For the better part of a decade, the Spahn Award was short on slick. There were no fancy banquet halls; the Masonic Temple in Guthrie was just fine, thank you. There were no extravagant hotel rooms for the multi-millionaire winners. There were no black ties necessary for the hundred or so guests.Yet, this award has grown, flourished and expanded. Tonight, the 11th annual Warren Spahn Award Gala will be held to honor New York Yankee pitcher CC Sabathia. Now, the festivities are held at the new banquet hall inside the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame and Jim Thorpe Museum. Now, the Bricktown Rotary Club is the major sponsor. Now, the black ties are optional. "It just blossomed,” said Greg Spahn, son of the late Warren Spahn. The Spahn Award was the brainchild of Richard Hendricks. The founder of the Oklahoma Sports Museum in Guthrie wanted to establish an award honoring one of the state’s top athletes. Out of Oklahoma’s strong ties to Major League Baseball and Spahn’s pride in his adopted home state was born the award for baseball’s top left-handed pitcher. Spahn bought into the idea quickly, especially when he heard Hendricks’ proposal for the selection criteria. The winner is chosen based on wins, earned run average and strikeouts. The award is all about on-field performance. "As long as I’m a part of it, I’m going to try to keep it that way,” Hendricks said. "There have been those that have wanted us to change, to open it up a little bit more and have ESPN or Fox or somebody help choose the winner and do it by vote and get more publicity. I have held to my guns and said, ‘One of the things that’s unique about this is they’ve got to earn this award.’ "I’d hate to make it a popularity contest.” The criteria has added legitimacy to the award over the years, but never was it more important than those early days. It was one of the reasons Spahn took it upon himself to call Johnson and encourage him to attend the ceremony. It was one of the reasons the Big Unit did just that. "Randy is a student of the game,” Hendricks said. "There’s a lot of pitchers if you walked up to them and said, ‘Warren Spahn, who is he?’ they’d say, ‘I don’t know.’ But Randy knew him, and Randy came that first year.” He kept coming back, too. Johnson won the Spahn Award its first four years, and he attended three of the ceremonies. Only an ice storm kept him away. Spahn and Johnson, the two men in that early photo, had a huge hand in making this award what it is today. What is it is a well-respected award with a bright future. The Bricktown Rotary Club got involved before last year’s award, a move encouraged by local attorney Bill Hickman. He used to belong to the Tulsa Rotary Club, which presents the Henry Iba Awards, and when he moved to Oklahoma City, he saw an opportunity for Bricktown Rotary to partner with the Spahn Award. It was a chance to raise the club’s profile along with the award’s. "It just kind of outgrew itself in Guthrie,” Hickman said. So far, the partnership has been good for both sides. Sponsorships have risen. The same goes for ticket sales and media coverage. The gala is slicker with a fancy Web site and a public relations specialist and a VIP cocktail hour and all the trappings of a big-time event. But the same thing that drew Warren Spahn and Randy Johnson together in front of that too-short satin curtain a decade ago is the same thing that will bring together hundreds tonight This is an award that is solid to the core. Without that foundation, the Spahn Award wouldn’t have survived its first decade, much less thrived the way it has. It has proud days behind it, but more importantly, it has even more promising times ahead.
To understand the strong history and the bright future of the Warren Spahn Award, you need only see a photo from the first year. Warren Spahn, the former left-handed pitcher for whom the award is named, stands on the left with Randy Johnson, the towering lefty who was the inaugural award winner in 1999. Between the two men is the trophy given to the winner. Behind them is a red satin cloth hung to serve as a photo backdrop. Only problem: the 6-foot-10 Johnson is a head taller than the backdrop.
Warren Spahn Award Gala→When: 7 tonight →Where: Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame and Jim Thorpe Museum →Tickets: A limited number remain. Contact Bill Hickman at (405) 605-2375.