Braves Starting Pitching In Retrospect


Between 1952 and 1962

Lew Burdette


Bob Buhl


Warren Spahn

were as impressive as

Tom Glavine


John Smoltz


Greg Maddux

were 40 years later. Please credit graphic created by Fred Owens

Here’s a pitching pop quiz for you died in the wool Braves types. Over a period of twelve seasons this Braves this righty/lefty pairing put together a 409-249 record with an ERA of 3.19 and a WHIP of 1.172 while striking out 2504 hitters and walking 1369. Can you names them?  (I’ll go get a coke while you ponder.)

Back. So if you said Tom Glavine and John Smoltz you are absolutely . . .wrong.

The answer is Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette who along with righty Bob Buhl led the Braves rotation to what was arguably their greatest run ever prior to “the streak.”

YearGWLTiesFinishPlayoffsTop Player (WAR)Managers
1952155648927th of 8W.Spahn (7.1)Tommy Holmes (13-22) and Charlie Grimm (51-67)
1953157926232ndW.Spahn (9.1)Charlie Grimm (92-62)
1954154896503rdE.Mathews (7.8)Charlie Grimm (89-65)
1955154856902ndE.Mathews (7.3)Charlie Grimm (85-69)
1956155926212ndH.Aaron (7.1)Charlie Grimm (24-22) and Fred Haney (68-40)
1957155955911stWon WS (4-3)H.Aaron (8.0)Fred Haney (95-59)
1958154926201stLost WS (4-3)H.Aaron (7.3)Fred Haney (92-62)
1959157867012ndH.Aaron (8.6)Fred Haney (86-70)
1960154886602ndH.Aaron (7.9)Chuck Dressen (88-66)
1961155837114thH.Aaron (9.3)Chuck Dressen (71-58) and Birdie Tebbetts (12-13)
1962162867605th of 10H.Aaron (8.4)Birdie Tebbetts (86-76)
1963163847816th of 10H.Aaron (9.1)Bobby Bragan (84-78)

Tough Tomahawk Rotations

In the 50’s the Dodgers were the powerhouse of the NL. Between 1950 and 59 they finished second three times, first five tines and won the World Series twice. So don’t confuse a lack of championships in that decade with under performing pitching, it was anything but that.

But I thought it was Spahn and Sain and something about rain?

It was a 1948 Boston Post story by sports editor Gerald Hern that made those words famous. It contained the following ode;

"“First we’ll use Spahn, then we’ll use Sain, Then an off day, followed by rain. Back will come Spahn, followed by Sain, And followed we hope, by two days of rain.”."

Spahn and Johnny Sain were indeed a dynamic one two punch but it was a short lived glory. Between 1946 and 1951 the two hurlers put together a record of 208-159 in 3105 2/3 innings. Their individual numbers were eye popping then and are no less impressive under today’s sabermetric microscope – Sain’s numbers are below. Following the 1948 World Series (they lost to the Indians) and a year that helped make Sain part of the legend (he posted and 8.5 WAR), Sain’s numbers dropped off. On August 29th on 1951 the 33 year old Sain was traded to the Yankees for a skinny right handed rookie who had posted a 6.75 ERA in his two 1951 games.  Sain pitched parts of five years in pinstripes spending 1954 in the bullpen and appearing in 39 games (77 innings) and posting a league leading 22 saves. Overall as a Yankee he was 33-20, had 30 saves and posted a 3.31 ERA and a 1.222 WHIP, He was essentially done then though he hung around for part of 1955.

All numbers were culled from the addictive Baseball-Reference web site.

(bold numbers indicate league best numbers)


What Glavine, Greg Maddux and Smoltz were to the streak, Burdette Buhl and Spahn were to the Braves of the 50s and early 60s.  Like the recent trio the rotation started with a righty lefty combination and later added the third member to the team. In the interests of saving the best for last I’ll keep Spahn to the big finish and start with the first righty on the scene.

Lew Burdette

The Yankees were to find out later who won that trade; the Braves. But, they needed a starter and they thought Burdette wasn’t ready for that. The Braves  weren’t sure either and he got only 9 starts in 1952 and finished with an inauspicious 6-11 record. a league average 3.61 ERA and a 1.135 WHIP.

The 1953 season was a different story for the tall right hander as he drug the ERA down to 3.24 (his ERA+ 122 was third on the team that year) and posted the first of 9 consecutive double digit win seasons (15-5) worth 2.1 WAR.  He had seven more 15 win seasons – including two 4+WAR years and two 3.4WAR years – and from 1954 through 1961 threw 200+ innings every year.

In 1956 he went 19-5 and won the NL ERA title (2.70, ERA+ 125) but the pinnacle of his career came in the 1957 World Series when he became the first since Christy Mathewson to toss two shut outs and the first in 37 years to throw and win three complete World Series games. In those three games he allowed 21 hits, struck out 13 and walked only 4, one intentionally.  He was of course the series MVP.

