Jim Spencer

This article was written by David E. Skelton

A child approached Baltimore Oriole third baseman Brooks Robinson seeking more than an autograph. The bold youngster peppered the Hall of Famer for fielding tips as well. “Keep [your] glove down, near the dirt [and always practice]”1 was the sage counsel, and the “Human Vacuum Cleaner’s” advice was heeded. By 1970, the former child, Jim Spencer, had joined Robinson as one of the best glove men in the American League. Twelve years later Spencer retired with the highest lifetime fielding percentage for a first baseman. The first player selected by the California Angels when baseball instituted the amateur draft, this left-handed hitter constructed a 15-year career while bouncing among five major-league clubs. In 1980, Spencer signed a controversial four-year contract with the New York Yankees that contained a unique stipulation, known as the ‘Spencer Clause.’ Condemned at the time, it was soon considered tame compared to pacts signed over the following decades.

James Lloyd Spencer was born on July 30, 1947, near the Maryland border in Hanover, Pennsylvania. The first of two children born to Lloyd Benjamin Spencer, Jr. and Helen Louise Stone, the Spencer family had strong roots in Maryland dating to the early 19th century, when James’ third-great-grandfather immigrated to Baltimore County from England. Sons and grandsons generally followed their English ancestor into farming until James’ grandfather broke the mold. Over the years Lloyd Benjamin (“Ben”) Spencer found all manner of work – a clerk in a pool room, a laborer in a paper mill – but in 1913 he secured brief employment as an outfielder for the Washington Senators. Ben’s athletic prowess found its way to his grandson, James.

Spencer was an All-State and All-American in basketball, an able soccer player and an accomplished hurler in baseball. Spencer had attracted professional scouts at the tender age of 14, but was forced to abandon pitching when a doctor expressed concerns about permanent damage to his arm from overuse. In 1963, after taking up first base and centerfield, Spencer displayed his talents in the showcase Hearst Classic in Yankee Stadium. He is the second-youngest in Hearst history among those who made it to the majors, and only major-league player to emerge from Andover High School (located in suburban Baltimore). Spencer was selected as the Outstanding Male Athlete in his senior class while leading the Andover Archers in home runs and batting average (.408).

In June 1965, baseball conducted the first amateur draft. Strong baseball bloodlines populated the historic first, as seventeen youngsters could point to a father, brother, cousin or nephew who played in the major leagues. Spencer was the only one whose grandfather had played. It is unclear exactly how many teams scouted Spencer prior to the draft, but there is evidence that the Orioles2 and Yankees (possessing the fifteenth and nineteenth picks, respectively) were very interested. Spencer was selected by the Angels with the eleventh pick and signed by scout Al Monchak.

Just weeks removed from his eighteenth birthday, Spencer reported to the Class A Quad Cities (Davenport, IA) Angels in the Midwest League. His short season – a mere 269 at-bats – impressed enough to gain him selection by the sportswriters and managers as the second-team All-Star first baseman. In September 1965, Spencer made the short trip from his Maryland home to Washington, D.C. to participate in pre-game drills with the visiting Angels. He drew praise from veteran first sacker Joe Adcock. Arrangements between the Angels and Cincinnati allowed Spencer to proceed south with the Reds in the Florida Instructional League. His debut was oustanding,with a triple, double and two singles in leading the Reds to a 5-0 win over the Senators.

In 1966, Spencer was promoted to the Texas League (Class AA); he stayed with the El Paso Sun Kings through the 1968 season. In each of these three years Spencer placed among the league leaders in most offensive categories. He paced the league in runs scored, home runs, RBIs and total bases in 1968. That season he led the Sun Kings to a championship while capturing co-Most Valuable Player honors. The Topps Chewing Gum Company selected Spencer to the All-West Class AA All-Star team.

