July 30 – Happy Birthday Jim Spencer
Simply put, I hated seeing today’s Pinstripe Birthday celebrant’s name in the Yankee lineup during the 1980 season. Why? Because he batted left-handed and was used as a DH. So why did those seemingly innocuous details make me cringe when Jim Spencer was in a Yankee game that particular year? Allow me to explain.
The Yankees acquired Spencer in a trade with the White Sox in December of 1977. “Spence” was a native of Hanover, PA who had played for Billy Martin when he managed the Texas Rangers in the early seventies. According to many baseball pundits back then, Spencer was one of the best defensive first basemen in the Majors at the time of the trade and a .260 lefty hitter with decent power. That ’78 Yankee team he would be joining already had a Gold Glove winner and better hitter at first in Chris Chambliss and they had Roy White and Cliff Johnson to DH.
During that historic 1978 season that followed Spencer’s acquisition, Martin was famously fired, allegedly because he called George Steinbrenner and Reggie Jackson liars but more likely because he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Spencer, who was playing just about every day when Billy was the boss, saw his playing time cut in half after Bob Lemon took over in late July. He averaged just .227 his first season in pinstripes.
After the Yankees won their second straight World Series that October, they let Roy White go to Japan. Bob Lemon’s son was killed in a car accident just a few weeks after the Series and the Yankee Manager entered the ’79 season in a deep depression. Then Goose Gossage was hurt in that shower room scuffle with Cliff Johnson and the Yankee season was suddenly in serious peril. Steinbrenner’s answer was to replace Lemon with Billy Martin in late June. That was good news for Spencer. Then just a week after Billy returned to the Bronx, Bobby Murcer came back as well. Murcer had been my favorite Yankee during his first tenure in pinstripes so I was thrilled. When he took over as Skipper, Martin was playing both Spencer and Murcer and I was hoping the Yankees would stage a another comeback in the AL East Division Race. Any hope of that went down in the crash of Thurman Munson’s plane at the beginning of August. So the 1979 Yankee season had quickly turned into a nightmare. Spencer, however, had been one of the bright spots. In 106 games he had blasted a career high 23 home runs and averaged .288. Murcer had also done well and I was hoping he’d have a great full-year with New York in 1980.
That did not happen and Spencer was one of the key reasons why. During the ’79 offseason the Yankees made several moves. They replaced Martin as Manager with Dick Howser. They traded their first baseman, Chris Chambliss to Toronto for catcher, Rick Cerone. They signed Bob Watson to replace Chambliss at first and they went out and got Rupert Jones to play center field. The Howser hiring was the only decision of these four that I liked. Chambliss was one of my favorite Yankees. I thought they should have gone after Cardinal catcher Ted Simmons instead of Cerone. I wanted Murcer to have a starting outfielder’s slot on that 1980 team and the Jones acquisition nixed that.
I still feel to this day that if the Yankees did not sign Watson or make the Rupert Jones trade, Murcer would have put together a 25 homer, 100 RBI season for New York in 1980 as either a full-time outfielder or DH. And since Spencer was supposedly the best defensive first baseman in baseball who was coming off one of his best big league offensive seasons, why didn’t the Yankees just replace Chambliss with him instead of signing Watson? When they picked up Watson, that meant Spencer would not be the full-time first baseman and since he hit left-handed like Murcer, the two would be competing for swings as the Yankee’s DH. Spencer and Murcer still each hit 13 home runs that season and combined to drive in 100.
Spencer’s Yankee career ended the following May, when he was traded to Oakland. He was born on July 29, 1946. I should also mention that that 1980 Yankee team did win 103 regular season games with the lineups Dick Howser put together.