Part philosopher, part mechanic, part positive mentalist, part design engineer, full-time thinker, subtle salesman, Johnny Sain remains one of the greatest tactical minds to ever don a major-league uniform..
First we’ll use Spahn
then we’ll use Sain
Then an off day
followed by rain
Back will come Spahn
followed by Sain
by two days of rain.
Boston Post sports editor Gerald V. Hern whipped up that poem for his September 14, 1948 column. The Boston Braves had just swept a doubleheader with incredible performances from their pair of aces. Warren Spahn had pitched a complete 14-inning game for a win in the opener. Then John Franklin Sain slung a shutout for the second game. And then, guess what? After two days, it did rain. Then Spahn won again and Sain won the day after that. After an off day, it was another doubleheader win by the duo. Eight wins and zero losses in 12 days by two pitchers.
Though Hern’s poetic and nearly prophetic efforts were appreciated, a newer, blunted version better suited to the brute dominance on display those 12 days soon came about: Spahn and Sain; then pray for rain.
It was during one of my Little League years, 1981, that I first heard that newer phrase.
It was a sultry summer evening, and I had just gulped down a candy bar and capped it off with a mix of all the concession stand fountain drink options (we called the combo a suicide). I don’t remember who it was that asked if I was related to Johnny Sain. I do remember thinking it was a stupid question. How did anyone in my hometown of 3,002 souls not know that my dad was Johnny Carrol Sain, Sr.?
“Yeah, that’s my dad. I’m Johnny Junior,” I said with that tone of early pubescent condescension fueled by intermittent squirts of testosterone. My answer resulted in a puzzled look from the asker.
“No, I mean Johnny Sain the baseball player … Spahn and Sain and pray for rain?” was the reply.
I pried a chunk of Butterfinger out of my molars with a dirty finger and shot a smirky grin at the asker.
“Pray for rain? Doesn’t ring a bell. I don’t think Dad played much baseball. He went to school at Deer, and they didn’t have any sports except basketball and squirrel huntin’. He played a little softball later on I think.”
Clearly, I wasn’t the most intuitive kid in Atkins. But after another round or two of earnest questions and smart-ass answers, it finally dawned on me that our family might have a bonafide celebrity in the fold. I told the asker I didn’t know if I was related to this professional athlete, but I aimed to find out. I wished the famous family member had been involved in something other than baseball, though.
UnAmerican as it might sound, I’m indifferent to baseball. Always have been, even during those Little League years. As a kid, I halfway kept up with the St Louis Cardinals only because my dad made a big deal out of Ozzy Smith’s backflips and the Cards had an Arkansas connection with the Travelers as their farm team. But watching or playing the game fell far down the list on how I wanted to spend leisure time. I wanted to catch fish and catch lizards. But Mom and Dad made me play Little League for reasons still unknown to me.
Also, I was not an athlete. So though I played, I was usually relegated to outfield duties. Outfield wasn’t so bad for a smallish kid who preferred solitude. It was usually a quiet place with cool green grass. Crickets and toads helped fight the boredom. From right field, I had an excellent view of the girls, who were becoming more interesting by the day, playing softball on the next diamond over. I recall that in the middle of one contest I became so enchanted with the bats (the flying mammal variety) and nighthawks as they buzzed around phosphorescent lights, gulping nocturnal insects, that it took a grounder rolling into my cleated foot to bring me back into the game.
But the baseball fan who asked about a Johnny Sain I did not know opened my curiosity just a bit. I had some questions for Dad on the ride home, and he did the best he could. Yes, there was a professional baseball player named Johnny Sain who was, just a few years ago, still an MLB pitching coach (Johnny coached the Braves in 1977, and then again from ’85-’86). His middle name was Franklin, Dad wasn’t named after him. That bunch of Sains was from Yell County. Dad was sure we were related—“Sain” is, after all, an uncommon last name—but he wasn’t sure about how. Our side of the family went back generations in Newton County, back to Appalachian Tennessee and North Carolina, and that’s all the history he knew.>>
In matters of specific family lineage outside the hills, Dad was mostly worthless. If Johnny Sain had been a professional bass angler I’d have badgered Dad until we found some answers. But baseball? Meh… And so how I was related to Johnny Sain the baseball player settled into the backwaters of my mind as a question that might be answered someday.
But I kept hearing that question again. And again. And again. And again.
