Author's note: The following is an excerpt from Bro. Dick, a remembrance I wrote for my late brother, Richard Louis "Dick" Spooner. He passed away in March 1988; he would have turned 89 on July 6.
The heart failure kid…
Dick was a pretty good ballplayer, a long-legged outfielder who could cover a lot of ground in centerfield. I know this because I insisted on tagging along with him when he played sandlot ball. The Greater Vallejo Recreation District (GVRD) ran a summer program down at Steffan Manor School, just a block from home. Part of that program was a baseball league set up with several divisions based on age. There was the underweight division for the guys ten and under, and then the middleweights for the eleven- and twelve-year-olds. The upper division was—you guessed it—the heavyweights, up to age fifteen if memory serves. There were teams representing schools and playgrounds all around the city, and for a seat-of-the-pants organization, the program was well run and the games very competitive. There were some fine ballplayers around Vallejo who got their start in sandlot ball.
I loved going down to the school with Dick and watching the guys practice or play games. It was just a great place to hang out. The GVRD had two classrooms on the north wing of the school, one for arts and crafts and general activities, and one with two ping-pong tables that were constantly busy. Outside on the courtyard, there were paddle tennis and basketball courts, and then out away from the classrooms were the baseball fields. The staff usually consisted of two or three people, one of them being the designated baseball coach. Typically, the coach was a high school or college student looking to make some spending money during the summer months. Not so at Steffan. We had Mr. Boyle.
Mr. Boyle was a retiree who loved kids and loved baseball and viewed his GVRD job as a way to enjoy both. He had a face like a map of Ireland and his accent told you right away that he hailed from Boston. He was a big, heavyset man with a bulbous nose and a rosy complexion. My guess is that he liked to chase down a shot of Old Bushmill’s with a pint of Guinness, but that’s only a guess. Listening to Mr. Boyle talk was very much like listening to Casey Stengel at his best, one random thought leading to another, connected only by the love of the game.
I’d bug my brother to let me come along down to the playground and he’d eventually relent and take me along, probably under pressure from Mom. My favorite things to do were to cheer at the top of my lungs for the Steffan Manor Heavyweights and then join in the team huddles so that I could listen to Mr. Boyle hold forth.
The ball field at Steffan was terrible! The ground slopped from south to north and over the years, all the topsoil had washed down to a narrow band at the north end. The field itself was pure hardpan. If you were wise, you wore a mouthpiece to protect your teeth from ground balls. That’s how bad it was. But hey, that was sandlot baseball.
I remember one season-ending game that must have been for the city championship or something, because a nice crowd turned out to watch and the atmosphere was electric. Late in the game, the other team put a couple of guys on base with two outs and their big hitter coming to the plate. Well, Big Hitter uncorked a long, high drive to left center, heading out to where the ball field ended and the school playground began, way out toward the monkey bars and swings. You could tell by the crack of the bat that he got all of it. I saw Dick turn and take off on the dead run and I was sure he didn’t have a chance to catch the ball. His best hope was to chase it down and get it back to the infield before the hitter rounded the bases and scored.
Now this is a stretch, but if you ever saw Joe DiMaggio glide across centerfield in Yankee Stadium, then you know what it was like to watch my brother run. There he was, flying after that ball, heading toward the monkey bars, and then he reached up with his left hand and snared the ball in the web of his glove. From way back behind home plate, you could clearly see half the ball protruding from his glove. It was the best catch I had ever seen. It still is.
Steffan won the game and Mr. Boyle was ecstatic! He gathered the team around him and went into a long dissertation about what a great game it was, calling out all the guys who had contributed to the victory, rambling on in his best Stengelese. Somewhere near the end, he got to Dick’s catch: “…and then there’s Spoonah out there in cenahfield, givin’ me heart failyah…”
The Spooners are a family of storytellers. There is a rich tradition of oral history that requires the passing along of classic stories from generation to generation. The story of this game and Mr. Boyle’s speech became part of our family history. Nobody enjoyed telling it more than me. And nobody enjoyed hearing it more than Bro. Dick.
The baseball connection…
When I started playing Little League baseball, suddenly the tables were turned. Where I had spent my early years tagging along after my brother, now he was busy following me. Dick became my biggest fan. Well, maybe number three, right behind Mom and Dad. He tried to see as many games as possible, especially when I played on All Star teams and we traveled to tournaments which were generally somewhere in the Central Valley. Dick was stationed at Mather AFB in Sacramento during my Little League days and he’d bring some of his friends and show up wherever we were playing. I’d like to think that we put on a pretty good show most of the time. At least we were seldom ever boring.
