What Al Spearman was able to accomplish during a remarkable 18-month period in the late 1950s remains one of the most unheralded feats in all of Minor League Baseball.Yet the fact that he pitched an astounding 33 consecutive complete games seems to remain a bittersweet memory for the durable right-hander,
What Al Spearman was able to accomplish during a remarkable 18-month period in the late 1950s remains one of the most unheralded feats in all of Minor League Baseball.
Yet the fact that he pitched an astounding 33 consecutive complete games seems to remain a bittersweet memory for the durable right-hander, who walked away from the game shortly after the streak ended because of the racist attitude that was still widely prevalent in baseball.
Spearman saw action in parts of three Negro Leagues seasons from 1949-51. He appeared for several teams, including the Kansas City Monarchs, where he roomed with Elston Howard. He had traveled all over the world, pitching and promoting the game in Mexico, Japan and Canada, in addition to playing in the Negro Leagues. But the indelible mark he appears to have left was during one stretch that began in 1957 with Stockton of the Class C California League, continued there through the next season, with a brief stopover in Rochester, before finishing his remarkable run with Houston of the American Association in May 1959.
While no official records have been kept regarding consecutive complete games in the Minor Leagues, all relevant research indicates that Spearman's effort may be the best such mark over the last 50 years. To put it in perspective, the post-1900 Major League consecutive complete-game record is held by Jack Chesbro, who pitched 48 straight for the New York Highlanders (later the Yankees).
"That was all about luck, because sometimes you'll get a manager who will leave you in a game and sometimes you won't," Spearman said. "A manager can always pull you for one reason or another, depending on whether he believes in you or not. I never argued with a manager, though, about that. You never argue with the manager."
Spearman, now 80 and living in Chicago, proved to be durable for more than just the life of the streak, though. He went the distance in 17 of 19 starts in 1957 for Stockton, following up a season in which he posted 16 consecutive victories en route to a 18-3 record for the Ports. He also completed 18 of 19 starts.
The big year, however, came in 1958, when he started and completed 28 games for Stockton. He completed 21 starts to begin the season before a promotion to Rochester of the International League threatened to end the streak. But the National Association of Professional Leagues, the governing body for the Minor Leagues, voided the promotion before Spearman ever got the chance to pitch for the Red Wings and he was returned to Stockton, where he threw seven more complete games before season's end.
Spearman began 1959 by throwing three more complete games for Houston before he was pulled from a start in the eighth inning against St. Paul on May 1. The end of the streak also seemed to mark the beginning of the end of Spearman's career.
Houston, an affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, was in its first year as a Triple-A franchise, making the move up from the Double-A Texas League in 1959. Rube Walker, who broke in with the Cubs as a player decade earlier, had retired after the 1958 season and was named manager of the Buffs.
Walker, whom Spearman liked, spent five seasons in Brooklyn playing with the likes of Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella. And it was obvious that race wasn't an issue as far as he was concerned.
But Walker only managed Houston for part of the season, a year in which the Buffs won 58 games and finished in last place in the American Association's West Division. Del Wilber, another former big leaguer who retired in 1954, took over for Walker, and that's when Spearman said the problems began.
"I was one of four blacks on the team when the season began," Spearman said. "In 1959, as far as I'm concerned, it was the first time I had played in the South on a team that wasn't black. It was my experience that a lot of people on the team didn't like me and didn't want me on the team. Rube Walker was a nice guy, though. At least to me.
"He told me before the season started that I had a pretty good record and that if I pitched well for him that I was going to be there. I pitched in the first series against Minneapolis, which went to the Junior World Series the year before. I allowed five hits and we won. They had Earl Wilson and Pumpsie Green on that team, the first two black guys to play for the Red Sox. The fans there let me know it, though, and gave me the same treatment they gave Jackie Robinson and the other blacks."
Spearman said he was lucky enough to win his second game, which was against St. Paul, allowing six hits over nine innings in 1-0 victory. He said it was at that point that his situation with Houston began to sour. Spearman claims that when he went to the club's office to collect his paycheck shortly after that victory over St. Paul, general manager Spec Richardson told him he was not allowed in the office.
"He let me know in no special way that I was not supposed to come up there," Spearman said. "I didn't know much about the South. The only time I had been in the South was with the Army and when I played in the Negro Leagues. But the South was still segregated in 1959 and I knew definitely that they didn't want me in that office. I played in a lot of places, and in the U.S. the racism was very real to me."
Shortly after the streak ended, Spearman's father died and Spearman went back to Chicago for the services and to be with his family. But Walker was replaced as manager while Spearman was in Chicago and he says the difference was quickly apparent when he returned to the team.
"One night we were playing against Dallas or Fort Worth, I don't really remember which, but we were losing and the manager called out for me to go to the 'pen and warm up," Spearman said. "I said my arm was sore, but he didn't care. So I went to the 'pen and started throwing, and when I went into the game I luckily got the three men I faced out on less than 10 pitches.
"Now he thought I did that rather easily and before I could start the next inning, he pulled me for a pinch-hitter. After we lost and we were getting dressed, he singled me out in the clubhouse, telling me that I needed to play or that I could go home. He told me this out loud as we got dressed, and I thought that was out of character."
Compounding matters was the fact that when the team arrived at Love Field to fly to Indianapolis for the next series, the airport restaurant would not serve Spearman nor the three other African-Americans on the team. Eventually, everyone got on the plane, but after it landed in Indianapolis, Spearman decided he had had enough. The next day, he went to the train station and headed back to Chicago.
"That was the last time I was ever involved in pro ball," he said. "I'll never forget what I had to endure in Houston. The first manager was a beautiful person. He went out of his way to show me no animosity. I had a nice record for completing games and I was a hard worker. But under those conditions, I quit."
Spearman gave it one more try the following spring but had a less than ideal relationship with Triple-A Cubs manager Enos Slaughter. He walked away from baseball at that point and hasn't looked back.
"The whole time I played pro ball, and that included a year barnstorming with Satchel Paige, I guess I just wasn't a good ballplayer because I couldn't play in conditions that were unpleasant to me," Spearman said. "When I was satisfied, I was a pitcher that people paid to have me pitch for them.
"And the complete games might be astonishing to you, but they're not astonishing to me. The complete game wasn't important at all. It wasn't important for me. What was more important for me was to be involved on a team with a winning record. I didn't care if I got a complete game or not. What I cared about was being a winning or losing pitcher."
More often then not, Spearman won. And more often that not, he went the distance, at one point completing 48 of 50 starts.
Spearman is still a fixture on the Chicago baseball scene, appearing often at White Sox games. He's also a regular at The Negro Leagues Cafe in Chicago. And he'll talk baseball with just about anyone. As for the streak, he still has mixed emotions about it.
"Everything, as far as I'm concerned, happens by the grace of God," Spearman said. "But I had other things on my mind than that [the streak]."
Kevin Czerwinski is a reporter for MLB.com.