Before we get started on Mr. Spinks, I would to send out a huge Thank You to Jerry Reuss for giving up some of his Saturday afternoon and sharing some baseball stories with us on the UCB Blog Talk Radio show. I’ll post a link to the show as soon as it is available for download – you don’t want to miss this.
April 15, 1972
Shortly before the start of the 1972 season (when I say shortly, I mean hours), the Cardinals made a most unusual trade. They sent St. Louis native pitching prospect Jerry Reuss to the Houston Astros for a right-handed flame thrower named Scipio Spinks. The deal left everybody scratching their head as Reuss was a 6ft 5in lefty that had been fast-tracked through the Cardinals minor league system. As a mid-season callup in 1970, the 20 year old proved that he had major league stuff, and we were all beginning to think Steve Carlton 2.0. Later, we found out that Reuss had been the unfortunate benefactor of one of Gussie Busch’s “Mad as a Hatter” decisions when the Cardinals owner decided he didn’t like the tall lefty’s facial hair.
Great, so we give up a hometown prospect that has durability and multiple 18 win seasons written all over the back of his jersey, and in return we get a guy that can throw a baseball through a brick wall, but he might only hit the brick wall with every other pitch. Ahhh, Gussie, we love you but …….
On the other hand ……
Spinks made his Cardinals debut in Philadelphia on April 18, 1972. Oh, his stuff was electric – just as advertised. He would be practically unhittable through the first 5 innings, striking out 5 Phillies batters. With a small lead in the 6th inning, the wheels came off in the blink of an eye. Without recording a single out, 2 ex Cardinals (Tim McCarver and Willie Montanez) and a infamous Cardinals killer (Deron Johnson) had tied the score and were threatening for more. Former Braves and Reds starter, Tony Cloninger relieves the young right-hander, allowing the eventual winning run to score – charged to Spinks.
As a side note – I know that Deron Johnson only had a career .258 batting average against the Cardinals, but it seemed like every one of those hits came at a crucial point in the game. I used to to hate seeing him in the on-deck circle.
OK, maybe not the way Spinks wanted to start his Cardinals career, but there was a lot to like about the youngster. There would be even more to like after his next start, in Montreal, on April 23. How about a complete game 5 hitter, allowing just a single run. He would strike out 7 in that game, but would walk 5. This time there was no blow-up inning like there had been in Philadelphia.
Things continued to look bright when Spinks would face his old team, the Houston Astros, on April 29. In 8 1/3 innings, he was solid, allowing just 2 runs. Again, he would strike out seven, but the walk total would be similarly high at 4. He was matched Houston starter, Ken Forsch, brother of Cardinals pitcher Bob Forsch, and kept pace inning after inning until turning the game over to Al Santorini who would earn the win in a long relief appearance. Forsch got into trouble as he started the 11th inning. A swinging bunt single, a dribbler and then some defensive miscues allowed the Cardinals to win this game, handing Forsch a hard-luck loss.
More good pitching in May. The Cardinals would only go 2-4 in his 6 starts, but the two wins were impressive complete game victories over Houston and the Cubs, both at home. He had pitched against the Astros twice, but had yet to face Reuss – that might have been interesting. In the 4 losses, all were charged to the bullpen – Spinks pitched well enough to have won all 4.
Three tough losses to Western Division teams, all winnable if the Cardinals could have just gotten a couple of hits, bring us to his last two starts in June, and they are something special. The first was a 13 strikeout complete game win against the Mets as part of a double header. Rick Wise would pitch a gem in the nightcap and the Cards would sweep the doubleheader.
The second gem was a rematch of his Cardinals debut, against right-hander Billy Champion and the Philadelphia Phillies. This time there was no blow-up inning, and Spinks threw a complete game, allowing just a single run. He had also run his record to 5-5 on the season, although that was a misleading indicator of just how well he had done. Maybe that 2.33 ERA might get your attention.
July 4, 1972
Then came this game against the Cincinnati Reds. The blow-up inning had returned, this time it was the second inning. The Reds would get to Spinks for 5 runs, but it was sort of like being eaten by a moth. A walk, a dribbler single, another walk. Only one ball was hit hard, a bases clearing double off the bat of Pete Rose – ironic since he was known mostly as a singles hitter.
