Watson Spoelstra (Ben Hoak)
In today’s era of obsessive self-promotion, true sportsmen – the kind who serve higher ideals than themselves and who understand instinctively that the principles behind their chosen game will endure long after they have gone – are hard to find.
Such a sportsman was Watson Spoelstra, the tough, likeable, workaday sportswriter.
Watson Spoelstra (1910-1999)
“Player, Writer, Visionary”
By Benjamin Hoak
Watson Spoelstra made his mark at the Detroit News through the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s – the heyday of stars like the Lions’ Bobby Layne and the Tigers’ Denny McLain. A consummate professional, Spoelstra is best known for what he accomplished in his second career.
Although he didn’t like to take credit for it, he fanned the spark of an idea called Baseball Chapel into a full-fledged fire that still affects the lives of thousands of major- and minor-league baseball players, coaches, umpires and families. His desire to provide an opportunity for Sunday worship services at the ballpark caught on with some of baseball’s best known names; Hank Aaron, Sal Bando, Tommy John, Sparky Anderson, Ernie Harwell and many others took hold of Spoelstra’s vision and helped pass it on.
That vision carried Spoelstra through the last 26 years of his life. Without Baseball Chapel, you see, this “ink-stained wretch,” as he called himself, wouldn’t have been keeping his bargain with God. What else could he have done when his daughter was lying in a coma, inches from death? No other recourse was available. Spoelstra made a promise and God changed his heart. He couldn’t have imagined it then, but it was the best bargain Watson “Waddy” Spoelstra ever made.
Spoelstra – known to all simply as “Waddy” – began working for the Detroit News in the early 1940s. He was a beat writer, covering at various times the Lions, Pistons, Tigers and the University of Michigan. Spoelstra was a big man, standing tall and broad-shouldered, wearing glasses and balding with a fringe of hair that began graying as he got older. Although he related fairly well to the athletes and learned the best ways to deal with them over the years, he could be a cranky writer, even crotchety or just plain mean if the mood struck him.
In August 1970, the Tigers’ star pitcher Denny McLain – he had won 30 games two years before and is still the last major league pitcher to have accomplished the feat – was not pitching well. Irritated with the press and egged on by teammates, he doused Spoelstra and writer Jim Hawkins with buckets of ice water in the Tigers’ locker room before a game one night. “Denny let this writer have it on the neck and shoulders with ice water from about 10 feet,” Spoelstra later wrote. “It was a direct hit. Denny hardly wasted a drop.” Not happy about having to work in a soaking wet suit, Spoelstra promptly complained to general manager Jim Campbell, who suspended McLain for seven days.
Despite his stubborn, strong-willed tendencies and occasional bouts of grouchiness, Spoelstra possessed a likeable personality. He enjoyed laughing and swapping stories and he developed a good relationship with the players. “It was the people that he really liked,” remembers his son Jon Spoelstra. “He liked telling their stories.”
The working relationship between the press and the players was different in Spoelstra’s day – Spoelstra kept his writing confined to events on the field, even if he knew salacious off-field details about players. “In those days the relationship was much closer between the media and the athletes,” says Ernie Harwell, the legendary broadcasting voice of the Tigers and a close friend of Spoelstra’s. “He related to players very well.” Writers commonly rode buses and charters with players and spent time with them after games, drinking, playing cards and developing relationships.
When Spoelstra covered the Lions in the 1950s, Bobby Layne was their star quarterback. He led them to three championships and ended up in the Hall of Fame, but he also had a tendency to drink too much the Saturday night before home games. On those nights, Spoelstra wouldn’t even get into his pajamas; he’d just lie down on his bed wearing his clothes and shoes. About 2 a.m. the phone would ring and a police officer at the jail would be on the line, asking Spoelstra if he knew Bobby Layne. Spoelstra would swing out of bed and bail Layne out before the game the next day.
Later in his career, the Lions held an appreciation day for Layne. They presented him with a plaque and after taking it, Layne told the 800-member audience in his Texas drawl that Watson Spoelstra really deserved to have it. “He’s the one who would bail me out of jail,” Layne said. That day was the first time the public knew about Spoelstra’s involvement.
