their full potential. He did so by
using a coaching system that was
based as much on psychology and
personality as it was on pitching
If you had never heard of Sain before
reading this article, it’s probably
more a result of his unassuming
nature and methods than of his
accomplishments. As a coach, Sain
was soft-spoken. Part of his philoso-
phy is that coaching can’t be dictato-
rial, especially if the coach is work-
ing with people who are already
highly accomplished, as is the case
with major league pitchers.
Sain’s approach to coaching has
been summed up succinctly by Hall
of Fame pitcher and former teammate
Warren Spahn: coaching by sugges-
tion. Hal Naragon, who was the
bullpen coach for the Minnesota
Twins and the Detroit Tigers when
Sain was the pitching coach for those
teams, said coaching by suggestion
worked over and over for Sain and
became his trademark. Sain, empha-
sizing his role as a teacher, would
never give hard-and-fast prescriptions
to his pitchers. Instead he would sug-
gest, offer ideas, and tell stories from
his pitching days about what had
worked for him and what hadn’t. He
left it up to the pitchers to decide
which suggestions fit their personal
style. Sain recognized that all pitch-
ers were individuals, each with his
own unique style. So he individual-
ized his coaching approach for each
pitcher, never handling one pitcher
the same way as another.
Sain also came up with a clever
method of indirectly coaching by
suggestion. He would mention sug-
gestions for how a particular pitcher
could improve to the team’s manager
and some of its players, who in turn
would offer the suggestions to the
pitcher. Over time and through repeti-
tion from various sources this process
influenced many pitchers to put the
suggestions into practice.
The suggestion approach embod-
ied Sain’s understanding of human
nature. He believes that highly skilled
Gene Klann is a senior pro-
gram associate at CCL in
Greensboro. He holds a Ph.D.
degree from the Free
University of Brussels.
Success, On and Off the Field
Arkansas-born Johnny Sain, now
eighty-four, had stellar careers as
both a pitcher and a coach. He
pitched in the 1940s and ’50s with
the Boston Braves, the New York
Yankees, and the Kansas City
Athletics. He won twenty or more
games in a season four times and
became known as someone who
could win the big games. In 1948,
the best year of his career as a play-
er, Sain defeated the Cleveland
Indians 1–0 in the first game of the
World Series. Although the Braves
ended up losing the series, Sain
gave up just two runs in seventeen
innings. During the 1948 pennant
race, the Braves used Sain and fel-
low standout pitcher Warren Spahn
as much as they could, and the team
motto became “Spahn and Sain and
pray for rain.”
Sains playing career was full of
highlights, one of which was being
the first pitcher that Jackie
Robinson faced in the major
leagues. He was also the last person
to pitch to Babe Ruth in an organ-
ized contest, when the two faced off
during a wartime exhibition game.
He took part in nine World Series as
a player or coach.
Sain retired as a player after the
1955 season and became a pitching
coach, serving with the Atlanta
Braves, the Yankees, the As, the
Minnesota Twins, the Detroit Tigers,
and the Chicago White Sox. His
coaching techniques were nontradi-
tional and visionary. He coached
pitchers to sixteen seasons with
twenty or more wins, and one of
those pitchers, Jim Bouton, has
called Sain “the greatest pitching
coach who ever lived.” Here are the
pitchers whom Sain coached to sea-
sons with twenty or more victories:
Steve Bahnsen, Chicago White
Sox, 1972, 21–16
Jim Bouton, New York Yankees,
1963, 21–7
Whitey Ford, New York Yankees,
1961, 25–4
Whitey Ford, New York Yankees,
1963, 24–7
Mudcat Grant, Minnesota Twins,
1965, 21–7
Jim Kaat, Minnesota Twins,
1966, 25–13
Jim Kaat, Chicago White Sox,
1974, 21–13
Jim Kaat, Chicago White Sox,
1975, 20–14
Denny McLain, Detroit Tigers,
1968, 31–6
Denny McLain, Detroit Tigers,
1969, 24–9
Ralph Terry, New York Yankees,
1962, 23–12
Earl Wilson, Detroit Tigers, 1967,
Wilbur Wood, Chicago White
Sox, 1971, 2213
Wilbur Wood, Chicago White
Sox, 1972, 24–17
Wilbur Wood, Chicago White
Sox, 1973, 24–20
Wilbur Wood, Chicago White
Sox, 1974, 20–19

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