This article was written by Bill Nowlin
In the course of the nine seasons and 449 major-league games in which Edward Spencer appeared, he was hit by a pitch 17 times. More than half those hit-by-pitch moments came in one year, in just 70 games, when he was hit a league-leading nine times.
Spencer was a catcher, and he stood 5-foot-10, while weighing 215 pounds – perhaps hinting at how he earned his nickname. We don’t know how much he weighed at birth, but we do know he was born at Oil City, Pennsylvania, on January 26, 1884. In the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains in northwestern Pennsylvania, Oil City was a boom town in the region of the country which saw the first oil wells early in the second half of the 19th century. Charles Spencer was a farmer in Licking, Pennsylvania, in 1880 and living with his wife Margaret “Maggie” McGuiness and their first son, Curtis. Charles is listed in 1900 as a “manager” in Scranton, but a manager of what is not noted in the census. Margaret and Charles had four children at the time: Curtis, Charles, Edward, and Anna. The family seems to have been well off. On the farm in 1880, they had had a servant, Jennie Watterson. Twenty years later, they had an Irish-born cook, Anna Kilcullen, and a hosteler (a coachman), Harry Allen.
Waco, Texas is where Spencer’s pro career began in 1905. He played well in 54 Texas League games, hitting .272 with three homers. On July 2, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that he’d been signed by the St. Louis Browns the preceding day. Scout Ted Sullivan had passed through Texas a few weeks earlier “and the sale is supposed to have been the result of his visit.”i He was reported as a graduate of Princeton University, and the Dallas paper further reported that 1905 was his first year of professional ball and his first year catching, though he’d played independent ball.ii He may have been part of a battery of brothers had things worked out otherwise; an April 1906 story reported his older brother Charley pitching for Greenville in the Class D Texas League and beating Dallas, 4-3.iii Existing records suggest he pitched in just seven games.
Spencer joined the team, managed by Jimmy McAleer, and debuted on July 24. “Ed. Spencer, that cracking good catcher whom McAleer picked up in Texas, is a former Kiskiminetas boy. That’s where he got that long hair.”iv The Kiskiminetas River is a tributary of the Allegheny, and Spencer had attended the Kiskiminetas Springs School. The long hair reference is unclear, perhaps just a reference to the prep school. He may have been cracking good at the time, but six entries earlier in the same “American League Notes” column, it was reported that “the Browns’ star young catcher” was ill and “may not be able to get in the game for some time to come.”v He was able to come back and play in the early October games.
Spencer was said to have a strong, fast throw to the bases, and was also a good athlete. He’d played fullback at Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania. He wasn’t flabby; his teammates called him “Hackenschmidt” and was “big and strong like the famous wrestler.”vi The Post-Dispatch said “his shoulders are like the sides of an express car.”vii He liked to dress well, dubbed a regular Beau Brummel: “Spencer has a suit of clothes, a different hat and pipe for every hour in the day.”viii
Spencer’s debut was an unremarkable one. The Highlanders beat the Browns, 10-5. Spencer was 0-for-3. He played in 35 games in all, in 1905, with a .235 batting average and 11 RBIs. He walked enough to bump his on-base percentage up to .285. He scored six times. St. Louis finished last in the American League, more than ten games behind seventh-place Washington.
The Browns became a winning ballclub in 1906, finishing fifth at 76-73 with young catcher Branch Rickey handling (65) a few more games than the team’s other two catchers, Spencer (58) and Jack O’Connor (55), Rickey hit .284, more than 100 points above Spencer’s .176. Spencer drove in 17 runs. O’Connor hit .190 but had a better fielding percentage. Spencer’s .935 fielding percentage (with 20 errors) was the lowest, and second-worst of his nine seasons. Cumulatively, Spencer caught 408 games with a .966 fielding percentage. Twice, for Boston in 1909 and Detroit in 1916, he only had one error.