In a stroke of bad luck, Sprinks leads off the 3rd inning, and singles. One thing Spinks could do was run. Manager Red Schoendienst had already used him several times before as a pinch runner. But today, he was on base for himself.
Lou Brock would follow that with a fly out, which brings up little Luis Melendez, and the skinny one whacks a double into left field. With the heart of the batting order coming up, Schoendienst decides to play for the big inning, and the coach puts up the stop sign for Spinks as he is bearing down on third base. Spinks gambles on Rose’s arm, which was not especially strong, runs right through the sign and beats the throw to the plate. Unfortunately he runs into a rather large solid object named Bench (Johnny, not the piece of sporting equipment although the difference might be lost on the Cardinals hurler). Spinks would be safe, but would tear ligaments in his knee as a result of the collision. He would leave the game, and would not return to the Cardinals in 1972.
Scipio Spinks would rehab his knee and return to the Cardinals the following spring, but not for long. In the first game, in Pittsburgh, Spinks would injure his shoulder. It might have been because of mechanics changes due to his injury, trying to throw too hard on a cool afternoon, or just trying to make up for his lost 1972 season, but something was desperately wrong with the youngster. Pitching through soreness, he would not get out of the 4th inning in any of his first three starts, giving up a huge number of runs. His ERA was approaching 10 runs a game before a good outing against the Reds on April 25 gave us a little bit of hope.
But that was short lived as he got bombed in his next start, a few days later in San Diego. Another start and not able to get beyond the 4th inning. Following this start against the Padres, Spinks would go on the DL again, this time the 15 day, hoping some rest would take care of his shoulder troubles.
After missing nearly the entire month of May, things looked up for Spinks when he returned on May 29. In a short 6 inning start against the Reds, he struck out 8 while not allowing a single run. The velocity was back and the control was ……. well, what it had been before (4 walks to go with those 8 strikeouts). He would earn his first (and only) win for the 1973 season as Deigo Segui pitched three nearly perfect innings, recording 4 strikeouts of his own.
Optimism continued on the young right-hander’s next start, against Ken Forsch and his old team, the Houston Astros. While something wasn’t quite right with him, he battled Forsch for 8 innings. He would only strike out one batter, and that was a called strike three (Jimmy Wynn in the first inning). The only run he would allow was on a passed ball in the 8th inning. Ironically, it would be a passed ball with one out in the bottom of the 9th inning, scoring Cardinals catcher Tim McCarver that would tie the game and send it into extra innings. Tim McCarver would drive in the winning run with a walk off-single in the 10th inning, making a winner out of Wayne Granger in relief. It was a good outing for Spinks, and even though he had to grind it out for 8 innings, he deserved more than a no-decision.
Unfortunately the Major League career of Scipio Spinks was about to come to an end. In his next (and final) start against the Atlanta Braves, Spinks struggled in his first two innings of work. He managed to work out of a jam in the first inning, but when Marty Perez, not known as a big hitter, took him deep with a two run homer, something was way wrong. For all of his control issues, the long ball was never a problem with Spinks. Until today.
The last batter that Scipio Spinks would face in his major league career was Henry Aaron, leading off the third inning. And he did to the young hurler what he did to so many in his career, took him deep. Red immediately took the right-hander out of the game and that would be it for Scipio Spinks.
He would be traded to the Chicago Cubs prior to the start of the 1974 system, but would not make the big club out of spring training. He would struggle in the minors for two more seasons before calling it quits after three appearances with the Iowa Oaks, the AAA affiliate of the team where he started his career, the Houston Astros.
Not the End
This was not the end of Spinks baseball career – far from it. After retiring from the game, he would return as a scout and pitching coach for the San Diego Padres as well as his old team, the Astros. Rory Costello has written an excellent biography over at SABR Baseball Biography Project. If you want to learn more, you can find it here.
So, how did that trade work out for you, Gussie ?
With Spinks done, how did Reuss do ? How about another 198 wins after the trade ? Throw in over 3,330 innings and nearly 1700 strikeouts. That’s an average of 10-9, 175 innings pitched – FOR 19 YEARS (where most of them were more like 15-10, 220+ innings pitched). 75th on the all time wins list, 79th on the strikeout list. Yeah, Gussie, we loved you but ……. Thank goodness you turned things over to Whitey Herzog in a couple of years, so we could all love you again.