Reaching the major leagues is the Holy Grail of most ballplayers, and those who attain it often find everything later in life a bit of a letdown. Before joining the Boston Red Sox, Andy Spognardi never spent a day in the minor leagues; once he made the majors (and hit .294 in his first season), he declined to attend spring training the following year because it would interfere with his studies in medical school.
Andrea Ettore Spognardi was one of only 16 Red Sox players actually born in the city of Boston. His parents, Dominic and Clotilde Spognardi, were immigrants from the Abruzzi region of central Italy. Dominic was an accomplished cabinet-maker who worked for Boston firms like Payne Furniture. Clotilde stayed at home and raised four children: Al, two sisters, and the youngest of the family: Andy, born on October 18, 1908.
The family lived in the Roslindale section of Boston, on Washington Street, about four or five blocks from two large city baseball fields – Fallon Field and Healy Field. Spognardi told his son Andy that there was such demand that all summer long you had to get there as early in the day as possible to secure a diamond. They’d play in the morning, take the five-minute walk home for lunch, then go back and play until dinnertime. [Almost all of our information about the Spognardi family comes from Andy’s son, Andrew, who was interviewed on September 26, 2009.]
Roslindale High School wasn’t built until 1926, so the Spognardi children attended Hyde Park High, in a neighboring part of Boston. Both Al and Andy first turn up in a Boston Globe box score on June 8, 1923. It was Andy’s sophomore year. Playing shortstop, he was 2-for-3 with a run scored and a stolen base and the only player on either team mentioned by name in a 7-2 loss to West Roxbury High: “The batting of A. Spognardi featured for the losers.” Al Spognardi played second base and led off. Andy batted cleanup.
A year later, in June 1924, Andy was depicted as one of “three boys who have played good baseball for Hyde Park High.” After his junior year, he was elected captain of the team. “His work on the bag was conspicuous at all times and he held his own with the willow,” summarized the July 3 Globe.
Vice president of his class, Spognardi was fleet afoot. He collected three hits and five stolen bases in the June 11, 1925, game. It was a while before he began college, though. When he was a senior, his high-school coach, Leo Daly, told him that Boston College was interested in him, that he could get into BC if he had the marks. His parents didn’t have the means to send him to college and he had taken only vocational courses in high school, so he hadn’t accumulated any credits toward college. Instead, he attended Huntington Prep for two years. The prep school had a baseball team, too, and Spognardi was captain of their team.
In the meantime, said his son, he captained a third team, the Roslindale town team. That was far more significant than it might seem. Spognardi’s son explained: There was something I had never paid much attention to, something that he had said many times. He told me that a lot of people didn’t sign with either the Braves or the Red Sox because they were making as much, or more, than the pros were, paying around here. He always said, ‘I never had to travel to make good money.’ I always passed that off. He said, ‘We outdrew the Red Sox. We outdrew all those people.’”
While Boston’s major-league ballclubs were often drawing two or three thousand fans, there were ballparks in neighborhoods around Greater Boston who often drew several times that many. “His father was a cabinet-maker and he was making $16 a week, and his brother was making about $12 a week working for Western Union, and he was making $15 to $20 a game, playing baseball,” Andrew said. “That was a huge amount of money at that time. He said when he was coming up with the town team, he was making $175 a month.”
That was a lot of money by the standards of the day, and Spognardi played town ball in the summers all through college as well, earning enough to be able to put himself through medical school as well. Baseball may have been more of a means to an end than a goal for Spognardi.
The Roslindale team played at a high level. “There were a collection of ex-major leaguers, minor leaguers, and your top college players from all over the place,” Andrew said. “He was the only person from Roslindale. These guys were from everywhere. There were all ex-pros, pros. … It was a real good brand of fast baseball.”
Playing for Boston College got Spognardi into the New York Times a few times; he doubled and scored the winning run in a 5-4 win over Fordham in a Patriots Day home game in 1929. This was a powerhouse team that recorded some lopsided scores: In May alone, they were 19-1, 14-1, and 14-0 over Boston University, Seton Hall, and Manhattan College. He earned a few headlines and at the end of the 1931 season, he was elected captain of the team for 1932. Come May 22, 1932, shortly before his graduation, the Times had a subhead reading “Spognardi Leads Attack” after he drove in five runs against Manhattan College. In 1973-74, he became the third baseball player inducted into the Boston College Varsity Club Hall of Fame.
During that era, it wasn’t rare for college players to go straight to the major leagues, though few of them stuck. Spognardi never played minor-league ball on his way to the majors, but he did go back to playing town ball before he was asked to play for the Red Sox. His first appearance in a professional game came on September 2, 1932, 0-for-1 as a late-inning replacement in the second game of a doubleheader against the Philadelphia Athletics. He was an infielder, 5-feet-9 or 10 inches tall, and weighed 160 pounds.
On September 9, Spognardi scored his first run and it was a big one. Inserted as a pinch-runner, he scored the game-tying run in the ninth. Boston went on to beat the Chicago White Sox in the 10th. In the next day’s Chicago Tribune box score as Spog’di, he got his first hit on September 10, driving in a run.
Just 24 days after his debut, the season was over and Spognardi looked back on his first year in the major leagues with 10 hits in 34 at-bats (.294) and six walks, which gave him a .400 on-base percentage. He had just one extra-base hit, a double, and just the one RBI. He scored nine runs. In the field, he made just one error in 53 chances, 48 at second base, four at shortstop, and one at third base.
In early 1933, the Washington Post saw Spognardi as a possible comer for the Red Sox, but in February he “announced that his medical course at Tufts College would prevent him from making the southern training trip to Sarasota.” [Hartford Courant, February 5, 1933] He said he’d try to persuade team president Bob Quinn to let him join the Red Sox when his school year ended in June, but regardless of Quinn’s decision, he was committed to his studies.
