The Spahn and Sain Refrain, Reconsidered

Warren Spahn (right) and Johnny Sain (center) lead the Braves to the 1948 World Series. (via Public Domain)

It’s been almost seven decades since the famed rhyme “Spahn and Sain and Pray for Rain” was introduced into popular culture.  Since it was written in reference to the Boston Braves’ 1948 NL pennant drive, few people are still alive who could name the other members of the Braves’ starting rotation, much less pass judgment on their talent.

For the record, the rhyme is a truncated version of a poem composed by Gerald V. Hern, sports editor of the Boston Post (ceased publication in 1956), and published on Sept. 14, 1948:

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.

The poem appeared in the wake of a four-day gap (Sept. 7-10) when no games were played, more than likely the result of inclement weather.  With no games to write about, sportswriters often wax creative.

One suspects the Braves’ other starters were less than enthusiastic about Hern’s little ditty.  Certainly, none came close to having the season that Johnny Sain had in 1948, and none had the career that Warren Spahn had.  But that doesn’t mean they were a bunch of humpty-dumpties.

First, let’s examine how good Spahn and Sain were in 1948 and beyond.

Sain started 39 contests in 1948.  He led the league in victories (24), complete games (28) and innings pitched (314.2) and had a 2.60 ERA.  He had four 20-victory seasons in his career, but 1948 was the best.  Later he distinguished himself as a reliever (26 saves for the Yankees in 1954) and as a pitching coach (A’s, Yankees, Twins, Tigers, White Sox and Braves from 1959 to 1986).

Spahn won 20 or more game 13 times during his lengthy career.  His 1948 season (15-12, 3.71 in 257 innngs pitched), however, was a bit of a drop-off from 1947, his first 20-win season, when he went 21-10 and led the league in ERA (2.33), shutouts (sewven), and IP 289.2.  Spahn was 27 years old in 1948 but his career was just getting revved up.  He pitched till age 44 and won 363 games (still a record for major league left-handers) and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1973.

Given the extensive use manager Billy Southworth made of Spahn and Sain in September (Sain went 8-1 in nine starts and Spahn 4-3 in eight starts), Hern’s admiration is understandable.  While Southworth surely wanted to get Spahn and Sain as many starts as possible during the stretch run, he took a risk of wearing out his two aces. The rotation was upset by seven double-headers in September, yet Spahn, Sain, and the other starters responded by going 15-5 after Labor Day.

Spahn and Sain set the bar pretty high, but they didn’t win the 1948 pennant all by themselves.  The S & S boys won 39 games but the Braves won 91.  So the other members of the staff chipped in 52.  So who were the undersung, if not unsung, moundsmen?

Right behind the two big chiefs was Bill Voiselle, who started 30 games and went 13-13 in 215.2 IP with a 3.63 ERA (a shade better than Spahn’s).  Today a record like that would net you a pretty sweet contract if you were in your free agent year.  Yet in 1948, Voiselle’s last decision came on Sept. 4, a 4-3 loss to the Phillies.  After a good start to the season, Voiselle had become progressively less effective, so manager Southworth banished him to the bullpen.

Like Spahn and Sain, Voiselle played his first major league game (with the Giants) in 1942.  Unlike them, he did not lose any time to military service during World War II.  Aided no doubt by the WWII talent shortage, Voiselle achieved his best season (21-16) in 1944, with a 3.02 ERA.  He led the league in starts (41), IP (312.2), and strikeouts (161).

Traded to the Braves during the 1947 season, Voiselle finished his major league career in 1950 with the Cubs, retiring with a composite record of 74-84, and a 3.83 ERA.  Today he is primarily remembered for wearing uniform No. 96 in honor of his hometown of Ninety-Six, S.C.

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Next in the rotation was Vern Bickford, who started 22 games, logged 146 innings, and came up with a record of 11-5 and a 3.27 ERA.  While Spahn and Sain were hogging the headlines in September, Bickford started five games and went 4-0!  Even his no-decision was an outstanding effort.  In the second game of a Sept. 12 double-header against the Phillies, he pitched nine innings of a 13-inning contest and gave up just one earned run.  The Braves eventually won the game game 2-1)in 13 innings.

The war delayed Bickford’s major league arrival (he was a 27-year-old rookie in 1948).  He went on to become a mainstay of the Braves’ rotation in subsequent years, his best season being 1950 when he went 19-14 with a 3.47 ERA and led the league in starts (39), complete games (27) and innings pitched (311.2).

After that, Bickford’s performance tailed off through his final season with the Orioles in 1954.  He bowed out with a record of 66-57 and a 3.71 ERA.  Nowhere close to Spahn or Sain… but pray for rain when Bickford’s turn came up in the rotation?  I think not.

A veteran presence in the rotation was provided by Red Barrett, whose major league career started with the Reds in 1937.  After limited duty (43 IP through 1940), he had two consecutive 20-win seasons at Triple-A and returned to the majors via the Braves in 1943.

The talent dilution of the WWII years doubtless helped Barrett achieve an outstanding 1945 season.  After a slow start with the Braves that year, he was traded to the Cardinals.  He responded by leading the league in victories (23), complete games (24), and IP (284.2).

After the war, Barrett was less effective but the workman was still worthy of his hire, as evinced by his workmanlike record (3-2, 4.03 ERA, mostly out of the bullpen in 1946, and 11-12, 3.55 ERA, mostly as a starter in 1947).

By 1948, Barrett was back with the Braves.  Though no all-star, he started 13 games out of 34 appearances.  He went 7-8, 3.65 in 128.1 IP.  His last major league season was 1949, but he played four more seasons in the minors.  After 11 years in majors, he finished at 69-69 with a 3.53 ERA.  Certainly nothing to be ashamed of.

