debut as an obscure 20-year-old lefthander with the
wartime Boston Braves. It was 1942, and Casey Stengel, managing
Boston to a seventh-place finish, summoned Spahn from the bullpen
to face the Dodgers' Pee Wee Reese. "Kid," Stengel said, "this
hitter has been beaned and got his skull broke. I want you to
throw your first two pitches at his head."

This is an article from the Dec. 8, 2003 issue Original Layout

Spahn was a magnificent competitor, but he was also a sportsman.
He threw two fastballs shoulder-high inside, neither near Reese's
head, then walked the Brooklyn shortstop. Stengel made his
bent-legged way back to the mound. "Yer outta the game," he said,
"and when you get to the dugout, keep walking till you reach the
clubhouse. There's gonna be a bus ticket there back to Hartford.
You'll never win in the major leagues. You got no guts."
Proceeding with this narrative long afterward, Spahn uttered a
put-down for the ages. "A few years later," he said, "after I won
the Bronze Star during the Battle of the Bulge...."

Nor did Spahn's story finish there. Stengel moved on and won five
World Series for the Yankees. Spahn would go on to win 363 games,
more than any other lefthander. The two crossed paths again, in
1965, when Spahn's pitching days were almost done and Stengel was
managing the Mets into the cellar. Spahn was pounded in a few
starts, and Stengel complained, "The hitters jump on him so
quick, I can't get him outta there fast enough." Summing up not
so long ago, Spahn said, exercising his fine and occasionally
malicious wit, "I pitched for Casey Stengel both before and after
he was a genius."

I'd suggest that Warren Edward Spahn, who died on Nov. 24 at the
age of 82, was the most intelligent person ever named for Warren
Gamaliel Harding, perhaps our most limited president. Spahnie's
study of pitching was as profound as that of the immortal Christy
Mathewson. "Home plate is 17 inches wide," Spahn liked to point
out. "All I asked for were the two inches on each corner. The
hitters could have the 13 inches in between. I didn't throw
there." He was very fast when young but evolved into a master of
the slider and the changeup. "Batting is timing," he said.
"Pitching is upsetting timing."

Few who saw Spahn will forget the arcing grace of his windup. His
strong arms pumped far back, and as he rocked, his right leg
kicked high before he threw. His motion was unique and fluid, a
sort of pitching equivalent to Stan Musial's swing. "Musial was
the hardest man to fool," Spahn said. "He had an average of .314
against me, but I never brooded when Stan hit me. The time to
worry was when some .250 hitter knocked my cap off with a line
drive."

Like many good soldiers, Spahn didn't like to discuss his wartime
adventures, much less dwell on how he won his medal. When I asked
about his battlefield promotion from enlisted man to lieutenant,
he said lightly, "Hell, in the Bulge they were running out of
officers." He went on, "After you've tried to sleep in frozen
tank ruts within the range of Nazi guns, every day you get to
play baseball is a breeze."

During a recent gathering in Cooperstown, I introduced him to my
wife and said, "After a game Mr. Spahn remembered each one of the
125 pitches he had thrown, where it was, what it was and the
sequence." The praise made Spahn uncomfortable. "That's nothing
special, Mrs. Kahn," he said. "After all, pitching is what I
did."

Kahn, the author of The Boys of Summer, interviewed Spahn for his
book The Head Game: Baseball Seen from the Pitcher's Mound.

B/W PHOTO: AP
"Couples gave Sorenstam a congratulatory kiss on the cheek."
--FOR THE RECORD, PAGE 26