Hack Spencer

This article was written by Bob Tholkes

Fred Spencer, penner of passionate prose. In the summer of 1910, wooing his newfound love, Blanche Enlow of Hannibal, Missouri, with a barrage of penny postcards from his various stops with the Hannibal Cannibals of the Class D Central Association, the 25-year-old pitcher-outfielder came up with such gems as, “Howdy! Well, how are you?,” and “Well! But it is hot here today!” Well (as Spencer would say), something worked. They married in September, shortly after the season ended,

Blanche’s beau had already been around a bit, and not just within the confines of the Central Association. Born in 1885 in St. Cloud, Minnesota, and raised in what is now the near north side of Minneapolis, Spencer pitched his way to the Minnesota State League, the top independent league in the state, in 1906 with the Wermuth Furriers of Red Wing. Fans turning out for the Furriers’ matches with the Toozers of Minneapolis, the Austin Westerns of St. Paul, and the Fleckenstein Brewers of Faribault saw a physically unusual young player, especially for a pitcher: right-handed, he was all of 5-feet-7 and about 160 pounds. He had the strong build of the gymnast and acrobat he had been as a youth. Later it would inspire his nickname as a ballplayer, “Hack,” after the champion wrestler Hackenschmidt. Though he could undoubtedly throw hard enough to keep hitters honest, Spencer was already noted at this stage for his spitball, and it seems to have been his “out” pitch during his years in professional ball.

Spencer was also not quite finished as an acrobat in that summer of 1906. Playing in Red Wing on July 1, he homered in the sixth inning and, according to the Red Wing Republican, “marched in triumph toward home plate, registering his run by turning a somerset in mid-air, landing perfectly on the plate. He was cheered to the echo.” The other nickname by which the Republican referred to him, the “kidnapped kid,” is unfortunately unexplained.

Returning to the Furriers in 1907, Spencer caught the eye of at least one professional scout, and on July 3 the Keokuk (Iowa) Daily Gate City announced that Manager David L. Hughes had signed “Fred Spencer of Minneapolis, one of the crack slab artists of the country,” for the local entry in the Class D Iowa State League. The town’s other newspaper, the Constitution, was only a trifle less effusive, describing the new man as “one of the best hurlers in the entire northwest.” It quoted the Minneapolis Tribune on some of his recent heroics, noted that the newcomer was in poor shape after an overnight train trip from Minnesota (Spencer had played for Red Wing the day before), and warned that he might not be at his best for that day’s game. All this sounds as if it came from the horse’s mouth; Spencer had apparently remembered to pack his press clippings.

The Keokuk Indians were no juggernaut, ranking last of eight teams with a record of 17 wins and 33 losses. They had gone in search of an additional pitcher because they had just suspended without pay a hurler named Justice for a lackadaisical performance in which he had surrendered seven runs in an inning. The Indians had, however, just taken possession of a brand-new set of bright red uniforms, and it was in this gay attire that Spencer took the mound that afternoon against the Marshalltown Browns, who must have looked comparatively drab. A win would be nice to report, but the reported throng of 200 saw a loss by the score of one to zero, Marshalltown’s run being unearned. Still shorthanded, the Indians put Spencer in the outfield until his next start, on July 7, again against Marshalltown, which produced another tough loss, 3-1. Spencer tripled and scored Keokuk’s run.

Spencer was unable to single-handedly rescue the Indians’ season. He got into 17 games as a pitcher, won 3 and lost 13, and played 22 more games in the outfield, batting .199. Keokuk did not bring him back for 1908, and the beginning of the season found him again playing independent ball on weekends while holding down, as he had since 1904, a job as a clerk in Minneapolis with the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Omaha Railway, where his father was a yardmaster. In July, however, Ned Egan, manager of the Burlington (Iowa) Pathfinders of the Class D Central Association (successor to the Iowa State League), came to Minneapolis looking for a couple of new pitchers, and it was back to Iowa.

Going to Burlington proved a major break. The Pathfinders could offer more support. They were pennant contenders, and presumably Spencer, with a half-season of professional ball under his belt, had improved. Pitching only the last six weeks of the season, which ended in mid-September, he won 11 and lost only 3, and, more importantly, again got noticed.

In the first decade of the 20th century, all but a few major-league teams scouted most heavily in their own regions, and the Twin Cities were Chicago White Sox territory. Owner Charles Comiskey had extensive connections in the area dating to his operation of the Western League team in St. Paul before moving it to Chicago in 1900. Organized Baseball’s rules at the time allowed major-league teams to draft minor leaguers after their seasons had ended, with an eye toward trying them out the following year, when additional players were needed to conduct spring training. The “bushers” came cheap ($200 in compensation to their teams for Class D players) and they usually welcomed the opportunity.

