September 1, 2014

Visiting Aging Lefty Warren Spahn in 1989

September 7, 2013 by · 2 Comments 

Warren Spahn was tending to his southeast Oklahoma cattle ranch or, more accurately, relaxing at the Broken Arrow country club near the ranch when journalist David Lamb met him while traveling cross-country in his RV in 1989. (A couple years later, Lamb published a book, Stolen Season, about his journey and the minor-league baseball he saw.) Spahn had grown bald, was close to 70, and had added some pounds since retiring from the majors in 1965. He’d expanded his ranch, the Diamond Star, from 50 acres in 1948 to 2,800 acres. Along with building up the ranch, Spahn had won 363 games, the most by a left-hander in major league history, hit the most homers ever for an N.L. pitcher (35), and thrown one no-hitter at age 39 and another at age 40 since coming back from World War II. He won a Purple Heart and Bronze Star in that war serving in the combat engineers division in Europe, then returned to the Boston Braves in ’46 to pick up the first eight of those 363 wins.

In 1989, Spahn was a stingy man widowed since 1978, someone who flew around the country signing autographs and making appearances but was reluctant to actually take a vacation. Still, he wasn’t a scrooge: his impish sense of humor was essentially teen-aged, and he was as fond of talking about his days in the majors as most other retirees. About his pay, he said: “I used to sit there across the desk from [Braves GM] John Quinn every winter, after winning 22, 23 games the year before, and he wouldn’t even offer me more money. I’d say ‘John, what do I have to do to get a raise?’ and he’d say, ‘You’re paid to win twenty.’. . . John was always the gentleman. But was he ever stingy, and he usually had the last word.”

Spahn wasn’t hung up on regrets over his salary or failing to win more than one World Series, even though he did still remember the lapses from yesteryear–including coming close to pitching back-to-back no-hitters in ’61, only to have the second try end on a misplayed fly ball. He remembered the complete absence of job security: there were no multi-year contracts, “so I’d go to spring training, knowing I had to earn my job every year.”

He’d worked hard in the war, on his ranch, and in baseball. Even at 45 he’d found it hard to quit, pitching in Mexico City and the minors in ’66 and ’67. Spahn said: “That saying–it’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game–well, that’s the dumbest thing I ever heard. You show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser, period, someone who didn’t try hard enough.” He added: “The consensus of everyone in baseball was that I played a year too long. Maybe I did. But I honestly thought I could still be a winner.”

At his ranch in Oklahoma he didn’t much like baseball anymore, at least not the MLB kind: he preferred golf to watching managers and players fail to play the game the right way. Fault him for being a curmudgeon or praise him for having high standards others didn’t meet, but he said: “I’m just not sure the kids now have the same dedication we did. We’ve gotten too lazy as a nation, too spoiled.” A decade later, at the 1999 All-Star Game, he said: “One of the things I dislike about baseball today is we’ve made nonathletes out of pitchers. They pitch once a week. They count the pitches. They don’t hit. They don’t run the bases. That’s not my kind of baseball.”

Even though he’d hung on in the game for some time after retiring as a player, coaching in Tulsa, Japan, Anaheim, and Cleveland, you get the impression he was perfectly happy to tend to his ranch, play golf, spend some time at the country club, and fly from city to city in his old age, trading in on his past accomplishments. Talking on the deck of his ranch, Spahn remarked: “You can hear the grasshoppers talking to you out here. It’s only when I start talking back that I get worried.”

He gave what seems to be a good summary of the latter days of the aging, celebrated ex-ballplayer: “I still see a lot of the people from the old Braves days as I travel around, but more and more I go back to Boston or Milwaukee and I ask people, ‘Where’s so-and-so?’ and I find out they’ve died.”

Spahn would die just before Thanksgiving of 2003. Back in ’89 he’d said about looking at himself in the mirror: “I see someone with gray hair who’s growing old, and you know what? It makes me feel good, sort of content. I like where I’ve been and where I’m at. Baseball and the military did that for me. They gave me everything.”

Comments

2 Responses to “Visiting Aging Lefty Warren Spahn in 1989”
  1. Paul says:

    What a great story ! I saw Spahn at his best along with Lew Burdette and those great Milwaukee Braves’ teams of 1957 and 1958. I agree with Spahn, pitch counts, short relievers, long relievers, etc. it has really become excessesive. The irony is that sports medicine has reached the point were it can provide remedies for ailments that would end the career of a pitcher from Spahn’s era. In an era where we continue to read about peds, Arod (guilty or not guilty), etc., your well written article could not have come at a better time.
    Well Done
    Paul

  2. Greg Howell says:

    I remember a clever comment Warren Spahn once made: “I played for Casey Stengel before and after he was a genius.” Spahn was managed by Stengel with the Braves and Mets.

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