Like fellow Baseball Hall of Famer Ted Williams, pitcher Warren Spahn had his career interrupted by World War II. Unlike Williams, who was already famous when he was drafted, Spahn achieved notoriety after the war. Span had what ball players call “a cup of coffee” (a brief appearance in the majors) in 1942, pitching just four games before he was drafted.
In his Hall of Fame career, most of it for the Boston/Milwaukee Braves, Warren Edward Spahn won 363 games, ranking sixth overall; the most for a left-handed pitcher. A seventeen-time All-Star, Spahn’s career included thirteen seasons with twenty or more wins, three ERA titles, two no hitters (at ages 39 and 40), and a World Series championship and Cy Young Award (both in 1957). Career highlights included an epic 16-inning pitching duel on July 2, 1963, at age 42 with 25-year-old Juan Marichal and the San Francisco Giants.
The game was scoreless when it went into extra innings. Five times Giants manager Alvin Dark went to the mound, intending to relieve Marichal and each time Marichal refused. On Dark’s fifth trip, in the 14th inning, Marichal growled, “Do you see that man pitching for the other side? Do you know that man is 42 years old? I’m only 25. If that man is on the mound, nobody is going to take me out of here.” In the bottom of the 16th inning the game was still tied 0–0. With one out, Giants outfielder Willie Mays hit a solo home run, winning the game. Marichal had thrown 227 pitches, Spahn 201, with the latter allowing nine hits and one walk.
“The Army taught me something about challenges, and about what’s important and what isn’t.”
Spahn entered the Army on Dec. 3, 1942, at Camp Chaffee, Ark., a combination training facility and POW camp, and one of the many military bases being built in the crash-construction program overseen by Lt. Gen. Brehon Somervell. Following basic training, he was sent to Camp Gruber, Okla., where he was assigned to the 276th Engineer Combat Battalion. He continued to play baseball, and helped pitch the battalion’s team to the post championship.
On Nov. 4, 1944, Staff Sgt. Spahn and his unit, part of the 1159th Engineer Combat Group, boarded the Queen Mary for France. Of the men in the unit, Spahn later said some had been let out of prison if they would enlist. “So these were the people I went overseas with, and they were tough and rough and I had to fit that mold.”
Spahn soon found himself in the middle of action in the brutal Battle of the Hürtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge. Spahn recalled being surrounded and he and his men having to fight their way out. During one of the coldest winters on record, Spahn said, “Our feet were frozen when we went to sleep and they were frozen when we woke up. We didn’t have a bath or change of clothes for weeks.”
In March 1945 the 276th was at Remagen, Germany, working around the clock to repair the Ludendorff Bridge. Though damaged by demolitions triggered by retreating German troops, it had not been destroyed, making it the only Rhine River bridge captured by the Allies. On March 17, at about 3:00 p.m., Lt. Col. Clayton Rust, the 276th’s commander, was standing about in the middle of the bridge talking to a fellow officer. Suddenly everyone heard what sounded like rifle shots – rivets were being sheared off from trusses and beams. The bridge, weakened by the demolitions, heavy troop and vehicle traffic, and vibration from artillery fire and construction equipment, was collapsing. A total of 28 men were killed or missing and 65 wounded. Eighteen men were rescued from the river, including Col. Rust. Spahn was among the wounded, getting hit in the left foot by a piece of bridge shrapnel.
Discharged in April 1946, he returned to the Boston Braves in time to post an 8–5 season.
The 276th received the Presidential Unit Citation for its actions at Remagen. Spahn was also awarded the Purple Heart. In addition Spahn received a battlefield commission, which lengthened his service by another six months. Discharged in April 1946, he returned to the Boston Braves in time to post an 8–5 season.
Historians and fans later claimed that Spahn’s four years in the Army cost him the chance of reaching 400 wins. But Spahn disagreed, saying, “I matured a lot in those years. If I had not had that maturity, I wouldn’t have pitched until I was 45.” Elaborating on the point, he said, “After what I went through overseas, I never thought of anything I was told to do in baseball as hard work. You get over feeling like that when you spend days on end sleeping in frozen tank tracks in enemy threatened territory.”
Warren Spahn retired in 1965. In 1973 he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Two years before he retired, Spahn made his acting debut in the television show “Combat!” — a cameo as a German soldier.
A YouTube video of American troops crossing the Ludendorff Bridge can be seen at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=afsg_yzfr7M. YouTube features a number of Warren Spahn videos, one can bee seen at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l5q7q2VyVKI.