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Buffalo’s Best: Men’s No. 1: Warren Spahn

The Buffalo News polled sports staffers as to the top 10 male and female athletes from Western New York. Here’s the No. 1 choice among men:

Name: Warren Spahn.

Sport: Baseball.

Hometown: Buffalo.

High school: South Park.

Born: April 23, 1921.

Died: Nov. 24, 2003, age 82.

Career overview: They have been playing major-league baseball for 140 years, and no left-handed pitcher has more victories than the 363 earned by Buffalo’s Spahn. He’s the sixth-winningest pitcher overall. He’s the winningest pitcher, righty or lefty, since 1930. We’re just getting started. Spahn had 20 or more wins in 13 seasons. Only Cy Young had more. Spahn had 63 shutouts, the sixth most ever. Few baseball players ever have had Spahn’s staying power. He didn’t win his first game until age 25 in 1946, but he was effective almost to his final year, 1965. From age 36 to 40, five straight seasons, he led or tied for the National League lead in wins, with 20 or more in each. He threw a no-hitter at age 39, then threw another at age 40. At age 42, he went 23-7 with a 2.60 earned run average. He led the NL in complete games seven straight years, from ages 36 to 42. He was a pretty good hitter, too. He holds the record for career home runs by a pitcher (35). He won one Cy Young Award, pitched in three World Series and made the All-Star Game in 14 seasons. He was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973.

The Big Kick: The Spahn delivery was a distinctive, rearing-back, high leg kick, that looked “like a condor taking off,” wrote legendary columnist Jim Murray. Spahn had a powerful lower body, which helped his longevity. And as a left-hander, he was able to hold runners on first base by not tipping off whether he was delivering to the plate or pivoting his big leg kick toward first base. Furthermore, the kick disguised the delivery of the ball, which seemed to explode out of Spahn’s uniform at the last instant.

Famous sportswriter Al Silverman wrote early in Spahn’s career: “Watching Spahn for the first time go into his delivery was an aesthetic experience. ... The Spahn windup was the most picturesque, most graceful, the most beautiful windup I had ever seen.”

Control: Spahn had an outstanding fastball for at least the first half of his career. But he was not a pure power pitcher, even though he still ranks 25th all-time in strikeouts and in one stretch led the NL in strikeouts four straight seasons. He was a master of location. Spahn had a great, hard curveball and a quality changeup. And in the second half of his career, he added a slider and a screwball. He threw them all with the same overhand motion.

“Home plate is 17 inches wide,” Spahn said. “I give the batter the middle 13 inches. That belongs to him. But the two outside inches on either side belong to me. That’s where I throw the ball.”

Said Hall-of-Famer Stan Musial: “Spahnie was more than a student of pitching. He was a scientist.”

Another Spahnism: “Hitting is timing, pitching is upsetting timing.”

Spahn was so confident of his control that he did not fear falling behind hitters. In fact, sometimes he intentionally fell behind.

“I played with the hitter’s ego,” he said. “I flattered him up there. The trick was to get him aggressive. Once you got him in a macho frame of mind, you could play games with his mind.”

Braves manager Fred Haney used to chirp when the count was 3 and 1, “Well, Spahnie is ahead of the hitter again.”

Growing Up: Spahn was named after both his own father and former President Warren G. Harding. Spahn’s father was a wallpaper salesman, a good bowler and a semipro baseball player. The elder Spahn built a mound in the backyard of their home, and extensively tutored his son on the game. The family lived for a time in South Buffalo, but he spent most of his formative years in a home in Kaisertown. Spahn starred for South Park High and was signed by part-time scout Billy Meyers to a pro contract with the Boston Braves organization in 1940.

Army Hero: Spahn made it up to the majors with the Braves for a four-game stint in 1942, then enlisted in the Army in October of that year. He saw action in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. He helped secure the famed bridge at Remagen, Germany, in 1945. During that battle, Spahn was hit by shrapnel in his left foot. He was the only U.S. ballplayer given a battlefield promotion, from staff sergeant to second lieutenant. He earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star, making him the most decorated ballplayer in World War II. While he lost three seasons to the war, Spahn always maintained it helped his career.

