There’s an old saying in baseball that goes something like this: “He was a pretty fair country ballplayer.” The player doesn’t even have to hail from the countryside to be included. The city or the suburbs will suffice just fine. He just needs to have been a decent, contributing player, perhaps someone who has been forgotten by time and is now unappreciated. Using that definition, I’ll say that former Yankee Jim Spencer was a pretty fair country ballplayer.
Unfortunately, Jim Spencer has become a forgotten link to the 1970s. When Spencer died from a heart attack in February 2002, there was barely a mention in national publications or even the New York City newspapers, like the Daily News and the Post, which cover the Yankees. His passing at the age of 54 created so little fanfare, even for those who grew up with the Yankees during the Bronx Zoo years. I’ve spoken to a couple of Yankees fans, whom I would classify as a shade less than diehard, who didn’t even know that Spencer had passed away.
In a way, that’s a sad state of affairs. After all, Spencer carved out a career that lasted 15 seasons, the first six with the California Angels, followed by three with the Rangers. From there he went to the White Sox to the Yankees to the A’s.
It was during a miserable season with the Angels in 1972 that Spencer encountered one of the first major roadblocks of his career. He couldn’t stand playing for Del Rice, the Angels skipper who benched him early in the season in favor of slugging Bob Oliver. “Apparently, the manager gave up on me,” a bitter Spencer told sportswriter Dick Miller one year after the fact. “I couldn’t play on a fifth-place club. At one point, I didn’t do anything but pinch-hit for five weeks. That’s a pretty good indication Rice gave up on me.”
In an effort to find more playing time, Spencer volunteered to play the outfield. He played both left field and right field, enabling him to accumulate more than 200 at-bats. Yet, it was at first base where Spencer played like an All-Star, at least defensively. Surprisingly quick for someone of better than average girth, he was an exceptional defensive first baseman who took home two Gold Gloves. He had especially soft hands, making him particularly adept at scooping low throws in the dirt. He also possessed good range and a reliable arm, which he used to wonderful effect in starting 3-6-3 double plays.
Three years after joining the White Sox, he attained a statistical oddity by leading the American League in intentional walks. It’s not that he was feared along the lines of a Barry Bonds or a Hank Aaron. Rather, he was the sole power hitter in a White Sox lineup that could have threatened the “Hitless Wonders.”
The ‘76 White Sox featured seven regular players who finished the season with fewer than eight home runs. Spencer looked like Dick Allen in that lineup, which featured mediocrities like Jack Brohamer and Pat Kelly, not to mention the less-than-mediocre infielders Kevin Bell and Bill Stein.
Those White Sox also had a future Yankee named Bucky Dent, who was three years away from hitting the home run that made him a household name. Yes, on that team, Jim Spencer looked like King Kong.
In 1977, the White Sox added a battalion of hitters, including Richie Zisk, Oscar Gamble and a healthy Eric Soderholm, thereby creating the summer of the “South Side Hit Men.“ Spencer took on a supplementary role for the Hit Men, belting 18 home runs while winning his second Gold Glove. In an infield that featured stone gloves like Jorge Orta and Alan Bannister, Spencer provided a beacon of defensive brilliance.
Watching from the Bronx, the Yankees liked Spencer enough to make a trade for his services. Envisioning him as an ideal backup to starting first baseman Chris Chambliss, a defensive caddy who could also pinch-hit and handle some DH chores, the Yankees sent two pitchers named Stan Thomas and Ed Ricks to Chicago for a package that included Spencer and Tommy Cruz, the younger brother of the original Jose Cruz.
The Yankees used him in that backup role for two seasons before he essentially replaced the Chambliss, who was traded to the Blue Jays, in 1980 and ’81. Spencer played a complementary role on the 1980 Yankees, a team that won 103 games and remains criminally underrated in Yankee lore.
