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."
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."