“I matured a lot in three years, and I think I was better equipped to handle major league hitters at 25 than I was at 22,” he said.

“Spahn and Sain and pray for rain:” It’s one of the most famous baseball sayings ever. When Spahn got back from the Army in June 1946, he quickly established himself as an ace for the Braves, joining star right-hander Johnny Sain. In Spahn’s first full season, 1947, he went 21-10 and led the NL in ERA. The Braves scored just 13 runs in his 10 losses. The 1948 campaign was magical for the Braves, who rode a late-season surge to the NL pennant. In a 12-day September stretch that included three off days and one rainout, Spahn and Sain combined to go 8-0. Hence, the rhyme, created by the Boston Post. One of those wins was a 2-1 decision over Brooklyn in which Spahn pitched all 14 innings and picked off Jackie Robinson twice. Boston lost the World Series to Cleveland.

Mr. 20 Wins: Spahn had three more 20-win seasons in Boston before the franchise moved to Milwaukee in 1953. He went 23-7 that year and led the NL in ERA again, at a career-low 2.10. The wins kept piling up. Spahn had 21 wins in ’54, then posted 20 or more wins six straight seasons, from 1956 to ’61.

Memorable Moment: The 1957 season was Spahn’s most satisfying. He went 21-11 with a 2.69 ERA and won the Cy Young Award. He won six times in a 19-day span down the stretch as the Braves gave Milwaukee its first pennant. The Braves beat the Yankees in a seven-game World Series.

Said Spahn: “The thing I’m most proud of is that we won the world championship in 1957 against the Yankees. We played in it once before that and lost to Cleveland. But it didn’t seem like the World Series unless you were playing the Yankees, and we beat ’em.”

Epic battle: Spahn and Hall-of-Famer Juan Marichal dueled in one of the great pitching matchups ever on July 2, 1963. Spahn was 41, Marichal 25. Spahn pitched 15∑ innings, Marichal 16, and Marichal’s San Francisco Giants won, 1-0, over Spahn’s Braves. Spahn gave up nine hits, one run, one walk and struck out two. He threw 201 pitches. Marichal gave up eight hits, four walks and struck out 10. He threw 227 pitches. A Willie Mays home run won it. How good was the Giants’ lineup that Spahn handcuffed? It included three Hall-of-Famers (Mays, Orlando Cepeda and Willie McCovey, the NL home run leader that year), along with All-Star Felipe Alou. The Giants led the NL in homers, slugging and total bases in ’63.

Retirement: Upon retiring in 1965, Spahn spent another 16 seasons in the game as a manager or coach at various levels. He retired to a lucrative, 2,000-acre cattle ranch he owned in Oklahoma. In August 2003, Spahn made it to Atlanta for the unveiling of a 9-foot bronze statue of his high-kicking self in full windup outside Turner Field. Three months later he died at age 82 in Oklahoma.

Legacy: In 1999, The Sporting News picked Spahn as No. 21 on its list of “Baseball’s 100 Greatest Players.” In arguments over the best left-handed pitcher ever, most modern experts stick to the live-ball era, post-1920, which leaves out Lefty Grove. The argument usually boils down to Spahn, Steve Carlton, Randy Johnson and Sandy Koufax, but the latter had only six spectacular seasons. Johnson won 303 games and ranks second all-time in strikeouts. He has the edge in ERA and strikeouts. Spahn has the edge in durability and consistency. Carlton won 329 games ... Will anyone ever top Spahn as Buffalo’s greatest sports figure? For an athlete in one of the major sports, it would require him to be widely acknowledged as one of the top 20 or 25 players in the entire history of his sport.

Related content: Buffalo’s best male athletes , No. 10-2

No. 10: Olympic bobsledder Steve Mesler

No. 9: Ron Jaworski

No. 8: Cliff Robinson

No. 7: Jimmy Collins

No. 6: Jimmy Slattery

No. 5: Christian Laettner

No. 4: Rob Gronkowski

No. 3: Patrick Kane

No. 2: Bob Lanier

email: mgaughan@buffnews.com