When I was ten, Dick followed our All Star team to Menlo Park where we won all of our games. I didn’t play much, but that was okay. I was perfectly happy to let my older teammates carry the load. Then it was on to Marysville where things got really interesting. I was called in to pitch the last two innings of a one-run game which we eventually won. Our winning run was scored on a balk call, a call made by an umpire from Vallejo no less. Then Mom passed out in the stands and had to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance. She was okay, just too much heat and too much excitement. A Vallejo sportswriter said I pitched like I had ice water in my veins. And over on page two was a little article with the headline, “Baseball Too Much For Mom.” What an adventure!
The next year, in a tournament in Stockton, I pitched a no-hitter. Pretty cool for an eleven-year-old! And of course, Mom and Dad and Bro. Dick were there, cheering me on. No ambulances or hospitals on that trip.
When I was twelve, my brother brought his Air Force friends, Jim Bowers and Paul Kilty, to see us play. I vaguely remember that we were playing in Stockton again, but I clearly remember that it was very hot. Seems like it always worked out that way for Vallejo teams. We’d grown up in the cool North Bay with temperatures between sixty-five and seventy-five in the summer. The hot Central Valley always killed us.
Kilty was from Boston and had a very heavy accent. My brother used to challenge him to say things like, “I left my car keys in my khakis.” Of course, it came out, “I left my cah keys in my cahkis.” My brother, the tease.
I was the starting pitcher and I really wanted to have a great game for Dick and his buddies. As it turned out, I just didn’t have it that day. No zip on the fastball, couldn’t find the strike zone. When the coach took me out, we were down 5 to 0 and I was devastated. He sent me to centerfield where I spent most of the time drying my eyes on my sleeve. Henry Rimmer came in to pitch and held the other team in check. Dick loved to watch Henry pitch because he had a silky-smooth wind-up and a pretty leg kick and a sharp little curve ball that broke very late. When Henry was getting that curve in the strike zone he was really tough to hit.
Lo and behold, I hit a three-run home run in fifth inning and we were right back in the game. But it was too late and we wound up losing 5 – 3. After the game, I felt rotten for pitching poorly and letting my teammates down. The tears just kept coming and my sleeve got really wet.
A couple of years ago, fall of 2005, I was sitting at my desk one day and the phone rang. It was Jim Bowers. He had lost touch with Dick over the years and didn’t know that he had died. We chatted for a while and I got the impression that Jim was going through some life-changing event, reaching out to track down old friends from a happier time. Jim remembered coming to the game with Dick and Paul and when he brought it up, my immediate reaction was a total recall of my lousy pitching performance. Funny thing: all Jim remembered was I hit a home run. Go figure.
Dick saw me throw the fifth and final no-hitter of my “career” when I was thirteen. After that, things kind of went downhill. That’s right: I peaked at thirteen. Nonetheless, he remained a loyal fan to the end and wound up following our American Legion team for two summers when I was sixteen and seventeen. That was probably the most fun I had with my brother as a baseball fan.
Stan McWilliams was our legion coach and he’d had a pretty decent run as a professional ballplayer, playing in the Boston Red Sox organization. Stan had an intricate system of offensive signs that he taught us and he’d change them a little for each game. One day I was explaining the signs to Dick and he got very excited and made me promise to go over them with him before every game. So, right before the start of a game, I’d meet Dick down by the bullpen and give him the signs. During the game, if Stan put on a play—a bunt, or hit-and-run, or steal, or squeeze, or whatever—I’d look up in the stands and see my brother elbowing the person sitting next to him because he knew what was coming. He absolutely loved being into the game.
After my playing days were over, Dick had the opportunity to follow his stepson, Richard Rodas, who was an accomplished left-handed pitcher. Rich signed a contract with the Dodgers, came up through the organization and eventually made the big club. It looked like Rich would have a fine major league career until he injured his pitching shoulder while running the bases. He never fully recovered from the injury. But during his climb through the Dodger system, Dick and Monica traveled far and wide to watch him play. Tommy Lasorda was the Dodger manager in those days and I’ve often wondered if Rich ever gave my brother Tommy’s signs.
So, that was our baseball connection. From Dick’s playing days in sandlot ball to Little League tournaments up and down the Central Valley to American Legion games down at good old Wilson Park in Vallejo. From Mr. Boyle to Stan McWilliams to Tommy Lasorda. No matter how you slice it, that’s a lot of hot dogs.