SI Vault
Myron Cope
July 04, 1966
Warren Spahn, most successful left-hander in baseball history, traveled south of the border as a pitching coach, but he could not resist one more chance to start a game
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July 04, 1966

El Spahnie Of Los Tigres

Warren Spahn, most successful left-hander in baseball history, traveled south of the border as a pitching coach, but he could not resist one more chance to start a game

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On their fifth day in Mexico City Warren and LoRene Spahn rose at 7:30 a.m. to look after their 17-year-old son, Greg, who had fallen feverish victim to the turista, an onslaught of disorders that the city's food, water and altitude often impose upon American tourists. The Spahns had come south of the border on Tuesday in a gay mood—"a busman's holiday," Spahn called it. Alejo Peralta, a wealthy businessman who owns the Mexico City Tigers and is devoted to improving the breed of ballplayer found in his country, had invited Spahn to spend four leisurely weeks in the city, with pay. Spahn, the greatest of all left-handers, would work with Tiger pitchers. He would not be obliged to go on road trips. "I'm combining business with a vacation," he said. "We've got a chance to see Mexico."

As the days passed, however, the vacation acquired a new aspect. Hector Barnetche, the Tigers' 23-year-old general manager, was after Spahn to take a turn pitching. At 45, Spahn still considered himself a pitcher. His arm, he insisted, was sound. Only three years ago he had won 23 games for Milwaukee, but last year was strictly Skidsville, producing only seven victories after he passed from the Braves to the Mets and the Giants. Over the winter the Giants released him. He phoned a number of clubs but in each instance was politely told the roster had been filled by young pitchers.

"I don't want to be one of these guys who raps the game after he leaves it," Spahn said in Mexico. Though without rancor, he nevertheless was heavily disappointed, convinced that a man who had rolled up 363 big-league wins deserved better than to be shown the door after only two off years. "I did not retire," he repeated many times. "Baseball retired me."

Spahn's wife urged him to refuse Barnetche's invitation to pitch. "You've got nothing to gain," she told him. "Suppose you hurt yourself. Or suppose you do a bad job. The wire services might pick up the story." In the States people would say, "The old man doesn't know when to quit." Many would surmise he was broke. Warren Spahn would be a Joe Louis groping along the comeback trail—in the lowly Mexican League at that.

He chose to pitch. "I don't care what the public thinks," he said. Would he get an attendance bonus from the Tigers? "No comment," he answered, smiling coyly.

Now Spahn sat alone in his room in the El Presidente Hotel on the day he would pitch. It was a Saturday, and a hot one. Greg rested uncomfortably in the adjoining room, and LoRene had gone shopping with a friend. Time hanging heavy on him, Spahn read an English-language newspaper from front to back, but he could not find any big-league box scores that would tell him what was happening in the places he wanted to be. He worked the crossword puzzle and, coming to 34 horizontal, tried to find a six-letter synonym for "not at home." Well, didn't "dismal" fit? At 5:30 Barnetche drove him to the ball park, an ancient double-decked bowl of concrete and green corrugated metal, plastered from foul pole to foul pole with three tiers of garish billboards. The stadium's name heaped irony upon Spahn—it is called Social Security Baseball Park.

"Until this year," Spahn said with determined cheerfulness in the clubhouse, "I never saw the spring unfold in Oklahoma. Being out of baseball is not as bad as you'd think." He sat in front of an old metal locker, his spikes resting on the brick floor. "Look, I've seen guys here who could play in the majors," he pressed on. "I saw a pick-off play the other night that was as good as anything I ever saw in the majors." Nobody was going to catch Warren Spahn looking melancholy. "I'm pitching tonight because I enjoy pitching."

The Tiger players, champions of the league, beamed when Spahn entered the dugout. To a man, they loved their new pitching coach, this bald, beak-nosed old hero who greeted them with a circus clown's smile, his eyes rolling up in his head and his mouth rubbering into a quarter moon. He was both elder statesman and Cantinflas. He had only to glance in the direction of Fernando Remes, a handsome little shortstop, and Remes would smile from ear to ear. He, Fernando Remes, from the village of Montemorelos in the state of Nuevo Leon, had been appointed by the great Warren Spahn to act as his interpreter.

"For this great figure to talk to us guys, it is very modest of him," said Remes. "He is—how do you say it?—openhearted."

A photographer grouped the players around Spahn for a squad picture. "I can see the headlines now," Spahn bellowed, managing a grin. "Spahn broke, pitching in Mexico." He was not broke, he pointed out. In Oklahoma his 2,800-acre cattle ranch yields only a small return on his capital, but the land constantly grows in value. He owns houses in Florida, has an interest in a Holiday Inn, and has a daily TV show under discussion with a Tulsa station.

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