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WSI News - Season Features

Johnny Sain Remembered

White Sox Interactive looks back at ol' #33, White Sox pitching coach 1970-1975

By Mark Liptak

Johnny Sain died November 7, 2006.
He was 89.

The White Sox have been blessed with great pitching staffs over the years, they’ve also been blessed with great pitching coaches. At the top of the list was Al Lopez’ right hand man, coach Ray Berres who worked with and refined hurlers from Billy Pierce to Early Wynn to Bob Shaw to Gary Peters to Joe Horlen to Juan Pizarro to Tommy John.

Other notable Sox pitching coaches include Paul Richards (who doubled as field manager) Sammy Ellis and Don Cooper. But there’s another name on that list, Johnny Sain, who was Chuck Tanner’s right hand man with the Sox from September 1970 through 1975. Sain passed away in Downers Grove, Illinois Tuesday afternoon November 7th.

Sain was a former big league pitcher himself, from 1942 through 1955 with three years (1943-1945) missing due to military service. He won twenty or more games four times, was a two time All Star and pitched in four World Series with the Braves and Yankees. He made the conversion from starter to relief pitcher later in his career and excelled at it with a league leading 22 saves in 1954 with the Yankees. One of the few individuals to remember Johnny as a player was Sox star left hander Billy Pierce. “I remember two things about John. One is he had a great curve ball, he had command around the plate and the other is that he’s one of the few pitchers to ever hit a home run off me. He hit one that beat me in New York.”

After his playing career ended, Sain began his coaching life and had a remarkable record. In his 14 years as a big league pitching coach, Sain helped produce 17 twenty game winners. The list included Whitey Ford, Denny McLain, Jim Kaat, Wilbur Wood, Stan Bahnsen, Ralph Terry, Jim Bouton, Jim “Mudcat” Grant and Earl Wilson. Sox right hander Tom Bradley had his two finest big leagues seasons under Sain in 1971 and 1972 winning 15 or more games with a sub 3.00 ERA and over 200 strikeouts each time.

Sain was a maverick. He was outspoken and felt his pitchers were his children... and woe to anyone who interfered with what he was trying to do. Bouton in his book ‘Ball Four,’ recalled the time when Sain was the Tigers pitching coach. He had to leave the team for a few days and while he was gone, manager Mayo Smith ran the pitchers hard. When Sain got back and found out about it he was furious and marched right into Smith’s office to hold him accountable for what he did. Maybe that’s why Johnny moved around a lot....from Kansas City to the Yankees to the Twins to the Tigers to the White Sox with a stint as the Angels minor league instructor thrown in. That’s where Sain got to know and work with Chuck Tanner and Roland Hemond. When they were hired in September 1970 to take over the operations of the Sox they knew who they wanted as their coach.

Sain (on right) as Sox pitching coach under manager Chuck Tanner.

“I was at the first home game where Chuck took over as manager,” remembered Sox historian Bob Vanderberg. “I saw Sain on the bench and immediately thought to myself, ‘they’re starting to get serious about this. Chuck got along with Johnny better then anyone else ever did.”

Sain’s philosophy, which ran counter to the perception of the day (and to a great extent even today) was that running did little to nothing to help a pitcher. Wilbur Wood, the four time Sox twenty game winner echoed that. “Johnny used to say that if you could run the ball across the plate, Jesse Owens would be a pitcher.” What Sain swore by was that pitchers need to throw. “We threw every single day,” remembered Wood. “Johnny just wanted you on the mound for five or ten minutes. You wouldn’t be throwing a hundred miles an hour or trying to snap off a hard breaking ball, but you’d be out there getting accustomed to the mound and throwing to keep your rhythm. I thought he was one of the best coaches I ever had.”

Sain was an innovator. “I think he was the guy who invented the slurve,” said Vanderberg (the slurve is a pitch that’s a cross between a hard slider and a soft rolling breaking ball.) and he stressed the little things a pitcher needed to do to win games. “Johnny used to say that you just can’t throw a straight pitch, you have to have some movement on it,” said Wood. “He helped me on my mechanics, because if you have good mechanics, especially on a breaking ball or an off speed pitch you’re going to have that movement. He also stressed defense by a pitcher, that you have to be in position to field a ball. You look at a lot of guys today, they aren’t in any position to field anything hit back up the middle because they aren’t in a good position. Johnny stressed the fundamentals of pitching.”

Ed Herrmann caught a lot of Sain’s pitchers in that five year stretch and mentioned how Johnny wanted his pitchers ready to go from the first batter of the first inning. “Johnny used to say ‘twelve pitches for the first inning.’ A lot of guys needed a batter or two before they mentally and physically were into the game. John wanted them ready from the first batter and felt that if you could get through the first inning on twelve pitches or less you were where you needed to be. The last three to four minutes the pitchers spent in the bullpen warming up for the game were under ‘game’ conditions. They threw what they were going to throw to get the hitters out in a few minutes, and Johnny was always right there in the bullpen watching to see if something was off before they went out to the mound to start the game.”

Sain, who suffered a heart attack a few years earlier, passed away at the age of 89.

Editor's Note: Mark Liptak is an experienced sports journalist, holding several awards for both his electronic and print media work. He has held numerous sports reporting positions for various TV and newspaper organizations, including Director of Sports for KNOE-TV (Monroe, Louisiana) and KPVI-TV (Pocatello, Idaho), and sports writer for the Idaho Falls Free Press, where his column "Lip Service" has appeared for for a number of years. "Lip", his wife, and cats presently live in Chubbuck, Idaho, where they collectively comprise 100 percent of the Pocatello River Valley's long-time Sox Fan population.

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