Through my teen years, I personally took a few dozen phone calls asking about a Johnny Sain that wasn’t me or my dad. No telling how many my dad, mom, and sister took. I heard the question when I took my driving test. I heard it at the doctor’s office. I heard it at college registration. My cousins told me about the times they were asked if they were related to Johnny Sain. They always answered “well yeah, he’s my cousin” and would joke about starting a business of autographed baseballs and bats with me as the penman. “And it would be totally legit” they said. The confusion reached its pinnacle when I awoke after knee surgery in St Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Russellville on my 18th birthday to a roomful of old people I did not know. “We’re lookin’ fer Johnny Sain,” a woman with tight silver curls said as I rubbed bleary eyes.
“You’re lookin’ right at him,” I said.
She blinked hard three times.
“No, we’re lookin’ fer Johnny Sain,” she replied.
The last time someone asked if I was related to the Johnny Sain happened only a few months ago. It was the most pitiful. After I said yes, the gentleman’s eager eyes lit up like stadium bulbs. He’d found a pitching Picasso’s scion and followed my confirmation with a giddy rendition of “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain” before rattling off some of Johnny’s stats along with an argument for his Hall of Fame credentials.
I felt weirdly embarrassed that I didn’t know this stuff, as if my name was in some way an obligation to be a walking Johnny Sain baseball encyclopedia. I said I didn’t really know much about Johnny’s baseball career or Johnny for that matter. Wide-eyed silence was the response. I offered an awkward nod and shuffled past, careful not to make eye contact. Three decades of not knowing suddenly weighed heavier for reasons I can’t even explain.
The glowing screen of my laptop offers the only view of anything baseball on my desk besides an actual baseball. Seventeen tabs with a reference to Johnny Sain are open, each digital search leading to another. The numbers and accomplishments are piling up for Long John Sain with each click: Four 20-win seasons with 57 percent of the games he started completed, and he pitched nine complete games in 29 days. He led MLB one year in sacrifice bunts and had a lifetime batting average of .245 (he was struck out only 20 times during his entire career). In the 1947 season Johnny won 21 games and hit .346. He was a pitching coach for 14 years tutoring 16 20-game winners. He was a three-time All-Star and the 1948 National League wins leader with nine World Series credits (four as a player, five as a coach) and six World Series championships.
All of this after he was cut from the minor leagues four times. One Class D coach told him to go sell neckties.
Johnny was the last pitcher to face Babe Ruth. (“I wasn’t nervous, but I did want to get him out because this was kind of a big audition for me,” Johnny said about the experience.) He was also the first to face Jackie Robinson. And according to Robinson’s book Grand Slams and Fumbles, Johnny didn’t care about anything except pitching. “It wasn’t that big of a deal at the time,” Johnny said. “People ask me if I was worried about letting a pitch get away, hitting him, and I say no. I wasn’t even thinking about that kind of stuff.”
But you never really know how deep the water is until you wade out in it. And it turns out that Johnny Sain was more than just a pitching whiz. He also trained fighter pilots in World War II, had hair plugs and a face lift (something unheard of for athletes back in the ’50s and ’60s), owned a Chevrolet dealership in Walnut Ridge, Arkansas, made his own underwear, was a phenomenal contact hitter (and not just for a pitcher). And a lot of what has been written or said about him has included the word “genius” as a descriptor.
The more I learned, the more I wanted to know him, to find some connection besides 10 letters. Regret bore down harder with each glimpse of who he was. The stark and weird truth was that I wanted to build a relationship with a man, likely a relative, I never knew and who now had been gone for more than a decade. Johnny had passed away in 2006.
Luckily, there are living connections to Johnny. They reside in Yell County, just across the Arkansas River from my home county. Johnny’s nieces—Rose Murphy-Grace and Cora Murphy, along with his nephew Jim Murphy—happily agreed to visit with me about their uncle.
One rap on the door of Rose’s cozy home and I’m welcomed in from the brisk December air and greeted with warm country hospitality. Maybe it’s just me, but it also feels like there’s something else. Rose, Cora and Jim are, after all, my kinfolk… I think. The kitchen table is stacked with Johnny Sain baseball stuff, but my first question doesn’t have a thing to do with any of that. It’s a question that’s been smoldering since I was 10, the coals kept aglow by the probing questions of various baseball fans and local historians for going on 37 years. Now, being in the same room with people I’m fairly certain can give me clarification acts as a bellow on the embers. Before I even get my jacket off, it flares out.
“Do y’all know if we’re related?”