Spoelstra’s reporting was honest, detailed and laid-back. He was a beat writer, through and through. He harbored no grand illusions of a cushy columnist’s job. He simply went about his work professionally and thoroughly. “He didn’t want to be a columnist,” Jon Spoelstra said. “He wanted to tell the story of what was going on in the game.”
His writing is crisp and clear, every word chosen with care, adjectives and adverbs artfully placed in positions of maximum impact. He painted a picture of the game, leaving readers with the feeling they had seen it themselves. Throughout his career, he always seems to have positioned himself in the right place at the right time to capture the details that made his reporting authentic. Whether it was watching from the press box, gathering quotes from the locker room or sitting in a manager’s office, Spoelstra was a fan’s writer. His in-depth knowledge of the game and of his craft made his writing real and accessible.
One of his big breaks as a writer came in 1957, when he covered the pro football championship game between the Detroit Lions and the Cleveland Browns. As an underdog, Detroit won 59-14, and Spoelstra’s story circulated around the country. He made his mark, though, as a baseball writer, becoming president of the Baseball Writers Association of America in 1968. The BBWAA votes each year on the players deserving of enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. As president, Spoelstra served as the master of ceremonies for the induction of the 1968 class.
In addition to his Detroit work, Spoelstra reached a wider audience as a correspondent for The Sporting News for more than 30 years, filing almost weekly reports from Detroit. To make extra money, he also served as an official scorer for the Tigers. In the 1968 World Series between the Detroit Tigers and the St. Louis Cardinals, Spoelstra worked as one of the three official scorers – the other two were also reporters from Detroit and St. Louis.
On April 14, 1961, Spoelstra was presiding as the official scorer for a one-hitter thrown by Detroit’s Frank Lary. His no-hit bid was barred by Spoelstra’s decision to rule a tough ground ball a hit rather than an error. Spoelstra demonstrated his professionalism, integrity and eye for detail in his explanation in the The Sporting News two weeks later:
“The big play occurred with Chicago at bat and two out in the fifth inning. Jim Landis was the batter. Landis smashed the ball to the left side of the infield. Shortstop Chico Fernandez made a backhanded stab at the ball . . . the ball struck the heel of his glove and bounced away.
“The degree of difficulty on the fielding play was one factor. A more important consideration was the speed of Landis. The scorer ruled Landis couldn’t have been thrown out if the ball had been handled cleanly. He made his call and the scoreboard flashed the hit sign.
“There were scattered booes from the 4,288 crowd.”
Spoelstra’s love of sports started from an early age. Born in Grand Rapids and raised in Holland, Mich., his father died when he was 5 years old. His mother brought him up in the strict Dutch Reformed tradition, which prohibited any sports on Sunday. During baseball season, the neighbor would sit on his porch on Sunday afternoons listening to the Detroit Tigers game; Watson would beg him to turn up the volume so he could get around his mom’s rules.
The family struggled to make ends meet, so Spoelstra began working at the Holland Sentinel to make extra money. When he attended Hope College in Holland, he played baseball (he was a first baseman) and basketball, excelling at the latter. At one time, he was Hope’s all-time leading scorer. He served as co-captain of the team in 1931-1932, and became the first Hope player to receive all-MIAA (Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association) recognition, winning the award in 1931 and 1932. He wrote about sports for the Sentinel while in college, even reporting on basketball games that he played in. Spoelstra graduated in 1932; he received Hope College’s distinguished alumni award in 1990.
Spoelstra had planned to begin teaching after graduation, but couldn’t find a job that suited him. The Associated Press offered him a sportswriting job in Detroit and he took it. “He always loved sports,” said his daughter Ann Kimberly. “It was a perfect fit.” He went from the AP to the Detroit Free Press, and then around 1942, he was hired away by the Detroit News, where he spent the next 30 years as a beat writer covering the Detroit sports scene.
