Spoony's slammin' summer of '61
Travis Hafner earned his place alongside Don Mattingly in the record book this summer, smacking six grand slams to equal the single-season Major League mark. Yet when mentioning such grand prowess, both Hafner and Mattingly take a back seat to the man who set the professional record 45 years ago.
Chuck Weatherspoon, who gained fame as much for his fear of snakes as he did for collecting timely home runs, holds the mark, having hit seven grand slams in 1961 for the Wilson Tobacconists. Weatherspoon, who died earlier this year at the age of 74, was a one-man wrecking crew that season, leading the Tobs to a Carolina League title while earning Most Valuable Player honors.
The Pineland, Texas, native finished with 31 homers and 123 RBIs in a year that is best remembered for the home runs that Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle were hitting in New York. But in a tiny North Carolina town, Weatherspoon earned his rightful place in baseball lore, setting a record while cementing his place as one of the game's most loved and endearing characters.
Weatherspoon was a powerful man, capable of hitting homers and driving in runs at every level during the more than a dozen or so years he toiled in the Minor Leagues from the mid-'50s through the late-'60s. A catcher by trade, he also played the infield and outfield, never mastering one position well enough to earn a spot on a Major League roster.
Long-time manager Jack McKeon, who had Weatherspoon on his roster for more than half of those seasons, remained close to the slugger until he died, insisting all along that if baseball had a designated hitter in the early '60s, Weatherspoon would have been perfect for the role.
"He was a unique guy," said McKeon, who first came into contact with Weatherspoon in Missoula (in the Pioneer League) in 1956. "He had been in the Cotton States League, and it was the first time they had let blacks into the South to play in that league. He was getting a lot of heat, and I was managing in Missoula, so the Giants sold him to us.
"And after that, every place I went, I carried this guy. He was a tremendous man with great character who loved people. In those days, when blacks were coming into the game, there was a lot of racist stuff, but I had so many white guys who wanted to room with this guy. You just had to love him. He was either an MVP or the most popular player for every team he played."
McKeon said he managed Weatherspoon in Missoula, Fox Cities, Wilson, Vancouver and Atlanta before they finally took different career paths. Perhaps their most memorable season together was in '61, when Weatherspoon devastated the Carolina League with his awesome display.
"Spoony," as he was known, got off to a hot start that season, hitting 12 homers and driving in 49 runs in May. He slugged six homers and drove in 23 runs during one eight-game stretch, the highlight of which came on May 2, when he blasted grand slams in his first two at-bats against Greensboro, nearly missing another in his third plate appearance.
Jim Rantz is Minnesota's director of the Minor Leagues. But he was a young pitcher for Wilson, which was a Twins farm team at the time, in 1961 and was sitting in the home bullpen at Fleming Stadium, watching Weatherspoon's big outing unfold.
"He had hit two in his first two at-bats and when he came to the plate a third time, we all got excited," Rantz said. "He hit the ball and we all saw how close he came to getting it out of the park. That would have been phenomenal. To come to the plate three times with the bases loaded in one game is unusual.
"He was a classy guy, though, and a good teammate. I played with him for a couple of years and I never heard a teammate say a bad thing about Spoony. He was very jumpy all the time, though. He really hated snakes."
Snakes, however, were about the only thing that could have stopped Weatherspoon in the summer of '61. He continued his assault and finally, on Aug. 16, he cracked his seventh grand slam of the season in a victory over Winston-Salem. The Tobs, powered by Weatherspoon's exploits, held off Burlington in the second half of the season and claimed the league title.
McKeon, who is one of the game's great storytellers, has no shortage of tales when it comes to Weatherspoon. There was the time in Missoula when McKeon, a noted lover of cigars, gave a smoke to Weatherspoon, not knowing that some of his players had slipped a loaded cigar into his stash. Well, it turned out that McKeon unwittingly passed the loaded stogie on to Weatherspoon.
Weatherspoon fired up the cigar in the car on his way home from the ballpark. He got about three blocks away and was approaching a four-way stop when the cigar exploded. Weatherspoon wound up rear-ending another car, but no one was hurt and everyone got a good laugh.
"There was also the time when I was managing in Omaha and he was playing for Denver," McKeon said. "This was in the late '60s and I had never played against Spoony. He was getting a little older then and he came up in the eighth or ninth inning to pinch-hit and he couldn't get set in the batter's box.
"He kept digging and scratching with his spikes and there happened to be a rake in the corner of the dugout. I couldn't resist so I came out of the dugout and flipped the rake toward him. He laughed so hard; he looked at three straight fastballs and struck out."
McKeon laughs as he recalls players leaving rubber snakes in the outfield or in Weatherspoon's shoes. Once, McKeon said, someone even put a lizard in Weatherspoon's jock.
"They would love to see him take off running," McKeon said. "It kept us loose. He was a big guy, but he had a heart of gold. It's a wonder he didn't kill someone with the pranks we pulled, but he just laughed it off."
Weatherspoon's legacy isn't limited to what he did on the diamond. His daughter, Teresa, was an All-America basketball player at Louisiana State University and later an All-Star in the WNBA.
"He never made it to the Major Leagues, but for us, he was a major man," Teresa Weatherspoon said. "What he did in the Minor Leagues was unheard of. I'm the baby of the family, but I heard all the stories about how he was the MVP in 1961. He always talked about the seven grand slams. He would say that when he got up there and saw the bases loaded, his mind was focused on putting the ball out of the park and doing it for the team.
"My dad wasn't really a braggart, though. But he would tell you that if you threw him a curve, he would knock it out of the park. More often, though, he spoke about what it was like to be catcher and what you had to do at the position, the kind of connection you had with the pitcher. He was so technically inclined that it made the game easy when he was teaching it."
Jim Kaat, who played with Weatherspoon in Missoula, said the slugger was the epitome of a power hitter and that he expected a home run every time Weatherspoon came to bat.
Weatherspoon may not have gone yard every time he came to the plate, but he certainly seemed to have hit a home run with everyone he met, leaving his mark on the game with what he did on the field in '61 and with what he did off it everywhere else.
Kevin Czerwinski is a reporter for MLB.com.