RIP to George Spriggs, who came into professional baseball in the waning days of the Negro Leagues and broke into Major League Baseball as a 28-year-old rookie. He died on December 22 at the age of 83. At the time of his death, Spriggs was living in Prince Frederick, Md. He played for the Pittsburgh Pirates (1965-67) and Kansas City Royals (1969-1970).
George Herman Spriggs was born in Jewell, Md., on May 22, 1937. He was not named after the other George Herman who was born in Maryland — Ruth, that is. Spriggs was named after an uncle. “Maybe they named him after Babe Ruth,” he reasoned.
According to Royals Review, Spriggs was a top athlete at Wiley Bates High School in Annapolis, though he only played baseball in his senior year — it was the only year the school had a baseball team while he attended. He was a good football player, but he got his love of baseball from his father, a semipro catcher. After graduation, Spriggs signed with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues in 1959 as an outfielder. By then, the Monarchs were a barnstorming team, playing across the country and taking on all comers. When the team was making a tour through Pennsylvania in 1959, it was joined by The Flying Nesbits acrobats and Richard Prince Harvey, a “Clown Prince of Baseball.” Spriggs also played for the Detroit-New Orleans All-Stars in 1960 before leaving on a two-year stint in the U.S. Army.
When Spriggs was discharged and returned to baseball, he joined the Pittsburgh Pirates organization and was assigned to the Class-A Reno Silver Sox of the California League. Spriggs was 26 years old and had a couple of years of experience in the Negro Leagues, so he was definitely overqualified to be playing in Class-A ball. (The Pirates might not have known how old he really was, though. Spriggs was listed in newspapers as being five years younger than he really was throughout his playing career.) Unsurprisingly, he destroyed the competition, with a .319/.452/.435 slash line. He stole 44 bases and drew 107 walks, though he also had 115 strikeouts. He homered 9 times, and one of them won a $250 bonus when he banged a long ball off the scoreboard in Reno’s ballpark. The Silver Sox tried him in the infield, and he was pretty disastrous at third base. From that point forward, he stayed in the outfield and did much better there.
Spriggs again showed his worth in 1964, when he hit .322 for the AA Asheville Tourists, third-best in the Southern League. He was the recipient of a nasty spike wound in his thigh, which required 22 stitches. He came back after just a week’s absence, and that kind of work ethic impressed manager Ray Hathaway.
“He came to play. You can tell him something and he remembers it. Tell him how to hit and he hits. Tell him how to lead off base and he leads off properly,” he explained. “He could easily be the outstanding prospect in this league come September.”
Spriggs moved up to the AAA Columbus Jets in 1965 and had his worst season in the minors to date, batting just .240. However, he stole a league-leading 66 bases. The Pirates brought him to the majors for the first time in mid-September. Spriggs didn’t receive a wealth of playing time — he appeared in 9 games and had 2 plate appearances. He made his major-league debut on September 15, 1955 against the Cardinals, entering the game in the seventh inning as a pinch-runner for Del Crandall. He scored on a double by Jim Pagliaroni. His first major-league hit came on September 20 and was a single off the Mets’ Carl Willey in a 10-0 win.
The Pirates’ outfield at the time Spriggs was breaking into the majors included two Hall of Famers in Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente, as well as very good ballplayers like Bill Virdon, Manny Mota and Matty Alou. Consequently, Spriggs was limited to spare appearances in each of the next two seasons. He again got a September call-up in 1966 and had a hit in 7 at-bats. He finally made the team out of spring training in 1967 and hit .175 in 38 games. He did help the Pirates win a few games before he was demoted to AAA in late June.
Spriggs used his speed to help tie the game against Philadelphia on April 27, 1967. He walked, advanced to third base on a couple of ground ball outs and then dashed for home when a ball from pitcher Larry Jackson bounced in the dirt. Catcher Bob Uecker was surprised to see him trying to score and threw wildly to home, allowing Spriggs to score the tying run. The Pirates eventually won 5-4.
