This article was written by John Graf
From the trade of Max “Camera Eye” Bishop before the 1934 season to the arrival of Benny McCoy in 1940, second base was in a state of flux for the Philadelphia Athletics. An infielder from Wisconsin, Stan Sperry, was once said to be a possible answer to manager Connie Mack’s “prayer for a second baseman.” His potential was highlighted on the front page of The Sporting News, where Sperry was pictured with fellow 1938 rookies Joe Gordon of the New York Yankees, Ken Keltner of the Cleveland Indians, and five others.1
Early in his career, as property of the Philadelphia Phillies, the left-handed hitter was glowingly compared to Detroit Tigers great Charlie Gehringer by Philadelphia Inquirer sportswriter and former big league pitcher Stan Baumgartner.2 Later, and with less ballyhoo, Sperry took a place in the long line of Athletics second base prospects, few of whom would be starting material for more than a year, if that.
Sperry’s stay in the major leagues consisted of parts of two years with the two Philadelphia clubs. He had a cup of coffee with the Phillies in 1936 before his A’s opportunity in 1938, and he made Mack’s starting lineup for a couple of months. Most of his career was spent in the minor leagues, from 1933 through early 1943.
Stanley Kenneth Sperry was born February 19, 1914, in Evansville, Wisconsin. He was the only child of Martha and Fred Sperry. Evansville is located less than 20 miles southeast of the state capital of Madison, with a population at the time of about 2,000. The Sperrys were a baseball-playing family, starting with Fred and his brother Edgar, who played for business-sponsored local teams in the 1910s and 1920s. An Evansville historian credited Fred Sperry, a longtime barber in the community, with helping keep baseball alive there. Led by Fred, the barbers in 1923 accepted a challenge for a ball game from a team sponsored by another local business, leading to the formation of more teams and participation in the area’s Home Talent League.3
Stan Sperry was a four-sport letter winner at Evansville High. He participated in baseball, football, basketball and track and field. The versatile young athlete initially tried out as a pitcher during his freshman year, but was positioned at third base and had a .500 batting average through his senior season. A quarterback in football, Sperry was considered a college prospect for the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Baseball, however, was his most productive pursuit.
After his high school graduation in 1932, Sperry tried out for the minor league Milwaukee Brewers. Although he didn’t make the American Association team, he met Ed “Patsy” Gharrity, a former big league catcher with the Washington Senators who was living in nearby Beloit. Gharrity referred him to another ex-major leaguer, Johnny Mostil, the playing manager of the Eau Claire (Wisconsin) club of the Class D Northern League. Sperry batted .318 and .322 in 1933 and 1934 for Eau Claire, where he played second base, and his contract was picked up by the Philadelphia Phillies. During his Class D stay, Sperry met his future wife, Iris Flakoy, who was from Eau Claire. The couple was married November 17, 1934.
Sperry soaked up baseball savvy from Mostil, a .301 lifetime hitter for the Chicago White Sox, starting just after the Black Sox Scandal.4 “We did get a great deal of baseball education under Johnny Mostil,” Sperry told writer Baumgartner during the Phillies’ 1935 spring training in Winter Haven, Florida. “He told us that, while he wanted us to win games, he was satisfied if he could teach us to play the way they did in the major leagues. He told me, for instance, that if I ever got to the majors I would be a lead-off man, so he made me practice bunting and dragging by the hour. Despite the fact that I hit in the third position, he always made me bunt the first two balls.”5
The Phillies had a second baseman in Lou Chiozza, but he had committed 31 errors in 85 games at the position as a 1934 rookie and was being considered for a spot in the outfield. When Chiozza was injured during the 1935 training camp, writer Baumgartner was one of Sperry’s biggest boosters, though he did suggest the 21-year-old would be better off in the minors gaining experience than sitting on the bench with the big league club.
“Sperry, to date, has been the sensation of the camp, one of the finest second basemen to come to Winter Haven in years,” wrote Baumgartner, who during his playing days also worked for the Phillies and Athletics and won 13 games in 1924 with the latter club. “If there is one recruit who has a chance to make the grade it is the kid from the Northern League. The kid can play ball – and play it well as any recruit the writer has seen at spring training camp. He handled himself as smoothly and gracefully as a Gehringer. This may seem high praise but the youngster has warranted the commendation by his work.”6
Chiozza returned from his injury to reclaim the starting second base job and Sperry was eventually sent down to the minors. Also, in a stroke of bad luck that recurred throughout his career, Sperry became ill with tonsillitis before reporting to Class A Elmira of the New York-Pennsylvania League. His batting average dipped to .277 at Elmira, but in the spring of 1936, Sperry was right back in the mix as the Phillies reduced Chiozza’s infield time and increased his outfield duty.