Spencer was showered with awards while playing in Texas. He was the first recipient of both the Dick Wantz Memorial Trophy (in 1966, as the Angels most improved prospect) and the Ray Winder Memorial Trophy (in 1968, in recognition of his leadership and sportsmanship). In 1968, the Maryland Professional Baseball Players Association honored Spencer with the “Star of the Future” award. Each year rumors abounded of Spencer’s pending promotion to the big league club. He was deemed a “promising youngster … [who] may be [a] familiar name … by the end of the 1967 season.”3 Spencer’s rise appeared imminent following his 1968 MVP campaign as sportswriters fawned over him: “Spencer is the Angels’ Charley Hustle, the epitome of the spirit that has been missing from the team this season.”4 Indicating a readiness to leave the dusty El Paso environs, Spencer cracked, “One more year down there and I was going to run for mayor.”5

A late-season call-up allowed Spencer to make his major-league debut on September 7, 1968. Starting at first against the Boston Red Sox, he collected his first hit – a single to centerfield – in his third at-bat against righty Ray Culp. Spencer started in each of the Angels remaining 18 games. Despite his meager .191-0-5 batting line in 68 at-bats, the team eagerly looked forward to Spencer’s permanent role at the infield corner. But the ensuing months dictated a different scenario.

The Angels dangled Spencer before the Philadelphia Phillies in trade for disgruntled slugger Dick Allen. When the deal fell through the team protected their prized prospect in the October 1968 expansion draft. Spencer prepared for the following spring in the Dominican winter league, but when training camp opened it appeared Spencer left his bat behind. A mere three hits in his first 19 at-bats set the tone for a disappointing spring. Spencer was assigned to the Hawaii Islanders in the Pacific Coast League (Class AAA), where he languished below .200 for the first few weeks. In late April Spencer suddenly exploded with hits in 15 of 16 games, including a grand slam and five RBIs on May 15 that led Hawaii to an 8-4 win over the Portland Beavers. His surge could not have come at a better time.

On May 25, 1969, the Angels fell to the Detroit Tigers in an embarrassing 10-0 defeat – the team’s 28th loss in 39 games. Lefty Phillips replaced Bill Rigney – the only manager the Angels had known – and Phillips immediately recalled Spencer. The turnstile that was first base for the Angels – 12 players manned the position in 1969 – was stabilized by Spencer’s exceptional glove work. He took the post in 107 games while helping the team to a near-.500 finish under Phillips. On July 15, after 203 major-league at-bats, Spencer connected for his first homer in a 5-2 win over the Kansas City Royals. The promising slugger connected for nine more dingers to place among the team leaders despite a mere 386 at-bats.

On May 8, 1970, following a 9-for-11 rush, Spencer sat atop the American League with a .391 average. Scout and former general manager Frank Lane assessed the youngster as a “coming super star.”6 Spencer’s fast start helped the Angels to the first place perch through May 16. Spencer’s value was gleaned by examination of the team’s losing records in June and September – the same months Spencer sagged below .200 (the latter due to a cracked rib suffered on September 7). His overall play, which earned him the first of his Gold Glove Awards, boosted the Angels to a franchise-best 86 wins. But the euphoria of the 1970 campaign soon dissolved for player and team.

In 1971 an anemic offense – a league-low 511 runs scored – contributed to the Angels 86-loss campaign. Phillips continually juggled his lineup to jump-start the bats to no avail. Spencer was not immune from this malaise. He used humor to explain his April 26 .190 average – “I went on a crash diet so I could hit my weight”7 – but the levity disappeared as Spencer’s offense continued to plummet. On May 15, despite a team-leading five homers, Spencer was benched in hopes that a brief respite might restore his swing. He began experimenting by moving his hips in the batter’s box, believing this would cause him to wait longer on the breaking pitches that caused him so much trouble. Other sources claimed his difficulties stemmed from his being overweight. But ultimately, his slump ended thanks to tips received from an unexpected source.

