This article was written by Joseph Wancho
It had been a few years; some New York Yankees fans might say it seemed like an eternity. But eight years after the Yankees participated in their last fall classic, they were back in the playoff hunt, as the calendar flipped to September 1972. They entered the final month of the season in third place, trailing front-runner Baltimore by 1½ games and Detroit by one game.
The long season had dragged on and Yankee skipper Ralph Houk was supplied with some fresh bodies from the minor leagues. Like most teams who were in a postseason frame of mind, the Yankees were gearing up for a final push. They were looking for a spark, an infusion of young talent, or to get a close-up look at the potential stars of the future.
One of their call-ups was Charlie Spikes, a power-hitting outfielder who had been labeled “can’t miss” by almost everyone within the Yankee organization, and those from outside New York who coveted the prized minor leaguer. The 18,145 paying customers at Yankee Stadium on September 1 were there to see what the hubbub was all about.
They were treated to a fine pitching performance by Mel Stottlemyre, who shut out the visiting Chicago White Sox by a 4-0 score. Stottlemyre was brilliant, scattering four singles and walking none. Spikes contributed to the win, leading off the second inning with a single to left field in his first big-league at-bat. He later scored on a sacrifice fly off the bat of Gene Michael. In the fifth inning, Spikes got his first RBI with a single off Goose Gossage.
In the fourth inning the White Sox mounted their only threat of the night, getting two runners on base with one out. The 21-year-old Spikes showed some handy glove work when he made a diving catch of Mike Andrews’ sinking liner to right field, helping to snuff out the White Sox’ lone rally.
It was a wonderful start for Spikes. The New York Times agreed, as its readers awoke the following morning to the headline, “Stottlemyre Hurls 4-hitter – Spikes Stars in Debut.” Spikes’s assessment of his performance? “I got lucky,” said the soft-spoken youngster.i
Leslie Charles Spikes was born on January 23, 1951, in the lumber-mill town of Bogalusa, Louisiana. Charlie, his parents, twin sister Charlene, and their six siblings made up the Spikes household. Spikes was a top athlete at Central Memorial High School, excelling in baseball and football. “I had about 30 scholarship offers in football including Louisiana State University and the University of Alabama,” said Spikes, who was a middle linebacker. “But the Yankees came along and made a financial offer I just couldn’t refuse. It was too good.”ii Playing third base, Spikes led Memorial to the 1969 City Championship. He hit a home run in the title game for the lone tally, a 1-0 victory.
Yankee scout Atley Donald’s report rated Spikes as “good” for agility, aggressiveness, power, arm, range, and habits.” He also wrote that “the ball jumped off his bat better than any player I’ve seen since I’ve been scouting.” As a result, the Yankees selected Spikes with their first pick in the June 1969 amateur draft.
When Spikes reported to Johnson City, Tennessee, in the Appalachian (Rookie) League, it was his first time outside Louisiana. He progressed through the Yankees’ chain, having a breakout year in 1972 at West Haven of the Double-A Eastern League. Under manager Bobby Cox, the Yankees went 84-56 and won the league championship. Spikes was called up to the Yankees on Septe,mber 1 after leading the team in home runs (26), RBIs (83), doubles (27), triples (5), and batting average (.309). He had been anointed with the nickname the Bogalusa Bomber because of his tremendous clouts.
Despite his auspicious start with the Yankees, Spikes, facing mostly left-handed pitchers, produced only five hits in 14 games. The consensus was that he was not ready for the majors and would benefit from a year in Triple-A. “We don’t want to rush him,” said general manager Lee MacPhail. “Especially since he’s an outfielder and we are set in the outfield for a few years.”iii
Meanwhile, the Yankees and Cleveland had been talking trade for months, with Spikes and Indians third baseman Graig Nettles as the principal parts. Neither side would make a trade until each player was included. Finally, on November 27, 1972, the deal was made, with Spikes going to Cleveland with catcher John Ellis, outfielder Rusty Torres, and infielder Jerry Kenney, for Nettles and catcher Jerry Moses.
