Johnny Sain dies
By Michael Hirsley
Johnny Sain went from accomplished student to expert teacher in one of sports' most difficult disciplines: pitching a baseball.
Sain's major-league accomplishments were remarkable and varied but were not deemed impressive enough to earn him entry into Baseball's Hall of Fame.
Sain, best known locally as a highly effective White Sox pitching coach in the 1970s, died Tuesday at Resthaven West Nursing Home in Downers Grove after a long illness. He was 89.
Sain was masterful in a variety of roles from starting pitcher to reliever to pitching coach.
A right-hander, Sain was a 20-game winner four times. He completed more than half the games he started and was a three-time All-Star in an 11-year career shortened by extensive military service in World War II.
If his 139-116 career record was merely good, his feats in the 1948 season were near mythic, particularly in September of that year. Sain pitched nine complete games in 29 days, winning seven and teaming with Warren Spahn to lead the Boston Braves to the National League pennant.
He capped the streak by beating Bob Feller and the Cleveland Indians 1-0 in the first game of the World Series.
Cleveland rallied to win the Series in six games.
"Spahn and Sain and pray for rain" was a stretch-drive slogan that described the two Braves aces' effectiveness, as well as the team's overall pitching shortage.
After Sain was traded to the New York Yankees in 1951 for a minor-league pitcher named Lew Burdettea future World Series star himselfhe excelled as a relief pitcher. In 1954 he led the American League with 22 saves.
"He had a fine pitching career as well as an incomparable career as a pitching coach, so he should be in Baseball's Hall of Fame," said former White Sox general manager Roland Hemond, who hired Sain as Sox pitching coach late in the 1970 season. "I don't know of a greater pitching coach in my career."
As pitching coach for the White Sox, Yankees, Twins and Tigers, Sain tutored 16 pitchers who won 20 or more games in a season. Jim Kaat, of the Twins and the White Sox, and Jim Bouton of the Yankees credit him with rejuvenating their careers.
"Johnny Sain belongs in the Hall of Fame for a combination of his accomplishments as a great pitcher and pitching coach," Bouton said. "He's the greatest pitching coach who ever lived."
Bouton was 21-7 for the 1963 Yankees, but he achieved more lasting fame as the author of the irreverent, best-selling baseball Book "Ball Four." Bouton said Sain "was more than a great pitching coach to me. He was a philosopher, a calming influence on struggling pitchers."
Two of Kaat's three 20-victory seasons came with the White Sox, and he credits Sain, who suggested he switch to a no-windup delivery after struggling in his later years with the Twins.
"He meant more to my career than anyone I know," Kaat said. "Johnny Sain knew more about the touch, feel, and mental side of pitching than anyone I've encountered in my 50 years of professional baseball. I don't even want to think about where my career would have gone without his help.
"If there is a spot for a coach in the Hall of Fame, please put him in there."
As a coach, Sain championed such notions as pitchers throwing every day between starts and throughout the off-season to keep their arms strong and healthy. He believed throwing was far more important than running"You don't run the ball up to home plate," he once famously explainedand his pitchers loved him for it.
Hal Naragon, a former Indians catcher, was a good friend and Sain's bullpen coach with the Twins. He remembered Sain citing his personal experiences to comfort struggling pitchers.
"He used to say he was released four times in Class-D ball but still made it to the majors," Naragon said.
Sain didn't limit his efforts to his team's stars.
"Johnny wanted to help everyone," Naragon said. Long after their careers were over, Naragon recalled Sain staying late on the mound with a man at a Florida fantasy camp who wanted to learn about pitching.
"Also, there was a lady from the Tigers front office who told us she had played softball but could never throw a curve," Naragon said. "He and I worked with her and he got her throwing a little curve in 10 minutes. She was so grateful."
John and Mary Ann Sain met and married in 1972. She was widowed and he was divorced when they were introduced at a suburban club on July 3. He was working for the White Sox at the time.
"He called me the next day and said, 'You have to marry me,'" Mary Ann recalled. He settled for a date at Comiskey Park on July 4, and on Aug. 24 they were married.
His impulsiveness in their romance was in stark contrast with his measured calmness in baseball.
"John always told me he kept an even keel about winning and losing," Mary Ann Sain said. "If he lost a game, he would think about why he lost, and if he won he'd think about why he won."
Similarly, Sain told Hemond that his experience as a Navy pilot made him a better pitcher when he returned to baseball.
"He had to concentrate on his instruments and adapt quickly to changes," Hemond said. "He said he learned to focus on what he was doing and ignore the fan noise and tension of the game."
Mary Ann Sain spent long hours at her husband's bedside at Rest Haven West, where he was hospitalized since suffering a stroke in 2002. When he was inducted into the Braves Hall of Fame that year, Mary Ann wrote an acceptance speech for her ailing husband. Neither could attend the induction, but Braves icon Hank Aaron read the speech at the ceremony in Atlanta.
Services for Johnny Sain are pending. Burial will be in his native Arkansas. For information, call Knollcrest Funeral Home, 630-932-1500.