While working in Detroit, Spoelstra met and married Jean Murphy, an Irish Catholic girl, and they had two children. They raised the family on sports, spending the morning around the breakfast table, reading the paper. Although Spoelstra spent much of his time on the road (up to 50 percent when he was covering the Tigers), the family never felt slighted or undervalued. “He’d always have time for my sister and me,” Jon Spoelstra said. “He was a terrific supporter when he was in town,” Ann Kimberly added. “He went to Jon’s basketball games, my swimming meets. Jon and I were truly blessed to have had such wonderful parents.”
Spoelstra took the kids with him to sporting events; one of Jon’s favorite memories is attending University of Michigan football games and stepping foot on the hallowed field to race his dad for 100 yards. “He was my best man at my wedding,” Jon said. “He had a terrific amount of influence.” The language of sports was a commonality between them, a natural and lifelong way to communicate between father and son.
Typewriters sat around the house (“I think I learned to type before I learned to write,” Jon Spoelstra said) and the language of sports stuck with both children. Jon followed his interest to the NBA, where he served as an executive for many years, and Ann still loves to talk Pistons basketball.
Spoelstra didn’t pursue other hobbies. He devoted himself to his work and his family and later, to Baseball Chapel. He loved finding things out. “He was an information freak,” says his son. “He thought ESPN was terrific. He would have loved the Internet.”
The Dark Side of Success
Because of his mother’s tight restrictions regarding religious practices, Spoelstra turned away from religion when he became an adult. He didn’t go to church, talk to God or read his Bible – he was indifferent to what had once helped define his life.
His career and family were outwardly successful, but his abandonment of God and dependence on himself began to cause problems. In Spoelstra’s own words, “By the late 1950s, after 20 years on the sports beat, I had become a drunk.” When he had been drinking, the volatile side of his personality showed itself even more. “He was a two-fisted drinking man,” his son said. When Jon moved to Chicago, his father even warned him of a certain bar to avoid, saying that he had once thrown a man through a plate glass window there. “After turning in a story, I liked nothing better than to tie one on with the boys,” Spoelstra later wrote.
Spoelstra’s daughter, Ann Kimberly, doesn’t remember her father’s drinking affecting her. “It was a problem for mom,” she said. “She kept it from Jon and me. He’d stop at a bar with some of his buddies and be late getting home.”
Eventually, it all came to a head. “I started out as a hard-drinking hell-raiser,” Spoelstra wrote. “There had been too many nights out with the boys. I lost count of the king-sized hangovers plus a wrecked car or two and several nights in the pokey. My wife, Jean, and our kids, Ann and Jon, were slipping away from me. My career, too. Better newsmen than I had gone down the drain from drink and I was on my way.”
The night Spoelstra was covering the Detroit Lions as they won their NFL championship in 1957, Jon Spoelstra found his 18-year-old sister Ann unconscious on the bathroom floor. At a nearby Catholic hospital, doctors determined she had a brain hemorrhage. After two or three days of lying in a coma, the bleeding hadn’t stopped and doctors said death was close. In anguish, Watson Spoelstra made his way to the hospital chapel, where he talked to God for the first time in years. He later wrote down part of his prayer that day: “I’ve never paid much attention to you. My mother believed in you. You must be in this room, God … I’ve got a deal for you: You do something about Ann and I’ll let you do something with me.”
God answered Spoelstra’s pleas. When he walked up to his daughter’s room some time later, the nuns were calling out, “It’s a miracle! It’s a miracle!” Ann lived and a subsequent x-ray showed her brain to be clear, as if nothing had ever happened. God enabled Spoelstra to begin to keep his end of his desperate bargain as well. “At the age of 48, I became a Christian,” he wrote.
The change in Spoelstra’s life was immediate and radical. Never one to do anything halfway, he immersed himself in the life of a Christian. He stopped drinking cold turkey (he said he lost all taste for alcohol because his body chemistry changed). He joined a church and went to meeting after meeting, working with alcoholics and growing as a Christian. He primarily attended a Presbyterian church, but denomination didn’t matter to him as much as serving God.
Spoelstra spent increasing amounts of time in the Bible, learning to love it with an unmatched fervor. Every time he wrote someone a letter – which he did often – he would include a Bible verse fitting the particular situation he was addressing. “That’s the one thing I would say (that is) overwhelming more than anything – his love for God’s word,” says Vince Nauss, the current president of Baseball Chapel and a good friend of Spoelstra’s. “He just had a passion for God’s word.”
