October 2 – Happy Birthday Spec Shea

spec-sheaFrank “Spec” Shea spent his first season of organized ball in Amsterdam, playing for the old Rugmakers and living in the old Amsterdam Hotel. The year was 1940. A native of Naugatuck, Connecticut, he had been signed by the Yankees after pitching impressively in a 1939 collegiate summer league following his senior year in high school. The guy who signed him was the legendary Yankee super scout, Paul Krichell, who also signed Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, Phil Rizzuto and Whitey Ford. His real name was Francis Joseph O’Shea but he had dropped the “O” when he played in that summer league, much to his Dad’s consternation. In an interview of Shea, which appears in the excellent book entitled “Baseball’s Canadian-Amsterdam League,” written by Rug City native David Pietrusza, the pitcher explained how he almost packed his bags and went home after his first start for Amsterdam against Gloversville;

“…The first game I pitched against Gloversville, and they jocked me real bad. They got eight runs in the first inning, and I couldn’t get anybody out. I said, “Professional ball’s real tough…. I better pack it up and go home.”

“Eddie Sawyer was our manager, and he found out. I was over in the clubhouse packing and he sent someone over to get me and talk to me. He said ‘You’re not going no place,’ and he explained all the things that could happen, you know. If you leave, you’re going to get a blacklist from baseball, this and that. So I said, ‘Well, all right. I don’t know what I’m going to do though.’

“So the next time out I pitched against Gloversville on their home court, and I think it was a two-hitter I pitched and shut them out. And that got me on my way, but the first game I pitched I thought, ‘Oh, gee! This is tough.’ Like he [Sawyer] said to me after the game, ‘Your rhythm, your coordination, was way off. You weren’t pitching. You were just aiming and throwing.”

In that same interview, Shea described his concern about a bonus the Yankees had promised him if he proved he belonged in professional baseball; “They had an agreement with me. If I stayed with the club until July 4th, I was going to get a bonus, and I’m sitting in the Hotel Amsterdam [that night] and Eddie

Sawyer came down and he said ‘I hope you get it because you’ve done a good job for us so far.’ We’re sitting there, and he come over and he said ‘Did you hear anything yet?’ I said, ‘No. It’s getting near 12 o’clock, and if I don’t get it by then, I don’t.” So Krichell came walking down the stairs, and he come over and sat right across from us, and I said, “That’s the guy, Ed. I don’t know what he’s going to do, but I’m going to wait till 12 o’clock, and if he don’t say nothing then I’m going to bed.’ So, Jesus, about five minutes to 12, he come walking over, and he said, ‘Well, we’re supposed to talk about a bonus here today.’ And Sawyer says, ‘Jeez, I hope you’re gonna give the kid a bonus. He’s helping the ball club, and this and that.’ He [Krichell] says, ‘˜Well, he’s coming along. He’s got to improve and get a little better than that.’ Jeez, the Yankees hated to give you anything at that time, so he finally said, ‘We’re going to take a chance. I’m gonna give him the bonus.’ He gave me a check for $250. You’re talking about a lot of money. Christ, you’d think it was a big deal!”

Shea finished his 1940 Rugmaker season with an 11-4 record. He spent the next two seasons climbing up New York’s minor league ladder and the three after that serving his country in WWII. He then went 15-5 for the Yankee’s Triple-A team in Oakland, finally making the big club in 1947. Spec went 14-5 as a rookie for the Yankees and won the AL All Star game plus beat the Dodgers twice in the 1947 World Series. He would have been AL Rookie of the Year as well but back then only one player in all of baseball got that award and Shea finished behind Jackie Robinson. Yankee announcer Mel Allen gave him the nickname the “Naugatuck Nugget.” Spec than hurt his arm the following season and never again achieved the level of success he had during his first year in pinstripes and was finally traded to the Senators in 1952. He pitched very well during his first two seasons in Washington winning 23 games and losing just 14 times for a very bad team. He called it quits after the 1955 season. He was 29-21 as a Yankee and 56-46 for his eight-season big league career.

After leaving the game, Shea returned to his hometown where for the next couple of decades he served as Naugatuck’s director of recreation. He also helped Robert Redford learn how to throw a baseball for the Hollywood star’s role as Roy Hobbs in the movie “The Natural.” Spec Shea died in 2001 at the age of 81.

Shea shares his October 2 birthday with a guy who rose to the Number 2 position at Mohasco Corp. when it was still Amsterdam’s biggest employer.

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