Grave Story: Spencer Adams (1898-1970)

Here lies Spencer Adams, an infielder who played for four different teams in his four-year career. Despite his short time in the majors, he managed to appear in two World Series, roomed with Lou Gehrig and was teammates with some of the most famous ballplayers of the era. Adams played for the Pittsburgh Pirates (1923), Washington Senators (1925), New York Yankees (1926) and St. Louis Browns (1927).

Spencer Dewey Adams was born in Layton, Utah on June 21, 1898. Normally I don’t look that much into the families of ballplayers, but Adams is an exception, because his family has been in this country before the United States of America was even a thought. Thanks to Find-A-Grave, you can trace the family back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Spencer Adams was one of 7 children of Rufus and Sarah Adams of Layton, Utah. Rufus Adams was a state senator. Rufus’ father, George Washington Adams, was born in Hancock County, Illinois in 1836. His father, Elias Adams Sr., was born in Vermont in 1792, fought in the War of 1812, was married twice, had 15 children and was the one who took the Adamses out West in the first place. His father, Job Adams, was in the Vermont militia during the Revolutionary War. His father, Joel, fought in the French & Indian War and then in the Revolutionary War for the Continentals. His father John was born in Connecticut in 1694, his father Jacob was born in Massachusetts in 1651 and his father Robert was born in England in 1602 and came to the Colonies in the 1620s or ‘30s. And yes, we can go back even further to the early 1500s, and kudos to whoever in the family traced the lineage back that far.

So anyway, the Adams Family has politicians, pioneers, war heroes and influential early colonists, but Spencer Adams played baseball, so let’s focus on the important stuff. Adams was a top athlete in Ogden High School and went to college for a year at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. He has the distinction of being the first Ute to ever make it to the majors. First, he had to get through minor-league baseball to get there.

Adams’ pro ball career started in 1921 in Tremonton, Utah, where he played for the Class-D Northern Utah League. In 40 games, he hit a scorching .432, with 28 of his 73 hits going for extra basis (10 doubles, 11 triples, 7 homers). He joined the Seattle Indians of the Pacific Coast League in 1922. While his batting average dropped, his reputation grew. The Indians journeyed to Salt Lake City to play the Bees, and the hometown crowd held a “Spencer Adams Day” in honor of their hometown prospect. When the youngster came to bat for the first time, the game was halted so that Ogden Mayor Frank Francis could present him with a gold watch worth $205.97 — a nice prize in 1922! He was also given several flower bouquets and thanked the hometown crowd by knocking a couple of base hits (and committing a couple of costly fielding errors in the Bees win).

In December 1922, the Pirates made a big trade to land Adams. They sent two players and a player to be named later to pick up his contract. Baseball Reference lists the Bucs sending $15,000 instead of a third player, but either way, it was a haul. Unfortunately for Adams, the Pirates played him in only 25 games, though they seemed to have kept him on the roster the whole year. He played 11 games at second base and 6 games at shortstop. The Bucs had Rabbit Maranville at shortstop and Johnny Rawlings at second, and Adams wasn’t going to replace either one of those good hitters. Furthermore, Adams’ other position, third base, was occupied by Hall of Famer Pie Traynor, so he was stuck as a backup infielder and pinch-runner. He batted .250 in 56 at-bats.

The Pirates recouped some of their costs in acquiring Adams by trading him, three other players and cash to the Oakland Oaks in December 1923. They got back pitcher Ray Kremer, who would win 20 games twice with the Bucs. Adams rebounded nicely with the Oaks, getting 220 hits in 200 games (Pacific Coast League seasons were looooong) for a .273 average. Though the Pirates had the rights to re-sign him, Adams was instead drafted by the Senators in the Rule V draft.

Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Sept. 26, 1925.

Adams played well for the Senators in 1925, though again it was in limited action. He appeared in 39 games, mostly at his natural position of second base, and batted .273. Once again, he was on a team with a really talented infield and was stuck as a backup. He didn’t see much action at all until 2B/manager Bucky Harris suffered a late-season hand injury, and Adams filled in admirably. The Senators finished the season 95-55 and won the AL pennant. They would lose the World Series to Adams’ old team, the Pirates. Harris’ injury had healed, so Adams’ postseason playing time was reduced to 2 games and 1 hitless at-bat.

In the 1926 offseason, the Yankees were trying to pry second baseman Marty McManus away from the St. Louis Browns in a trade. Those talks went nowhere, so the Yankees instead bought out Adams’ contract from the Senators. Adams was originally intended as bait for the Cardinals, but he stuck with the Yankees instead. Not that he got much of a chance to play, as Yankees rookie Tony Lazzeri snatched away the second base job and held onto it for the next decade-plus with the Yankees. Adams was stuck as a pinch-hitter or pinch-runner and appeared in 28 games with 28 plate appearances. He hit just .120, with 3 hits and 7 runs scored. He made his second trip to the World Series and appeared in 2 games without an at-bat as the Yankees lost to the Cardinals in 7 games.

The Yankees sent Adams off to the St. Louis Browns in March 1927 in exchange for $5,000. On one hand, it was terrible timing, as he just missed out on being a part of the legendary 1927 Murders’ Row team. Even if he would have sat on the bench for the entire season, he nonetheless could have been a part of history. On the other hand, Adams was finally part of a team that was so terrible that no future Hall of Famers or Hall of Very Gooders were blocking him, and he played in a career-high 88 games. The Browns’ middle infielders had batting averages in the low .220s with no power, so he was in the best position of his pro ball career.

And he took advantage of his time, too. Playing in a career-high 88 games, Adams had a respectable .266/.333/.332 slash line in 1927. Most of his time was at second base, but he also had 28 games at third base. The problem was that his fielding was below average at both positions. That was the downside to his career; he could play anywhere in the infield, but his fielding was sub-par everywhere, and his hitting never was quite good enough to compensate for it. The Browns traded Adams and another player to Milwaukee of the American Association at the end of 1927, ending his time as an MLB player.

For his career, Adams played in 180 games, with 101 hits, 38 RBIs, 61 runs and a .256/.324/.322 slash line. He played in the minor leagues through 1932, primarily with the Nashville Vols of the Southern Association. He had a few good years and even rediscovered his power stroke — he homered 11 times for the Vols in 1929.

Adams played on local teams following his retirement from pro baseball. According to the 1940 census, Adams and his family were living in Layton, Utah, and he was employed as a truck driver in the road work industry for the government. I’m assuming the state of Utah, not federal. When World War II rolled around, he was working for the Ogden Ordinance Depot, per his draft card.

Fifty-eight-year-old Spencer “Sparky” Adams shows off a lifetime of baseball memorabilia. Source: The Ogden Standard Examiner, July 23, 1950.

By the 1960s, Adams was employed at Hill Air Force Base as a millwright and worked on his farm in Layton. He kept his mementos of the game and his famous teammates – Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig (his old Yankee roommate), Walter Johnson and Goose Goslin, to name a few. He had a photo of the time he and the rest of his Senators teammates got to meet President Coolidge.

“Baseball is a great game. I loved every minute of it — but it can be tough and a heartbreaker too,” he told The Ogden Standard Examiner in 1950. “A lot of people think baseball is all fun. But I’ve pitched hay from sun up until dark and never been as tired as I’ve been after a real tough baseball game.”

Spencer Adams died in Salt Lake City on November 24, 1970 at the age of 72. He is buried in Kaysville City Cemetery in Kaysville, Utah.

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