The 2013 season marks the 27th of George Spelius' Midwest League presidency, and in that time the venerable Class A circuit has expanded from 12 to 16 teams while establishing (or re-establishing) operations in thriving markets like Dayton, Fort Wayne, Bowling Green and Lansing.
Though Spelius has presided over a prolonged period of unprecedented growth, he has done so while operating within one of the Midwest League's smallest and easy-to-overlook locales. That would be Beloit, Wis., home of the Snappers, a town of approximately 90,000 people located just north of the state line (the town of South Beloit is in Illinois).
Spelius runs the Midwest League out of an unmarked office in a non-descript, one-story building shoehorned in between two insurance offices and directly across the street from Beloit Floral. He and Nancy, his wife of 50 years, own and operate this long-running flower shop along with their daughter, Mary. The business was established in 1916 by Nancy's father, Thomas Panos, a Greek immigrant who got it up and running at an approximate cost of $500.
So how did this small town florist come to preside over one of the most vibrant leagues in Minor League Baseball? It's kind of a long story, as such stories tend to be, but it all comes back to a love of the game, as these stories tend to do.
After graduating from Waukesha's Carroll College in 1956, Spelius, a native of Milwaukee, joined the Army and ended up in Japan for an 18-month stint. While there, he landed a spot as a catcher on the Army baseball team, playing up and down the length of the country as a member of the aptly-named Camp Zama Ramblers. But back in the states, it was a different story, with Spelius hanging up the cleats in favor of a career as a traveling salesman. It was during these peripatetic days that, through a mutual acquaintance, he met Nancy. Shortly after marrying in 1962, Spelius changed careers again.
"My father-in-law says to me, 'Come home and learn the business with your wife.' This was his daughter he was talking about, of course," recalled Spelius during a conversation in the Midwest League office. "If you had told me when I graduated college that I would end up becoming a florist, I'd have said you were crazy."
Crazy or not, a florist he was. But Spelius remained interested in the world of baseball, and when in the late '70s he heard that the Midwest League was interested in expanding from eight teams to 12, he sprung into action. He and two other local business leaders cobbled together a group of investors who were successful in landing a franchise for the start of the 1982 season. ("It didn't take much," said Spelius of his successful Beloit baseball bid.) Originally called the Brewers, the team played at Pohlman Field (where they remain) and went on to adopt the "Snappers" moniker in 1995.
Spelius, meanwhile, assumed the vice presidency of the Midwest League in 1986 and, after the passing of president Bill Walters, took on presidential duties in 1987.
"Sometimes I think back on all of this and wonder how the heck I got so involved," said Spelius. "But I did!"
In the early days of his presidency, Spelius installed a second phone line at Beloit Floral and ran the league from there. When I stopped in to visit Beloit Floral, Nancy cheerfully explained that, back then, confusion reigned.
"Eventually we moved the offices from [Beloit Floral] to our home," she said. "The phone would ring and I'd answer 'Midwest League.' My friends would say 'Sorry, wrong number' and hang up on me!"
These days, Spelius is firmly ensconced in his humble office, across the street from Beloit Floral, working alongside league administrator Holly Voss in a room adorned with baseball memorabilia. He still takes a tour of the league's ballparks each summer but says that, while in the office, "there's always something going on."
Even if that "something" is a case of mistaken identity.
"Sometimes local kids call up, wondering how to get on a team. Or parents, they call because they want their kids to learn baseball. It's not a matter of 'No time!' Click!" said Spelius, while mimicking the gesture of hanging up the phone. "We do what we can to point them in the right direction.
"And then there are the people who come in looking for insurance," he continued. "We're good at telling people we're not an insurance company, right, Holly?"
"Right, George," replied Voss, gamely. "There are lots of people like that."
And as for matters actually pertaining to Midwest League business?
"I get all kinds of emails. It could be something from the Commissioner's Office, it could be the NA (or National Association, the governing body of Minor League Baseball)," he said. "Sometimes the phone rings, and it's a manager complaining about the umpiring crew. The managers think that if they don't get wins they'll lose their job, but I've never had a season where all 16 teams have been tied for first place."
And with that many teams, there's never a dull moment.
"I tell John [Hopkins, president of the eight-team Carolina League], 'You don't have enough to do!' joked Spelius. "But that's just the way it is. ... The most important thing is that people are having fun whether or not their team wins or loses. They just have to make it through the door, that's the main thing."
But all good things must come to an end. Spelius is currently in his penultimate season at the helm of the Midwest League, as he's planning to retire once his current two-year term ends in 2014.
"I don't have many peers who have stayed on for this many years. I'm going to be 81 [when the term ends], and the good Lord didn't tell me I'd be able to keep at this until I'm 150," he said. "I've had enough; it'd be nice to not hear the phones ringing. I found it to be the right time to bow out so we can get some new blood in."
Spelius then paused, as a big smile crossed his face.
"Take me out to the ballgame!"