It was Spencer who handled most of the work in 1907, though the work was still spread over several catchers. He appeared in 71 games and hit for what was probably his best season, with 25 RBIs, 27 runs scored and a .265 average. He would have caught more, but the first signs of his struggle with alcoholism made it into the newspaper when he was suspended on May 30 and sent home “for failure to obey the training rules of the club” – a common euphemism for alcoholism at the time.ix He was angry enough that he quit the club, but relented and came back hoping to prove himself by working out with the ballclub – yet more than three weeks later he was still suspended, his reinstatement to follow his “promise to join the ranks of total abstainers.”x McAleer let him get back in the game after a month, and he caught the July 1 game against Cleveland, a 5-2 loss for the Browns, but Spencer got two scratch hits and threw out four runners. The Cleveland Plain Dealer made light of the reasons for his suspension, saying he’d been guilty of “absorbing a glass of beer when he was overweight” but now he had “promised to be good.”xi He lost another couple of weeks in late July, but this time it was due to a baseball injury to his thumb.
He had gained weight since his days in the Texas League and the September 22, 1907 Plain Dealer ran a quite large full-body photograph of him in uniform under the heading “Biggest Catcher in the American League.” More than one newspaper began to dub him Hippo Spencer. There was one advantage to his bulk. “Spencer’s massiveness makes it a comparatively easy matter for him to block runners. The only chance to remove him from the plate is to use a dynamite cartridge or a derrick.”xii He was considered to have one of the best throwing arms in the league, though, “gets the ball away quickly and watches the bases like a policeman guarding a trust company’s safe.”xiii
The March 1908 issue of The Sporting Goods Dealer featured a half-page advertisement for “The Spencer Special Catcher’s Mitt.” It was, the ad proclaimed, “Designed by this Famous Catcher. Entirely New Pattern and Construction” and was sold by the Norvell-Shapleigh Hardware Co. of St. Louis.
Spencer increased his games played total yet again in 1908, up to 91. He drove in 28 runs, though an increase not commensurate with the number of additional games, in large part reflecting a diminished .210 average. He was sought after by the Red Sox and Athletics, and on December 9, at the winter meetings, Boston owner John I. Taylor traded veteran Lou Criger to St. Louis for Spencer and $5,000 in cash.xiv It was considered to be a trade “so overwhelmingly in St. Louis’s favor that every baseball man who approached Manager McAleer during the day buttoned up his overcoat and kept his hand on his watch, much to ‘Sunny Jim’s’ amusement.”xv Taylor told the Tribune, though, the while “the sentiment among baseball men appears to be that I made a foolish deal. It may look bad to everyone during the next season but I am convinced that in the long run the baseball public will realize I acted wisely. Spencer is still a young man and a good catcher. Criger’s best years have passed and he is no longer in the best of health.”xvi Taylor hadn’t mentioned the money.
The $5,000 no doubt came in handy, but neither team made out all that well otherwise. (The two players each got a bit of a boost in compensation – Criger as a subsequent inducement to go through with the trade, and Spencer, after he saw what Criger got and asked for something more himself.)xvii Criger played in 74 games and hit .170 with just nine RBIs. Spencer appeared in 28 games and hit .163, also with nine RBIs. Criger turned 37 before the 1909 season began. Spencer did indeed have youth on his side, turning 25 – but he had a health problem of his own which had not been sufficiently appraised.
