SABR

Spud Chandler

This article was written by Mark Stewart.

Spurgeon Ferdinand “Spud” Chandler was a no-nonsense, take-charge hurler who went after opposing hitters as if they were mortal enemies. The intensity with which he patrolled the area around the pitching rubber sent a clear message to the batter: I will not lose. You will have to beat me. Despite a late start and an uncooperative elbow, the blue-eyed, blond-haired Georgian was on six World Series championship teams. He won an American League Most Valuable Player Award and set a modern record for career winning percentage that still stands. Chandler threw just about every pitch, and he threw every pitch as if it might be his last, a possibility that loomed over him for most of his big-league career.

The boy everyone called Spurge and later Spud (which he preferred) was born on September 12, 1907, in Commerce, Georgia, a Jackson County agricultural community about sixty miles northeast of Atlanta. When he was a boy, his parents, Leonard “Bud” Chandler and Olivia (Hix) Chandler moved the family to Franklin County, Georgia. As a teenager, Spurge played sports with a consuming passion that intimidated teammates and opponents alike. He did not mind the comparison to another Franklin County product, Ty Cobb. He said proudly throughout his life that he and Ty Cobb were the two most famous people to come from Franklin County.

In 1928 Chandler won a football scholarship to the University of Georgia, earned a spot on the team, and developed into a classic triple-threat (running, passing, kicking) back. Chandler also starred on the Georgia baseball team. The New York Giants and St. Louis Cardinals tempted him with contract offers in 1929, but he chose to stay in school. He was having too much fun being a football star. Besides, his favorite team was the Yankees. He would wait to hear from them.

In November 1931, the University Georgia football squad played New York University in front of 65,000 people at Yankee Stadium. Chandler was one of the stars in a 7–6 victory. After the game he walked out to the pitcher's mound and began throwing footballs through the uprights. When teammates asked what he was doing, he responded that he wanted to get used to the place because he expected to be pitching there someday.

The following spring Chandler was the property of the Yankees. The Chicago Cubs actually had first crack at him, but a paperwork foul-up enabled New York scout Johnny Nee to swoop in and sign him. Chandler began his professional career at the Class B level with the Binghamton (New York) Triplets of the New York-Penn League. He went 8-1 for Binghamton and earned a promotion to the Class A Springfield (Massachusetts) Rifles of the Eastern League, where he was perfect in four decisions.

Chandler had a sinking fastball that worked best without a full follow-through. The pitch put undue stress on his right arm, already tender from a football injury. The resulting pain limited his availability and effectiveness for much of the 1930s.

Chandler was back in Binghamton to begin the 1933 season, as the New York-Penn League moved up to Class A status. He went 10-8 before finishing the season with the Newark Bears of the International League, the Yankees’ top farm team. Spud struggled against the better competition. He pitched for Newark again in 1934, and also did stints with the Minneapolis Millers and Syracuse Chiefs. Elbow pain all but ruined his season, as he won just two games and had an ERA over 6.00.

The Yankees shipped Chandler to the West Coast in 1935. He played for Oakland and Portland in the Pacific Coast League, pitching in thirty-four games as a starter and reliever. In 1936 the Yankees brought him back to Newark on the word of his manager at Oakland, Ossie Vitt, who was also hired as the Bears’ manager. Chandler went 14-13 for Newark with a fine 3.33 ERA.

He began the 1937 season with Newark, a club that featured young sluggers Joe Gordon and Charlie Keller. History would recall this team as perhaps the best ever assembled at the Minor League level, but Chandler wasn’t on the roster long. He was called up to the Bronx in early May and made his big-league debut on May 6 in Detroit. He entered the game in relief of Frank Makosky in the eighth inning.

Makosky had failed to record an out starting the frame and Spud did no better, giving up hits to both batters he faced. Three days later, manager Joe McCarthy started Chandler against the White Sox in Chicago. Spud had better luck this time, settling into a pitchers’ duel against Thornton Lee after allowing a first-inning run. The score was tied 1–1 in the seventh when he allowed a home run to Zeke Bonura that gave the White Sox a 2–1 win.

