Monday, January 2, 2017

Daryl Spencer, hit first major league home run on the West Coast, dies at 88

Daryl Spencer, a major league veteran of ten seasons and a baseball pioneer in Japan, passed away in his hometown of Wichita, Kansas on Monday January 2, 2017. He was 88.

Spencer broke into the major leagues with the New York Giants in 1952 after swatting over 20 home runs in three of his first four minor league seasons. The 24-year-old Spencer continued his power hitting as he manned all three infield positions for the Giants in 1953 while slamming 20 home runs. Just as Spencer’s talents were progressing, Uncle Sam called him for military service before the start of the 1954 season.

Daryl Spencer / 2013 BBM
His almost two-year tour in the military cost him the opportunity to be a part of the Giants 1954 World Series Championship. His efforts the previous season didn’t go unnoticed by his teammates, as they voted him a share of the World Series earnings.

"Even thought I didn’t play, they voted me a $2,000 World Series share,” he said to SABR member Bob Rives. “That doesn’t seem like much now, but each player only got about $5,000.”

Spencer returned in 1956 and remained a fixture in the Giants lineup as they moved to San Francisco. He gained notoriety when he hit the first home run in West Coast major league history, blasting a shot off of Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Don Drysdale in the fourth inning of the first game of the 1958 season.

He played with the Giants through the end of the 1959 season when they traded him to the St. Louis Cardinals that offseason. He played another four years in the majors, seeing action with the Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds until he was released by Cincinnati on his 35th birthday in 1963.

“Some birthday present, huh?” he asked Rives.

His release opened the door for another opportunity that came from an unlikely place, Japan. The Hankyu Braves offered Spencer a contract for the 1964 season. What he encountered was a league in Japan that was far behind the caliber of baseball he was used to in the major leagues.

“I went over in 1964, it's changed a lot now,” he told me during a 2008 phone interview. “The managers didn't know what they were doing. I've seen better little league coaches than the managers over there. The pitchers would pitch nine innings and the next day they would be in the bullpen pitching relief, and they would be worn out. Five years, most of the good pitchers would be worn out because they pitched them so much.”

Spencer felt that if he was able to apply the strategies that he learned until the tutelage of the likes of teammates Alvin Dark and Bill Rigney, that he would have made a run at the championship annually in Japan.

“If I would have managed the first couple years, we would have breezed in every year,” he said. “Percentage baseball in Japan when I first went was so ridiculous and it took me about almost two-thirds of the season to get to the pitcher.

“I was getting all their signs; I knew their signs and I couldn't get them to pitch out. I knew when they were stealing, they would pitch inside and the guy would hit the ball to right field. One time I got them to pitch out, the catcher spoke a little English. One time I was playing second base and gave him a sign and we threw the guy out by ten feet. He said, 'Oh that's a good play!' They knew nothing.”

Spencer hit 74 home runs in his first two seasons in Japan in the supposed twilight of his career. He was at a point where his knowledge matched his physical abilities and the combination of the two in Japan allowed him to excel.

“I did real well over there,” he said. “I read most of the pitchers and I hit a lot of home runs. I got so frustrated. It got to the point there would be a runner on first with two outs and I might hit a home run, and the first thing I know, the guys steals and he gets thrown out and now I'm leading off the next inning. It took me about two weeks with an interpreter to tell them, 'When I am batting, I don't want anyone to steal.' They weren't smart. Playing major league baseball and going there was like playing little league, stealing their signs and everything.”

He brought an aggressive style to Japan that went against cultural customs. While major league baseball players were famous for their take out slides, those actions weren’t part of the game in Japan, that is until Spencer broke tradition.

“They never broke up a double play before I went to Japan,” he said. “I'm famous for breaking up the first double play; we won 1-0 because of it. The next night one of our guys slid in and knocked out a second baseman and that changed the whole style of play.”

Spencer took a hiatus from playing after the 1968 season after he hit 142 home runs in five years, well outpacing his production during the decade he spent in the major leagues. He returned as a coach in 1971, fifty pounds over his playing weight. As Spencer began to work out the players, his weight started to melt off and he mulled a return to the diamond.

“I was hitting a lot ground balls to players and the first thing you know I was down to playing weight,” he said. “One day I took batting practice and I hit six of seven out of the park and they signed me to a player contract. I was 43, 44 at the time, but I was so much better than they were, I didn't feel like I was 43. I was in pretty good shape and I was reading the pitchers; it was no challenge at all. I could have stayed a few more years.”

He spent two seasons as a player-coach, mostly as a first baseman. He finally called it quits in 1972, some 23 years after he broke into professional baseball. He returned home to work with the Coors Brewing Company.

“I came back to Wichita and got involved with Coors,” he said. “They have the NBC tournament here and I ran the Coors team here for a few years and we won a few state championships. It was mostly college kids and a few guys that played pro ball. I did that for five years and kind of semi-retired.”

Looking back on his career in 2008, Spencer was proud that the records he set over 50 years ago still persisted.

“I hit the first home run on the West Coast,” he said. “[Willie] Mays and I are the only two players that hit two home runs each in back to back games. For not being such a great player, I have a couple of records.”

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