Hall of Fame Matchup
“He’s 42 and I’m 25, and you can’t take me out until that man is not pitching.”
A right-handed Dominican who served in his country’s military, Marichal was 25 with a full head of hair and a round face with proportionate nose – and cheeks so full that teammate Eddie Bressoud dubbed him Popeye. He was also called Laughing Boy and, because of his light blue and cream-colored outfits, the Dominican Dandy — nicknames that forecast a more emotive, multicultural national pastime.
Yet Juan and Spahn had much in common. They were an inch or two taller than most pitchers of their time — Marichal at six feet and 180 pounds, Spahn at six feet and 172 pounds — and both used signature, high-kicking deliveries that made their release points hard to pick up. Each threw an impressive variety of pitches and extended their careers by mastering the screwball. Moreover, both their life stories included formative experiences with a relative and the military.
Growing up in the farm community of Laguna Verde, young Juan would ride a horse to Monte Cristi six miles away to watch his older brother Gonzalo play baseball, then ride behind him on the horse and pepper him with questions on the way home. Juan might have become just a good local pitcher were it not for the day when he pitched the Manzanillo team to a 2-1 win over Aviación, the Dominican Air Force nine, in the 1956 national amateur tournament. The next day he received a telegram reading, “Report Immediately to the Air Force team.” He had been drafted to play baseball.
His first assignment was to head to Santo Domingo’s Estadio Las Normal to qualify for a youth tournament in Mexico. After taking his first plane trip there, Juan won one game and saved another against Puerto Rico to reach the finals against the home team. There he and his teammates encountered fans with knives and guns sitting directly on top of their dugout. “When we went to the bullpen, they showed us their gun,” he says. “We were so scared, we couldn’t handle the pressure.” The Mexicans won. The Dominicans escaped. And Juan never again viewed pitching as particularly pressure-laden.
Young Warren Spahn grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., where his father Edward, a shipping clerk, wallpaper salesman and semipro baseball player, exhaustively taught him the game. Edward built Warren a mound in the back yard, and drilled him on the importance of control. He meant self-control as well as control over the strike zone. “Don’t pop off too much,” he told Warren. “The guy who is noisy, always blowing off, is the guy who has an inferiority complex. Be yourself, be polite, respect other people’s feelings and treat them with deference.”
After much schoolboy success, Warren was signed by the then-Boston Braves, pitched well in the minors and had a cup of coffee in Boston before enlisting for World War II. He eventually fought in the Battle of the Bulge and the fight over the bridge at Remagen, won a Purple Heart and a battlefield commission and returned to the majors as a mature 25-year-old.
Pitching? Pressure? “No one is shooting at me,” Spahn said.