Whether Warren Spahn was on the mound or in the WWII trenches, his opponents agreed that no one was harder.
Spahn’s 363 career victories are the most important of any left-handers (he won 75 games after his 40th birthday), and he dominated in the modern post-1920 era, an exceptional feat as he didn ‘won her first match when she was 25. He is rightfully one of the top 10 pitchers in baseball history, and many of Spahn’s achievements and records will never be matched.
On July 2, 1963, pitching for the Milwaukee Braves, Spahn, 42, faced Juan Marichal of the San Francisco Giants, 25 years younger. Sixteen innings later, and after four hours and fifteen minutes, the two eventual Hall of Fame pitchers were still working. Giants manager Alvin Dark wanted to hit Marichal in the 13th inning. But an outraged Marichal, who threw 227 pitches that night, refused: “A 42-year-old man is still throwing. I can not go out!
During World War II, Spahn displayed the same determination and courage that presaged his extraordinary baseball career. When the war broke out, he enlisted in the army and received training in combat engineering. Two years later, Spahn arrived in France as part of the 1159th Engineer Combat Group 276th Battalion, where he was assigned to repair roads and bridges demolished by the Nazis.
Spahn fought and was injured during the Battle of the Bulge and at the Ludendorff Bridge. Defending the bridge, vital to the Allies, Spahn was hit in the foot by shrapnel that surgeons later removed. Spahn remembered that at the end of the day’s fighting he fell asleep with his feet frozen and woke up with them still frozen.
Spahn deflected praise for his bravery, later claiming he served with “a bunch of tough guys. We had people who were released from jail to come into the service … they were tough and tough and I had to adjust to that mold. Knowing that Nazi soldiers often disguised themselves in US Army uniforms, Spahn’s unit hatched a plan to eliminate impostors. If a suspected Nazi couldn’t name the Brooklyn Dodgers shortstop Eddie Stanky, the fate of the fraud was sealed.
World War II’s most decorated baseball player, Spahn earned a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, and a Presidential Citation.
Spahn’s war heroism cost him three full seasons. But, when it comes to his career, Spahn viewed his war experiences positively. “After what I’ve been through overseas, I never thought of anything I was told to do in baseball as hard work,” Spahn said. “You don’t feel like that anymore when you spend entire days sleeping on frozen tank tracks in enemy threatened territory. The military taught me what is important and what is not.
The real heroes, Spahn added, never returned.
In 1973, the Hall of Fame inducted Spahn, who joked that his career had lasted so long that he was the only man in baseball history to play both before and after Casey Stengel was considered a genius. In 2003, Spahn, then wealthy from his 2,000-acre cattle ranch in Oklahoma and leasing oil, died at Broken Arrow from multiple medical complications.
Many posthumous awards followed, including statues of Spahn in Oklahoma City and Guthrie, Oklahoma, which celebrate the war hero and his intimidating movement.