How Spencer, on the strength of parts of two seasons in Class D, got one of the golden tickets for 1909 is apparently not a matter of record. The White Sox completed such signings every year, and they attracted little notice. The previous year they had signed Andy Nelson of St. Paul, also then approaching his 24th birthday. The resemblance ended there, however. Left-handed and a 6-foot-2 power pitcher, Nelson, coming out of semipro ball in North Dakota, was even less experienced than Spencer, but had a 21-strikeout performance in his résumé and obvious physical potential. Nelson had been signed on the recommendation of a local scout after having been checked out by Roy Patterson, a Sox pitcher idled by arm trouble. Though in Spencer’s case the plum went to a sawed-off spitball pitcher, the scenario was probably much the same.

The White Sox contacted Burlington about Spencer at the end of the Pathfinders’ season, and signed him immediately. Along with two other recruits, he was transported to ballplayers’ heaven: Chicago at the climax of the dramatic American and National League pennant races of 1908, when on the last day of the season the Cubs won the pennant and the White Sox were one of three teams still in contention. Spencer and a couple of other draftees worked out with the Sox and presumably had front-row seats as the Sox battled Ty Cobb and the Detroit Tigers on the last weekend of the season. The boost the experience must have given to his baseball ambitions can only be imagined.

Given that he had no real chance to make the roster, a young busher going to spring training with a major-league team as an extra pitcher could do no better from the standpoint of gaining knowledge and experience than to tag along with the White Sox. Year in and year out, they had one of the best pitching staffs in baseball. Usually near the top of the league in attendance, they were also well enough off financially so that in 1909 Comiskey scheduled a second straight spring-training trip to California for all hands, enough for two squads, referred to as the “firsts” and the “seconds.” Accordingly, Spencer reported to Chicago in time to catch the special train arranged by Comiskey for the 75-member party of club officials and their families, players, coaches, and journalists. The train consisted of a dining car, observation car, “buffet library car,” and four sleeper cars. It pulled out of the Wells Street station at 6 P.M. on Thursday, February 25. A large crowd of fans, the Chicago Tribune reported, was on hand to see them off.

The party was scheduled to arrive in San Francisco on Sunday night, the 28th, but attracted such curiosity on the way that progress was considerably slowed. Photo ops were provided in major towns, and the travelers got an eyeful of interesting locals, such as “sheepmen, miners, cowpunchers, Indians, Japs, and every variety,” as the Tribune reported during a stop in Wyoming. Finally arriving on March 2, they checked into the Fairmont Hotel, “the most gorgeous place of entertainment Frisco has ever boasted before or after the quake.” A surviving photo shows a dinner in the hotel’s lush Laurel Court restaurant, Spencer dressed to the nines in suit and tie.

The White Sox got down to work promptly, practicing the next few days as the weather permitted at Recreation Park, home of the Pacific Coast League San Francisco Seals, a top minor-league team. Spencer had been assigned for the time being to the firsts, the seconds having been sent down the coast to Los Angeles to train. If newspaper reports can be trusted, he had been taken under the wing of veteran White Sox catcher Billy Sullivan, his “philosopher, guide, and friend,” according to the Tribune. Sullivan was managing the firsts in the absence of 1908 manager Fielder Jones, and would end up as the manager for 1909 when Jones refused to end a self-imposed retirement from the game. The first exhibition was on March 5 against the Seals. The White Sox’ three pitching recruits all got into the game, Spencer pitching the eighth and ninth and giving up the only two runs, in the eighth on two hits and two walks. The general opinion was that he had been too nervous to pitch well – “stage fright,” the Chicago Daily News called it. Spencer complained of sore fingers.

Spencer had two more outings while with the firsts. Against St. Mary’s College on March 8, he allowed no runs on four hits in four innings, and against the Pacific Coast League Oakland Oaks on March 12, when he gave up two runs in four innings, walking three and hitting a batter. Though Sullivan thought Spencer was beginning to show his potential, Comiskey reportedly had decided early on that whatever his pitching ability, Spencer had deficiencies in fielding his position and maintaining his poise with men on base. When the firsts entrained for Sacramento on March 15, Spencer was left behind to meet the seconds, who were on their way to the Bay Area from Los Angeles.