Gloria Jean “Jackie” Jackson was a close associate of the Spencer family.8 An accomplished athlete, Jackson knew baseball – in 1971 she had a tryout with the Pittsfield Senators in the Eastern League (Class AA). She watched Spencer in Washington9 and quickly assessed his need to relax at the plate – a tense approach was encouraging swings at bad pitches. The results of her scouting were instantaneous. Beginning June 5, Spencer hit safely in 17 of his next 20 games at a .338 pace. Acknowledged as the Angels hottest hitter after the All-Star break, in July and August alone Spencer struck half his season-total of 18 home runs while driving in more than half his 59 RBIs. A sprained knee sustained in a home plate collision September 10 caused Spencer to be used sparingly thereafter. He finished the season second behind Ken McMullen for the team lead in homers and RBIs, but a disappointing .237 average elicited dismay from the Angels management. Spencer toiled in the Venezuelan League that winter as rumors abounded of his pending trade to the Yankees or Texas Rangers.

A knee injury hobbled Spencer’s start to the 1972 campaign. On May 5, the Angels acquired first baseman Bob Oliver from the Royals as insurance. When Oliver hit a home run in each of his first two games new manager Del Rice sought a permanent place for the righty slugger. Spencer garnered only 36 starting assignments after the trade, many of which were in left field after he requested outfield play. Seemingly relegated to the far end of the bench, Spencer captured a mere nine plate appearances in September and finished the season with just 212 at-bats. He felt misused and briefly contemplated retirement. After the season the Angels believed they’d successfully traded Spencer to the Rangers for catcher Dick Billings, but Texas pulled out of the deal after their November 30 acquisition of Mike Epstein.

Spencer spent time in the Dominican League, where he led the Licey Tigers – under the helm of manager Tom Lasorda – to a Caribbean Series title. Spencer reported to spring training 10 pounds lighter, which, alongside an imposing hitting display on March 1, impressed the Angels newest manager Bobby Winkles. The advent of the designated hitter granted Winkles the ability to play both Spencer and Oliver as the former reclaimed his familiar first base. Also reclaimed was his humor when, after seeing Winkles’ 75-page playbook, Spencer joked, “We have more plays than [football coach] Vince Lombardi.”10

Meanwhile Rangers first baseman Mike Epstein struggled mightily – .188-1-6 in 85 at-bats – against the wind-thwarted power alleys in Arlington Stadium. On May 20, Texas traded Epstein to the Angels in a multi-player swap for Spencer. Though he wrestled with the air-current as well – manager Whitey Herzog estimated the winds cost Spencer at least eight homers in 1973 – Spencer arrived with an inherent advantage. He was familiar with the peculiarities of the stadium from his years in the Texas League (when the park was used by the Dallas-Fort Worth Spurs). This familiarity, combined with Spencer’s line drive hitting style, which worked well in the wind conditions, produced a .405 clip in his first 42 at-bats in the Texas environs. Though a series of minor injuries slowed this pace considerably, Spencer earned his only major-league All-Star berth. For the first time since 1971, Spencer appeared to have captured a full-time role. Two factors stymied this expectation over the next two years.

A sprained arch Spencer suffered in the spring of 1974 contributed to a miserable training camp. His poor production accelerated the promotion of Class A prospect Mike Hargrove, who went on to win the 1974 A.L. Rookie of the Year and the bulk of play at first. Though Spencer recaptured the position in 1975 – he was used as a designated hitter otherwise – another factor restricted his playing time: in two years he garnered just 50 at-bats against left-handers.

Throughout his career Spencer received nearly four times as many at-bats versus righties:

 

  AB BA SLG
vs RHP 3909 .255 .393
vs LHP 999 .231 .363

 

His production against southpaws was not significantly less – it certainly did not warrant a mere 25 at-bats per year (under managers Billy Martin and Frank Lucchesi). Spencer always insisted he’d “been the victim of a bum rap.”11

Spencer’s name appeared often in trade rumors, primarily with Milwaukee and Detroit.12 Suddenly, over a two-day period, Spencer was moved twice – on December 10, 1975, to the Angels for righty Bill Singer, and the next day to the Chicago White Sox in a four-player transaction. Spencer was elated with the latter move, as he correctly perceived it as an opportunity for daily play. When the 1976 season opened Spencer struck at a torrid pace – his .341 average and 13 RBIs placed among the league leaders on April 30.