After recovering from ptomaine poisoning during early March of 1936, Sperry got another of his favorable press notices when he was pictured in the Inquirer making a leaping grab during a March 12 game against Brooklyn. Baumgartner’s dispatch read: “Stan Sperry did a nice job at third after replacing the injured Mickey Haslin, adding a hit to two sparking catches of line drives, causing (Phillies coach) Hans Lobert to remark ‘That guy’s name is Speary, not Sperry.’ ”7
Nonetheless, Sperry was crowded out of the Phillies infield picture and shipped to Hazelton of the New York-Penn League, where he hit .313 under manager Andy High, a former big league infielder. The performance earned a trial with the big league club and on July 28, Sperry went 0-for-3 in his debut against the Chicago Cubs at Baker Bowl in Philadelphia. One game later, he got his first hit, a double off Cincinnati’s Bill Hallahan, in the opening game of a home doubleheader the Phils lost, 5-0. In the nightcap, he doubled and had two RBIs in a 5-4 victory. In Sperry’s next game, July 31, he went 1-for-4, giving him a .250 batting average through four major league games. For the rest of the year, he had just two hits and finished with a batting average of .135 for the National League’s last place club. Sperry’s season ended with an ankle injury and the Phillies sent him home to Wisconsin to recover.8
A family highlight occurred that year, as Stan and Iris became parents of the first of their five children. Stanley Kent, known as “Peck,” was born September 23, 1936.
For the 1937 season, the new father was dealt to Oklahoma City of the Texas League, where he batted a robust .355, good for second in the circuit. Sporting News correspondent Flint DuPre cited another ex-big league catcher and opposing manager, Hank Severeid, as calling the young second baseman the league’s outstanding player.9 Another writer for the baseball bible, M.D. Hickman, described him as “…hotter than a three-alarm fire; he covers more ground than a flock of tent shows and, according to competent observers, he’s headed for another trial in the major leagues as sure as his name is Stanley Sperry.”10
Philadelphia A’s scout Ira Thomas was on hand for an early August game and Sperry, who during the season had battled both illness and a sore shoulder, delivered three hits and “a couple of clever plays afield,” according to the Sporting News account.11 Oklahoma City won the Texas League regular season title and the Athletics purchased Sperry’s contract just before the league playoffs began.12 Although his team lost to Fort Worth in the postseason, the 23-year-old was on his way to entering Connie Mack’s second base sweepstakes.
During February, before spring training in Lake Charles, Louisiana, the Sporting News considered Sperry a solid contender in his bid to make his second Philadelphia squad. “Stanley Sperry may turn out to be the answer to Connie Mack’s prayer for a second baseman,” the front-page article projected. “Sperry is no stranger in the Quaker City, having once been with the Phillies.”13 At the same time, however, Mack was touting Dario Lodigiani, a former school days teammate of Joe DiMaggio who batted .327 for Oakland of the Pacific Coast League in 1937. .
“Second base was a sieve all last season and I think we will be far stronger there with Dario Lodigiani of Oakland, Cal.,” Mack told Philadelphia Inquirer writer James Isaminger. “I have the best reports about him.”14 Indeed, Lodigiani opened the season as the starter, and Sperry was sent down to Williamsport of the Eastern League. There, he played under former major leaguer Marty McManus, batting .312 and meriting a look from the parent club in August.
“Now Mack should learn definitely in the next few weeks whether Sperry is going to help him or not,” wrote the Inquirer’s Isaminger. “It is better to find out Stan’s true worth this year than to wait until next spring. If Sperry shows he is not a major leaguer, then Mack can make different plans about the keystone position…[Fans] believe it is a shrewd move on the part of Mack to get the lowdown on Sperry at a time when a player should be at his best.”15
Lodigiani was sent down to Williamsport to make room for Sperry. The new second baseman made his A’s debut on August 2, going 0-for-4 but turning a double play with shortstop and future Pro Football Hall of Famer Ace Parker. On August 4, in the second game of a doubleheader at Chicago, Sperry stroked two singles that began a 15-game hitting streak lasting until August 17. Less than a week later, he followed up with a 12-game streak during which he raised his batting average to .299 on August 28. The last game of the string marked the end of another steak, seven straight A’s doubleheaders at Shibe Park, the second most consecutive twin bills in American League history.
