Four prominent members of the 1979 Yankees have passed away over the years. I’ve written extensively about three of them—Thurman Munson, Bobby Murcer, and Jim “Catfish” Hunter— in this space. All three were beloved players, though for very different reasons. I have hardly written anything about the fourth player. It’s about time to end that practice.
Jim Spencer has become a forgotten link to the late 1970s. When he died in 2002 from a heart attack, there was barely a mention in the New York newspapers, like the Daily News and the Post. There might even be a few longtime Yankee fans who are surprised to hear that Spencer is deceased. His passing created little fanfare, even for those who grew up with the Yankees during the Bronx Zoo years.
No one ever remembers Spencer fondly as part of the late seventies run of pennants and world championships, just like no one remembers Jay Johnstone or Gary Thomasson. I guess that’s the fate that befalls old platoon players or bench guys; the more time that goes by, the less and less they seem to become pertinent. That natural human tendency to forget overshadows the fact that Spencer could provide decent production in a part-time role. Did you know that he led the 1979 Yankees in OPS with a mark of .970? I certainly didn’t. In just 295 at-bats, Spencer clubbed a career-high 23 home runs. It’s too bad that Spencer couldn’t have timed that performance to occur in 1978, when it would have felt far more relevant as part of a world championship contribution. Limited by injuries in 1978, Spencer came to bat only 166 times, rendering him a footnote during that memorable summer and fall.
Two other factors hurt Spencer during his time in the Bronx. At one point, he became involved in a nasty dispute with the front office. Strangely, Spencer signed a Yankee contract that included a clause guaranteeing his presence in the lineup against a right-handed pitcher. Such clauses are illegal in baseball and therefore unenforceable, but Spencer and his agent complained when his managers left him out of the lineup against certain right-handers. The whole affair made Spencer look bad. And then came the Jason Thompson episode. During the spring of 1981, the Yankees worked out a deal sending Spencer and cash to the Pirates for Thompson, at the time a budding star with major left-handed power. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn then voided the deal, principally because the Yankees were sending too much money the Pirates’ way. Spencer had to return to New York, creating a huge letdown for Yankee fans who had been excited by the acquisition of Thompson. None of this was Spencer’s fault, but he became a lame duck first baseman until the Yankees traded him for good to Oakland for Dave “The Rave” Revering.
In spite of the contract and Thompson controversies, Spencer did two things very well during his days in pinstripes. First, he generally smattered right-handed pitching. Second, he fielded his position at first base with style and substance. He did these things despite having one of the most non-athletic builds of all time. At first glance, Spencer simply looked like he didn’t belong on a big league ballfield. Big in the waist and short in the arms, Spencer provided the antithesis to the Dave Winfields and Derek Jeters of later Yankee years. Yet, Spence somehow managed to carve out a career that lasted 15 seasons, including four with the Yankees, six with the Angels, and three with the Rangers. Surprisingly quick at first base, he won two Gold Gloves, earned an All-Star Game selection in 1973, and even managed to lead the American League in intentional walks one season. That occurred with the White Sox in 1976, when he was surrounded by seven regular players who each hit fewer than eight home runs. Hey, that’s what happens when you load your lineup with Jack Brohamer, Kevin Bell, Pat Kelly, and a future Yankee named Bucky Dent. On that team, Jim Spencer looked like Reggie Jackson.
The Yankees saw enough in Spencer to pawn off two minor league pitchers and some cash on the ChiSox in a December 1977 deal. Viewing Spencer as a lefty DH and caddy to Chris Chambliss, their starting first baseman, the Yankees used him in that role for two seasons, before essentially replacing the traded Chambliss in 1980 and ’81. Spencer played a complimentary role on that 1980 team, the one that won 103 games and remains criminally underrated in Yankee lore. That was followed by the Thompson and Revering deals, which thrust Spencer into Yankee oblivion. I hardly heard his name mentioned again until 2002, when I heard that he had died suddenly from a heart attack. He was only 54 years old.
Was Jim Spencer a great Yankee? Certainly not. Was he even an essential role player on some good teams? Probably not. But does he deserve to be completely forgotten? To that, I would also say no. He was a decent player who happened to play for two memorable Yankee teams, sandwiched around a good individual season for a non-contender. Let’s at least give him that. He deserves that much.
Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.