Wednesday, February 22, 2012

George Spencer's magical ride with the Giants in 1951

As one of the four living members from the 1951 National League champion New York Giants, former relief pitcher George Spencer can speak with candor about his playing career and the current state of baseball. “My playing days are long gone, but the memories are still there. It’s a great game, it seems like it’s a shame it has gotten to where it has,” he said in during a January 2012 phone interview from his home in Ohio.

“Where baseball is today, I’m very disenchanted. … I see the little leaguers when they hit a game winning home run, they all gather at home plate and hit each other and smack each other and throw helmets in the air, and that’s little league,” the 85-year-old Spencer lamented. “Instead of it being big league down, the little league has gone to the big leagues. I see them in their uniforms and it looks like half of them are getting ready to go to bed, with their pants down over their shoes. It’s a sight to behold.”

George Spencer
Well before the advent of players celebrating on the field for every diving catch, stolen base or home run, Spencer was a two-sport star at Ohio State University, where he played quarterback for their football team. More than sixty years later, Spencer has no regrets over his choice of profession. “I played football and baseball. I had two quarters, one for football and one for baseball and neither one of them took!” laughed Spencer. “I picked the right sport anyway. I can still walk and get around fairly decent."

Spencer signed with the Giants in 1948, and after three seasons in the minors, he was summoned to the majors in August 1950, albeit much to his surprise. “You won’t believe this. I won my first eight games in Jersey City. [After that] I lost either three or four in a row. I can’t remember where we were on the road, but Joe Becker the manager called me over,” said Spencer. The following exchange ensued between Spencer and his manager.

He said to me, ‘George, you’re going to the big leagues.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I sure as hell am Joe, I just lost four in a row and I’m going to the big leagues!’ He said, ‘I’m serious, you’re supposed to join them in Philadelphia.’ I said, ‘That’s hard to believe.’”

Spencer joined the Giants in Philadelphia and quickly found out that things were a bit more intense on major league soil.

“I joined them in Philadelphia and we went to fist city three times in the game,” Spencer recalled. “That’s when Eddie Stanky was standing on second base waving his arms. He and [Andy] Seminick, the Philly catcher at the time, went ape over the doggone thing because they didn’t have a rule on that [relaying signs]. We cleared out; I was out of that bullpen three times. I was out there fighting and I can remember looking on my right and Tookie Gilbert is down on the ground and some cop has the billyclub right over him, ready to swipe him. Somebody grabbed his arm so Tookie didn’t get hit. I thought if this is the big leagues, I’m a lover, not a fighter. What an experience!”

A few days later at the Polo Grounds, Spencer toed the rubber for his debut against their cross-town rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers. After getting through a scoreless first inning, Spencer again received another major league lesson.

“I’m facing the Dodgers and [Gene] Hermanski is the hitter. I got him a nice fastball right over the plate and hit a ball to the right field side of dead center. Bobby Thomson was playing center field and he hit it and it was a one-hopper to the fence out there,” said Spencer. “I finally got the side out and I come back in the dugout and Bobby comes back in and says, ‘Darn, I didn’t get a jump on that ball, that ball should have been caught.’ I said, ‘Bobby, if that ball should have been caught, this is where I should be pitching.’ I didn’t pitch there very long, but that’s where I should have been pitching.”

After posting a 2.49 ERA in ten games his rookie season, Spencer returned for a full year with the club in 1951. During that year, Spencer found himself with a front row seat to some of baseball’s most legendary spectacles which included pitching in the World Series, watching Bobby Thomson flatten the hopes of Brooklyn faithful and last but not least, the debut of a young kid from Alabama named Willie Mays.

“In my opinion, he was the best all-around ballplayer I ever saw. … He’s the only outfielder that I can remember seeing that could hit any place on the infield and it was a one-hopper to the catcher,” he said.

During the infamous playoff game where Thomson hit “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” Spencer recalled the performance of Don Newcombe dashing his World Series hopes.

“In the eighth inning when Newcombe was still pitching and they had the lead, it looked like he was throwing nothing but bee-bees. I visually saw dollar bills flying out the window because we were going to get knocked off by him, because he looked like he had way too much,” said Spencer.

The bullpen let out a sigh of relief when Charlie Dressen went to the mound.

“Everyone on our team was pleased that they decided to make the switch, any switch to get Newcombe out of there. The way it ended up, it was all to our liking. I don’t think they were too happy with it, but that’s the way it goes. That’s baseball.”

Thomson’s home run propelled the Giants to the World Series against the New York Yankees who featured the soon-to-be retired Joe DiMaggio. In the seventh inning of Game Two of the World Series, Spencer was summoned in relief of Larry Jansen. Standing across from him as he walked to the mound in his World Series debut was the famed Yankee Clipper.

“The first guy I had to face was number five. I think I got about two-thirds of the way to the mound from the bullpen and I looked at the scoreboard and it said number five up there and I immediately thought, ‘What in the hell am I doing here pitching to this guy?’” Spencer wondered.

Even though Spencer gave up seven runs in his two World Series appearances, he had a clean slate against DiMaggio the two times they squared off.

“I always thought I was a big contributor to his retirement in 1951 because I faced him twice and I got him out both times. He must be saying, ‘If I can’t hit that guy, I must be through.’ That’s the story I always told. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him have any comment of how tough of a pitcher I ever was. I look at it a little differently.”

Spencer remained with the Giants through the 1955 season, shuttling between the major league club and AAA. He pitched in six games for the 1954 World Series champs, contributing a 1-0 record during the regular season, but wasn’t on the roster for the postseason. He resurfaced in the majors with the Detroit Tigers for cups of coffee in 1958 and 1960, playing full-time in the minors through 1963 before retiring. He became a pitching coach in the Detroit Tigers and Cincinnati Reds organizations for four years, taking the mound one last time as a player-coach in 1966 while coaching in Statesville, N.C.

Moving on from professional baseball, Spencer worked in a sheet metal factory for twenty years.

Throughout all of his travels during his 17 years in baseball, nothing matched the rivalry between the two New York National League teams during that 1951 season.

“When the Dodgers and Giants played each other, it was war. Every time we went to Brooklyn, you knew what you were going to get there and when they came to the Polo Grounds, they knew what they were going to get too. It was a thrill to be a part of that.”

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