Chandler won his three remaining May starts, tossing shutouts against the White Sox and Cleveland Indians at Yankee Stadium, and also beating the Philadelphia Athletics at home. McCarthy used him as a spot starter until a sore shoulder sidelined him in early August. Chandler did not pitch again during the regular season, and was not on the World Series roster when the Yankees defeated their cross-river rivals, the Giants. Chandler finished 7-4 with a 2.84 earned run average in 82 1/3 innings.

The next season Chandler cracked the regular rotation, which was fronted by the trio of Red Ruffing, Lefty Gomez, and Monte Pearson. He made twenty-three starts and completed fourteen in 1938, despite battling aches and pains throughout the season. With a lineup featuring Joe DiMaggio, Bill Dickey, and Lou Gehrig, his primary responsibility was to keep the games close. Chandler won his 14th game on September 5 and pitched once more before a sore elbow ended his season. For the second year in a row, he sat out the World Series.

In 1939 Chandler fractured his ankle before the season started and was not back in uniform until the end of July. By then the Yankees were well on their way to a fourth consecutive pennant. Chandler was used out of the bullpen in August and September, making eleven appearances mostly in mop-up duty. For the third straight season, he picked up a World Series check but did not participate.

It’s difficult to say if Chandler’s injury problems were a matter of bad genes, bad luck, or bad judgment. Certainly, there were times when he acted more like a college running back than a big-league pitcher. When Chandler came to the plate, he swung with great ferocity. He was a decent hitter, with a lifetime average above .200 and occasional home run power. As a base runner, the six-foot, 181-pound Chandler had more than a little Ty Cobb in him; several times a season he would get into pileups breaking up double plays. He maintained that he could beat any pitcher in baseball in a footrace to first base—a claim he continued to make as a coach and scout in his forties.

Fielders thought twice about blocking a bag when Chandler was steaming toward them. Even the umpires weren't safe. In a game against the White Sox, on June 27, 1942, Spud raced to back up a throw to third base and slammed into umpire Harry Geisel with such force that Geisel later had to retire.

Chandler reclaimed his spot in the Yankees’ rotation in 1940, starting twenty-four games. Detroit and Cleveland both had strong clubs, and the Yankees spent all year chasing them. In early September, New York came within a game of the lead, but lost seven of nine games in midmonth and finished third. Pitching with varying degrees of discomfort throughout the season, Chandler was as much a part of the problem as the solution. He won only eight games against seven losses, and his ERA rose steadily throughout the season, ending up at 4.60. One redeeming moment for Chandler in this disappointing campaign came on July 26, when he socked a pair of homers, including a grand slam.

The Yankees got back on track in 1941, winning the pennant by seventeen games over the Red Sox. Chandler took a while to get warm, performing as both a starter and reliever in the first three months. He did not record his first victory until July, but won ten games in eleven weeks and finished 10-4.

Chandler started Game Two of the 1941 World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers. He gave himself a 1–0 lead in the bottom of the second inning with an infield hit that scored Charlie Keller, but he ended up the loser as the Dodgers came back to win, 3–2. The Yankees took the Series in five games to give Spud his fourth championship.

In 1942, Chandler finished 16-5 with a 2.38 ERA. He was selected to play in his first All-Star Game, held at the Polo Grounds. As the American League starter, he was the beneficiary of first-inning home runs by Lou Boudreau and Rudy York and was awarded the victory in a 3–1 win. He pitched four innings, allowing two hits and no runs.

In late July Chandler pitched back-to-back shutouts over the Tigers and Browns, the latter a three-hit masterpiece. The Yankees returned to the World Series, this time facing the St. Louis Cardinals. Ruffing, the Game One starter, entered the ninth inning with a 7–0 lead, but left after allowing a walk and four hits. McCarthy summoned Chandler to get the final out. Terry Moore and Enos Slaughter greeted him with singles to make the score 7–4 before young Stan Musial tapped a grounder in the hole that was gloved by Buddy Hassett. Chandler raced to the bag and took the throw from the first baseman to end the game.

