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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Baseball Throwback Thursday - Spahn & Sain and Pray for Rain - The 1948 Boston Braves

Did you know that the Braves didn't start out in Atlanta? That they moved there from Milwaukee? And that they actually began in Boston? Well, that's all true. And in 1948, they had their last hurrah in Beantown.

In 1914, 'The Miracle Braves' of Boston, behind Hall of Fame shortstop Rabbit Maranville, unexpectedly won the World Series. They finished second the following season. In 1916 and again in 1947, they managed to finish third. From 1917 through 1946, THIRTY consecutive seasons, they finished fourth or worse. And it was usually worse. Twenty three times out of thirty seasons, they finished under .500 (and finished .500 once).

That’s only six winning seasons out of thirty years. Forgot the Red Sox: The Braves fans were the long suffering ones. They broke the century mark in losses five times. And in 1935, the Braves managed an execrable 38-115 record, averaging less than 3,100 fans per game.

In 1946, the team showed signs of life, improving from 67 to 81 wins and nearly tripling attendance. In 1947, they had their best season since 1916, finished third and broke the million mark in attendance for the first time ever. With many fans excited for Braves baseball for the first times in their lives, what would 1948 hold in store?

“Spahn and Sain and pray for rain.”

Warren Spahn finished serving in World War II and in 1947, his first full season in the majors, won 21 games and led the league in ERA and innings pitched. He would go on to be the winningest left handed pitcher in baseball history.

Johnny Sain returned from his military service and won 20 games in 1946 and 21 more in 1947. Though his career was much less successful than that of Spahn’s, he finished second in the 1948 MVP voting.

The Braves found themselves, surprisingly enough, in a three-way pennant race with the Cardinals and Dodgers as summer wound down in 1948. Those two squads had won six of the seven prior National League pennants.

 As Boston raced to the flag, Boston Post sportswriter Gerald Hearn overheard manager Billy Southworth say, “From here on I will rotate my pitching staff. Spahn one day, Sain the next.”

How fortunate for Hearn that ‘Sain’ and ‘rain’ rhymed! On September 14, the following poem appeared in the Post:

First we'll use Spahn, then we'll use Sain
Then an off day, followed by rain
Back will come
Spahn, followed by Sain
And followed, we hope by two days of rain.

It was paraphrased as “Spahn and Sain, then pray for rain” and is still recognizable to baseball fans today.

The refrain is a bit misleading, though. Sain had a brilliant season, winning a league high 24 games. He would also lead the league in complete games and innings pitched. His ERA was a stellar 2.60. He certainly would have won the Cy Young Award if it existed yet.

But Warren Spahn actually had the worst season of his peak years. He only went 15-12 with a 3.71 ERA. Vern Bickford was 11-5 with a 3.27 ERA and even Bill Voiselle, 13-13 with a 3.63 ERA, was comparable. But Southworth knew he had a tough lefty who had just won 21 games the year before in Spahn. And of course, he would go on to win at least 20 games eleven of the next thirteen seasons.

Spahn and Sain started 74 games in 1948: the rest of the staff combined for 75. But the two started three of the six post season games (Spahn and Sain and somebody else…) as the Braves fell to the Indians.

It was nearly an all Boston World Series, as the Red Sox finished tied atop the AL with the Tribe, but lost a one-game playoff to the Tribe.

1948 was the last hurrah for the Boston Braves, who had joined the National Association in 1871 and moved to the National League in 1876. They would finish under .500 in three of the next four seasons, with attendance plummeting. It was only 281,278 in 1952: down almost one million from just four years before. So, the team packed up and moved to Milwaukee for 1953, drawing a stunning 1.8 million fans (Brooklyn owner Walter O’Malley paid attention to that!). They also got suddenly good, finishing first or second in seven of the next eight seasons.

However, the team struggled from 1961 to 1965, attendance declined and the Braves abandoned Milwaukee after only thirteen seasons, moving to Atlanta. Now they just abandon ballparks in the Atlanta area…

‘Casey at the Bat’ is baseball’s most famous poem. And dedicated fans will recognize ‘Tinkers to Evers to Chance.’ But "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain" has certainly endured for close to seven decades.

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