Top 100 Yankees of All-Time...#97, Johnny Sain

"Don't be afraid to climb those golden stairs", Johnny Sain told Jim Bouton in the baseball classic ‘Ball Four'. Johnny never was. After winning 20 games four times for the Boston Braves, a shoulder injury in 1951 forced a trade to the Yankees and a career change. It is for his contributions during the New York championship years of the early 50's that he earns our designation as Greatest Yankee #97.

After being the righty half of the Spahn & Sain tandem of the late 40's, Sain moved on to the Yankees and his career went into a new phase.  In August 1951, Sain was traded to the Yankees for Lew Burdette. Burdette would go on to spook the Yanks in the 1957 World Series, but overall the trade was a great one for both teams.

Experimental X-ray therapy helped Sain's shoulder and he told manager Casey Stengel that he would do anything to help the New York pitching staff. That included both relieving and spot starting. Sain had a great relationship with Stengel and later Casey would praise Sain, saying how Johnny helped to carry the team on those early 50's championship teams.

The Yankees set an all-time record in the years 1949-1953, when the team won an unprecedented five consecutive World Championships. Sain was a central figure on the last two of those teams: he posted 11-6 and 14-7 records, effectively pitching out of the bullpen and starting rotation. In 1954 the Yankees streak came to an end, but Johnny led the AL with a career best 22 saves.

Sain was also a superb hiting pitcher; he averaged .346 in 1947 and .353 in 1954. He had a career batting average of .245 and was often used as a pinch hitter. He also led he NL in sacrifice hits with 16 in 1948. He was also a great control pitcher, who made hitters hit his pitch. Consequently he led the NL in hits allowed three times (1947-48, 50).

Year

Team

W-L

SV

IP

H

BB

SO ERA

1951

Yankees

2-1

1

37

41

8

21

4.14

1952

Yankees

11-6

7

148.1

149

38

57

3.46

1953

Yankees

14-7

9

189

189

45

84

3.00

1954 Yankees 6-6 22 77 66 15 33 3.16

Following a trade that also included Enos Slaughter to the Kansas City A's in 1955, Sain ended his career as an active player. He finished with 139 career wins, a total that was low since he lost three years, 1943-45 to WWII service. Those missing seasons may also have cost him a legitimate shot at the Hall of Fame.

Johnny was not bitter about those lost seasons, however. On the contrary, he surmised that the war years actually made him a better pitcher. He constantly played baseball to stay in shape and worked very hard. In 1946, he was set and ready to pitch. That led to his four seasons with 20+ wins (1946-48, 50).

But Johnny then began his second baseball life as pitching coach. In many channels, he is considered the greatest pitching coach of all time. Under his tutelage, rotations were streamlined. Four solid starters would each work on three days rest…their starts increased, and in most cases, so did the victories. Whitey Ford, Jim Kaat, Earl Wilson, Denny McLain, Clyde Wright, Stan Bahnsen and Wilbur Wood had their greatest seasons under Sain, each putting up huge win totals.

Unfortunately for Johnny, he was so loved by his pitchers (he hated to have his pitchers run, saying "you can't run the ball over the plate"), that he was equally despised by many of the managers for whom he worked. After Yogi Berra fired him, Bouton commented, "what general likes a lieutenant that's smarter?" There was also constant haggling with management regarding his salary demands. He always climbed those golden stairs, or quit the team trying, and thus moved around a lot. For Bouton, there was no doubt, that Sain was the greatest pitching coach of all time.

It is not out of the question that Sain may still some day be allowed entry into the hallowed Hall, if both his record as pitcher and pitching coach is combined. He certainly was a player who did many things well, and was able to convey this excellence to others. Of that fact there is no doubt.


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