Our natural tendency to forget the past overshadows the fact that Spencer provided decent production in a part-time role. Did you know that he led the 1979 Yankees in OPS with a mark of .970? In just 295 at-bats, Spencer clubbed a career-high 23 home runs.
It’s too bad that Spencer couldn’t have timed that performance to occur in 1978, when it would have felt far more relevant as part of a world championship contribution. Limited by injuries in 1978, Spencer came to bat only 166 times, rendering him something of a footnote during that memorable summer and fall. Still, he hit seven home runs in 150 at-bats while fielding first base with his usual aplomb.
Two negative developments hurt Spencer during his time in the Bronx. At one point, he became involved in a nasty dispute with the Yankees front office.
Strangely, Spencer signed a contract that included a clause guaranteeing his presence in the lineup against a right-handed pitcher throughout the 1980 season. Such clauses were illegal in baseball then and remain so now, making them completely unenforceable, and that’s a good thing. But Spencer and his agent complained when Yankees manager Dick Howser left him out of the lineup against certain right-handers. The whole affair, from the strange contract clause to his complaints about it being unfulfilled, made Spencer look bad.
Then came the Jason Thompson episode.
During the spring of 1981, the Yankees worked out a deal that sent Spencer and a large amount of cash to the Pirates for Thompson, at the time a budding star with major left-handed power. Much as he did with the sales of Vida Blue, Rollie Fingers and Joe Rudi in 1976, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn then stepped in and voided the Thompson deal, principally because the Yankees were sending too much money the Pirates’ way, more than the $400,000 limit that Kuhn had imposed.
Spencer had to return to New York, creating a huge letdown for Yankees fans who had been excited by the acquisition of Thompson. None of this was Spencer’s fault, but he became a lame duck first baseman until the Yankees traded him later in the season, this time for good. The Yankees sent him to Oakland for a younger first baseman, Dave “The Rave” Revering, who was not nearly as good as Thompson.
In spite of the contract dispute and the Thompson controversy, Spencer did two things very well during his days in pinstripes. First, he generally smashed right-handed pitching. Second, he fielded his position at first base with style and substance.
He did these things despite having one of the most non-athletic builds of all time. At first glance, Spencer simply didn’t look like he belonged on a big league ball field. Big in the waist and short in the arms, Spencer provided the antithesis to the Dave Winfields and Derek Jeters of later Yankees years.
Although he did good work in a complementary role for the Yankees, few seem to remember Spencer fondly as part of the Yankees’ late ’70s run of pennants or their 103-win season of 1980. Similarly, few fans remember Jay Johnstone or Gary Thomasson, two other veteran backups from that time period. (Thomasson was a particularly useful player during the second half of the 1978 season.)
In a world that is so connected to celebrities and stars, I guess this is simply the fate that falls on old platoon players or bench performers. The more time that goes by, the less and less they seem to become pertinent.
Perhaps players like Spencer are even less remembered because these types of players don’t exist in today’s game. Given the obsession with having 12-man and even 13-man pitching staffs (the height of ridiculousness), major league teams now carry few platoon or role players. Sure, there’s a backup catcher, and a utility infielder, and a fourth outfielder, and maybe one other player on the bench. And that’s about it. The platoon player, the pseudo regular, the John Lowenstein/ Gary Roenicke types have become virtually extinct.
If a player like Spencer were around today, he might have trouble finding a job. For every team like the Rockies that carries a backup first baseman like Jason Giambi, there are three or four other teams that are more concerned with finding a third left-handed situational reliever.
So I guess we should be grateful that Jim Spencer played when he did. The game was different back then, a good thing for Spencer and a good thing for fans who appreciate those types of players. He wasn’t quite good enough to play every day, but he was more than just a pinch-hitter, a man who could platoon against right-handers and play the hell out of first base.
Perhaps one day, either when rosters have expanded to 28 players or managers have come to the realization that they don’t need eight-man bullpens, the Jim Spencers of the world will make a return to our great game.