The teams played four more close games and each time St. Louis won to take the World Series four games to one. Chandler was an effective starter in Game Three, limiting the Cardinals to three hits and a run in eight innings, but Ernie White was better, blanking the New Yorkers, 2–0.

The 1943 Yankees found themselves without the services of DiMaggio, Ruffing, Hassett, Phil Rizzuto, and Tommy Henrich. The talent drain of World War II had turned baseball topsy-turvy, but in the end it was the Yankees and Cardinals repeating as pennant winners. Chandler enjoyed another injury-free year and was the talk of baseball. Pitching against lineups made up of prospects and suspects, he mowed down American League hitters with frightening efficiency.

Chandler went 20-4, while allowing three or fewer earned runs in all but one of his defeats. Five of his league-leading wins were shutouts, and four more were 2–1 games. Win number twenty, the pennant-clincher, came in a 14-inning complete game. His 1.64 earned run average was the lowest for an American Leaguer since Walter Johnson in the Dead Ball Era. Never a strikeout pitcher, Chandler fanned 134 batters, equaling his 1941 and 1942 totals combined. He was The Sporting News’s Major League Player of the Year, and when the writers cast their votes for Most Valuable Player, Chandler’s name was atop twelve of the twenty-four ballots. He out-pointed batting champion Luke Appling of the White Sox by thirty-one votes.

Chandler started the World Series opener in a rematch with the Cardinals and twirled a complete-game, 4–2 victory. The Yankees had a 3–1 series lead when Chandler took the mound for Game Five in St. Louis. Time and again the Cardinals put runners on, but the Yankee ace escaped without allowing a run. Nine innings, ten hits, and two walks later, Chandler had a 2–0 shutout and the Yankees were champs.

Uncle Sam caught up with Chandler after the Series. He was classified 1–AL, which meant he would not see combat because of a permanent injury. Ironically, the Army listed this debilitating condition as limited movement of his right arm. Chandler attended spring training in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and pitched one regular season game before being called to active duty as an infantry private and shipped to Georgia for basic training.

Spud and his wife, the former Frances Willard, were expecting a child that spring. When she went into labor he was unable to be at her side. It was a difficult birth that required a c-section and the baby died a few hours later. The couple did have two sons, Frank, born in 1941, and Richard, born in 1945. Frances had been a stewardess for National Airlines and had first met Spud in Chicago when the Yankees were in town. They were married in Athens, Georgia in 1939.

Chandler trained at Camp Shelby in his home state of Georgia. Because he was too old and injured to qualify for combat, he hoped he might spend the war playing ball and serving as a fitness instructor. Many other baseball stars had pulled this type of duty. Although he did launch a few fastballs for the camp baseball team, Chandler spent most of his time there firing weapons.

Although he never saw overseas action, Chandler missed almost two full seasons. He was discharged in early September 1945 and made four starts for the Yankees, winning two and losing one.

Chandler was among hundreds of returning veterans hoping to make Major League squads in 1946. Some had lost their edge, while others had gained strength and toughness during their time in the military. Chandler blanked the Athletics on Opening Day and didn’t lose a game until mid-May. He finished 20-8 for the third-place Yankees, with a 2.10 ERA and a career-high 257 1/3 innings pitched.

That October, Chandler joined the Bob Feller All-Stars, a barnstorming group made up of Yankees and Indians players. It was a chance to make a little extra cash and, as it turned out, do something he could brag about for years to come. Facing Satchel Paige’s All-Stars in a game at Youngstown, Ohio on October 1, he hit a home run against Paige.

Chandler had turned thirty-nine in September 1946. Although his statistics were impressive, his right elbow was getting more troublesome with each start. There were times when he left the clubhouse with his collar unbuttoned and no tie—he was in too much pain to dress. The agony he endured only added to his aura in the Yankees clubhouse. Known as an intense competitor (some said he was just plain mean) when he joined the club in the 1930s, by the late 1940s he would get so keyed up before starts that no one dared bother him. Milton Gross wrote a story for The Saturday Evening Post calling him the angry Yankee ace. Chandler always denied he was mean in the locker room, claiming he was just “determined.” On the mound, however, he made no apologies for his behavior. He referred to other teams as the enemy, and refused to give in to hitters. If he saw an opponent digging in, Chandler would likely sail a pitch at his chin.

