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Remembering George Spriggs, the only Royals player to play in the Negro Leagues

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From the Monarchs to the Royals.

George Spriggs was a player, like many from the early days of the Royals, who have been forgotten. It’s easy to do. Spriggs’ Major League career only encompassed 74 games spread over the 1969 and 1970 season. He got to the plate 178 times, collecting 31 hits and 17 walks. He only hit one home run in Royal uniform and his slash was .195/.275/.289.

But Royals fans and the organization should remember this proud man for making it to the big leagues. You see, Spriggs was the only Negro League alumni to ever wear a Royals uniform. This being the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro Leagues, I figure this is a great time to bring forth the story of George Spriggs.

Spriggs is one player I’ve been looking forward to writing about. I remember getting his 1970 Royals baseball card and wondering “who is this guy?” Turns out, “this guy” has an interesting history.

Spriggs was born May 22, 1937 in Jewell, Maryland, a suburb of the Washington, D.C. area, not far from the Chesapeake Bay. Spriggs graduated from Wiley Bates High School in Annapolis and as a young man signed with the Kansas City Monarchs. His Monarchs career was interrupted by a two-year hitch with the United State Army, spent in Germany.

Upon his discharge, Spriggs played for the Detroit Stars of the Negro Leagues. All records indicate his last appearance with the Stars occurred in 1962. Spriggs was one of the last of a dying breed – the Negro League player making the jump to the big leagues. Once Spriggs made the jump in 1965, only four more men followed: Hal King, Ike Brown, Billy Parker and Harry Chappas. Chappas probably deserves an asterisk as he was a white man playing for the Indianapolis Clowns (yes, the Negro Leagues did integrate right before the end) before promoter extraordinaire Bill Veeck signed him to play for the White Sox.

The Pittsburgh Pirates signed Spriggs as a free agent prior to the 1963 season. He was assigned to Class A Reno, where he acquitted himself well, hitting .319 with a .452 OBP. Either the Class A pitchers were crazy wild or Spriggs had an excellent eye, as he drew 107 walks in 133 games. Of course, he was 26 at the time and would have been more polished than most of his teammates and opponents, having spent time playing better competition in the Negro Leagues. The case can be made that the Pirates should have started Spriggs at a higher level.

The Pirates bumped him to AA Asheville for the 1964 season and he responded with the second-highest batting average in the league at .322. He also led the Southern League with 33 stolen bases. The genial Spriggs was very popular with sportswriters and fans of the Asheville Tourists.

He started the 1965 season at AAA Columbus. He only hit .240 but got a late season call-up to the big leagues. He made his debut on September 15, 1965 against the St. Louis Cardinals. He picked up his first hit on September 20, an eighth inning single against the Mets Carl Willey.

The 1966 season was more of the same. He spent most of the season in Columbus, followed by another late season cup of coffee with the Pirates. Spriggs, an outfielder, hit from the left side and threw right. There wasn’t a lot of playing time in the Pirate outfield, what with Roberto Clemente in right, solid Bill Virdon in center and a young star in the making, Willie Stargell in left. Manny Mota, a decent player in his own right, was the fourth outfielder and a young Al Oliver was waiting in the wings. Prior to the 1966 season the Pirates picked up another outfielder, Matty Alou, in a trade. Alou suddenly blossomed and led the National League in hitting with a .342 average. So yes, playing time was tough to find on that team.

Spriggs started 1967 with the Pirates, who used him primarily in a pinch hitting, pinch runner role. He stayed with the big club until late June when he was optioned back to Columbus. The Boston Red Sox selected Spriggs in the November 1967 Rule 5 draft but returned him to the Pirates when Spriggs didn’t make the Sox roster out of spring training. Even though George didn’t make the Red Sox roster, he did get a rookie card with the Sox with this sweet 1968 version.

Spriggs spent the entire 1968 season at Columbus and had a fine season, hitting .274 and stealing 46 bases.

The expansion Royals, working to stock their system with talent, purchased his contract from the Pirates in October of 1968. Spriggs opened the 1969 season in Kansas City and saw his first action on April 11. He collected his first hit as a Royal on April 13, a sixth inning single off another Negro League alum, John “Blue Moon” Odom. His career had come full circle, from Kansas City Monarch to Kansas City Royal. Hitting only .158, the Royals optioned Spriggs to Omaha, where he took out his frustration on AAA pitching, slashing .311/.382/.471.

Spriggs, now 33, again made the Royals opening day roster in 1970. George had his best game as a Royal on April 17 in a game at California. Batting leadoff and playing right field, Spriggs stroked four hits in five at bats. He also scored three runs and recorded five putouts in leading the Royals to a 7-5 victory. Spriggs was hitting .261 in limited action when Kansas City optioned him to Omaha on April 25. He once again put up terrific numbers at the AAA level: .301/.374/.500 which were good enough to be named the American Association MVP.

The Royals brought him back on August 15 and he stroked his first and only big-league home run on September 21 against the White Sox Joe Horlen in a game played in Chicago. His last hit as a Royal, and in the big leagues, came on September 29, 1970, when he slashed a first inning single against the Twins Jim Perry in a game at Municipal. The game itself was a wild affair, with the Royals pounding 20 hits off six Twins pitchers. The Twins countered with 20 hits of their own, off seven Royal hurlers. The Royals prevailed, 14-13 in a 12-inning game that stretched a little over four hours. The two teams used a combined 49 players, which must have driven fans keeping score, slightly crazy.

Spriggs appeared in a career high 51 games in 1970 for the Royals. In March of 1971, the Royals, now flush with younger outfield talent, sold Spriggs to the New York Mets.

Knee injuries limited Spriggs to 4 games with AAA Tidewater in 1971 but he came back and played 41 games in the 1972 season at the age of 35. He never again appeared in the Major Leagues.

I tracked down George recently and requested an interview. I spoke with his wife, a gracious and kind lady who informed me that George, now 83, has been in declining health and was unable to speak to me. We reminisced about George’s career and his time in the Negro Leagues and the importance of his link between the Negro Leagues and the Royals, given that this is the 100th anniversary year of the founding of the Negro Leagues, an event that took place in the Paseo YMCA. In retirement, George returned to his ancestral home in Maryland. There’s a baseball field behind his house. The field has special meaning to George. The field was home to the Chesapeake Twins, now the Tracey Twins, an Independent League team that George was affiliated with for many years. The Twins played on Geno’s field, named for George’s son, who once played in the Pittsburgh Pirates minor league system. Tragically, Geno Spriggs died in a car accident. In the beautiful fading summer daylight, just a couple of long home runs from the Chesapeake Bay, sits George Spriggs very own Field of Dreams.

So, Royals fans, I ask you, when you say your prayers tonight, remember George Spriggs, an original Royal and our only link to the Negro Leagues.