After 10 minutes of flipping through old census records, we know for a fact we’re related, Casper Sain is our shared patriarch in the New World. Just exactly where the lines diverge is fuzzy, but we’re blood and beyond that it doesn’t matter. Best we can tell it happened far enough back that it’s a minor coincidence their Sains and my Sains both ended up in Arkansas.
Satisfied with a better understanding of my place in the world, my attention turns toward the mountain of memorabilia. Most of it doesn’t interest me. It’s a bunch of numbers, and I’m a word guy, a big picture guy concerned with overarching themes and freeform thinking, all of which might have as much to do with my feelings about baseball as anything else. Baseball is a structured statisticians game of percentages and minutiae where one tenth is the difference between good and bad. I’m not wired that way. Finding the numbers on Johnny Sain is easy as a few keystrokes anyway. I’m here to learn about the man.
So my second question is broad by design: What can you tell me about Johnny? The first two answers, like the question, come from a place of no boundaries.
“He loved to duck hunt,” says Jim.
“He’d bring us Wheaties every time we saw him,” says Rose. “We got so tired of them.”
Finally, we settle down into discussion about what made Johnny tick. He was was drawn to one other pursuit that involved one-on-one strategy similar to the pitcher/batter dynamic. “Uncle Johnny, in high school, also played tennis,” says Jim.
It seems odd to me that Johnny wasn’t drawn to basketball or football. He was a big man standing 6’2”, but by his own account he wasn’t particularly athletic, so we’ve at least got that in common. In Dom Forker’s book The Men of Autumn Johnny says as much: “I wasn’t blessed with power. But I learned motion, delivery, and how to make the ball sink and slide.” He wasn’t fond of running either.
“He was lazy,” says Cora
“That ain’t no joke,” says Jim. “His pitchers never ran. I asked him one time, do you not make your pitchers run just because you didn’t like to run? No, he would say, that’s not it. You don’t run the ball over the plate, you throw it over the plate.”
But a young pitcher with honest self-awareness of his shortcomings doesn’t make it to Major League Baseball by being lazy. He was simply far outside conventional ideas about the game and had a profound but simple understanding of what pitching was all about. Johnny’s methodical and efficient manner was engrained in everything he did—speaking, training, and just thinking.>>
Eccentricity was part of the John Franklin Sain package as well. As I try to simultaneously engage in two separate conversations bouncing between the four of us around the table, my ears filter out the word “facelift.” Wait… what?
Cora is already thumbing through 61, the book that spawned a movie produced by Billy Crystal about the Maris and Mantle Home Run battle in 1961. She finds this idiosyncratic nugget: “Not only is Johnny Sain the only man in the majors with a facelift, but I don’t know anyone else that has a hair transplant.” Johnny had an explanation. “My wife is 18 years younger than I am. She said one day she might want a face lift but was afraid it might be too painful.” So Johnny got a facelift “Guess what?” he said about the experience. “It didn’t hurt at all.”
The hair plugs are tougher to decipher. Was he vain? “Well, he was dang near a cueball,” said Jim. But the claim of vanity doesn’t really jibe with Johnny’s humble resourcefulness.
“He bought his own sewing machine and sewed up his own clothes,” says Rose.
“Yes he did,” says Jim. “He tore a pair of trousers and went to buy some new ones. He saw how much they cost so he went a bought a needle and thread and sewed them up. Then, later on, he bought a sewing machine. Hell, he made his own underwear.”
Rose digs through the pile of papers covered front and back with copied newspaper articles and finds the appropriate story to drive home this point. When Johnny was the pitching coach for Richmond he lived in a Winnebago. A sportswriter described meeting Johnny for an interview in the Winnebago: “From under the bed he pulled a sewing machine. ‘See those curtains? I made them myself.’ He also said he’d taken the cuffs off his pants.”
“I don’t really think Uncle Johnny was ever as broke as he thought he was,” says Jim. “But he was extremely frugal. Probably, he was cheap. But frugal is a better word.”
Peculiarities aside, what I’m learning about Johnny through all these articles, book excerpts and his family’s anecdotes is that he was an earnest thinker. It was his defining quality. “Jim Bowden (former MLB pitcher and analyst) said that Johnny Sain was so smart he taught me five different ways to tie my shoes,” says Jim. “And he never told me one time that this was the way to tie my shoes.” That analogy to Johnny’s coaching sounds downright Zen-like.
Jim O’Donnell writes in the Oct. 10, 1993 issue of the Chicago Tribune about running into Johnny at an Oak Brook, Illinois, book store. Johnny was toting a copy of Niccola Machiavelli’s The Prince.