Several verses popped up again and again in Spoelstra’s life. Two of his favorites include, “Tell me what to do O Lord and make it plain,” (Psalm 27:4) and “Everything comes from God alone, everything lives by His power, everything is for His glory” (Romans 11:36).
He continued to work for the Detroit News after his conversion, although Christians in the newsroom were a scarce commodity.
John McCandlish Phillips, the talented New York Times reporter and well-known Christian, heard that Spoelstra had been saved. “All I knew about him was that he worked in Detroit as a sportswriter and that he was – wonder of wonders – a born-again Christian at a time when there were so few believers on daily newspapers as to make them ‘as rare as Eskimos in the Amazon,’ as I once put it,” Phillips said.
Spoelstra entertained thoughts of quitting the newspaper and becoming a missionary; even after so many things had changed in his life, he still questioned what he needed to do to hold up his end of the bargain with God. “He just couldn’t quite figure out what was the right path,” Jon Spoelstra said. “He had to take a path (but) he didn’t know what it was. When he came up with Baseball Chapel, then it was off to the races.”
The Seeds of Baseball Chapel
In the late 1960s, Spoelstra began to hear baseball players speaking up about their faith in God. Prayer breakfasts and Bible studies started appearing in a few clubs. When they were on the road, the Twins and Cubs experimented with short Sunday services – something Spoelstra had noticed NFL teams sometimes did.
Spoelstra’s idea came to fruition as he continued to cover the Tigers. He witnessed firsthand the emptiness of the lifestyle the players were leading and he saw that even the Christian ballplayers often couldn’t make it to church on Sunday. “He wanted to provide that for them, he had a burden to reach them,” said David Fisher, a chaplain for the Toronto Blue Jays and a friend of Spoelstra’s.
Spoelstra and Ernie Harwell, also a dedicated Christian, started organizing Sunday chapel services for Tigers players whenever a home game fell on a Sunday. The idea caught on, but needed more organization to be truly effective. Spoelstra had heard that the commissioner of baseball, Bowie Kuhn, was a Christian, so in 1973, he approached Kuhn asking for money to organize a formal Baseball Chapel system. Following a hunch, as he later wrote in his autobiography, Kuhn allotted $5,000 to Spoelstra for Baseball Chapel. It was, Kuhn wrote, “a born-again Christian talking to a Catholic commissioner. Spoelstra wanted to organize it for everyone. My answer was yes, and today, there are weekly Chapel services across the major and minor leagues.”
Kuhn’s official stamp of approval gave Baseball Chapel the legitimacy it needed in the eyes of many team managers. More players began attending and within three years, all 26 major league teams had a Baseball Chapel program. Spoelstra retired from the Detroit News to devote himself full-time to the organization he founded, although he never liked to take much credit for it. He said he ran the program only under the provision found in 2 Corinthians 3:5: “Our only power and success come from God.”
Establishing Baseball Chapel
In the early days, Harwell remembers, they held chapel meetings at the ballplayers’ hotel. Away from the ballpark, though, distractions abounded and players worried about getting to the game on time, so attendance was low. Harwell suggested moving services to the ballpark, which helped the players relax and increased attendance.
The services provided the players with a brief worship service before Sunday games since they couldn’t go to church that day. Players would hear God’s word opened and have a short time of prayer. In the beginning, Spoelstra recruited the speakers (he occasionally spoke himself) and later, he set up chapel coordinators to schedule the meetings.
Spoelstra organized everything on a shoestring budget from his office at home in Birmingham, Mich. He sent out mailings and newsletters to players and enlisted player representatives from each team to encourage others on the team to attend the services. He sometimes had trouble finding team leaders. One day he drove to the Milwaukee Brewers’ training camp, knowing that he had already asked everyone on the roster and no one wanted to serve as the chapel leader. He got there that day and found Hank Aaron, baseball’s all-time home run leader, by the clubhouse door. Aaron had just been traded to the Brewers, and for the last two years of his career, he encouraged others to attend Baseball Chapel and never missed a Sunday himself.