Outings with the seconds followed on March 17 against the Oaks and on March 19 against the Seals, in which Spencer was touched for a combined three runs, four walks, and nine hits in nine innings. The consensus by then was that any chance he had to stay with the team was gone. Newspaper reports echoed Comiskey’s conclusion that he didn’t have sufficient control and couldn’t pitch effectively with men on base. The team left the Bay Area near the end of the month, returning by way of Reno, Salt Lake City, Denver, Pueblo, Topeka, Lincoln, Omaha, and Sioux City, playing exhibitions whenever possible. The Tribune noted on April 13 that Spencer had been returned to Burlington.

Spencer’s failure to make a big-league club hardly hurt his status back in Iowa. Few players in the Central Association ever got the chance. He apparently made the most of his learning experience, racking up a record of 27 wins and 13 losses for the Pathfinders and pitching them to the pennant. He gave up only 262 hits and 70 walks in 350 innings. At season’s end the Brooklyn Dodgers paid the $200 price for drafting him. The Dodgers then sold Spencer’s rights to the Indianapolis Indians of the American Association, one step below the majors. Spencer would again have the chance to make a significant leap toward the big time.

The Indians traveled to Waco, Texas, for spring training, a trek extolled by the Waco Daily Times Herald as “the most elaborate ever taken by a minor league team.” The Waco location, 95 miles south of Dallas, did not leave the Indians as isolated from suitable competition as it would today. Two major-league teams, the St. Louis Browns and New York Giants, were within range, the Browns in Houston and the Giants only 30 miles away in Marlin Springs. Waco, like Marlin Springs, had mineral-water baths, which were believed at the time to have medicinal powers. The boys, the Indianapolis News reported, would be resplendent in the team’s 26 new gray uniforms, one issued per player, as was customary at the time, and intended to last the season.

The party of 27 players (17 pitchers; the club would carry seven during the season) plus club officials, coaches, and player-manager Charlie Carr arrived at midnight on March 4 and moved into the State House hotel, three blocks from the ballpark. They played their first exhibition on March 6, against Waco’s Class C Texas League team. Spencer pitched the first four innings. Starting poorly, he hit the first batter and walked the second. The third reached on an error, and a run scored on another hit batsman. Then Spencer settled in, allowing no further runs and only one hit, with four strikeouts. He followed this with three innings against Baylor University on March 9, surrendering two runs on four hits, and three innings against Texas Christian University on March 14, with similar results: two runs on six hits and a walk.

None of these were confidence-builders for a considerably tougher test: three innings against the New York Giants on March 16. Again, control was a problem. Entering the game in the top of the seventh, Spencer issued a leadoff walk to Cy Seymour. An error at shortstop put Artie Devlin on base. Buck Herzog forced Devlin, but Spencer then walked Fred Merkle to load the bases. Seymour scored while another error at shortstop was putting Art Wilson on. Spencer wild-pitched Herzog home in the course of walking pitcher Louis Drucke, and Josh Devore brought in Merkle with a sacrifice fly. Three runs on no hits! Spencer followed with two perfect innings, but damage had been done to his prospects. The squad thereafter was split, with Spencer accompanying the “regulars” to San Antonio and Houston. The Indianapolis Star correspondent noted that “Spencer has not been able to cut loose yet,” but did not explain further. His best outing followed: four hitless, runless innings with five strikeouts against San Antonio on March 21, followed by a less successful outing against Houston on the 23rd, when he gave up three runs in 4⅓ innings, taking a 2-1 lead into the ninth but giving up two runs for the loss. He closed the Texas trip in March 26 at Galveston, another four-inning stint against the Galveston Sand Crabs, giving up one run in four innings, but walking three and failing to field two bunts.

The team then returned to Indianapolis for more exhibitions. The Star noted that “Spencer and Reynolds (another hopeful) have persisted in throwing a side-arm ball and have weakened their chances,” and “Spencer’s arm has bothered him considerably.” No details, unfortunately, but apparently he wasn’t at his best. Being a breaking-ball pitcher was another problem. As the News noted on March 12, “All (pitchers) will be cutting loose and curving the ball over the plate before the passing of the coming week.” Time was needed for a breaking-ball pitcher to start throwing his full repertoire and to get control of it, and time to show what he could do was not a luxury that Spencer had.

We are also indebted to the News for a character sketch, which also appeared on March 12:

(Spencer) appears to be an earnest, hard-working, intelligent fellow, and he has already shown that he possesses ability. ... Spencer is a model athlete. When at home he lives at the Y.M.C.A., and takes the best care of himself.

An outing in an intrasquad match on March 30 at Washington Park in Indianapolis turned out to be Spencer’s last appearance. He did not pitch in further exhibitions against the Athletics, Cubs, or Tigers, and on April 11 was sold to Hannibal, Missouri, which had joined his old league, the Central Association.