After an operation in Atlanta to remove more than a dozen bone chips in his right elbow, Spud felt good enough to give it a go again in 1947. He started and lost the season opener in Yankee Stadium, yielding six runs to the Philadelphia A’s. Five days later, he avenged this defeat in Philadelphia. On April 27 Chandler hooked up with Sid Hudson of the Washington Senators in a thrilling pitching duel at Yankee Stadium. The two hurlers wriggled in and out of trouble but hung up zeroes inning after inning until Hudson singled in the eight and later scored on a hit by Buddy Lewis for the game’s only run. Hudson—who like Chandler lost key years to military service—later remembered this as his greatest game.

After five starts, Chandler’s record stood at a lackluster 1-3, albeit with a sub-3.00 ERA. This was unfamiliar territory for Chandler, who had yet to register a losing record as a Major Leaguer. Beginning with his next start, against the White Sox, he won eight of nine decisions. Pitching against the Tigers at Yankee Stadium on June 21, he fanned eleven batters, a career high.

On July 4 Chandler beat the Senators to raise his record to 9–4. He had already pitched 118 innings in the season as manager Bucky Harris was riding his starters hard. In his first start after the All-Star Game, Chandler faced the Browns in St. Louis. With one out in the seventh inning, after yielding the tying run in a 3–3 game, he could throw no more. He gave way to Joe Page, who finished the contest and hit a game-winning homer in the ninth inning. Lost in the postgame celebrating was the fact that Spud Chandler might be through.

Chandler did take the mound again twice more, but he was ineffective in two September appearances, one in relief and one in a start against Boston. His final regular-season line was 9-5 with a 2.46 ERA in 128 innings. Not a bad way to say goodbye. Alas, it was not quite goodbye. The Yankees were pennant winners again, and Chandler pitched two innings and allowed two runs to Brooklyn in Game Three of the World Series.

The Yankees officially handed him his release in April 1948. Twice a twenty-game winner, he won 109 games in all—twenty-six by shutout. He lost only forty-three, for a career winning percentage of .717, the best ever by a player with at least 100 victories.

Bill Dickey called it a pleasure to squat behind the plate with Spud on the mound. He claimed his teammate could spot seven different pitches—fastball, sinker, curve, slider, screwball, knuckler, and splitter—plus a couple more he never bothered to name. Chandler, Dickey insisted, was the best pitcher he ever caught.

In the years that followed, Chandler stayed busy as a scout for several teams, including the Yankees, Indians, and Minnesota Twins. He managed for two years in the Minor Leagues. In 1954 he piloted Cleveland’s Class D affiliate in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, and once put himself in a game as a pinch-hitter.

The following year Chandler managed the Class B Spartanburg (South Carolina) Peaches, another Cleveland farm team. He appeared in two games as a pitcher at the age of forty-seven. He later served two seasons as the Kansas City Athletics’ pitching coach.

Chandler retired from baseball for good in 1984, at the age of seventy-seven. In 1989 he fell and fractured his shoulder. Complications followed and he suffered a heart attack in 1990. He was eighty-two when died on January 9, 1990, near St. Petersburg, Florida. He was survived by Frances and his sons.

 

Sources

Freese, Mel R. Charmed Circle. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 1997.

Gentile, Derek, ed. The Complete New York Yankees. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal, 2001.

Honig, Donald. Baseball When the Grass Was Real. New York: Coward, McCann, and Geoghegan, 1975.

James, Bill and Rob Neyer. The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.

Mead, William B. Baseball Goes to War. Washington, D.C.: Farragut Publishing, 1985.

Smith, Loran, ed. Between the Hedges: 100 Years of Georgia Football. Atlanta: Longstreet Press, 1992.

Peary, Danny, ed. Cult Baseball Players. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990.

Westcott, Rich. Diamond Greats. Westport, Connecticut: Meckler Books, 1988

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