Another time, Spoelstra was at batting practice for the Oakland A’s, looking for a chapel leader on the team. Reggie Jackson was practicing base-running, noticed Spoelstra and came over to say hi. Spoelstra explained what he needed and the flashy Jackson said, “Well, why not me?”
Sal Bando, a four-time All-Star third baseman and a vital part of the three straight World Series titles the A’s won in the 1970’s, also served as a player representative for Baseball Chapel. “He (Spoelstra) gave it a lot of credibility,” he says. “He knew his way around as a sportswriter. He was well-respected because of what he stood for and he walked his talk. You didn’t question his faith.”
Some players faced ridicule, with teammates accusing them of going to chapel just to gain a few more base hits. Many players’ performances did actually improve as they attended Baseball Chapel; Spoelstra credited the improvements to the players’ getting serious about the Lord, which led to more stable lives, which helped them concentrate and relax on the field.
In 1978, Spoelstra began a minor league Baseball Chapel program that provided the same type of services to the players of dozens of minor league teams. He also began a ministry to teams playing winter ball in Latin America. Both programs continue today.
Baseball Chapel Today
The ministry has become more streamlined over the years, although the format remains basically the same. Each of the 30 major league teams has their own official chaplain who serves specifically as a pastor for that team. Using a specific team chaplain allows the chaplains to “provide some consistency and get to know them (the players) and their needs,” Vince Nauss said.
When a Sunday game is scheduled, the home team’s chaplain will lead a chapel service for the visiting team about half an hour after they arrive at the ballpark. After a player opens in prayer, the chaplain will bring a 15-minute message targeted to the players’ lives; he will then close in prayer, remembering any needs the players may have. After batting practice, the chaplain repeats the process with the home team. In the last few years, chaplains have also started praying with the umpires before the game begins.
Baseball Chapel has also added a focus on ministry to coaches, wives, families and ballpark workers. In addition to their chaplain, many teams have a female coordinator (often the chaplain’s wife) who works specifically with player’s wives. Another challenge is language – Nauss said around 40 percent of players now come from Spanish-speaking countries, so it helps immensely if chaplains are bilingual.
The ministry employs eight full-time staff members and about 500 volunteers throughout North America, Latin America and Asia. In the middle of the summer, when all the major and minor league chapels are up and running smoothly, Baseball Chapel reaches about 3,000 players, wives, umpires, coaches and stadium workers in a particular week, Nauss said. In addition, chaplains often take advantage of opportunities for small-group Bible studies, one-on-one discipleship and evangelism. The organization is non-denominational, as Spoelstra was.
For Such a Time as This
Multiply those 3,000 people by more than 30 years and you get an idea of the number of lives that Watson Spoelstra has affected. “It’s a phenomenal influence,” Nauss says. “Thousands of players have participated in chapels and heard the gospel message. For such a time as this, God placed Waddy there to have a burden to make something happen.”
“He’s got to be credited with changing so many hearts because of getting Baseball Chapel started,” Bando says. “He made a promise to the Lord and fulfilled it and changed a lot of hearts and minds.” Bando, who was recruited as a player leader because he was known to attend church, says that his faith didn’t begin to live through him until he began listening to Baseball Chapel speakers week in and week out through a rough season. “It made a huge impact on my life,” he said. “Baseball Chapel helps personalize it. It forces you to walk the talk.”
In acknowledgement of Spoelstra’s contributions, Baseball Chapel has included an inscription in the front of the Bibles they provide to chapel leaders. The note reads, “In memory of Watson Spoelstra, the founder of Baseball Chapel, whose passion for God’s word inspired and encouraged many to read it.”
Both major and minor league baseball have also recognized their debt to Spoelstra. In 1979, the Florida State League (a Class A minor league) began awarding the Watson Spoelstra Florida State League Championship Trophy to the team winning the playoffs each year. The league still bestows the same trophy on the winning team today.
And at the World Series in 1982, Bowie Kuhn presented Spoelstra with the commissioner’s trophy for contributions to baseball. It is a prestigious award, not given annually, but only when the commissioner believes a significant accomplishment has taken place in the major leagues.