But Spencer and second baseman Jorge Orta were the only players providing heft to a feeble Chicago offense. The White Sox plummeted to a league-worst 97 losses. Opposing pitchers quickly discovered that an easy path to victory was pitching around Spencer; he received a league-leading 19 intentional walks (his teammates collectively had16). But Spencer made pitchers pay dearly when they were forced to pitch to him. Particular success was garnered against the Royals. Spencer delivered four game-winning hits – including two homers and a triple – against the division champions and, in a satisfying twist, each hit was delivered versus a lefty. Spencer amassed single-season highs in at-bats (518), RBIs (70) and stolen bases (six, a surprise for the slow-footed athlete). He committed two errors – five fewer than any player with 140 games – but his .998 fielding percentage was not enough to overtake Milwaukee’s George Scott (13 errors – a .992 percentage) for the Gold Glove. Though Spencer’s success was rewarded with a three-year contract, his name was omitted from the 1977 All-Star ballot. Spencer seemed to take the slight personally, and he responded with some of the finest play of his career.

Chicago’s active off-season produced an offensive juggernaut in 1977. Affectionately dubbed the “South Side Hitmen,” the team raced to a 90-win season. With a supporting lineup around him, opposing hurlers no longer had the luxury of pitching around Spencer. On May 14, he connected for two homers and eight RBIs – including his first major-league grand slam – before being lifted in the 5th inning of an 18-2 rout of the Cleveland Indians. Unbeknownst to Spencer or his manager, the eight RBIs tied a White Sox single-game record first established by Shoeless Joe Jackson in 1920. Spencer might easily have shattered had he remained in the game. Minus the grand slam, on July 2 Spencer duplicated this feat with another two-homer, eight RBI outing. The RBI threshold stood through 2014, with Spencer the only White Sox player to have accomplished it twice.

Despite a single-season career-high 10 errors Spencer collected his second Gold Glove (perhaps the award corrected for the oversight in the preceding season). His 18 home runs and 69 RBIs placed among the leading Hitmen as the team contended for the division title until the waning weeks of the season. On December 12, 1977, Spencer was traded in a not-unexpected move – the White Sox had telegraphed their desire to insert the younger Lance Johnson at first.

The surprise was the team that acquired Spencer – the Yankees. Chris Chambliss ably manned New York’s first base position. Though Spencer was thrilled to fulfill a childhood dream of playing in pinstripes, he was rightly concerned about his playing time. This concern was amplified by the presence of Yankee manager Billy Martin, the same skipper who first sat Spencer in Texas versus lefties. Throughout his remaining five seasons – during which he followed Martin to Oakland – Spencer never collected more than 295 at-bats in a single season.

The 295 at-bats came in 1979, when Spencer established his single-season career high of 23 home runs – with a remarkable .593 slugging percentage.13 Though he appeared in a variety of rumored trades – including a multi-player swap for Hall of Famer Rod Carew – Spencer’s 1979 output caused owner George Steinbrenner to reevaluate first base. On the eve of Spencer’s filing for free agency, he inked a four-year deal with the Yankees for $1 million.14 The contract included the controversial stipulation that became known as the Spencer Clause.

Though Martin was soon bound for Oakland, Spencer still sought assurance of regular playing time in 1980. The Spencer Clause ensured his inclusion in the starting lineup against all right-handed starters. Martin’s replacement, Dick Howser, balked at having his hands tied. When Spencer struggled out of the gate, the manager sat him June 13 in the second game of a double-header. Sporting a .212-3-14 line, Spencer did not raise protest – “I wasn’t hitting,”15 he frankly acknowledged. But as the benching became more and more frequent, Spencer filed a contract grievance. Informed that he had to have filed immediately after the June 13 breach, the appeal was denied. This did little to ameliorate the growing chasm between player and management. Spencer’s exasperation was evident when, in sympathy with teammate Reggie Jackson, he stated, “[N]o matter how much money you make, you still have to have fun in this game … Otherwise you come to hate it and you just can’t play it.”16