Spognardi did get in some baseball after the school year was over, appearing in 22 games for the Reading Red Sox (Class A, New York-Penn League) and in four games for the International League Jersey City Skeeters (Double A). He hit .282.
In 1934, still in the Red Sox system, he played for the Syracuse Chiefs and for the Watertown (Massachusetts) Townies, which joined the Class B Northeastern League in July. His statistics are not available. There was one time with the Townies when he mixed it up with Hartford Senators manager Pepper Rea until Rea “hung a smashing right on Spognardi’s chin … and laid the third baseman in the dust.” This got Rea ejected from the game. [Hartford Courant, August 19, 1934] Andy got his revenge on the Senators on September 4, driving in three runs in a Watertown home game.
Northeastern League president Roger Baker was jailed, charged with embezzling $200,000 from a leather firm; an investigation indicated that Baker owned seven of the eight clubs in the Northeastern League. He was deemed “too inexperienced, too eccentric, and too biased to make the league a president of the type it required last season and revelation of his financial transactions naturally removes him from any kind of athletic promotion in which honesty is essential.” [Albert W. Keane, writing in the October 14, 1934, Hartford Courant]
This was the last time that Spognardi appears in organized baseball. There were already signs while he was with Reading that he might have become disillusioned a bit. “Maybe he wasn’t making as much money down there as he was up here. I think he said to my wife one time, riding buses and going through all that bull---- when you could be staying at home and live a nice comfortable life at home and play ball close to home, or around New England,” his son Andrew said.
Why had he decided to become a doctor? Andrew said, “I think he said that his mother told him that someone in her family in Italy was a doctor, and she used to talk about what a nice guy he was, how respected he was, and I think that sort of set the seed.” As we have seen, he hadn’t even been on a college track in high school initially. It was baseball that afforded him that opportunity.
Once Spognardi got into his third year at Tufts Medical School, though, there wasn’t time in the summers to play ball. He had to begin to gain practical experience working in hospitals. After graduating from Tufts in 1936, he interned at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Lowell, and, his son recalled, “I think he said every now and then he played a game and made a little money. He played for another team where he was making $20 a game. He said that the day that Babe Ruth called his home run off Charlie Root in the World Series – he was in Spencer, Mass., playing for the Spencer town team. They’d go up there and play on Saturday and Sunday.”
Dr. Spognardi completed his internship in 1938 and became a general practitioner. He operated his practice in Roslindale for a full half-century. He retired in the summer of 1988.
In 1940, Andy Spognardi married Mary O’Donnell of Roslindale; she lived about a block and a half from Fallon Field. It wasn’t a marriage that pleased his parents; they were Italian and didn’t approve of his involvement with anyone who was Irish. His choice of Lowell for his internship may have been in part due to the simple desire to move out of the house and become more independent. “When they eventually got married it was still a tense situation,” Andrew said. “I don’t think she even met his parents until she was carrying either me or my brother. I guess it was that way with a lot of people at that time.”
Mary contracted tuberculosis after giving birth to Andrew’s brother, Ramon [pronounced Ray-munn], and was in and out of Deaconess Hospital in Boston for 10 years, sometimes staying in the hospital for six or eight months at a time (and one time for 25 months). The family lived in the home of one of the Spognardi girls – “my aunt’s house, until I was in the fifth grade. Finally, she got on her feet enough … then my mother and father bought the house next to my aunt’s house. In 1952 or something like that. The better part of the first 10 years of their marriage, she was sick.”
Ramon became a mechanic and had his own business in the West Roxbury section of Boston until he retired in 2008. Andy drove for Boston Sand and Gravel for his entire career, retiring in the middle 2000s. “I played a little baseball. Not my brother. Hockey was my favorite sport. High School. Played a little football. Park League and that sort of thing. I never did much with baseball, although I like it. I follow it.” Andy’s father, the ballplayer/doctor, “was more or less a fan of baseball. He wasn’t a rah-rah guy, but he watched all the games. He’d look at all the box scores throughout the league. He’d know who was doing well.”
After Dr. Spognardi retired from practicing medicine, he lived another 12 years, until the New Year’s Day of 2000. “We went out to eat the night before. It was really great. My mother had been sick. She was dehydrated and had a urinary tract infection, so she was at the Faulkner (Hospital). My wife said, ‘Why don’t we take your father out to supper?’ We went out to a place in Norwood. We were eating and he grabbed my wife by the hand and her wrist, and he had tears coming out of his eyes. He’s telling her how wonderful she’s been to him and to my mother. She’s the daughter that they really never had. And how appreciative he was for everything that she was doing for them at the time. My mother was becoming more and more dependent on him and he was 91 at the time. Tears were coming down his eyes. It was unbelievable. It was great, though.
“The following day, it was January 1. We’re eating breakfast, and I said, ‘Well, we made it to 2000.’ That was when the computers were all supposed to go down, the planes were going to crash. All the Y2K baloney. He’s reading the paper and he says, ‘Ah, that was a lot of crap.’ Later on, he said, ‘I feel a little stomachache or something. I’m just going to take a nap. Will you pull that blanket over my feet?’ So I just pulled the blanket over his feet. He died on the couch. I thought it was a great way to go. He led a good life and he deserved to have a good death. My mother lasted for another year and a half. She was 93. My mother was not expected to see my brother and I grow up. She outlived everyone on both sides of the family.”
In addition to the sources cited in the text of the biography, the author consulted the online SABR Encyclopedia, retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com.