Spencer missed connecting with the team as its train headed south to Hot Springs, but he got there on his own about a week later. In the early going he “worked as no man on the team has worked. He caught, ran bases and was the life of the party.”xviii It was perhaps the “life of the party” bit that should have raised more eyebrows. There was a little incident on the night of March 15, though. “He was in a hurry to get to his room and, finding the elevator door open, went in and pulled the rope, acting as his own elevator boy. As the car went past his floor, the giant catcher commenced to think he had made a mistake and boarded a flying machine. But the next instant the car bumped against the roof, making a noise like the falling of a chimney, and Mr. Spencer got busy with the door, managing to crawl out of a small opening and dropping to the floor unhurt, but thoroughly frightened. It was early this morning before the car was in working order and the hotel guests were well tired out from tramping stairs.”xix
He got off to a good quick start but soon petered out, hitting as low as .113 by the first week in June. Manager Fred Lake had him on the bench for a while. He picked up his pay on Friday, July 2 – and then jumped the club to go cross-country and play “outlaw” ball in Oakland. “He had no fault to find with Boston, but just jumped at an offer to become an outlaw and be out of organized ball for good,” wrote the Boston Globe. “The big good-natured catcher is well liked by his fellow players, but is known as a big boy with a bohemian disposition.”xx He may not have ever worked things out with Oakland. A report several days later had him “in hiding, whereabouts unknown to manager.” On July 21, he sent word that he had nothing to do with outlaw leagues, though he didn’t say where he’d actually been, and that he would rejoin the Red Sox in Detroit.xxi He didn’t. The next they heard of him was in early August, when he turned up in St. Paul and said he’d play out the year there. The Red Sox approved the arrangement, so he could stay in organized ball.xxii
He played quite well for St. Paul, hitting an impressive .330 in 34 games.
Incoming Red Sox manager Patsy Donovan said he wanted Spencer back in 1910, Tim Murnane writing in the Globe that Donovan was “still pretty sweet” on Spencer and allowing as how “it’s simply a matter of handling a big, good-natured fellow, who sometimes makes mistakes, but always has sense enough to see them.”xxiii
Instead, Spencer played in St. Paul once more, in 81 games, hitting a sharply lower .248 – though he didn’t start the season well. Manager Mike Kelley suspended him in the early going. After the season, there was an incident when he was seriously injured driving an automobile in New Orleans, speeding at 60 mph when he reportedly hit a raised plank on a bridge.xxiv
Jack Kavanagh wrote about Spencer that he was “an admitted alcoholic” who “dropped out of baseball in 1910 and, after a few games with the Phillies in 1911, disappeared again. He rode the rails, a hobo, until the Tigers gave him a chance in 1916. He responded by batting .370 in 19 games, and lasted through 1918.”xxv
There were those few games with the Phillies – 11 games, during which he hit .156 and drove in three runs – not much to appreciate, sold by St. Paul for a reported $2,500 on July 29 after Red Dooin of the Phils broke his leg.xxvi A little strangely, Spencer had been on the St. Paul club, but was said to have been given his outright release by Kelley. The Louisville club claimed him, but Kelley didn’t want him going to a league rival and so pulled back the release, but still kept him on the bench. The league held that Kelley had suspended Spencer, not waived him, so the order that he go to Louisville had to be rescinded.xxvii When Dooin suffered his injury, the Phils turned to St. Paul to get a replacement, buying Spencer’s contract for $2,500.
Spencer stuck with the Phillies until September 19 when Louisville got him, purchased from Philadelphia. A piece that August said, “Spencer has talents as a backstop, but he refuses to trouble himself by using them. He doesn’t have to work for a living and that had made him easy going.”xxviii
On October 3, he announced his retirement from baseball “and gave his gloves, shoes, sweaters and uniforms to small boys around the park.” His father – “said to be worth several million dollars” gave him a check for $50,000 as soon as he announced his decision. Spencer’s plan was to get married in Scranton and then head out to the West Coast.xxix
His retirement only lasted for the winter, though the marriage plans didn’t seem to gel. He was arrested a couple of times in Philadelphia, most notably for breaking his way into the Oyster Saloon on February 8 around 4:30 in the morning, only to be confronted by the owner (who lived upstairs) with a revolver. He claimed later to have no recollection of smashing the glass to get in, and was sent to the county prison to sober up over the weekend. He was said to have been on a spree for several weeks.xxx
He reported to Louisville in the spring, but was suspended even before the season began “owing to the fact that he showed no inclination to get into condition.”xxxi He did play in 31 games, but hit only .194 and was indefinitely suspended in early June. It seems as though he wore out his welcome in Louisville, too. He was “ordered out of Louisville by a judge and commanded to stay away.”xxxii He went to Indianapolis and got arrested there and sent to the workhouse for intoxication.xxxiii
He’d pretty much hit rock bottom. He indeed had become “a bedraggled hobo” but his father arranged for him to work in a logging camp to be out in the fresh air. He followed that with a job as a salmon fisherman and then – to prove he’d conquered drink – took a job for six weeks as a bartender at a “rough-and-ready place in Crescent City” in California.xxxiv It was a successful experiment, in the short run.
In 1913, he found work closer to home, catching for the San Francisco Seals. He appeared in 21 games but hit for a new career low, .127, and was unconditionally released on June 4. “He showed ability as a player, but his erratic behavior wore out the patience of manager Del Howard.”xxxv Sporting Life observed, “Howard was finally convinced in Portland that the capable catcher is not subject to discipline. Some half a dozen managers in big and Class AA leagues readied that conclusion long ago.”xxxvi
In January 1914, Spencer’s father died, leaving him heir to the family fortune – but stories that ran in papers around the country all said that he couldn’t be found. A couple of weeks later, it was revealed that he’d been working in a lumber camp around Eureka – and that Spencer’s brother had another opinion regarding who inherited the money.xxxvii
The story of his battles with drink appears to have had a happy ending. In April 1922, a story in the Seattle Daily Times told of his odyssey beginning as a “free and easy liver” and a life of “wild wassail” and concluding that the lumber camp cure had worked. He was by 1922 “a citizen of whom William Jennings Bryan would be proud to welcome with open arms. There is not a finer figure in baseball than this same Tub Spencer. Educated, mild in manner, polished in bearing, considerate of his fellows.”xxxviii
Baseball was still in his blood, and after a year off, he caught for the Venice/Vernon Tigers in the Pacific Coast League, acquitting himself well. Not only did he appear in a career-high 113 games, but he seems to have gotten his batting stroke back, hitting .257 and a career-best five home runs.
He started 1916 with Vernon and played in 77 games (.261) before a “heated altercation” with the manager saw his contract sold to the Detroit Tigers on August 4.xxxix He played in 19 games for the Tigers and hit for a high .370 average, driving in ten runs. During the offseason he was in the haberdashery business in San Francisco.
At some point, runs an anecdote, the Tigers were on a spring training tour and put up at a hotel in Atlanta which was on the American plan. Tubby was seated with Ty Cobb. “Knowing the wide-open conditions, Ty was eating all sorts of things, while Spencer had ordered only coffee and rolls. Spencer, looking at Ty, said in a rich Southern drawl, ‘Mah Gad, Ty, how can you-all eat that stuff? Coffee and rolls is all I care foh foh breakfast. Say, Ty, here’s 15 cents. Pay the waiter fo’ me. I want to take a little walk.’ ‘Why, we don’t pay for our meals here,’ said Ty. ‘We’re staying here on the American plan. It’s the same price, no matter how much you eat.’ ‘Is that a fact sure enough?’ asked Tub; ‘then pass me that bill of fare, Ty. Ah thinks ah can eat a little bit mo’.”xl
The Tigers had him back for 1917 and (after a holdout) 1918, 70 games (.240) the first year and 66 games (.219) in the second, war-shortened, year. Those were his last games in the majors. He worked in the winter of 1917-18 as baseball coach at Santa Clara College. After wrapping up the 1918 season, he went into shipbuilding to help with the war effort. The Tigers released him in February 1919.
He signed with Salt Lake City a week later and caught for Salt Lake in 1919, playing in 113 games, and hitting .322.
He was sold to Seattle in the first part of February but he refused to report there and before the month was out had agreed to manage the Rexburg, Idaho club in the Snake River-Yellowstone League. He was involved with some business there, as well.
A month after two Chicago White Sox players admitted taking money to throw the 1919 World Series, in October 1920, there was some intrigue when Spencer reported that he’d been offered a $1,700 bribe from Babe Borton, a former player for Vernon. Borton’s defense? That it had only been a $500 offer.xli
Spencer turned 37 before the 1921 season began, but he could still catch. He played in 98 games for Seattle (he’d now agreed to play there) and hit .323, his five homers matching his 1915 high point. He played for Seattle again in 1922, but hit just .208 in 43 games. When he signed with the Rainiers in early 1921, it was agreed that he had remained a very popular player and that the sort of problems he’d had in San Francisco in 1913 were behind him.xlii
In 1923, he was sold to Mobile, refused to report, played for a while with Stockton, but “severed his connections” and abruptly left in late August.xliii That fall, he became a Fairy, signed as second-string catcher with the Beloit Fairies.xliv
He signed with the Los Angeles Angels and played his final two years – at aged 40 and 41. In 1924, he played in 61 games and hit.281. In 1925, he played in 41 games and hit .275.
More than once, he played in an old-timers type of game – see, for instance, “Old-Time Baseball Players Cavort in San Francisco” in the Los Angeles Times of February 13, 1937.
Fitting his work history during his playing years, it’s perhaps not surprising to find varied jobs reported every ten years in the census. In 1920, he was living in Fullerton, California with his wife Rita and their 7-year-old daughter Eloise, listed as an “oil man” with “oil wells.” In 1930, the couple was living in Los Angeles and he worked as an investigator with an automobile club; Rita was working as the manager of an apartment house. In 1940, he was listed as “director, WPA Recreation.”
On February 1, 1945, he died about eight weeks after suffering a brain hemorrhage, in San Francisco. He was survived by his widow, Rita Spencer.
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Spencer’s player file from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com.
i Dallas Morning News, July 2, 1905. Sullivan had reportedly recommended him to Washington, but the Senators had not taken advantage. See Washington Post, January 8, 1906.
ii The Richmond Times Dispatch later wrote that he’d attended Bucknell. See the April 15, 1908 edition, and the September 6, 1908 Duluth News-Tribune.
iii Dallas Morning News, April 2, 1906.
iv Sporting Life, September 23, 1905.
vi Sporting Life, August 26, 1905. Georg Hackenschmidt was a noted wrestler of the day.
vii St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 18, 1905.
viii St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 27, 1905.
ix Wilkes-Barre Times, May 30, 1907.
x Fort Worth Star-Telegram, June 23, 1907.
xi Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 2, 1907.
xii Belleville News Democrat, June 23, 1908.
xiii Daily Herald (Biloxi, MS), September 4, 1908.
xiv Boston Globe, December 10, 1908. Once McAleer approved the trade the next day, it was fully implemented.
xv Chicago Tribune, December 11, 1908.
xvi Chicago Tribune, December 13, 1908.
xvii Washington Post, February 17, 1909.
xviii Boston Globe, March 6, 1909.
xix Boston Globe, March 17, 1909.
xx Boston Globe, July 4, 1909.
xxi Boston Globe, July 22, 1909.
xxii Boston Globe, August 7, 1909.
xxiii Boston Globe, December 31, 1909.
xxiv Sporting Life, October 29, 1910.
xxvi Springfield Republican (Springfield, MA), July 30, 1911.
xxvii Kansas City Star (Kansas City, MO), August 8, 1911.
xxviii Unidentified typewritten report in Spencer’s player file at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
xxix Kansas City Star, October 4, 1911.
xxx Washington Post, February 9, 1912.
xxxi Omaha World Herald, April 4, 1912.
xxxii Chicago Tribune, August 25, 1912.
xxxiii Sporting Life, September 14, 1912.
xxxiv Saginaw News, September 19, 1916.
xxxv San Diego Evening Tribune, June 4, 1913.
xxxvi Sporting Life, June 21, 1915.
xxxvii Boston Journal, February 5, 1914.
xxxviii Seattle Daily Times, April 3, 1922.
xxxix San Jose Evening News, August 4, 1916.
xl Newspaper clipping dated May 16, 1929 found in Spencer’s player file at the Hall of Fame, and marked E.R., perhaps for the Evening Record.
xli Portland Oregonian, October 21, 1920.
xlii See, for instance, the Oregonian of February 27, 1921.
xliii San Diego Evening Tribune, August 28, 1923.
xliv Kenosha Evening News, September 1, 1923.