Did you make a guess at this week’s Access Point photo game? A few commenters were in the ballpark (Pun!) when they correctly guessed it was at Turner Field. It’s actually inside the Braves Museum and Hall of Fame inside the park gates. It’s pitcher John Sain’s glove and ball from Game 1 of the 1948 World Series, when the Boston Brave pitched a shutout against the Cleveland Indians.
There are many balls and gloves in the museum — and jerseys, World Series rings, photos and even a train car – but this one stands out. The museum received it after Sain’s death, bronzed like baby booties you want to hold forever in one time.
It would be easy to miss among all the red and blue, but even easier to miss some of the story behind it. There’s only so much room on an information card. (Here’s a short piece from when I went on the Turner Field tour.)
Sain was a part of a pitching duo — Sain and Warren Spahn — often described as “immortal.”
In September 1948, the Braves strategy was written into a poem by Gerald V. Hern, and ran in the Boston 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
by two days of rain.
When you hear the rhyme retold now, it’s usually “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain.” That you ever hear it now, I think, means something.
The Braves didn’t win that World Series — the Indians got it in six games, in the first Series televised on a national network — but Sain would go on to a long career as a pitching coach, including a run with the Atlanta Braves.
I could go on, but instead, I’ll leave it with a column by sportswriter Furman Bisher, whose career at the AJC only recently ended. This was published in 2006, just after Sain died. The headline was very clear: “Sain was the best pitching coach ever.”
When I sat down to talk pitching with Leo Mazzone, I knew I was going to get another chapter and verse on Johnny Sain. Mazzone was the Biblical Timothy to Sain’s Paul. Every time the Braves visited Chicago, Mazzone never failed to call on the old pitching coach, then retired and in failing health but never too sick to talk pitching, and the Braves pitching coach would chirp happily, “What I am is everything Johnny Sain taught me.”
Sain died Tuesday in Downers Grove, Ill. He was 89.
Higher praise came from higher authorities, like this celestial endorsement from Jim Brosnan, who could write as well as pitch. “Johnny Sain did for pitching in the ’60s what Babe Ruth and the lively ball did for hitting in the ’20s, ” which is just about as unlimited an endorsement as a fellow could make.
But Jim Bouton topped Brosnan, before he turned informant and wrote his tell-all book on players and their sinful ways. “Johnny Sain is the greatest pitching coach who ever lived, ” he said.
Sain was a former automobile mechanic from Arkansas who had his finest seasons with the Braves in Boston, four seasons of 20 wins or more, one season a 300-inning toiler, and a 1-0 victory over Bob Feller in the 1948 World Series. It was in the pennant race that season, teaming with Warren Spahn, that one of the most durable catch-phrases of baseball was created: “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain, ” or thereabouts.
The right-hander was traded to the Yankees, who needed pitching help in 1951, and subsequently closed his career with Kansas City, finishing with 139 victories and a 3.49 ERA. In 1954, he became one of the pioneers of the “save” statistic with 22.
Just what it was about Sain that made him the model of coaching isn’t easily defined. His philosophy: “Pitching coaches don’t change pitchers, we just stimulate their thinking. We teach their subconscious mind so that when they get on the mound and the situation arises, it triggers an automatic physical reaction.”
Whatever his style, it didn’t always set well with some managers. No matter how many 20-game winners he developed, he often found himself out of a job, fired by some jealous boss. He was popular with pitchers, though. He didn’t make them run, and most pitchers hate running. Art Fowler, an average pitcher who later became a coach himself, once said, “If running would make a pitcher out of you, Jesse Owens would be in Cooperstown.”
As he moved into coaching, Sain distinguished himself by developing 20-game winners by the herd, Whitey Ford, Ralph Terry, Mudcat Grant, Jim Kaat, Earl Wilson, Denny McLain, Wilbur Wood, Stan Bahnsen and Mickey Lolich among them.
Lolich came under Sain’s hand at Detroit, and after Sain had been fired, Lolich said, “Johnny loves pitchers. He believes pitchers are unique, and only he understands them.”
Still, managers kept firing him, one after another, and it was at Richmond, in the Braves farm system, that Mazzone came under Sain magic touch and became a disciple. There have been pitching coaches who create an aura about their work, but none with the influence of Sain. “A ball was just a ball until he put that ball in your hand, ” Dave Boswell said. “It had possibilities you never dreamed of.”
Sain had one other manner the average fan would applaud. He rarely went to the mound to counsel a suffering pitcher. If what his careful teaching hadn’t taken hold over the long haul, he couldn’t rebuild him in the middle of a game.
Want to go? Braves Museum and Hall of Fame. Hours vary based on the season. 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Saturday in March-October. Closed Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Thanksgiving Day and Dec. 23-Jan. 2. Museum is $2 (one token) on game days, or $5 on non-game days. Walk-up tour tickets are $12 for adults, $7 for children. Turner Field, 755 Hank Aaron Dr. S.W., Atlanta. 404-614-2311, http://mlb.mlb.com/atl/ballpark/museum.jsp.