September 25 – Happy Birthday Johnny Sain
When it came to baseball, nothing came easy for Johnny Sain. He was born in Arkansas in 1917, five months after America’s entry into WWI. His dad was a pretty good semi-pro pitcher in his day and a patient father, who took the time to teach his son the basic mechanics of pitching, including how to throw a curve ball. Although he was a physically big kid ( 6 feet 2 inches tall and close to 200 pounds) Sain never developed a fastball and as a result failed to impress any big league scouts during his high school pitching career. In fact, when Sain’s dad invited fellow Arkansawyer, Bill Dickey to talk to his son about a Major League career after one of Sain’s high school games, the Yankee catcher refused because he didn’t want to have to tell the youngster that he didn’t have what it would take to pitch in the big league.
Despite the lack of interest from big league teams, Sain persevered and got himself signed to a minor league contract in 1935. Seven years later, he made his big league debut with the Boston Braves, one of baseball’s worst teams at the time. That Brave team was managed by Casey Stengel and the “Ol Perfessor” wasn’t shy about using his rookie right-hander, getting Sain into 40 games that year as both a starter and reliever. Sain finished his 1942 rookie season with a 4-7 record and then enlisted in the Navy and went to aviation school. He eventually served as a flight instructor and later credited his flight schooling as a key to his later success as a pitcher because it forced him to improve his concentration skills and he applied what he learned about aerodynamics to improving his curve ball.
He returned to the Braves in 1946 and went 20-14 with an outstanding 2.21 ERA. By 1947, Warren Spahn had joined him as a Braves’ 20-game winner and a year later, the dynamic mound duo pitched Boston into the World Series and the rally cry of “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain!” was born. The Indians beat the Braves in that Fall Classic in six games, but Sain did beat Bob Feller, 1-0 in a classic pitchers’ duel in Game 1. He also pitched a second complete game in Game 4, losing a 2-1 heartbreaker. In 1948, Sain achieved the 20-victory mark for the third season in a row. After slumping to 10-17 the following year, he won 20 again for Boston in 1950. But Sain had developed a sore shoulder during the 1949 season, trying to learn how to throw a screwball. By 1951, it looked as if his career might be over, when he slumped to 5-13. At the end of August during that ’51 season, the Braves jumped at the opportunity to trade “The Man of a Thousand Curves” to the Yankees for New York pitching phee-nom, Lew Burdette. Boston also received $50,000 badly needed Yankee dollars in that deal.
In New York, Sain was reunited with Stengel, his first big league manager. Casey and Yankee pitching coach Jim Turner made the great decision to return Sain to the same role he had filled during his rookie season with the Braves, a reliever and spot starter. He went 11-6 with 7 saves in 1952 and 14-7 with 9 saves in ’53. The Yankees won World Series rings in both those seasons and Sain’s versatile pitching was a big reason why. In ’54, the Yankees converted Sain into a full-time reliever and he led the AL in saves with 22.
When the 1955 season began, Sain was 37-years-old and Yankee GM George Weiss was convinced he was finished as a big league pitcher. The cold-hearted Weiss dealt both him and 39-year-old Enos Slaughter to the Kansas City A’s in May of that year. Sain’s playing career was in fact over. He would retire after the ’55 season with a 139-116 record for his 11 year big league career, with 51 saves. (His Yankee record was 33-20 with 39 saves.)
In 1961, Yankee manager Ralph Houk would hire Sain as his pitching coach and he would perform brilliantly in that role. It was Sain who convinced Houk to go from Stengel’s five-man pitching rotation to a four-man version and Whitey Ford credits that move with rejuvenating his career. In his best selling book, “Ball Four,” Jim Bouton called Sain “the greatest pitching coach who ever lived!” Sain left the Yankees after the 63 season but would later serve as pitching coach for both Minnesota and Detroit. He developed a reputation for being tremendously loyal to and protective of the pitchers under his care. In addition to Yankee hurlers Ford, Bouton and Ralph Terry, he is also credited with helping Denny McLain, Mudcat Grant, Jim Kaat, Mickey Lolich and Earl Wilson become 20-game-winners. Sain was also one of baseball’s best hitting pitchers during his playing career, compiling a lifetime .245 batting average and striking out just 20 times in over 800 career at bats.
Sain was born on the very same day as this Hall-of-Fame Yankee shortstop and also shares a birthday with Robinson Cano’s predecessor as Yankee starting second baseman.