Another personal highlight for Sperry came on September 15, which was designated “Stan Sperry Day” and featured a Wisconsin delegation of over 100 traveling to Comiskey Park to celebrate the local hero.
“Next to playing baseball, Stanley Sperry would rather hunt than do anything else,” reported the Janesville (Wisconsin) Gazette previewing the event. Sperry’s high school baseball coach, Peter Finstad, presented the second baseman with an automatic shotgun which made Sperry “the envy of the umpires and other players” gathered before the first game of a doubleheader.16
“As most ballplayers and umpires are ardent hunters, all forgot baseball for a few minutes…After the presentation, players and umpires relieved Sperry of his prized gun and trained it on imaginary ducks and geese,” reported the Gazette. “As a matter of fact, the umps almost forgot to get the game started on time.”17
In the meantime, the A’s had recalled Lodigiani from Williamsport, but he was deployed mainly at third base after Bill Werber was injured. Sperry manned second most of the last month and wrapped up the season with a .273 batting average in 60 games. The Athletics finished in last place in the American League for the 10th time.18
The second base search continued, with Mack either praying or otherwise hoping for the best. Looking ahead to 1939, writer Isaminger in The Sporting News called the upcoming competition “a free-for-all fight,” with Sperry listed on the winter roster as part of the picture. However, another writer, Stoney McLinn, just over a month later reported manager Mack had commented he could use Cleveland’s Odell “Bad News” Hale at the keystone position.19
At the start of spring training in Lake Charles, Sperry, Wayne Ambler and Joe Gantenbein were the leading second base candidates; Hale was still in Cleveland. The papers continued to take notice of Sperry, who was featured (along with Ambler) in an advertisement for Father & Sons Shoe Stores in the Inquirer. A photo in the ad showed Sperry in his left-handed swing’s follow-through, with the copy describing him as “Stan Sperry, swinging with all the ease and grace so remindful of Father & Son Shoes.”20
The ad continued, “Sperry has been up before. According to form he should stick this year.” Bad luck befell the prospect, however, as he suffered a split finger on his right hand that allowed Gantenbein, also a left-handed hitter, and Ambler to gain an edge in the keystone battle. Sperry was among those who traveled north with the team at the end of training camp, but two more players had to be cut and he was one of them. On April 26, his contract was purchased by the Atlanta Crackers of the Southern Association. On August 15, the Sperrys’ second son, Ross, was born.
Sperry didn’t get another chance at major league ball. He batted .322 for Atlanta in 1939 and was sent to the Pacific Coast League San Diego Padres, where he was the second base regular on two teams that made the PCL playoffs in 1940 and 1941. Sperry batted .303 in 1940 and .268 in 1941 as the Padres lost a best-of-seven series to the Los Angeles Angels for the 1940 Governor’s Cup, and were swept in 1941 by the Sacramento Solons.21 He was chosen to play in the league’s August All-Star Game, but sat out the contest because of a torn toenail.22
Sperry made it known after the season that he preferred to play closer to his Wisconsin home, but the Padres persuaded him to come back after his potential replacement for 1942 was drafted into the military service.23 He batted .292 in 36 games for the Padres before getting his wish, catching on with the closer-to-home Louisville Colonels of the American Association, where he hit .276 in 39 games.
A third son, Scott, was born following the 1942 season, on October 5. In 1943, the 29-year-old Sperry slumped to a .132 average in 38 Louisville at-bats, giving him a lifetime average of .306 in 11 minor league seasons and marking the end of his professional career.24
Sperry briefly managed a new American Legion baseball team formed in Evansville in 1946. Iris and Stan’s daughter, Gail, was born October 24, 1946 and a fourth son, Jed, was born September 9, 1957.
Following his playing days, Sperry served as a part-time police officer in Evansville and as a Rock County (Wisconsin) deputy sheriff, once delivering a baby on the steps of Evansville City Hall. He ran the restaurant/hotel and bar his family owned in his Wisconsin home town, for 14 years. Major leaguers from the Milwaukee Braves, including Johnny Logan, as well as Sperry’s former Eau Claire manager, Johnny Mostil, were known to visit.25
Health problems eventually took their toll on Sperry, who suffered from arteriosclerosis. He died September 27, 1962 following surgery. His death certificate cited cardiac arythmias, post operative shock, arteriosclerosis of aorta and occlusion as his cause of death.26
Evansville historian Ruth Ann Montgomery, in her profile of the baseball scene in which Sperry starred, cited the significance of the family lineage.