The real geezer of the 1948 Braves staff was Nels Potter, who signed with the team  on June 20 and turned 37 two months later.

Potter was the rare player whose career was far more impressive post-30 than pre-30.  Making his debut with the Cardinals in 1936 at age 24, his record before the onset of World War II was forgettable (25-38, with ERA ranging from 4.44 to 9.26).  His 1942 sojourn in the minors (Double-A Louisville) resulted in 18 wins and attracted the attention of the St. Louis Browns.

Rejuvenating one’s career with the Browns might sound like a plot that requires a preface by Rod Serling, yet that is what Potter did.  In six seasons with the Browns, he went 57-43 with a 3.05 ERA.  In the Browns’ only pennant season (1944), he led the team in victories with 19.  He was quite effective in his two starts against the Cardinals in the Series, but he was victimized by poor defense; only one of the five runs against him in 9.2 innings was earned.

Potter followed up with 15 victories for the Browns in 1945, but his effectiveness dwindled during the next two seasons.  In 1948 at age 36, he started the season with the Browns.  In mid-May he was sold to the A’s, who released him after a month.  The Braves signed him for the stretch drive, and he responded with a 5-2 record and a 2.33 ERA in 85 IP.  The next season was his last, and he retired with a 92-97 record and a 4.19 ERA.

So that’s the story of the 1948 Braves starters not named Spahn or Sain.  A number of pitchers (Bobby Hogue, Clyde Shoun, Jim Prendergast, Johnny Beazley and Glenn Elliott) started a game or two, but not enough to provide a sample.

It is also worth noting that 1948 was the rookie season for future ace Johnny Antonelli, who pitched just four innings in four games.  Bonus baby rules (Antonelli had just graduated from high school) dictated that he remain on the major league roster but he spent most of the season pitching batting practice.  He hung around long enough to make the move to Milwaukee with the Braves in 1953, but did not hit his stride till he was traded to the Giants in 1954.  As good as the Braves were with Spahn, Lew Burdette and Bob Buhl in the rotation in the late 1950s, one wonders what heights they might have achieved with Antonelli in the mix.

The Braves starters kept up their good work in the 1948 World Series against the Indians.  Barrett, Bickford, Potter, Sain, Spahn and Voiselle gave up 15 earned runs to the Indians’ 16.  In addition, the Braves’ composite ERA of 2.60 was marginally better than that of the Indians (2.72).  That Indians’ figure, however, was inflated due to one bad game (an 11-5 Braves victory in Game Five.

Sain continued his good work in the Series (1-1, 1.06 in 17 IP).  He notched a shutout in the first game, but was bested by Steve Gromek in a 2-1 loss in Game Four.

Spahn appeared three times (he started Game Two and lost 4-1 but won Game Five in relief) and had a 3.00 ERA.

Bickford started Game Three but was victimized by a Gene Bearden shutout (2-0).  He gave up one earned run but pitched only 3.1 innings. Voiselle made two appearances.  He started and lost the decisive Game Six (4-3), though it would be considered a quality start today (three earned runs in seven innings).  His composite ERA for the Series was 2.53. Barrett made two appearances in relief (Games Ywo and Three) and was unscored on in 3.2 IP.

The only slacker in the bunch was Nels Potter (8.44, 5.1 IP).  He got shellacked in a Game Fivestart, giving up five earned runs before leaving in the fourth inning, but the Braves scored five runs in the seventh, taking him off the hook and giving Spahn the win in relief.  So even this one ineffective appearance did not harm the team.

The World Series outcome was doubly disappointing to Boston fans, who had visions of an all-Boston Series before the Indians defeated the Red Sox in a one-game playoff.  Nevertheless, the starting pitchers whose last names did not begin with “S” had nothing to apologize for.  No need for Braves’ fans to do a rain dance when Bickford, Voiselle, Barrett or Potter toed the mound.

No offense to the legacy of Gerald Hern, but here’s some revisionist doggerel pertaining to the ’48 Braves’ stretch drive:

Remember, remember,
Spahn and Sain in September,
But remember as well
The feats of Voiselle,

And when Bickford – that’s Vern –
Took his regular turn,
His hand was hot
More often than not.

Then there’s Red Barrett;
Though not 24-carat,
This veteran was smart
And had plenty of heart.

And finally Nels Potter…
You’ll see on his blotter,
Without much ado
He went 5 and 2.

So should the rain fall
And postpone “Play ball!”
Take a one-day vacation,
Then resume the rotation.

That’s too much verbiage to be catchy, but here’s an easy-to-remember couplet:

Spahn, Sain, et seq.
All hands on deck!

I’m sure there are readers out there who can come up with a better one.  Please do so in the Comments section!

References & Resources


Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 54 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.
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Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

I wonder if Johnny Sain is more famous for being featured in Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four” than for his playing or coaching accomplishments. Of course, now that I think about it, how many people today even know about “Ball Four?”

Michael Bacon
Guest
Michael Bacon
Here is “… some revisionist sabermetric analysis, using stats from the Fangraphs page, to go with your article, which is written in the way that most Baseball historical articles have been written previously. Sain started 39 contests in 1948. He led the league in victories (24), complete games (28) and innings pitched (314.2) and had a 2.60 ERA, but his FIP was much higher at 3.41. He had four 20-victory seasons in his career, but 1948 was not the best. His FIP was 2.81 in 1946, the only year in which his FIP was below 3.00. The major reason was… Read more »
David Gardner
Guest
David Gardner

The most ironic thing about that famous refrain is that in 1948…the year in which it was written…the Braves actually had a LOWER winning percentage when Spahn and Sain started a game than they did when the other pitchers on the staff started. The percentage difference is rather infinitesimal, but still…
As pointed out in the article, that 1948 Braves pitching staff was pretty darn good.