Have you ever heard the phrase, "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain?"
Of course you have. The phrase has become the mantra for any casual baseball fan who desires to appear knowledgeable about the sport. But how many people actually know what the saying means?
The implication is that for a period of several years after World War II, Hall of Famer Warren spahn and 4-time 20-game winner Johnny Sain were the only good pitchers on the Boston Braves. Let’s investigate year-by-year to see whether this is true, or whether this unjustly exalts Spahn and Sain and disrespects some other quality pitchers.
Johnny Sain- 20-14 2.21 265 IP
Warren Spahn- 8-5 2.94 125.7 IP
Mort Cooper- 13-11 3.12 199 IP
Johnny Sain din’t look ready for the bigs as a 25-year old pitcher in 1942 (4-7 3.90). After returning from the war, he looked fantastic. Warren Spahn, on the other hand, only made 16 starts in his first year back from service.
The big problem, however, is that our clever little rhyme ignores the fact that a four-time All Star pitcher was on Boston’s roster this year, and that he, not Spahn, was second on the club in wins, innings pitched, and complete games. He actually threw one more shutout than Sain did, and had a much better K/BB ratio (83:39) than Spahn did (67:36).
Johnny Sain- 21-12 3.52 266 IP
Warren Spahn- 21-10 2.33 289.7 IP
Red Barrett 11-12 3.55 210.7 IP
Bill Voiselle 8-7 4.32 131.3 IP
Well, if there’s a year where the rhyme makes some sense, it’s 1947. Spahn and Sain each won 21 games and were clearly the best two pitchers on the staff. However, it’s worth noting that the other two pitchers who started over 10 games for the club combined for a .500 record and an ERA slightly above the league average, so they were hardly liabilities.
Johnny Sain- 24-15 2.60 314.7 IP
Warren Spahn- 15-12 3.71 265 IP
4 Other Starters- 36-28 3.35 574 IP
The Braves actually won the NL Pennant this year, so you might think that this would be the year that made our rhyme famous. But while Sain continued his reign as an elite NL pitcher, Warren Spahn was merely above average. In fact, when you add up the innings of all of the non Spahn/Sain pitchers who made more than two starts that year, you find that they combine for a slightly better win% than Warren’s, and a significantly better ERA. Instead of praying for rain when these four were pitching, Braves fans should have prayed for Spahn to get sent back to the Minors to allow Nels Potter a few more spot starts (2.33 ERA 47K/8BB). Potter did get roughed up in the World Series, as he was the only Brave to post a worse Series ERA than Spahn’s .
Johnny Sain- 10-17 4.81 243 IP
Warren Spahn- 21-14 3.07 302.3 IP
What in the world happened to Sain? He went from a Cy Young candidate one year to one of the worst pithing seasons in franchise history the next. I mean, he only struck out a pitiful 2.7 batters per 9 innings in ’49. Fortunately for Boston, Warren Spahn picked up the slack by beginning a string of eleven quality seasons. But everyone who pitched over 50 innings for the Braves that year posted an ERA significantly lower than Sain’s.
Johnny Sain- 20-13 3.94 278.3 IP
Warren Spahn- 21-17 3.16 293 IP
Vern Bickford- 19-14 3.47 311.7 IP
Sain rebounded a bit in 1950, winning 20 games for the fourth and final time, yet his ERA was still below the league average. Teammmate Vern Bickford notched one fewer win than Sain did, though Vern certainly had the better year. Of course, you’d never have known it, since Bickford doesn’t really rhyme with anything.
Johnny Sain- 5-13 4.21 160.3 IP
Warren Spahn- 22-14 2.98 310.7 IP
Vern Bickford- 11-9 3.12 164.7 IP
Chet Nichols- 11-8 2.88 156 IP
Some guy named Chet Nichols actually posted a better ERA than Spahn this year! Warren still had the superior season, but I’m betting that Brave fans weren’t doing any rain dances when Nichols or Bickford were on the mound in ’51. By then, the franchise was so disenchanted with Sain that they traded him to the Yankees in August. Sain did manage to have one good season in New York, but the guy the Braves got in return, Lew Burdette, would go 179-120 (.599) for the franchise. It may have been the worst trade in Yankees history.
Addendum – Braves move to Milwaukee
During the Spahn and Sain period of 1946-1951, the team finished in 4th place in four out of the six seasons. This was truly an unremarkable period in team history, and it’s puzzling as to why it has been immortalized in rhyme.
But in 1953, the Boston Braves morphed into the Milwaukee Braves, and between 1953-1960, they finished with a winning percentage over .550 every year, and finished in second place or better seven times. During that eight year span, Warren Spahn led the team in ERA twice, while Burdette and a guy named Bob Buhl each did so three times. But no songs are sung about Burdette and Buhl igniting the new Milwaukee franchise. The only folks who seemed to notice their excellence were the Chicago Cubs, who incidentally got burned by acquiring both of them during their declining years.
But if you choose to ignore one of the best performances by a newly moved franchise and instead want to wax poetic on the petering end of the Boston Braves, then fine. Just promise me that you focus on Sid Gordon and Bob Elliot, two of the most underrated hitters of all-time. Or should I instead write, "Elliot and Gordon, why ya’ ignore ‘dem?"
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