In Sports Commentary

Warren Spahn's statue outside of Atlanta's Turner Field. Spahn never pitched once in Atlanta. (PHOTO: Doug Russell)

A legacy misplaced

He won more games than any other lefthanded pitcher, pitched his team into two World Series, and had his career interrupted for four full seasons by World War II.

Yet the statue that honors him is in at a ballpark that he never pitched within 400 miles of. Meanwhile, his more famous teammate is immortalized just about 100 yards from where they both put Milwaukee on the map.

Wednesday, Brewers owner Mark Attanasio made reference to a future statue outside of Miller Park for slugger Ryan Braun. And while that will not get any arguments to Braun's immortalization in bronze one day, the Brewers have missed the mark in their omission of who the next recipient of truly baseball's highest honor should be.

There are hundreds of former baseball luminaries enshrined in Cooperstown. Many of them have had their numbers retired by their respective former teams. But even fewer of them have a statue outside of the ballpark their old team plays in. It is the ultimate tribute to be cast in metal for generations to come.

Today, outside of Miller Park, there are four statues: Hank Aaron, Robin Yount, the three ironworkers tribute statue, and Bud Selig, added last year.

At the time of the Selig unveiling, one of the most popular guessing games was who might be next? Most speculation centered on the ambassador of the franchise, Bob Uecker. Some had thought that perhaps Paul Molitor might warrant some consideration. Others had even said that Braun's likeness should be erected next because no one else would have as much longevity and impact as Braun will by the time he retires.

Sadly, and almost criminally, there was no mention of the greatest pitcher of a generation that did the vast majority of his magic less than the distance of a baseball field away.

Warren Spahn pitched for the Milwaukee Braves for 12 of the 13 years of the club's run at County Stadium. During those years (1953-64), Spahn led the National League in wins six times, won 20 or more games nine times, won one Cy Young Award, and placed in the top three on four other occasions.

Note: Spahn certainly would have won the Cy Young Award again in 1953, the Braves first season here, had it existed. The award was created in 1956, and was not league-specific until 1967.

In other words, Warren Spahn was the most dominant pitcher of his generation, and yet the statue that should honor that feat is placed at Atlanta's Turner Field, a city that Warren Spahn never once pitched in.

The argument for the statue in Atlanta seems to be an acceptable one: Spahn pitched for the Braves, thus he is immortalized outside of the Braves stadium. Similar statues of Hank Aaron, Ty Cobb and Phil Niekro neighbor that of Spahn at Turner Field.

Aaron played in Atlanta for eight seasons and still makes his home their today. Cobb, known as "The Georgia Peach" is understandably represented in his hometown. Niekro pitched for 18 seasons in Atlanta, and retired with 318 wins and 3,342 strikeouts.

I also understand the Brewers position of allowing the Braves franchise to honor Braves legends. But if that is indeed the case, then why does Aaron have a statue at Miller Park? Furthermore, why is he depicted as a Milwaukee Brave?

Yes, Aaron did finish out his career in Milwaukee with the Brewers, but it was hardly a glorious end to his magnificent career. In Aaron's two seasons with the Brewers, he hit an anemic .232 with 22 home runs and 95 RBI in 736 at-bats. Yet, his No. 44 hangs with fellow Hall of Famers Yount and Molitor inside Miller Park, and his larger-than-life bronze likeness greets you on the Miller Park Plaza right between Yount and Selig.

Please do not misunderstand. Aaron's statue is right where it needs to be. His number is right where it needs to be. Aaron is every bit deserving of the honors that have been bestowed upon him at Miller Park.

But don't fool yourself into thinking that has one iota to do with his prowess as a Brewer. Proof positive of that is the uniform he is wearing in perpetuity beyond the outfield walls of the field in where he once dominated. Aaron being honored as a Brewer is akin to Willie Mays being honored as a New York Met. Aaron's contributions to Milwaukee baseball are what the Brewers have chosen to forever memorialize.

