The Baseball Bullet-In this week remembers Daryl Spencer, the former Hankyu Braves slugger who died Jan. 2 in Wichita, Kansas, at the age of 88.
Spencer was one of the 1960s-era Americans, most of them ex-major leaguers, who played in Japan. That group included George Altman, Gene Bacque, Don Blasingame, Jack Bloomfield, Kent Hadley, Marty Keough, Willie Kirkland, Arturo Lopez, Jim Marshall, Joe Stanka and eventual Cooperstown Hall of Famer Larry Doby and one-time National League MVP Don Newcombe.
Those guys played even before my time in this country, but I got to see Spencer in action — at least for one at-bat — in the twilight of his career, and I do mean twilight. It was in 1971, he was 43 years old, overweight and no longer a starting player. He was Hankyu’s first-base coach but was also on the active roster and occasionally used as a pinch hitter by then-Braves manager Yukio Nishimoto.
In a game against the lowly Nishitetsu Lions at Heiwadai Stadium in Fukuoka, Hankyu was trailing by a run but had the bases loaded with one out in the top of the ninth inning. Nishimoto called Spencer off the coaching lines and sent him to the plate with the hope the burly right-handed hitter would deliver the result necessary to at least tie the game.
A walk or a sacrifice fly would have done that, and a hit would have put the Braves ahead. A grand slam homer would have put Hankyu in a great position to win. Instead, Spencer grounded into a tailor-made double play, short to second to first, and the game was lost. As he crossed first base, the fierce competitor vented his frustration by slamming his helmet to the ground.
That one plate appearance is not indicative of Spencer’s long playing career, however. He broke in with the New York Giants in 1952, and I can remember as a youngster seeing him play in Gotham, in the Polo Grounds with the likes of Willie Mays 60 years ago. In 1958, after the team moved to the West Coast, it was Spencer who hit the first home run in the history of the San Francisco Giants at Seals Stadium and the first major league homer in the Pacific time zone.
He later played with the St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds through 1963, then headed for Japan where he became one of the Pacific League’s leading long-ball hitters. His rivalry with Nankai Hawks superstar catcher Katsuya Nomura, seven years his junior, and their intense battles for the P.L. home run title, have been well documented in author Robert Whiting’s books about Japanese baseball.
The iconic 1965 photo of Spencer, standing in the batter’s box holding his bat by the barrel and knowing he is going to be walked, rather than being given a chance to hit one out and close the gap on Nomura for the league home-run lead, is well remembered by anyone who saw it. Spencer hit 38 that year; Nomura 42.
Spencer’s reduced chances for winning that home-run crown became zero when he was forced to miss the final 11 games of that season with a broken leg sustained when he was riding his small motorcycle from home to the train station in Kobe, and he was hit by a delivery truck. Nomura won the Triple Crown.
He also gained a reputation as one who changed Japanese baseball with his aggressive play. On one occasion, he slid hard into a fielder at second base to break up a double play, and the game was halted for a half-hour while umpires tried to determine if what the American did was permissible under the rules.
Spencer’s career in Japan was split. It covered seven seasons and began in 1964, that golden year of the Tokyo Olympics and the opening of the first shinkansen service on the Tokaido Line linking Tokyo and Osaka. That was also the baseball season when Sadaharu Oh slammed 55 homers for the Yomiuri Giants, Bacque won 29 games for the Hanshin Tigers, and Stanka racked up a 26-7 record for the Nankai Hawks.
Spencer played through the 1968 season, took two years off and returned to Hankyu as a player-coach in 1971, retiring for good following the 1972 campaign.
Originally a shortstop when he broke in with New York, he played mostly at first base for Hankyu during those days which pre-dated the designated hitter rule. It was also an era when the 12 Japanese pro teams were allowed to hire only two foreign players.
In a dozen major league seasons, Spencer hit 105 homers and compiled a batting average of .244. Over his seven years with Hankyu, he batted .275 with 152 home runs. Following his permanent retirement from the game, he returned to his Wichita hometown and became a beer distributor.
He also managed the Coors of Kansas ballclub and was inducted into the Kansas Baseball Hall of Fame and the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame.
Spencer was invited back to Tokyo, along with Bacque, Blazer and Stanka in 1984 as part of a celebration marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of Japan’s first professional baseball team, the Yomiuri Giants, in 1934.
They returned again in 1991 to take part in a pair of old-timers games pitting former outstanding foreign players against Japanese members of the Meikyukai Golden Players Club, renewing friendships with one-time teammates and opponents. Spencer was also in the Kansai area in 1989, the year after the Hankyu Braves club was sold to Orix.
Despite his disappointment at not being given a fair chance to win a home run title back in the ’60s, Spencer said it was always good to return to Japan and he had always been treated well by the Japanese — especially Hankyu — fans.
Those who saw him play in Japan a half-century ago will remember him as an important contributor to the growth of Japanese baseball in its earlier days.
Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com