“The strongest tradition of family baseball in Evansville is held by the Sperry family, with five generations playing on Evansville teams. The tradition began with Fred Sperry playing in the 1920s. Fred’s son, Stanley ‘Pop’ Sperry, was the local hero of the 1930s and 1940s…Then, ‘Pop’ Sperry’s sons, Stanley (‘Peck’), Ross, Scott and Jed, played for high school and Home Talent teams in the 1950s to the 1970s. ‘Peck’ Sperry’s sons, Todd and Jay, began playing with the T-ball teams in the 1970s and played on the high school team in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The fifth generation of Sperrys, Kyle and Drew, became the family’s 21st century ball players.” 27
In May of 1995, the baseball diamond on the grounds of Evansville High School was dedicated as “Stan Sperry Field.”28 Just as Sperry’s business after baseball gave people a place to go to enjoy themselves, his legacy continues as people go to Stan Sperry Field to enjoy themselves and the game of baseball to this day.
Special thanks to Joan and Stan “Peck” Sperry, the subject’s daughter-in-law and son, for information about the Sperry family, Ruth Ann Montgomery for her generous permission to draw upon her detailed history of Evansville, Wisconsin, baseball, and Tim Wiles, research director at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, for access to the Stan Sperry file there. Also many thanks to the staff of the periodical microfilms section at the Paterno Library on the campus of Penn State University, State College, Pennsylvania; the reference department of the Janesville (Wisconsin) Hedberg Public Library, and SABR for its arrangement with “Paper of Record” to gain access to archives of The Sporting News.
1 “Freshening Up with Freshmen – Majors in the Making,” The Sporting News, February 17, 1931.
2 Stan Baumgartner, “He Came Unheralded, But Not for Long,” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 17, 1935.
3 Ruth Ann Montgomery, “Evansville Baseball History,” www.evansvillehistory.net/Baseball.htm.
4 Baumgartner, “He Came Unheralded, But Not for Long.”
7 Baumgartner, “Infielders Three…Who Want to Be…Phillies ‘Regulars’ ”, Philadelphia Inquirer, March 13, 1936.
8 Baseball-reference.com; Montgomery, “Evansville Baseball History.”
9 Flint DuPre, “Texas Just About Resigned to Another Oklahoma Year,” The Sporting News, August 5, 1937.
10 M.D. Hickman, “Minors Worth Watching,” The Sporting News, August 26, 1937.
11 The Sporting News, August 12, 1937.
12 The Sporting News, September 16, 1937.
13 “Freshening Up with Freshmen,” ibid.
14 James C. Isaminger, “Mack Expects Strong Infield to Bolster A’s,” Philadelphia Inquirer, February 21, 1938.
15 James C. Isaminger, “Connie Moves To Plug Mack’s Infield Cracks,” The Sporting News, August 11, 1938.
16 “Evansville Fans To Honor Sperry,” Janesville (Wisconsin) Gazette, September 14, 1938.
17 “Players, Umpires Envy Sperry After Getting New Gun,” Janesville (Wisconsin) Gazette, September 16, 1938.
19 James C. Isaminger, “Mack Would Turn Infield Inside Out,” The Sporting News, October 27, 1938; Stoney McLinn, “Prospect of Lights Brighter in Philly,” The Sporting News, December 8, 1938.
20 Philadelphia Inquirer advertisement, March 25, 1939.
21 Donald R. Wells, The Race for the Governor’s Cup: The Pacific Coast League Playoffs, 1936-1954, by Donald R. Wells (Jefferson, NC. McFarland. 2000); Dennis Snelling, The Pacific Coast League: A Statistical History, 1903-1957, (Jefferson, NC. McFarland. 1995).
22 Jim McGee, “Coast Takes Shine to First ‘Star’ Tilt,” The Sporting News, August 7, 1941.
23 “Padres Want Sperry Back: Army Reaches for Lanifero,” The Sporting News, December 18, 1941.
25 Interview with Sperry’s son, Stanley Kent “Peck” Sperry.
26 Stan Sperry file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, New York.
27 Montgomery, www.evansvillehistory.net/Baseball.htm.