Who’s the Leading Lefty In Baseball History?

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Warren Spahn won more games than any left-handed pitcher (363).Arthur Rothstein, Look Magazine, Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 1.0

By Dan Schlossberg

With a lockout in full force, baseball purists have only cards and memories to occupy their time when wild winter weather freezes roads and results in day-long backups.

This week’s sale of Topps to Fanatics for half-a-billion provided at least temporary fodder to feed the fantasies of fans longing for enormous transactions.

And the upcoming SABR Day, slated for Hank Aaron’s birthday on Feb. 5, will stir lots of passion among the history-loving types who love the Society for American Baseball Research.

A recurring theme among SABR-ites — who also argue loud and long about the merits of Cooperstown candidates — is an argument over all-time All-Stars.

Consider the position of left-handed pitchers, for example. There are lots of contenders, including Hall of Famers Lefty Grove, Warren Spahn, Whitey Ford, Sandy Koufax, Steve Carlton, Tom Glavine, and Randy Johnson.

Among active southpaws, Robbie Ray is the reigning Cy Young Award winner in the American League; Chris Sale shares the record for starting consecutive All-Star Games (3); and Julio Urias was the only pitcher to win 20 games this past season.

Grove, Spahn, Carlton, Glavine, and Johnson are among the two-dozen pitchers in the 300 Club — an achievement that requires an average of 20 wins for 15 years or 15 wins for 20 years. Few pitchers today win that many or last for so long.

Johnson won five Cy Youngs, Carlton four, Koufax three, and Glavine two but Spahn outdid them all. He finished with 363 wins, most by any southpaw in baseball history and more than any pitcher who worked after World War 2. He also had 363 base-hits — yes, the same number of hits as wins — and 382 complete games.

He not only hit 35 home runs, a National League record for a pitcher, but homered for the Braves in 17 consecutive seasons — a feat equaled only by Hank Aaron and Chipper Jones.

When his fastball faded, Spahn went to the screwball to prolong his longevity. He started All-Star Games in three different decades.

The only major-leaguer to win a battlefield commission during the Second World War, Spahn once said, “I played for Casey Stengel before and after he was a genius.”

He teamed with Yogi Berra on the 1965 Mets. Asked if they would be the oldest battery ever, he said, “I don’t know if we’ll be the oldest but we’ll certainly be the ugliest.”

Spahn had two no-hitters, one Cy Young, and 13 seasons with at least 20 wins. Thirteen!

He lost another sure win when he finished on the wrong side of a 16-inning game in San Francisco, ended by a Willie Mays solo home run, in 1963. Both Spahn, then 42, and Juan Marichal, some 20 years younger, went all the way, throwing more than 200 pitches.

Koufax might have been more spectacular but his blame burned out quickly. Spahn did more with less and did it longer, making him the best lefty in baseball history.

Former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ is the author of 40 baseball books. He covers the game for forbes.com, Latino Sports, USA TODAY Sports Weekly, Sports Collectors Digest, Ball Nine, and many others. E.mail him at ballauthor@gmail.com.

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