But just as the Brewers were forward-thinking in honoring Aaron, so too should they be with Spahn. In 2007, perhaps because of the dearth of Brewers legends to honor, the team finally opened up their "Walk of Fame" to former members of the Milwaukee Braves. Yes, Spahn (along with Eddie Mathews and former general manager John Quinn) was honored there.

However, for his understated greatness, to be honored in the same manner as Don Money doesn't come close to telling the story of the impact of Spahn on this community, nor the sport he mastered.

Fifty years after winning his 300th game on Aug. 11, 1961 at County Stadium against the Chicago Cubs, to understand Spahn's dominance you have to look at his accomplishments in historical context.

By 1901, just 25 years after the founding of the National League, there were seven pitchers already in the 300-win club. There were several contributing reasons for this anomaly, including the dead ball era and two-man rotations.

However, between 1924 and 1982, there were just three pitchers added to the exclusive club: Lefty Grove in 1941; Spahn in 1961; and Early Wynn in 1963. Of the three, Grove and Wynn's final victories were their 300th, both hanging on solely for the milestone number.

Spahn, however, soldiered on until the age of 44, winning 20 or more games seven times after the age of 35. "I wanted to pitch until they tore the uniform off me," he told sportswriter T.J. Quinn shortly before his death in 2003. "And that's about what happened."

Today, Spahn still stands as the all-time winningest lefty in baseball history with 363 victories, a feat that seems out of reach. Considering how many wins he could have if his career hadn't been interrupted by World War II we will never know.

Furthermore, Spahn had his greatest years here in Wisconsin. He won 234 of his career games as a Milwaukee Brave. In 1957 and 1958, the two seasons Milwaukee won the National League pennant, Spahn was a combined 43-22, compiled a league-best 2.88 ERA, with a whopping 41 complete games. In both seasons, Spahn finished in the top five in the MVP balloting, and was twice named the Sporting News National League pitcher of the year.

To have Spahn represented in bronze more than 650 miles from home is a travesty. Just as Aaron is represented in both Atlanta and Milwaukee, the historically accurate and proper thing for the Brewers to do is to make the next statue at Miller Park be of the greatest lefthander baseball has ever known.

It's time to finally bring Warren Spahn home.


Talkbacks

Terry Rice | Nov. 18, 2011 at 2:25 p.m. (report)

I had the chance to meet Warren Spahn shortly before his death in Cooperstown during the Hall of Fame induction weekend. He had nothing but great things to say about his time in Milwaukee. A giant on the mound but very humble in person. I introduced him to my two sons who did not know who he was - until the next day when I took them to the Hall of Fame in which Spahn is one of the 50 greatest players of all time. "That is the man you met", I told them.

Rate this:
  • Average rating: 0.0
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

Bobby Tanzilo | Nov. 18, 2011 at 10:31 a.m. (report)

Actually the Braves sold Spahn to the Mets, but you're point is correct. He never played in Atlanta.

Rate this:
  • Average rating: 0.0
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

CoolerKing | Nov. 18, 2011 at 10:23 a.m. (report)

It's laughable that Atlanta erected that statue. I saw Spahn at a collectibles show years ago and he was critical about the team moving to Atlanta. The Braves traded him to the Mets in '64. He didn't even make the move down to Atlanta!

Rate this:
  • Average rating: 0.0
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

mikeb | Nov. 17, 2011 at 8:27 p.m. (report)

Spahn is one of the most under rated players ever. It can be credibly argued that he's the greatest left handed pitcher of all time. He was probably the best pitcher in his generation. As great as Hank Aaron is, I don't think he's a great as Spahn. Yet everyone knows all about the Hammer and #21 is nearly forgotten. While the Brewers are at it I wouldn't mind seeing them retire the numbers of Spahn and Eddie Matthews. Hank's number is retired because he was a great Milwaukee Brave and not because he was a washed up Brewer. They may also want to consider retiring Jim Gantner's #17.

Rate this:
  • Average rating: 0.0
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
4 comments about this article.
Post a comment / write a review.

Facebook Comments

Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.