John Franklin (Johnny) Sain (1917–2006)
Johnny Franklin Sain was a star major league pitcher and is widely considered to have been the best pitching coach in major league baseball history. Sain had unique (and still controversial) approaches to working with pitchers, the success of which earned him the respect and affection of his charges. As a pitcher, he won 139 games, the third-highest total for an Arkansas native, right behind
Lon Warneke, who had 192 wins, and Dizzy Dean, who had 150.
Johnny Sain was born on September 25, 1917, in Havana (Yell County) to John Franklin Sain Sr. and Eva Sain. He had a sister, Agnes. His father, an auto mechanic, taught him how to throw a curveball, which Sain later said served him well.
Sain’s professional baseball career began inauspiciously. In his first four years, playing in low (“Class D”) minor league circuits like the Northeast Arkansas League, he was released by four teams. He finally reached the major leagues with the Boston Braves in 1942.
After the 1942 season, Sain enlisted in the Navy Air Corps. He served for three years and returned to the Braves in 1946. He won twenty games that season, and between 1946 and 1950, Sain was one of the best pitchers in baseball. A starting pitcher, he won twenty or more games four of those five seasons. With teammate and future Hall of Fame member Warren Spahn, he became enshrined in a popular rhyme originally published in the Boston Post on September 14, 1948: “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.” This later became shortened to a popular phrase, “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain.”
In 1948, the Braves won their first pennant since 1914. Sain led the National League with twenty-four wins and was named the league’s pitcher of the year by the Sporting News. He was named to the All-Star team in 1947, 1948, and 1953. On April 15, 1947, Sain became the first pitcher to face major league baseball’s first black player, Jackie Robinson. Robinson went hitless against Sain.
On August 29, 1951, the Braves traded Sain to the New York Yankees. Pitching as a starter and also in a new role as a reliever, he was an important element of the Yankees’ World Series championships in 1951, 1952, and 1953. In 1954, working exclusively out of the bullpen, he led the American League in saves with twenty-two. The Yankees traded Sain to the Kansas City Athletics in 1955, and after that season, he retired at age thirty-seven. In eleven major league seasons, he had compiled a 139-116 record with a 3.49 earned run average.
He returned to Arkansas and became a successful businessman, running his own car dealership in Walnut Ridge (Lawrence County), where he also purchased a 354-acre farm. His business success enabled him to return to baseball on his own terms. In 1961, Sain accepted a job as the Yankees pitching coach. He quickly established himself as a “pitcher’s pitching coach,” a coach who had his own philosophies and coaching techniques. The managers who hired him in the 1960s—Ralph Houk in New York, Sam Mele in Minnesota, and Mayo Smith in Detroit—agreed with his unorthodox approach, which featured an emphasis on experimenting with technique as much as possible, less rest between games for starters, a focus on pitchers’ strengths rather than opposing batters’ weaknesses (he rarely made trips to the mound or paid much attention to scouting reports on other teams), and, perhaps most important, positive thinking and positive reinforcement. Sain became known as the most successful pitching coach of his era. Whitey Ford, who had never won twenty games during the nine years before Sain arrived, won twenty-five with Sain as his mentor. However, the same managers who hired him often felt threatened by his independence and success, and he developed a reputation as a coach who could not get along with managers. His five excellent and uncontroversial years serving as Chuck Tanner’s pitching coach with the Chicago White Sox between 1971 and 1975 belied this view.
Between 1959 and 1986, Sain served as pitching coach for the Athletics, Yankees, Minnesota Twins, Detroit Tigers, Chicago White Sox, and Atlanta Braves. All told, he coached nine different pitchers to a total of sixteen twenty-game-winning seasons, and a pitcher of his led the league in wins ten times. He coached five pennant winners.
Sain was married twice. With his first wife, Doris, he fathered four children. They divorced in 1972, after twenty-two years of marriage. He married his second wife, Mary Ann, in 1972; they had no children.
Sain died on November 7, 2006, in Downers Grove, Illinois, from complications from a stroke. He is buried in his hometown of Havana.
For additional information:
Jordan, Pat. The Suitors of Spring. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1972.
Silverman, Matthew, Michael Gershman, and David Pietrusza. Baseball: The Biographical Encyclopedia. Kingston, New York: Total/Sports Illustrated, 2000.
Surface, Bill. “Johnny Sain Teaches The Power of Positive Pitching.” The New York Times Magazine. April 20, 1969, pp. 48–76.
Thorn, John, Pete Palmer, and Michael Gershman. Total Baseball. 7th ed. Kingston, New York: Total Sports Publishing, 2001.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
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I was saddened to hear Johnny Sain had passed away. I played in Detroit’s organization in the early 1970s and got to meet Johnny. I saw him again in Tigertown, Lakeland, Florida, at a fantasy camp in 1993. He looked great. I spent a lot of time with him and got to listen to him and Bob Feller go at it in the World Series. He had a tape. He won–and sent his wife out for more beer. What a great guy. I will always remember him fondly.