When the Yankees were sluggish in early August, Steinbrenner singled out Spencer for criticism. Shortly after the season the frustrated player made a written request for a trade. He later revoked the request. But Steinbrenner made remarks — about Spencer’s weight and its link to his poor performance — that signaled the team’s intent to rid itself of the left-handed slugger. But the Spencer Clause proved to be a hurdle; no other team wanted to be saddled with the burdensome contract. In spring 1981 the Yankees thought they’d found a suitor in Pittsburgh, which seemed willing to deal first baseman Jason Thompson. But Commissioner Bowie Kuhn voided the trade when he discovered an outlay of $850,000 in Yankee cash accompanied the transaction. On May 20, the Yankees succeeded in trading Spencer to Oakland in a five-player swap.

Spencer spent an uneventful two seasons with the A’s, managing a .191-4-14 in 272 at-bats. Given his unconditional release on June 28, 1982, Spencer took the news stoically: “I haven’t done anything for two years … I have a lot of things to consider … Whether I can still play ... and it would depend on what team wanted me.”17 He briefly considered playing in Japan, but retired instead.

A major consideration in Spencer’s decision making was family. On October 7, 1967, he married his high school sweetheart Frances Margaret Portera. They were raising two daughters – Jessica Leigh and Jaime Michele – and Spencer expressed reluctance at the thought of relocating them. He returned to Maryland and devoted his attention to the Taneytown building he’d owned since 1970 – 50 miles northwest of Baltimore – in which his parents ran a restaurant. He also partnered with a friend in a seafood venture in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. Over a two-year stint around 1987, Spencer was the assistant baseball coach at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Years later he briefly served as an advanced scout for the Yankees. Between 1987 and1998, he was inducted into the Maryland State Athletic Hall of Fame, the Anne Arundel County Athletic Hall of Fame, and the Carroll County Athletic Hall of Fame.

Spencer’s first marriage dissolved in divorce in the late 1980s; he married Susan McDonnell on August 4, 1991. They purchased a home in Sarasota, Florida where they wintered each year. A regular participant in the Fantasy Camps that sprouted throughout the Sunshine State, Spencer was a fan favorite.

Throughout his life Spencer contributed generous portions of his time to charitable causes and events. In February 1971 he participated in a baseball clinic for Baltimore County youth. A year later, President Richard Nixon honored Spencer at the White House for his efforts in a drug abuse prevention program.

In 2002, Spencer travelled to Hollywood, Florida, to participate in a February 9 baseball game benefiting the Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital. The next morning Spencer complained of feeling unwell and returned to his hotel room to rest. He was found dead two hours later after suffering a heart attack. Spencer’s remains were returned to Maryland and buried beneath a prominent headstone commemorating his baseball career in Taneytown’s Mount Pleasant United Methodist Cemetery.

In 1975 Spencer made the modest claim: “My glove made me a major leaguer.”18 The statement appears obvious for a two-time Gold Glove recipient whose .995 fielding percentage led all first basemen at the time of his retirement. But the statement understates contributions Spencer made elsewhere. For example, his fine offensive production in 1977 led the White Sox to a 90-win campaign. Spencer concluded his 15-year major-league career with a lifetime .250 average, 146 home runs and 599 RBIs. Yet his contributions did not end there.

Fans can thank Spencer for his part in Charlie Finley’s failed attempt to institute the use of bright orange baseballs. On August 16, 1973, Spencer participated in an exhibition between the Rangers and the Texas League All Stars, in which the orange balls were used on an experimental basis. Spencer claimed he had difficulty picking up the rotation of the ball and, in any instance, “I [just] didn’t like it.”19

Spencer took great pride in being known as a player’s player. On July 16, 1976 he testified before American League President Lee MacPhail on behalf of Cleveland’s first base coach, Rocky Colavito. The former star was accused of bumping an umpire following a disputed play, and Spencer felt strongly that the umpire had baited the coach.