His 1958 season was another classic. Burdette went 20-10 with a 2.91 ERA in 275 1/3 innings and fought for the ERA title right up to the last month of the season.  The 58 series was again against the Yankees but this time he only won one of the three starts;  that victory was another complete game.

In 1959 he started 39 games (289 2/3 innings) threw 20 complete games and won 21 times but perhaps the most memorable game came on May 26th when he locked up with the Pirates Harvey Haddix in what was called the greatest game ever pitched. Burdette threw 13 innings and scattered 12 hits. Meanwhile Haddix threw 12 innings of perfect baseball – yes perfect,  36 up 36 down – then in the bottom of the 13th Felix Mantilla reached on a bad throw by third baseman Don Hoak. Then Eddie Mathews – he would hit 41 of his 512 home runs that year – bunted (someone get smelling salts for the anti-bunting brigade) Mantilla to second. The Bucs walked Hank Aaron intentionally then on an 1-0 pitch big Joe Adcock doubled Mantilla in. Still, this remarkable game wasn’t the end of Burdette’s memorable pitching performances.


I just received this from Robert, a Braves fan for life and it added something I forgot.

"I was at that game. In fact ,when Joe Adcock hit his “double” in the 13th inning, it actually should have been a HR because it left the park. However Aaron went to second base and tagged it but then ran across the infield without tagging 3rd and home. So the final score was 1=0 instead of 3=0."

That’s just an oh wow moment. I remember now that the cobwebs have been kicked away that the radio guy called it a homer. So Hank Aaron robbed big Joe of what would have been his 26th homer that year.  Thanks Robert, it’s details like this that make baseball the best game.  (now back to my regular ramblings)

On August 18,1960 Burdette threw a 1-0 no-hitter against the Phillies facing only 27 hitters in the process. The only hiccup came in the fifth inning when he hit Tony Gonzalez but on the second pitch to the next hitter, Lee Walls, grounded into a double play. Here are his final numbers as a Brave.


Burdette is still pretty high up the list as a Braves pitcher with over 2500 innings pitched.He’s:

  • Fifth in games and innings pitched Behind Phil Niekro, Spahn, Smoltz, and Glavine
  • Second is BB/9 behind Maddux
  • Third in compete game and shutouts behind Spahn and Neikro
  • Sixth in games started
  • Sixth in HR/9 0.86

Though Burdette threw pretty hard – no speed guns so I have no specific number for you – he was known for slicing the edges off the plate and pitching to weak contact. His 1.84 BB/9 rate ranks him fifth on the list of starting pitchers with 3000+ innings since 1920 behind Robin Roberts (1.73), Maddux (1.80) Carl Hubbell and Juan Marichal both at (1.82) and ahead of David Wells and Paul Derringer (1.88).

Other stuff

My dad called Burdette “Fidgety Phil” because he was always tugging at his hat , sleeve or belt and messing with the rosin bag. There were rumors that he threw a spitter but he was never caught in the act. New York Times sportswriter Red Smith believed it however. He wrote that “There should be three pitching statistics for Burdette: Wins, Losses, and Relative Humidity.”  Burdette beat Tim McCarver to the recording studio cutting a single called “Three Strikes and Then You’re Out” and even got a mention on Leave It To Beaver in 1958.

In 1963 the Braves  traded Burdette to the Cardinals for Gene Oliver and Bob Sadowski. He would move on to the Cubs and eventually finished up on the Angels.  Big Lew died in 2007  at the age of 80.

That’s A Wrap

Looking back at this trio brought back a lot of memories for me. Though Burdette wasn’t Maddux he was nonetheless an imposing figure on the mound and a pitcher to be reckoned with every fourth day. Like Gaylord Perry he was accused of using the spitter and like Perry the idea that he threw one was probably more effective than actually throwing it.  I’ve been told pitchers today are so much better than the old guys and maybe they are. They are certainly bigger, stronger and have personal trainers to keep them in shape all year around. The most Burdette made in his career was $40,000 in his last professional year so there was no personal trainer and most of the time during his peak he worked in the off season instead of playing ball. Still I look at the numbers and consider that he threw more innings than Roy Halladay had 158 complete games including 33 shutouts and carried a career batting average of .183 including  27 doubles 4 triples and 12 homers – two of which came off of Sandy Koufax – and 2 multi-homer games. All-in-all the skinny kid out of Nitro West Virginia was as my Dad used to say, a pretty fair country ballplayer.

If you’re interested in more about Braves teams of the past you should check out a series by Lee Trocinski one of our writers who’s moved on to bigger and better things.

Braves all Decade Teams:

Braves All-Decade Teams: The 19th CenturyBraves All-”Decade” Teams: 1900-1939  Braves All-Decade Teams: The 1940′sBraves All-Decade Teams: The 1950s  Braves All-Decade Teams: The 1960′s, Braves All-Decade Teams: The 1970′sBraves All-Decade Teams: The 1980′sBraves All-Decade Team: The 1990′s   Braves All-Decade Team: The 2000′s