Warren Spahn is honored this week by the Foundation for his service in the United States Army during World War II, putting his baseball career on hold for three and a half years. He was deployed to the European Theater during the Battle of the Bulge and made an impact as a combat engineer, receiving the Purple Heart for a shrapnel wound, a Bronze Star for bravery, and a battlefield commission to second lieutenant.
Spahn, a stand-out lefty, was signed by the Boston Braves in 1940. He started his career by playing for the Bradford Bees in the Class D Pony League, before playing for the Evansville Bees of the Class B Three-I League and the Hartford Bees of the Class A Eastern League.
After just four appearances with the Boston Braves, he entered the United States Army in 1942. He was initially assigned to Camp Gruber, where he received combat engineer training. He was then sent to Camp Chaffee where he continued to play baseball, pitching for the 1850th Service Unit.
From there, Spahn was sent to the European Theater with the 1159th Engineer Combat Group’s 276th Engineer Combat Battalion. He helped to recapture the Ludendorff Bridge, the only bridge over the the Rhine River that survived the Battle of the Bulge. Though damaged by demolitions triggered by retreating German troops, it was not destroyed. This was essential to allow allied troops to continue to make their way into Germany.
For their work to operate and maintain the bridge, the 276th Battalion received the Presidential Unit Citation for its actions. Despite severe damage to the bridge by artillery, the 276th were tasked in making repairs in March of 1945. A combination of German shelling and vibrations from American artillery caused the bridge to collapse, killing several Army officers and enlisted Soldiers. Spahn received a battlefield commission to lieutenant for his actions, as well as the Bronze Star and Purple Heart for an injury to his foot by shrapnel.
Spahn pitched for the 115th Engineers Group at a base at the University of Heidelberg after Germany surrendered, before returning to the Boston Braves in 1946. He pitched his first no-hitter against the Phillies in 1960. Although his Major League career ended with the San Francisco Giants in 1965, he continued to play in the minor leagues for the Mexico City Tigers and the Tulsa Oilers. He ended his MLB career with 363 wins, ranking six all-time and the most by a left-handed pitcher in MLB history. Spahn’s career included thirteen seasons with twenty or more wins, three ERA titles, a seventeen-time All Star, two no hitters, and a World Series Championship and Cy Young Award, both in 1957.
Spahn often spoke about how the U.S. Army taught him about hard work and overcoming challenges. “The Army taught many lessons, the most important of which was never to think of anything I was told to do in baseball or anything I told myself to do as hard work. You get over those feelings like that, I assure you, when you’ve spent days on days sleeping in frozen tank tracks in enemy-surrounded territory,” Spahn said. In 1966, he was awarded the Fraternal Order of Eagles’ “Major Richard Bong Award” for his service during World War II. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973.
The Foundation recognizes Warren Spahn’s hard work and dedication to serving his country in the United States Army. His impactful legacy is marked by the sacrifices he made and the challenges he was able to overcome to succeed.