Yankee scout Tom Greenwade, who had signed Mickey Mantle, Charlie Keller, Bobby Murcer, and other prominent Yankees, thought the deal was a good one for the Indians. “Nobody I signed, including the likes of Charlie Keller, had the power of Spikes. He can hit 40-plus homers when he’s ready. ” said Greenwade. “I think he would be better off with another year in the minors, but he’s good enough to help Cleveland this season.”iv
Indians general manager Phil Seghi gushed, “He could be the next superstar. You can tell that by looking at him. He has the look about him. He’s built for it, and he has the essential speed and power. It’s just a question of how long it takes him to put it all together. In our opinion, it won’t take long.”v
Seghi and manager Ken Aspromonte both believed that Spikes was ready for the majors, penciling him in as the starting left fielder. Spikes was also confident that his time had come, as he was being tutored by Rocky Colavito, one of the team’s greatest sluggers and now a coach. Colavito was taking special care with Spikes. “Rocky’s on me every pitch, reminding me to use my hand when I swing,” said Spikes. “Nobody with the Yankees ever took time to help me like Rocky has.”vi
Colavito’s tutelage must have helped, for Spikes led the team in home runs (23) and RBIs (73). However, he also led the team in strikeouts (103) and hit only .237. “I know the big thing is to cut down on my strikeouts,” said Spikes. “I have a tendency to pull my head, which takes my eyes off the ball. Because I’m a long-ball hitter, naturally, I will strike out some. But if I can cut down on those strikeouts, I know I can do what’s necessary in the big leagues.”vii
The Indians did not often contend for the playoffs from 1960 through the mid-’90s. Occasionally a team would finish over.500, but for the most part Cleveland was a second-division team. In 1974, Spikes’ second year with the Indians, they acquired Jim Perry from Detroit, and he and his brother Gaylord Perry combined for 38 wins, but no other starting pitcher won more than nine games. The Indians stayed in contention until mid-September, when they were in fourth place, six games out of first with a 71-71 record, but they faded and finished 77-84, 14 games out. Spikes was again the top producer on offense, leading the team in home runs (22), RBIs (80), and hits (154), and tying for the lead in doubles (23). His batting average improved to .271, but he struck out 100 times. He had a 19-game hitting streak in April, clubbing four homers and driving in 16 runs during the streak. He tied Amos Otis of Kansas City for the longest hitting streak of the year,
Playing winter ball in Puerto Rico after the season, Spike was struck in the face with a pitch. He was unable to open his left eye for two weeks. Examinations showed no permanent damage, but Spikes was not sure that his eyesight was not affected. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but I don’t think I could see as good afterwards,” he said years later. “If anything, I might have come back too soon.”viii
Frank Robinson, who succeeded Aspromonte in 1975, was a strict manager. He was a great player, who expected his players to perform at the same level. He fined Spikes $100 for missing the cutoff man from right field. “Charlie has been missing the cutoff man repeatedly. At bat, I think he is pressing but the one part of the game that there is no excuse for is not thinking. We are going to correct it.”ix
Spikes got off to a bad start in April 1975, hitting just.151. He improved each month, but his batting average for the year was .229. He lost playing time because of his poor performance as well as the emergence of outfielder Rick Manning, who was called up in late May and made an immediate impact. Soon Manning, George Hendrick, Oscar Gamble, John Lowenstein, and Spikes were all competing for time in the outfield. If a player struggled, Robinson did not hesitate to sit him down. Spikes’s at-bats were down by 220 from the previous season, and he hit just 11 home runs.
Spikes’s career continued on a downward spiral when the Indians demoted him to Triple-A Toledo in 1977. There, manager Jack Cassini briefly benched Spikes after he failed to run out a pop fly, loafed in the outfield after a base hit, and did not slide into second base to attempt to break up a double play. “If he doesn’t want to run out the damn ball, he can’t play for me,” said the Mudhens skipper. “If he can’t hustle, he won’t play here. Nobody makes this team look bad.”x But Spikes righted the ship and in July he was recalled by Cleveland, where in the meantime manager Robinson had been replaced by Jeff Torborg. Spikes languished on the bench for the last two months of the season, getting only 28 at-bats.
