Prior to his military service, Warren Spahn had little reason to believe he’d retire as the winningest left-handed pitcher in baseball history. In his rookie season with the Boston Braves in 1942, Spahn was only used in four games (two starts), yielding a discouraging 25 hits and 11 walks in 15 2/3 innings pitched. When duty called, Spahn hung up his spikes and spent three years in the service—earning a Purple Heart and seeing action as a combat engineer.
But upon his return to organized baseball in 1946, Spahn demonstrated a newfound focus and determination in his pursuit to rejoin a Braves team that was willing to give him a second look. He also had a new perspective, one that he believes helped him become a better pitcher.
“I felt like, wow what a great way to make a living,” Spahn told the USA Today in 1990, “If I goof up, there’s going to be a relief pitcher coming in there. Nobody’s going to shoot me.”
In 24 starts that year, Spahn went 8-5 with a 2.94 ERA, carving out a spot in the Braves rotation for the 1947 season—a place he would remain until the Braves traded him to the Mets in 1964. During that span, the Hall of Famer pitched at least 200 innings in 17 of his 18 seasons with the team, winning more than 20 games in a season eight times.
All told, his 363 wins put him sixth on the all-time leaderboard, only ten strikeouts behind Christy Mathewson and Grover Cleveland Alexander (373) who are tied for third on the list. His career was a true testament to longevity and consistency– a man who once threw 201 pitches in a single game in 1963—at the age of 42.
Spahn has a illustrious career’s worth of cards to chase, letting us look back on a few of his more expensive early editions and a couple of his affordable recent offerings.
1948 Bowman Rookie Card
While the first Spahn card produced appeared in the 1947 Tip Top Bread set, those issues have become incredibly scare are hard to locate. Spahn’s true rookie card appeared in the landmark 1948 Bowman set and can still be owned for a relatively modest price unless you’re talking high grade. He debuts here along with Stan Musial, Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto, Ralph Kiner and others.
The black and white photograph shows a young Spahn in front of his locker, pointing to his early struggles in the minors on the back of the card, but also noting his quick ascension for the Braves. “Beginning his career with Bradford in the Pony League in 1940, his record was not spectacular but he did strike out 62 batters in 66 innings.”
The back of the card also reminds us that for Spahn in 1947, “he really clicked—winning 21—losing 10.” His 9.4 WAR (wins over average replacement) was the best for any pitcher in the league in 1947.
Spahn helped the Braves win the National League pennant in 1948, but would fall in the World Series to the Cleveland Indians—the last time a Cleveland baseball franchise has won a title.
While there are no rookie cards from Spahn’s inaugural 1942 season, one of his earliest was issued by Chicago-based Leaf. Older advanced collectors have said they didn’t actually put these out until 1949, despite the copyright date on the back. Thought not truly considered his flagship rookie card, it’s still among his earliest and is much tougher than his 1948 Bowman.
It’s also his first card issued in color. High-grade examples are hard to find and mid-grade examples can range from $1000-2000.
1951 Topps Red Back
During the 1951 season, two Hall of Famers crossed paths during polar opposite situations in their careers. Spahn was entering his prime, winning 21 games in 1950 and was set to face a young rookie named Willie Mays, who was struggling through his first games having not recorded a hit in 12 at-bats.
Spahn would famously give up a home run to Mays, marking the first hit of Mays’ career and the first of many to come. While a bit exaggerated in his recollection, Spahn felt like many of Mays’ future hits could have been avoided had he executed his pitch.
“He was something like zero for twenty-one the first time I saw him. His first major league hit was a home run off me and I’ll never forgive myself. We might have gotten rid of Willie Mays forever if I’d only struck him out.”
Fortunately for the opposing Giants, they stuck with Mays—even after another 0-for-13 following his home run off Spahn. His 1-for-26 start was one of the most notoriously poor beginning to a great career, kept afloat by a promising at-bat against a budding ace.
While most of his career was spent as a Brave in Boston or Milwaukee, Spahn was briefly a New York Met and finished his career in 1965 as a San Francisco Giant.
Spahn’s 1951 Red Back marks his first appearance on a Topps card. It’s a relatively affordable early edition that won’t break the bank if you are looking for an early Topps card of the Hall of Famer.
2005 Leaf Certified Dual Jersey
In what could easily be argued as the greatest pitching dual of all-time, Spahn and fellow Hall of Famer Juan Marichal faced off in July of 1963, in the midst of one of Spahn’s greatest seasons.
It could also be argued that it’s the type of dual we will never see again, as both pitchers remained in the game into the 16th inning, both surpassing the 200-pitch mark.
Heading to the bottom of the 16th, Marichal returned to the home dugout after throwing his 227th pitch. Spahn retired the first Giant he faced in the 16th, but up next was Willie Mays–12 years removed from his first hit against Spahn in his rookie season of 1951. Mays once again got the better of the southpaw, sending Spahn’s 201st pitch deep to left field through the thick marine layer in San Francisco that finally put an end to the historic contest.
While both pitchers would end up on athe 1964 Topps National League Leaders card, there are only a few examples that feature both Hall of Famers on the same piece of cardboard. If you are looking for an affordable card that celebrates both, the price of this dual relic is pretty hard to beat.
2001 Topps Archives Autographs
For less than $100, there are still a few of these hand-signed autos circulating of Spahn, celebrating the 1952 Topps design. In 2001, Topps Archives used the name box where the facsimile signature appeared in 1952 Topps and replaced it with a hand-signed autograph in blue ink– one that can even be found in refractor form.
It’s aesthetically more pleasing than many hand-signed autographs that often see the penmanship of the signer wander to undesirable areas of the card. It also harkens back to a 1952 season that was statistically one of Spahn’s worst in the win-loss category.
The crafty southpaw went 14-19 that season, despite leading the Major Leagues in strikeouts (183) and finishing with a 2.98 ERA that was in the top-25 of all MLB pitchers that season. It was a classic case of poor run support, as the Braves finished 64-89 and finished next to last in the National League. The .233 team batting average was also good for next to last in all of baseball.
If you’re not a fan of reprints, an ungraded 1952 Topps Spahn can be had for a bit more if you aren’t a stickler about condition.