Warren Spahn, the Hall of Fame pitcher who won more games (363) than any left hander in baseball history, was much more than one of the sport’s iconic players. Spahn, who enlisted in the United States Army in December 1942, became a World War II hero. By December 1944, Spahn was sent to Europe with the 1159th Engineer Combat Group. As Spahn recalled it, he served with tough company. In the war years, prisoners were released so that they could be sent into battle.
During World War II, Spahn fought at the Battle of the Bulge and the Ludendorff Bridge battle at Remagen where his combat group was under constant attack from Nazis desperate to prevent the Allies from entering Germany. Spahn was wounded in the foot by shrapnel while working on the Ludendorff.
When the war ended Spahn, who won the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star, was one of its most decorated soldiers. Spahn returned to the Boston Braves in 1946 and in 24 appearances posted an 8-5 record and a fine 2.94 ERA. On the rare occasions that Spahn didn’t pitch up to his high standards, he would joke to teammates that at least he knew no one was going to shoot at him.
To mark his comeback, Spahn registered his first win on July 14 in the opener of a double dip against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Forbes Field
The combat weary Spahn was nonchalant about his pitching challenges. When he looked back on his Army experiences, Spahn said that he never thought of anything he did in baseball as hard work compared to endless days sleeping in frozen tank tracks in enemy territory and going weeks without a change of clothes. Remarked Spahn, “The Army taught me something about challenges and about what’s important and what isn’t. Everything I tackle in baseball and in life I take as a challenge rather than work.”
In 1947 Spahn had the first of thirteen 20-win seasons with several spectacular games along the way. On September 16, 1960, Spahn pitched his first no-hitter against the Phillies. The 4-0 win was his 20th of the season. The following year, five days after his 40th birthday, Spahn no-hit the Giants 1-0. Then, in 1965 at age 44, Spahn pitched his last major league game for the San Francisco Giants. That year with the Giants and the New York Mets, Spahn won seven games.
Spahn’s most masterful effort, however, came in Candlestick Park July 2, 1963 when he and fellow Hall of Famer Juan Marichal hooked up in a 16-inning, four hour marathon that ended when the Giants’ Willie Mays hit a home run.
Signed by the Braves in 1940 for $80 a month, Spahn during his 21-year career for was chosen for the All Star team 17 times, more than any other 20th Century pitcher and, in 1957, was named the National League’s Cy Young winner.
Spahn’s post-retirement life was good. Although he never graduated from high school, Spahn parlayed a modest $500 investment in Oklahoma real estate into a small fortune that included productive oil wells and property in Florida. Warren Spahn Enterprises cashed in on the memorabilia craze. At its peak, Spahn collected $2,000 a day signing autographs.
Thousands of outstanding ball players like Spahn severed with distinction and honor during World War II. On Memorial Day, we honor them and all the other valiant Americans who courageously served our country.