’68 Tigers had Johnny Sain, the best pitching coach in history

Johnny Sain was pitching coach for the 1968 Detroit Tigers, one of three World Championship teams for whom he served in that role.

Johnny Sain was pitching coach for the 1968 Detroit Tigers, one of three World Championship teams for whom he served in that role.

Last week I unintentionally started a debate on Facebook about the value of coaches. The subject of my message was Yankee pitching guru Larry Rothschild, who has remarkably kept his pitching staff in some semblance of decency despite a wave of pitching injuries. The Yankees currently have five starting pitchers on the disabled list (including staff ace Masahiro Tanaka and veterans CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova, Michael Pineda, and David Phelps). Two of the injured pitchers are done for the season, while it’s iffy whether Tanaka will be able to return without having to undergo season-ending Tommy John surgery. In spite of it all, the Yankees’ Plan-B staff of Brandon McCarthy, Shane Greene, and scrap heap selection Chris Capuano basically shut down the Tiger offense last week.

This is nothing new for the Yankee staff; their pitchers have been defying the odds for much of the summer. That leads me to believe that Rothschild might be the best pitching coach in the game today, though I suppose you could make an argument for Oakland’s Curt Young or San Francisco’s Dave Righetti. But who’s the best pitching coach of all-time? To answer such a question, we need to take a look back at someone with a direct connection to the Detroit Tigers of the 1960s.

The late Johnny Sain, who died in 2006, was a very good pitcher during his playing days in the 1940s and 1950s. He was an essential part of the “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain” mantra espoused by the Boston Braves after World War II. A four-time 20 game winner in Boston, Sain later enjoyed success as a versatile swingman for the Yankees. One wonders how much more success he would have had if he didn’t lose three full seasons to military service in World War II. Sain’s service to his country resulted in the loss of his age-25, 26 and 27 seasons, and a span of three years that would have fallen right in his prime. Instead of winning only 139 games, Sain might have surpassed 190 victories for his career.

As good as Sain was for the Braves and Yankees, he was far more influential and groundbreaking as a pitching coach. With his smarts and ability to relate to his staff members, Sain transformed journeyman pitchers, while breathing life into entire pitching staffs.

Sain’s coaching career began in 1959, when he worked for the old Kansas City Athletics, but he quit after one season to go into business back in his hometown. In 1961, Sain resurfaced with the Yankees, where he worked with mostly a veteran pitching staff, but also helped youngsters Ralph Terry and Bill Stafford. Sain convinced manager Ralph Houk to switch to a four-man rotation, so as to maximize the contributions of staff ace Whitey Ford. By 1963, Sain had aided in the development of two other young starters, Jim Bouton and Al Downing, who helped the Yankees win yet another American League pennant.

After the Yankees lost the 1963 World Series in a sweep, they parted company with Sain for reasons that remain nebulous. Sain claimed that he resigned, while others said that Houk, who had been bumped up to the general manager’s office, fired his pitching coach because he felt threatened by his intelligence and command of the pitching staff.

Sitting out the 1964 season, Sain found work with the Minnesota Twins the following summer. Not only did the Twins win the pennant in 1965, but Mudcat Grant, Jim Kaat, and Jim Perry all flourished under Sain. How did the Twins reward Sain? They fired him, of course, after finishing second in 1966.

That brought Sain to Detroit, which only seemed appropriate given that the Tigers had originally signed him as a pitcher back in 1936. Yet, he never cracked the playing roster of the Tigers. Now installed as pitching coach, he worked immediate magic with Earl Wilson. A solid pitcher in the early sixties, Wilson broke through with 22 wins in 1967—the first 20-win season of his career. Sain’s influence could also be seen in the performance of two young right-handers, Pat Dobson and Mike Marshall, who excelled working out of the bullpen. In general, Tiger pitching improved remarkably under Sain.

Sain’s effect on the Tigers became more profound in 1968. Although every pitching coach’s job became easier because of the environment surrounding the “Year of the Pitcher,” Sain’s impact emerged as a huge factor in the Tigers winning the pennant. Instilling the power of positive thought, Sain encouraged his pitchers to thing big. As he once told Denny McLain, whom he befriended as much as any Tigers pitcher, “Anything you can conceive or believe, you can achieve.”