The Hannibal Morning Journal announced Spencer’s acquisition on April 16, saying he had been “found not quite fast enough” for the American Association. Hannibal was well aware that Spencer had been the key to Burlington’s 1909 pennant, and with his addition was satisfied that it would have the best pitching staff in the league. The month of May, however, was almost a complete loss. Spencer made four starts and lost three. “This cool weather is hard on the big fellow,” said the Morning Journal; “his spitters aren’t breaking right.” Things improved a bit in June (two wins, three losses) but Spencer never really got untracked, finishing the year at 10 wins and 14 losses in only 28 games pitched. There were more consistent pitchers on the staff, and Spencer was having a good year at the plate, so he played more in the field and pitched less as the season went on. Hannibal’s pitching was as good as anticipated, but the team didn’t hit much; Spencer’s .259 batting average was second on the team. He ended the season playing first base due to an injury to the regular, and hitting fourth in the order. Hannibal finished third.

Spencer was not drafted again in 1910, but still found himself finally moving up. Quincy, Illinois, had led the Central Association in attendance and had won the pennant. Feeling ready to move up, Quincy joined the Class B Illinois-Indiana-Iowa (Three-Eye) League for 1911. To strengthen the team, the club made among other moves a four-player deal with Hannibal in which Spencer was included.

The Quincy Journal noted that Spencer was a warm-weather pitcher who might not show much right away. Since the same note was made the previous spring in Hannibal, it seems that he had either earned that reputation, or had come to that conclusion himself after his spring-training experiences and used it to explain his performance. He may have been correct. Before 1909 his baseball season had started at the end of May, when independent-league play began in Minnesota. His tryouts with Chicago and Indianapolis were in March, in weather warmer than Minnesota’s, but still, for the most part, rainy and cool. If he had an offseason training regimen, the early starts would have thrown it off.

The weather in Quincy in 1911 evidently agreed with Spencer. He racked up a record of 24 wins against 13 losses, pitched 343 innings, and, as in 1909, surrendered fewer hits and walks combined than innings pitched. His strikeouts also increased from 1909, to 207 from 180, despite the move to Class B from Class D. This was easily enough to get Spencer drafted once more, even at the higher price for a Class B player ($400). The taker this time was the St. Louis Browns.

The Browns were not the White Sox. They usually resided near the bottom of the American League in performance and attendance. For 1912 they were looking to improve on their 1911 record of 45 wins and 107 losses, bad even by Browns’ standards. There was little money to spend on spring training. The team’s plans called for working out indoors, in an unheated area under the stands at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, and hopefully for the weather to allow practice on the field as well.

Unfortunately for Spencer’s prospects, cold, snowy weather persisted well into March. The veterans were finally taken south for training, leaving Spencer and six other recruits to work out as best they could in St. Louis. He had no chance to make an impression until Easter Sunday, April 7, when he started the final exhibition game, the last game of the annual preseason city series with the Cardinals. The St. Louis Post Dispatch reported:

“Spencer went along well for a couple of innings. Then his arm cracked and he had to retire. But while he was on the job he impressed the manager. He is rather small but has a broad pair of shoulders and possesses a spitball that had the Cardinals guessing in the early rounds.”

Whatever the remark that Spencer’s “arm cracked” signified, he gave up a run on a double and three walks in the fourth and four more runs in the fifth. The manager, Bobby Wallace, was nonetheless sufficiently impressed to put him on the roster to open the season, which began with road games in Chicago and Cleveland before the team returned to St. Louis for its home opener on April 18, also against the White Sox. The game, attended by an estimated crowd of 3,000, turned into a rout for Chicago, standing at 10-3 with four runs already scored and only one out in the eighth when Spencer was called upon to make his big-league debut. Two inherited runners promptly scored: Rollie Zeider tapped back to the mound and was thrown out; first baseman George Stovall, trying to get Ping Bodie at third, threw the ball away, Bodie scoring and Matty McIntyre advancing to third; and Buck Weaver then reached on a hit to shortstop, McIntyre scoring. Pinch-hitter Walt Kuhn bounced to Jimmy Austin at third to end the inning. A further hit allowed in the ninth was harmless, and Spencer left the mound with a creditable outing and a major league ERA of 0.00.

But he received no further chances to maintain it. Considered “too inexperienced to send in to face strong teams,” according to the St. Louis Globe Democrat, probably quoting a club official, he was released back to Quincy on April 26, the Post-Dispatch summarizing the situation thusly:

“Spencer is a bit undersized for a big league twirler, but Manager Wallace likes his work. But for the fact that he is overcrowded with twirling talent, Spencer would probably linger. He returns to the Quincy team. It is probable that he will return in September if he has a successful season with Quincy.”