A Prolific Letter Writer
Spoelstra also left an indelible impression on hundreds with his prolific letter writing. Because he was interested not just in sports but in people, virtually everyone who knew him would often receive short notes or letters, always with a Bible verse included. “Anyone you would talk to would say they never got a note from him that didn’t have at least one or two scripture verses in it,” Nauss said. “He could always come up with something at that particular time in your life that was appropriate,” said his daughter Ann Kimberly.
David Fisher, who served as the Toronto Blue Jays’ chaplain for 29 years (until the beginning of the 2006 season), was first recruited to be the team chaplain based only on the letters (and a few phone calls) he exchanged almost weekly with Spoelstra in the 1970s. “The tone of his letters was very intimate,” Fisher remembers. Spoelstra wrote more about his Christian life than about sports and encouraged Fisher greatly as he mentored him. He passed on pointers about how to deal with athletes and always included a Bible verse for Fisher. The two did get to meet face-to-face many times, but “I cherish those early years before I met him,” Fisher said. “I had a picture in my mind. When I finally sat down (in front of Spoelstra), he was everything I thought he was and more.”
Spoelstra came from an era of personal letters, before e-mail, instant messaging and cell phones made communication instantaneous. His letters were handwritten, a unique expression of appreciation and advice to the recipient. Jon Spoelstra said he used to receive two or three letters a week and estimated that his dad sometimes wrote 30 letters a day.
Spoelstra’s three grandchildren got plenty of letters too. From the time they were 5 or 6 years old all the way through college, Spoelstra would send his grandchildren a letter every Monday. Each letter came in a bright yellow envelope and included a brand new dollar bill.
Lolo the Great
The attention to his grandchildren earned him their love and respect and they returned the gesture in his latter years, keeping in touch through letters and visits. His son Jon married a Filipino woman, who passed on the tradition of calling the grandfather in a family “Lolo.” When Ann’s son had a child several months before Spoelstra passed away, the family asked Spoelstra what he wanted his great-grandson to call him. His response: “Lolo the Great.”
Spoelstra and his wife Jean had moved to St. Petersburg, Florida, in 1977, because he thought it would be easier to run Baseball Chapel from there. He was used to spending time in Florida during Spring Training and after 67 years, he had grown tired of Michigan winters. He retired as director of Baseball Chapel in 1983, but continued writing letters and distributing a weekly Christian newsletter to athletes and former athletes. He spent a lot of time with the teams during Spring Training and he always celebrated his April 5 birthday with announcer Ernie Harwell. He also stayed active physically, walking three or four miles on the beach every day.
Those who knew Spoelstra and his wife Jean knew that while they were both great individuals, they were even better as a couple. They were devoted to one another their entire marriage – so much so that Spoelstra gave up his walking to stay near his wife when she became sick. She died in February 1998, after 59 years of marriage, and Spoelstra’s health began declining soon after. He never really recovered from his wife’s death and he died on Tuesday, July 20, 1999, at the age of 89.
Spoelstra was a heavenly-minded man who conducted his earthly business with an eternal perspective. Near the end of his life, he was often moved to tears that he said were tears of joy as he looked forward to his coming meeting with the Lord. One of his favorite ways of expressing his anticipation was to say, “The rapture is getting so close that Gabriel is starting to moisten his lips (getting ready to blow the trumpet).”
For Spoelstra’s funeral, Vince Nauss printed a Baseball Chapel baseball card to serve as an obituary. The front shows a picture of Spoelstra with a fringe of gray hair surrounding his otherwise bald head, a blue-striped shirt, glasses and a smile on his face radiating the pure joy he’d accumulated over his remarkable lifetime. The back of the card features a short summary of his life and several of his favorite Bible verses, including 2 Corinthians 4:18: “We look forward to the joys of heaven which will last forever.”
A Legacy That Endures
Over the course of Spoelstra’s life, God turned a tough, hard-drinking sportswriter with an eye for detail and a love for sports into a fearless messenger of the Gospel. Spoelstra’s life changed radically – he still lived within the worldly arena, but he began to use his gifts for the glory of the God who had called him. He was professional, tough and gifted before he was saved. