DEAD PLAYER OF THE DAY (Jim Spencer Edition)
Jim Spencer 1B 1968-1982 (1946-2002)
A few moments in the strange career of Jim Spencer, a longtime first baseman who was better known for his fielding (he won two Gold Glove awards) than his left-handed bat (.250/.307/.387 lifetime):
- He was the Angels’ first-round pick in the first ever amateur draft, going 11th overall. Beginning in 1966, the Angels parked him at El Paso in the Double-A Texas League for three seasons (ages 19-21). In his third season, he hit .292/.361/.542 with 28 home runs, leading the league in home runs, runs, and RBIs and finishing in a three-way tie for the circuit MVP award. Today we might be more skeptical of a prospect who was not only a “Double-A repeater” but a three-peater, and was doing his repeating in a hothouse offensive environment.
- After several years as an Angels regular during which he hit only .248/.298/.370 (albeit at a time when those numbers, while not good, weren’t quite as bad as they look now), in May, 1973, he was traded to a historically miserable Rangers team, the one that went 57-105 and had both Whitey Herzog and Billy Martin as managers. While there, he made the All-Star team as a reserve, apparently because the Rangers didn’t have much else to offer—Spencer was hitting .280/.345/.370 going into the break.
- After not doing very much with the bat for years, Spencer was acquired by the Yankees and found that his swing was tailored for Yankee Stadium. In his career, he had 588 plate appearances at the big ballpark in the Bronx, about a season’s-worth. He hit .285/.353/.533 with 36 home runs in 523 at-bats. In 1979, the 32-year-old was the platoon DH and had one of the better part-time seasons in Yankees history, hitting .288/.367/.593 with 23 home runs in 295 at-bats. He averaged a home run every 10.4 at-bats at home.
- After Spencer’s big 1979 season, the Yankees re-signed him to a four-year deal worth $1.5 million. The contract had a clause saying that he had to start against right-handers. If not, the manager, general manager, and owner had to meet with him and explain why he was not playing. This turned out to be a bad idea on a number of levels, because Spencer slumped early in 1980 while platoon partner Bob Watson got hot. To his credit, Spencer went to manager Dick Howser and told him “not to let the clause get in the way of his judgment.” Damned if you do, damned if you don’t: having done that, the newspapers wrote that Spencer had begged out of the lineup.
- In April, 1981, the Yankees masterminded a three-way trade with the Angels and Pirates. The Pirates sent two players to the Angels for arbitration-eligible first baseman/DH Jason Thompson, who was then sent on to the Yankees for Spencer and two minor-league pitchers, Greg Cochran and Fred Toliver, and $850,000. More than half of the money ($450,000) was designated to cover Spencer’s contract. Thompson was a left-handed power-hitter, and though Peter Gammons had written of his “dead, even-moving-to-my-position-is-an-imposition approach to the game… Sometimes you’d swear Thompson was at a séance,” he was a great get for Spencer, a sabermetric type with a decent average and good plate judgment who was only 26. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who loved to veto trades (has Bud Selig ever vetoed one?), complained that the deal involved too much cash. Kuhn had an arbitrary rule that clubs could not put more than $400,000 into trades, though teams had found ways around that rule by showing that some of the money was going to the player, not the team. Kuhn vetoed it anyway. The two teams tried to save the deal, the Pirates adding six minor leaguers to balance out the cash, but the Commissioner determined that the minor leaguers were not worth $450,000 and vetoed this version as well. This was one of the absurdities of the Kuhn administration—the Commissioner was actually critically evaluating the prospects exchanged in trades and vetoing trades on the basis of his opinion of their value. The Pirates then asked for Gene Nelson, then the Yankees’ top pitching prospect, who was slated to be part of New York’s rotation. That was the end of the deal. The Angels-Pirates half was approved; the Yankees went home empty-handed, and still possessing Spencer.
- Spencer had feuded with George Steinbrenner, who had accused him of letting up after getting his contract, and welcomed the trade. “This was the one ballclub I really wanted to play for since I was a kid, so it’s a hard pill to swallow,” he said, “[But]the bottom line is I’m happier when I’m playing ball. The Though thing the last couple of years is that I was fighting between what I love most in the world—playing baseball—and what I always wanted—being a Yankee.” He was also looking forward to playing for Chuck Tanner, who was his manager back at El Paso. Still a Yankee thanks to Kuhn, Spencer shrugged. “My head has been spinning for three years. One more spin isn’t going to hurt it.” Spencer opened the 1981 season by hitting .143 in 25 games and was traded to Billy Martin’s Oakland refuge for former Yankees in May.
- Spencer’s defensive reputation seems to have sprung from the fact that he very rarely made errors. He retired with a .995 fielding percentage. When the Yankees acquired him in 1978, it was reported that this was the best fielding percentage of all time for a first baseman who had played in a thousand or more games. Using that same 1000-game standard, he ranks 14th, 11th, if active players Mark Teixeira, Todd Helton, and Paul Konerko are discounted.
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