“The coach [Alex Grammas] told me to be alert if Jackson bounced one into the dirt,” he said later. “I thought the ball bounced further away than it did but I made it and that’s all that counts.”
Spriggs hit well as a starter but had less luck as a pinch-hitter. He did get a pinch-hit triple on June 10 and scored on an Alou single to hand Philadelphia another defeat, 4-3. Right before he was sent to the minors, he was brought into a game against Cincinnati as a pinch-runner, stole second and scored the winning run on a Maury Wills single. That speed made him valuable enough that the Red Sox claimed him in the Rule V Draft that November. Sox manager Dick Williams saw plenty of Spriggs when he was a minor-league manager, and Spriggs immediately became the team’s fastest runner.
After a disappointing spring in 1968, Spriggs was returned to the Pirates, who had no room for him in their crowded outfield. He spent the season in AAA Columbus, where he hit .274 and stole 46 bases. At the end of the season, the Royals purchased his contract, giving him a new chance with the expansion team.
Spriggs was a bit of a long shot to make the Royals. The team had a number of left-handed hitting outfielders, including Spriggs. He also had high strikeout totals in the minors. However, he just played too well to be ignored, and he made the Royals out of training camp.
Despite the fact that he played with the Monarchs in 1959, Spriggs never actually played a game in Kansas City until he was a member of the Royals. “We were a traveling team,” he said of the Monarchs. “We didn’t play any games in Kansas City. If we did, I don’t remember them.”
Spriggs was mainly used as a pinch-hitter or pinch-runner, getting 33 plate appearances in 23 games for the Royals in ’69, over the course of several callups and demotions. He had 4 hits for a .138 average, though those 4 hits included 2 doubles and a triple. The rest of the season was spent in AAA Omaha. Spriggs’ most significant playing time in the majors came in 1970, when he got into 51 games with the Royals — and not just as a pinch-hitter, either. He made 36 appearances n right field, and 32 of them were starts.
Spriggs’ first start came on April 17, in relief of right fielder Pat Kelly, who was away on weekend military duty. Spriggs went 4-for-5 with 3 runs scored, prompting reliever Moe Drabowsky to say after the game, “Hey George, when Kelly sees that box score he’ll go AWOL.” Despite a .261 average in 13 games, Spriggs was sent to Omaha at the end of April and was brought back in August.
“All I want is a chance to prove I can play,” he said after his 4-hit day. “If I get my chance and I can’t do the job then I’ll quit baseball and start doing something else. So far I’ve never really gotten a chance. Sometimes it almost seems to be a matter of who you know rather than how well you play.”
Spriggs slashed .208/.283/.292 in 1970, and he hit his one and only major-league home run on September 21 off Joe Horlen of the Chicago White Sox. He also won the American Association MVP Award for hitting .301 with 11 homers and 29 stolen bases for Omaha.
The New York Mets acquired Spriggs’ contract in 1971 and assigned him to their AAA Tidewater club. However, he was 34 years old (though the Mets presumably thought he was 29) and missed almost the entire season with a broken leg. He came back in 1972 but hit .209 in 41 games for Tidewater, with just one stolen base. That was his last season of pro ball.
In 130 games across five seasons, Spriggs had a slash line of .191/.266/.271. He had 43 hits, including 5 doubles, 5 triples and 1 home run. He scored 35 runs and stole 9 bases. He played for 10 seasons in the minor leagues and hit .289 with 85 home runs and 324 stolen bases.
After leaving baseball, Spriggs returned to Maryland. His son, George Jr., was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1987 June Amateur Draft as an infielder. He spent two seasons in the low levels of the minors before he was killed in a car accident on December 2, 1988. George Spriggs Jr. was 20 years old. His father built a baseball field behind his house named “Geno’s Field,” in honor of his late son. It was the home of the Tracey Twins, a team Spriggs was affiliated with for several years.