King of the Hill

Perhaps all baseball fans believe that the players they watched as children or teens were the best of all time. Certainly books like Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer and David Halberstam’s Summer of ’49 spotlight the halcyon days of the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Yankees, and Boston Red Sox.

Although my favorite players during my formative years were Ernie Banks and Nellie Fox, I had few chances to see them play at Wrigley or Comiskey because I grew up in Wisconsin, not Illinois. I did, however, have ample opportunities to watch the Milwaukee Braves play at County Stadium, and therefore I can nominate from personal observation my candidate for the greatest of his time and my time and perhaps for all time.

No, it’s not Henry Aaron, although Hammering Hank was the best right-handed hitter I ever saw in that stadium for he was a formidable slugger with power to all fields and also a skilled hitter who frequently batted over .300. The Braves at that time were loaded with All-Star performers, consistently finishing near or at the top of the National League standings behind the bats of Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Joe Adcock, Del Crandall, and Johnny Logan, and the strong right arms of Lew Burdette and Bob Buhl.

By now it should be obvious that I am saving the very best for last: Warren Spahn, the Hall of Fame hurler who won more games than any left-hander in Major League Baseball history.

The statistics speak volumes (5,243 innings pitched, 363 wins, 63 shutouts), especially when one considers the caliber of batters he faced regularly from 1946 to the early 1960s such as Banks, Ralph Kiner, Duke Snyder, Johnny Mize, Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Dick Groat, Orlando Cepeda, Roberto Clemente, Gil Hodges, Ted Kluszewski, Richie Ashburn, and Frank Robinson.

And the numbers would be even more impressive had not Spahn spent 1943, 1944, and 1945 serving his country during WWII. Lest we forget, the same could be said for Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams who didn’t wait but also served during those three years, not long after the memorable 1941 campaign when Joltin’ Joe hit safely in 56 consecutive games and Williams became the last player to complete a regular season with a batting average over .400. For decades followers of the national pastime have been speculating whether any hitter will surpass those notable achievements.

Fans may debate the prospect of any southpaw or right-hander in this century winning 363 games, but we can be absolutely certain that no Major League pitcher will ever again throw 382 complete games, win 20 or more games 13 times, and go 23-7 at the age of 42 with one of those 7 defeats being a 16-inning marathon in which he will throw over 200 pitches.

During the summers of my youth, it was my privilege to behold from a grand stand the once and future King of the Hill, Warren Edward Spahn.



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