Wrote O’Donnell: “It’s for a friend,” said Sain, almost apologetically. “I was trying to explain some of Machiavelli’s concepts, especially the parts on cunning, to him, but I just figured it might be easier to get him one of the books and let him read it for himself.” Part philosopher, part mechanic, part positive mentalist, part design engineer, full-time thinker, subtle salesman, Sain remains one of the greatest tactical minds to ever don a major-league uniform.
As O’Donnell writes, within the realm of baseball there was no doubt about his near genius. He was labeled as a full-blown genius a few times.
Jim Kaat, former CBS Sports Major League Baseball analyst and MLB pitcher, one of Johnny’s pupils: “Personally, I think he’s a genius when it comes to pitching theory and that his thinking has always been about 30 years ahead of its time.”
Jan Finkel writing about Johnny for the Society for American Baseball Research: “… pitcher, one of the great pitching coaches, and holder of a little-known but remarkable record attesting to his genius as a contact hitter.
Leo Mazzone, former MLB pitcher and Atlanta Braves pitching coach responsible for what I’ve heard was a fierce Braves pitching rotation in the 90s: “I think’s he’s not only one of the greatest baseball minds, but the greatest pitching mind in the history of the game.”
Okay, Leo doesn’t say “genius,” but isn’t “greatest mind” synonymous?
But Johnny’s brains and strong will also produced friction. “Uncle Johnny’s ability, his talent as a pitching coach is what got him fired everywhere,” says Jim. Success followed Johnny at nearly every stop, but that independent thinking rubbed management the wrong way. The first rule of coaching is to not outshine the manager. Jan Finkel, writing for the Society for American Baseball Research, says that was a problem for Johnny. “Often it seems to have been insecurity and jealousy on the manager’s part, knowing that the pitchers listened to and respected Sain more than they did him. Sometimes a manager simply thought he knew more or better than Sain, and didn’t want to be challenged.”
In an interview for The Men of Autumn, Johnny says that he always had a baseball and glove handy as he hung around his father’s garage. “Kids would come in from the country and we’d play catch,” said Johnny. And then one day at at the age of 10 he asked his dad how to throw a curve. Johnny’s father, Frank, was a talented lefty in semi-pro leagues around the state. “I remember it like it was yesterday,” said Johnny. “ He showed me how to throw it with the thumb sticking out. It was an old schoolhouse curve. But I learned to spin the ball. On my own, I learned to throw it through trial and error.”
Based on everything I’ve learned, that last sentence, his own words, tells you more about Johnny than a million sports reporters ever could.
My desk now is littered with Johnny Sain articles and snippets. I’ve read everything I could find about him online, all the accolades from players and coaches. I’ve spoken with family members and folks that knew him personally, searching for something that can tell me who he was outside the numbers, trying to know him or at least the essence of who he was. I’ve watched video of Johnny being interviewed, his Arkansas baritone flowing smooth and slow as January molasses. He’s not the most eloquent of interview subjects. He gets to his point with zero fanfare or intricate phrasing. But it’s this style of wording that best encapsulates the ethic and determination Johnny took to the mound. It reminds me of an engineer’s mentality, the search for maximum effectiveness and maximum efficiency. His words in 61 paint the simple picture of who he was throughout his life—just a boy from dusty rural Arkansas rotating the red laces, searching for that perfect unhittable break. Figuring it out through experimentation. Thinking it through.
The tag end of O’Donnell’s interview in the Chicago Tribune with Johnny looking back on 47 years as an improbable success in MLB cements my feelings: ”I think the biggest thing anyone should realize is that if you’re afraid to fail, you’ll never truly succeed,” Sain concluded.
I wish I’d met him.
I’m watching a video interview with Johnny about a training device he designed, named with his trademark austerity: the baseball spinner. He’s talking about it’s conception: “There was an apple there, and I took a wire and ran it through that apple, and started spinning that apple. And that evolved into this. So I took a baseball and drilled it through the center of it, ran a screw through it and into this handle.”
In the video, Johnny goes through the different grips and spins, a potent mind focused on explaining the aerodynamics of a rotating sphere. I pick up the baseball on my desk. The soft leather and ridged stitching are foreign in my grip as Johnny explains the difference between a slider and a curve. But I feel a swell of confidence surging as his drawl speaks to me from more than 40 years ago. Hell, I could do that. I feel the strange and unfamiliar urge to get outside with a glove and try out the technique against the bricks of my house, to rotate the red laces searching for that perfect break through trial and error.
I want to figure it out.