When shortstop Frank Duffy tested the free-agent market after the season, the Indians had to find a replacement, and in December they got Detroit shortstop Tom Veryzer in exchange for Spikes. Tigers manager Ralph Houk was willing to give Spikes a new beginning. “We all know what Spikes can do when he makes contact,” Houk said. “He’s going to strike out a lot. But you just have to let him swing the bat because sometimes he’s going to hit a home run to win the game for you. Spikes is the kind of guy who can break games wide open for you if you give him the chance.”xi
Spikes was eager for a change of scenery and the opportunity to begin anew. “I’ve got a new start here with Detroit and I don’t even want to look back to Cleveland,” he said. “What is going to happen here has nothing to do with my past performance. Just judge me on what I do in Detroit, not what happened in the past.”xii But Spikes injured his knee and was sent down to Triple-A Evansville after just ten games. He played in only 16 games at Evansville, and then had knee surgery. He was released by Detroit on September 25, 1978.
Just before the start of the 1979 season, another manager from Spikes’s past decided to give him a look. Bobby Cox was now the head man in Atlanta, and he was looking for some bench help. He invited Spikes to spring training with the Braves as a nonroster player. Spikes made the team was used primarily as a pinch-hitter, batting .340 in that role with 16 hits in 47 at-bats, five doubles, two homers, and 13 RBIs. He also played some outfield when needed. Teammate Darrel Chaney appreciated Spikes’s production, saying, “All Charlie does is grab a bat and say, ‘Skipper, what do you want this time? Home run, double, what?’ “Then he says, ‘Okay, I’ll be right back.’ ”xiii
Spikes and teammate Mike Lum (17 pinch hits) led the major leagues in pinch hits in 1979. “Charlie deserves more playing time,” said Cox. “But he does have pretty good guys playing in front of him and he is such an asset coming up in a key spot. He’s had as many big hits, probably, as any of our regulars.”xiv
Spikes was a pinch-hitter again in 1981, getting 10 hits in 31 at-bats. He was released at the end of the year. He played in Japan for a year, suiting up for the Chunichi Dragons for almost three times his 1980 salary in Atlanta. “I did OK in Japan,” he recalled. “I think I hit 12 or 13 home runs, but it was tough to stay focused. I had trouble communicating.”xv He injured his knee again and came home for another operation. He was officially retired from baseball.
Years later Spikes injured his back while working in a textile factory in Bogalusa. Three operations later, he was on total disability. As of 2012, he lived in Bogalusa with his wife, Marsha, and their two daughters, Kimberly and Leslie.
Spikes’ didn’t blame Frank Robinson or anyone else for the fact that his career took a wrong turn. “It wasn’t Frank,” said Spikes. “I liked playing for him, and I wanted to do good for him because he was baseball’s first black manager. If anything, maybe I tried too hard. But if I did, that was my fault, not his. But I have no complaints. I’m grateful for the opportunity I had to play that game. I just wish I could have been better, for longer.”xvi
Terry Pluto. The Curse of Rocky Colavito (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994).
i Ed Rumill, “Charlie Spikes: New Hope For the Indians?” Baseball Digest, June 1973, 33-34.
ii Ed Rumill, “Charlie Spikes,” 33-34.
iii Phil Pepe, “Yankee Brass Digs Spikes as a Future,” New York Daily News, March 2, 1972.
iv Jim Ogle, “Bunts and Boots,” The Sporting News, April 14, 1973, 43.
v Ed Rumill, “Charlie Spikes,”, 33-34.
vi United Press International article, March 25, 1973, in Spikes file, Baseball Hall of Fame library.
vii Russell Schneider, “Spikes On Home Run Splurge, Makes Aspro Cautious Prophet,” The Sporting News, May 19, 1973, 20.
viii Russell Schneider, Whatever Happened to Super Joe? (Cleveland: Gray and Company, 2006), 52-56.
ix United Press International article, May 7, 1975, in Spikes file, Baseball Hall of Fame library.
x “Cassini Benches Spikes For Lack of Hustle,” The Sporting News, June 4, 1977, 37.
xi Jim Hawkins, “Spikes Digs In To Win New Start With Tigers,” The Sporting News, April 22, 1978, 11.
xii Hawkins, “Spikes Digs In.”
xiii Ken Picking, “When Braves Feel Pinch, Spikes Goes on Warpath,” The Sporting News, June 16, 1979, 40.
xiv Picking, “When Braves Feel Pinch.”
xv Russell Schneider, Whatever Happened.
xvi Schneider, Whatever Happened.