When the 1972 season was delayed by the players’ strike, Spencer – despite having just two full seasons under his belt – expressed his firm support for the players:

“The owners say they are losing money and that they are in it for the love of the game. I don’t believe it. If they were losing money, they would get out. I know I’d sell my restaurant if it was losing money … We’re supposed to be the best in our profession, the best in the world. Nobody says anything about doctors and lawyers making $50,000 to $100,000. That’s all right because they are the best in their profession and they’re in business. But we’re in business, too.”20

Often known as “Gentleman Jim," July 13, 1979, provided a glimpse of Jim Spencer’s proud nature. Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan had carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning when Spencer lined a drive in front of California Angels centerfielder Rick Miller, who couldn’t make the catch. Spencer became visibly upset when the close play was scored as an error, thereby preserving the no-hit effort. When Reggie Jackson’s ninth inning single foiled the bid, Spencer reportedly emerged from the Yankees dugout to deliver a retaliatory obscene gesture to the Angels official scorer.

Spencer adamantly denied that he had made an obscene gesture. The very same official scorer supported his claim. It was important to Spencer how he was perceived and the incorrect report upset him greatly. Throughout his career, Spencer maintained a sterling reputation among fans, teammates and opposing players, and he fought tenaciously to maintain his standing. As evidenced by his charitable efforts on the eve of his passing, his sound reputation extended outside the baselines as well.

 

Acknowledgments

The author wishes to thank Debbie Duvall, Spencer’s sister, for her family recollections. Further thanks are extended to Alan Cohen for his diligent research and Matthew Perry for editorial and fact-checking assistance.

 

Sources

ancestry.com

http://www.nytimes.com/2002/02/14/sports/jim-spencer-54-first-baseman-who-played-for-1978-yankees.html

http://ancestry.com

 

Notes

1 “Spencer Giving Chisox Two-Edged Protection,” The Sporting News, May 15, 1976, 22.

2 The Orioles then-farm director Harry Dalton and Spencer thereafter developed a lifelong friendship.

3 “A.L. Ready to Harvest Nifty New Frosh Crop,” The Sporting News, February 18, 1967, 28.

4 “Angels See New Era Dawning With Dick Walsh as G.M.” The Sporting News, October 5, 1968, 26.

5 “R. Robby Wins 11th A.L. Glove Award,” The Sporting News, November 21, 1970, 41.

6 “Lane Rates ’70 Angels Better Than ’69 Mets,” The Sporting News, June 6, 1970, 10.

7 “Professor Andy Teaches Rudy May Winning Pitch,” The Sporting News, May 15, 1971, 28.

8 She was a friend of Jim’s first wife, Frances.

9 Believed to be during the Angels road trip May 31 – June 2, when Spencer’s average hovered around .182.

10 “Insiders Say,” The Sporting News, March 31, 1973, 6.

11 “Spencer Giving Chisox Two-Edged Protection,” The Sporting News, May 15, 1976, 22.

12 The Tigers unsuccessfully continued pursuing Spencer after his trade to Chicago.

13 In his first 500 Yankee at-bats, Spencer powered 33 home runs, a figure exceeded only by Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle.

14 Chambliss was traded to Toronto within days of the signing.

15 “Lynn Replies to Fans’ Barbs,” The Sporting News, July 26, 1980, 23.

16 “Peace Comes To Reggie,” The Sporting News, August 2, 1980, 3.

17 “Ax Finally Falls On A’s Spencer,” The Sporting News, July 12, 1982, 39.

18 “’Rangers Future Is Now,’ Declares Harrah,” The Sporting News, March 29, 1975, 31.

19 “Rangers Win, But Orange Ball Loses,” The Sporting News, September 1, 1973, 33.

20 “Ex-Steel Union Boss McDonald an Angels’ Fan,” The Sporting News, April 29, 1972, 21.