The glut of pitching talent didn’t materialize. The Browns finished sixth in ERA and amassed a paltry 85 complete games, tied for last in the league. The team lost 101 games, finishing seventh only because the Yankees lost 102.

The day before his demotion was announced, The Sporting News ran Spencer’s picture under the heading “Friends Say All He Needs Is A Chance,” and reported that Spencer’s “friends up in Illinois and Missouri” say that he would make good if given a full opportunity. The Browns’ 1912 failures notwithstanding, the chance didn’t come. Back in Quincy, the season did not unfold as hoped. By mid-July, with his record at 10 wins and 8 losses, Spencer had developed a sore arm, and was inactive from July 22 to August 24, when he returned for one well-pitched complete-game win, only to apparently have the problem redevelop. He pitched a few innings in relief on September 10, but otherwise was used as a right fielder.

Spencer had, as it turned out, played his last game of professional baseball. Apparently, it was of his own volition. Quincy retained his rights for 1913 and sent him at least one contract offer. The Quincy Journal noted on April 7, “Pitcher Spencer has refused all offers thus far, and it has been rumored that he is anxious to secure his release so that he can sign elsewhere. The directors (of the Quincy club) say that such a course is out of the question.”

As the rules of the time permitted, Spencer was placed on suspended status, unable to play for another professional team while Quincy held his rights. This left the independents, and May found him toeing the rubber for St. James, Minnesota. He pitched there all season, presumably commuting from Minneapolis for the weekend games. He won about as many as he lost, the high point a 12-inning game against Windom in which he struck out 19, walked one, and was 5-for-7 at the plate. The following season, 1914, the last for which a record could be found, was spent pitching for Mankato, Minnesota. He was 29.

If Fred Spencer was typical, the end of his professional career after the season when he had reached his highest level was a result of a combination of factors. The rumor in Quincy that he wanted to play elsewhere may have had some foundation. In 1913 the Class D Northern League was active in Minnesota and placed franchises in Minneapolis and St. Paul. By then Spencer had a wife and child, and playing close to home may have become a necessity. He had also had a few looks at a major league and the high minors, and could gauge the chances that he could advance to a level where the salary would justify playing. It is also possible that Spencer’s wage at his railway job, which he had never given up, was comparable to the salary offered by Quincy. Unlike many players of his day, his offseason employment offered the possibility of advancement, and at age 29 he had to begin thinking about a career outside baseball. Finally, his arm may not have healed to the point where it would stand up to the demands of a professional schedule.

Whatever the reasons, Spencer went to work full time at the railway. He was promoted to assistant agent at the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Omaha in 1915, and in 1918 or 1919 left for the Great Northern Railway with the rank of chief clerk. He was terminal superintendent at the Great Northern terminal in Minneapolis at the time of his retirement in 1950.

Daughter Edna Spencer Sperry remembered her father as being all business and rather forbidding. Apparently his grandchildren saw another side of him, more in keeping with the baseball-loving young man capable of completing a home run trot with a standing somersault. Said granddaughter Dawn Meyers:

I remember my grandfather to have a very dry sense of humor and funny. We lived across the street for many years and I followed him around his house and garden. He would always pretend to eat angleworms out of the garden for lunch, click his dentures several times after his treat, and dance while he was hoeing the vegetables. He would stand on his head, emptying his pockets, and make us laugh. I started playing baseball with the neighborhood boys, and he would take me in the back yard and pitch me “burn outs” to make sure I could catch. He also helped me not to “throw like a girl,” lessons I used during my time playing softball, broomball, and bowling. ... He also loved listening to his favorite team, the Twins, on the radio or occasionally on TV. We could not speak to him while the games were on.

Spencer had moved to Columbia Heights, a suburb of Minneapolis, in 1919, and settled there permanently. Relocated in his last years to a nursing home in the neighboring suburb of St. Anthony Village, he died there of heart failure on February 5, 1969.




Reach Guide

Sporting Life

The Sporting News


Burlington (Iowa) Hawk-Eye

Chicago Daily News

Chicago Tribune

Hannibal (Missouri) Morning Journal

Indianapolis News

Indianapolis Star

Keokuk (Iowa), Constitution-Democrat

Keokuk (Iowa) Daily Gate City

Minneapolis Tribune

Quincy (Illinois) Daily Journal

Quincy (Illinois) Veteran

Red Wing (Minnesota) Republican

St. James (Minnesota) Journal-Gazette

St. Louis Globe-Democrat

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Waco Daily Times Herald


Edna Spencer Sperry

Dawn Meyer