“There wasn’t a draft at that time. Back in the ’60s, you could talk to every team. I had 20 teams following me, had cards from all 20 teams. I was pretty much of a star. I had a chance to go to the Pan American Games, but I was in college, so I didn’t accept, even though they were going to play in São Paulo, Brazil. I’d been in a lot of state tournaments, national tournaments, and set all kinds of records.
“I went to the Basin League.” The league was formed in 1953, with teams representing the South Dakota towns of Mitchell, Watertown, Winner, Chamberlain, Yankton, Huron, and Pierre, as well as Valentine, Nebraska. “At that time it was the only college amateur league in the country. All the best players in the country went there. Now, it’s Cape Cod, several other places, Alaska is one. I led the league in home runs, RBIs, hitting, all kinds of stuff.”
“What year was that?”
“Boy, you’re really stretching me now. I’m thinking ’62, ’63, in that area. During my third year of college, I signed with the St. Louis Cardinals and went into pro ball, down to Class D, where everybody went. In two weeks I was in double A, which is a huge…”
“I jumped really quick. I was hitting very, very well. I hit four home runs in ten days. George Kissell was coaching down there.” George Kissell is the template of a baseball lifer. He was invited to St. Louis Cardinals training camp in 1940 and is still with the organization 64 years later. He played, briefly, shortstop for Cardinals minor league teams, worked as a minor league coach, manager, third-base coach on the big team, but mostly — and this was his fame — he was a traveling minor league instructor for the franchise, traveling the country with his wife in a Ford Taurus, teaching rookies how to play the game. Decades. Considered the best by Branch Rickey to Joe Torre. Kissell has received many awards, but perhaps this one will explain him best. Five years ago, the St. Louis Cardinals installed a plaque in his honor at Busch Stadium. There was a ceremony. The team lined up along the first- and third-base lines. Then every minor league player in the St. Louis farm system walked onto the field. To show respect. Kissell’s still on the Cardinals roster, Number 3, as a matter of fact. He worked the 2004 spring training camp in Jupiter, Florida, as senior field coordinator.
Spiezio continues, “It probably hurt me not to stay, because this man was an incredible teacher. I remember him saying to me, ‘Son, you don’t belong here. I’m sending you to double A.’ I was very happy that it happened. But looking back, knowing what he knew, knowing what he could have taught me, it was the worst thing that could have happened. I went to double A [Tulsa Oilers] and batted third for the team. That shows you we had a really good team.”
“Do you remember what you were making?”
“Yeah. About $500 a month. It was pretty good. I moved up the next year — they offered me a whopping raise of $100, to $600 a month.” Spiezio laughs. “I’d gone back to school that winter, completed my degree in accounting and math. I’m sitting there,” pause, “wondering, ‘What am I doing playing this stupid game for $600 a month?’ I wrote a real nice nasty letter to Branch Rickey and told him what I thought about it.”
Branch “The Mahatma” Rickey, 1967 Hall of Fame inductee, was a mediocre athlete, played 1905, ’06, and ’14 for the St. Louis Browns, 1907 for the New York Highlanders. He recorded a big-league career total of 120 games as outfielder, first baseman, and catcher. Rickey made his reputation as a general manager, held the job for 42 consecutive years with the St. Louis Cardinals, Brooklyn Dodgers, and Pittsburgh Pirates. He is credited with inventing the modern farm system and for integrating baseball by signing Jackie Robinson in 1947 while Rickey was in charge of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Rickey moved over to the Pittsburgh Pirates as general manager in 1950, left nine years later, and returned to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1962 as “consultant on player development.” He was fired after two years and died in 1965, a few days short of his 84th birthday. He was Mr. Baseball and a notorious, merciless, lifelong cheapskate.
I ask, “Did Rickey write back?”
“I heard about his response to that letter for the next three years from all my coaches.”
I laugh, hard. Rickey would never forget.
Spiezio says, “He never got a letter like that in his life. But I’m sitting there with a college degree and all my buddies are making way more money, and they’re looking at me like I’m a millionaire.”
“Your friends are thinking, ‘Spiezio’s incredibly lucky to be there. What’s his problem?’ ”
“Oh, yeah, the glory of it was fine, but there was no money. I remember playing in St. Louis. Roger Maris joined us in 1967. I had been in the World Series against the Yankees in ’64 and we beat ’em, and now, all of a sudden, Roger Maris is on my team. After seeing his two-week paycheck, it was like, ‘He’s making $5200 every two weeks, $75,000 a year. He’s better than God.’ ” Spiezio laughs.
“Where did you play your first pro game?”
“I signed in June 1963, didn’t start playing until July, so there was only two months left in the baseball season. I spent two weeks in Brunswick, Georgia, most of it in rain. Then I went to double A and finished out my last month and a half of my first year there. The next year I started with the triple-A club [Jacksonville Suns], batting cleanup for Harry ‘The Hat’ Walker.”
Harry “The Hat” Walker, another baseball lifer, broke in with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1940, played 11 seasons in the Bigs with stops at St. Louis, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and the Chicago Cubs. He won the National League batting title in 1947. Walker managed for all or parts of nine seasons between 1955 and 1972, captained St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Houston. He returned to St. Louis in 1972 and held, at one time or another, the position of scout, hitting coach, and director of minor league operations. Left St. Louis in 1978 and became the first head coach of the University of Alabama–Birmingham baseball program, coached there for eight years. Walker died in 1999 at the age of 82. Harry’s nickname, “The Hat,” came from his habit of constantly adjusting his baseball cap between pitches.