As much as anyone, McLain bought into Sain’s philosophy. Sain also understood the mechanics of manipulating a baseball, as he helped McLain develop his slider, which became his out pitch. “Sain taught me that the only way to accomplish great ideas is thinking about them persistently and to never stop learning,” McLain revealed to writer Bill Surface. McLain won 31 games, spinning an ERA of 1.96 and earning the American League’s Cy Young Award.

Four other young Tigers pitchers also thrived under Sain in 1968: Mickey Lolich, Dobson, and relievers Darryl Patterson and John Hiller. They helped formulate one of the league’s deepest and most dominant staffs.

Although Sain’s work helped the Tigers reach the World Series, his relationship with manager Mayo Smith soured. The two men barely spoke. The situation only worsened in 1969. Sain decided to take some time off to attend to some personal affairs. During his absence, Smith instructed the Tigers pitchers to run laps, contrary to Sain’s directives. When Sain returned, he found out about Smith’s order and confronted the manager. Sain reminded Smith that his way—a way that excluded running for the pitchers—was the one that worked.

The incident created a division within the Tiger clubhouse. There was Smith and third base coach Grover Resinger on one side, and Sain on the other. On June 15, the front office sent a message that it favored Smith by selling veteran reliever Dick Radatz to the expansion Montreal Expos. Radatz was one of Sain’s favorites, so it was not surprising that the move infuriated Sain.

In early August, Sain complained to Tigers beat writers that he and Smith hadn’t talked about the team’s pitching staff for the last two months. Sain also criticized Smith for his handling of the pitchers. The situation came to a head on August 10, when the Tigers announced the decision to fire Sain. Ten months after helping the Tigers win the World Series, Sain was gone.

Not surprisingly, McLain came out in strong defense of Sain. He said the Tigers had “made a mistake” in firing their pitching mentor. Lolich was more diplomatic, but his praise of Sain indicated that he, too, did not favor the decision. Like most of the Tigers pitchers, Lolich and McLain loved Sain. More than a few Tigers fans have speculated that McLain would have had more enduring success, if only Sain had been around to keep him on track.

Sain would later resurface with the Atlanta Braves and Chicago White Sox, but his days as a Tiger had ended—after only two and a half seasons. Yet, his impact was enormous. Let’s consider some of the methods that Sain used as a pitching coach and the results that accompanied his schemes.

  • Unlike most pitching coaches of the sixties and seventies, Sain did not believe that pitchers needed to worry about running. Hence the blow-up with Smith in 1969. “The arm is the most important part of the pitcher’s body, not the legs,” Sain once told writer Rick Talley. “The best way to get the arm into shape is to pitch. If you do enough of that, the legs will take care of themselves.”
  • Sain emphasized preparation ahead of games. Once the game started, he rarely spoke to his starting pitcher—or to any relievers who entered the game—unless they had specific questions that needed to be addressed. Similarly, Sain rarely visited the mound during the game. He felt that by going to the mound, he would disturb his pitchers’ rhythm and concentration.
  • Wanting to be in complete control of his pitching staffs, Sain clashed with his managers, including Smith in Detroit. Some managers, like the Yankees’ Houk, believed that Sain was a threat to take his job, but Sain did not want to manage; he wanted only complete autonomy over his staff. Unfortunately, Sain’s pitchers became such loyal followers that it created a division between the pitching staff and the rest of the team.
  • During his seven coaching stops, Sain emphasized movement and change-of-speed over velocity, perhaps because he himself never relied on a power fastball. He taught the slider to a number of pitchers, elevating some from mediocre to good, and others from good to great. The addition of the slider helped three Sain students in particular: two-time Cy Young winner McLain, Hall of Famer Ford, and durable left-hander Kaat.
  • Despite his lack of staying power in any one city, Sain helped his teams win. Of the teams that Sain coached, five won American League pennants. They included three Yankee teams from 1961 to 1963, the Twins of 1965, and, of course, the Tigers of 1968. Of those teams, three went on to win world championships.

In the recent past, the names of Dave Duncan (A’s and Cardinals), Leo Mazzone (who became a disciple of Sain in the Braves’ farm system), and Rick Peterson (A’s) usually come to mind when thinking of successful pitching coaches. In past decades, George Bamberger (Orioles), Roger Craig (Giants), and Ray Miller (Orioles) enjoyed a large degree of influence. They all deserve the recognition, including Rothschild today.

But the one who came before them, the one who stands as the dean of pitching coaches, is still Johnny Sain.



About Bruce Markusen

Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY. He is the author of seven books on baseball.