“It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” — Yogi Berra.
The right-handed batter from East Texas stepped to the plate, took a stance and waited for the pitch to come.
In his trademark windup, the left-handed pitcher from Oklahoma threw his right leg skyward and sent the ball scorching across the plate.
The batter would later say many times, “Heard it hit the catcher’s mitt, but never saw the ball coming.”
The year was 1944. The pitcher was Warren Spahn who spent 21 years in the National League, retiring in 1965 with 363 wins—more than any other left-handed pitcher in major league baseball history, and a record that still stands today.
Spahn started in 1942 with the Boston Braves remaining all but one year with the franchise that moved to Milwaukee in 1953 before moving to Atlanta the year after Spahn retired. He played his final year with the New York Mets and the San Francisco Giants. He ranks sixth in history for MLB wins following right handers Cy Young (511), Walter Johnson (417), Grover Cleveland Alexander (373), Christy Mathewson (373), and Pud Galvin (364).
He was named the 1957 Cy Young Award winner and elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973.
That young East Texas batter in 1944? That was my dad, Leon Aldridge, Sr., from Pittsburg, Texas. No, he never played professional baseball, but loved to tell the story of feeling the heat of a Warren Spahn pitch. They served together in the U.S. Army 276th Engineer Combat Battalion in World War II, and played baseball during training at Camp Gruber in Oklahoma.
According to the history of the 276th “Rough and Ready” written and edited in 1946 by Allen L. Ryan and Clayton A. Rust, after training in Camp Gruber, the unit went to Tennessee for maneuvers. They returned to Oklahoma to await orders for shipping out to the European Theater.
The book reports, “… among the exploits of the 276th during this period was winning the 1944 Camp Gruber baseball championship … defeating all comers. Much of the credit for the fine performance of the 276th team must be given to our pitcher, S/Sgt. Lefty Spahn, formerly of the Boston Braves.”
“Very few of us got any hits off him in practice,” said dad. “But, neither did the batters on the other teams. How can you hit something you can’t see?”
Spahn volunteered for service at the end of the 1942 baseball season. Dad was drafted while a student at Texas A&M University. Before WW II was over, they saw combat duty together in the Battle of the Bulge and at the Ludendorff Bridge becoming good friends along the way.
As a kid who enjoyed school yard baseball and a couple of Little League summers in the late 1950s, I thought it was pretty cool that my father got a Christmas card every year from a major league pitching star that I watched on television.
My father was never a big sports fan, with the exception of a few high school football games. But, if the Braves were on television and Spahn was pitching, he was tuned in.
Before it was over, in Spahn’s final season while playing for the Mets, Yogi Berra came out of retirement to catch a few games, one in which Spahn was pitching. Spahn was 42 and still playing. Berra was 40 and had retired the previous year. Berra was quoted as saying, “I don’t think we’re the oldest battery, but we’re certainly the ugliest.”
Spahn died in 2004, three years before dad in 2007. Until it was indeed over, if you had asked dad what he remembered most his Army service, you would likely have heard about the time he thought he might have gotten a hit off Warren Spahn … if he could have just seen the ball coming.
(Photo credit, all photos: Rough and Ready Unit History 276 Engineer Combat Battalion by Allen L. Ryan, edited by Clayton A. Rust)
Aldridge columns are also published in the Center, Texas, Light and Champion (http://www.lightandchampion.com), the Mount Pleasant, Texas, Tribune (http://www.tribnow.com) and the Fort Bend Herald (http://www.fbherald.com) newspapers.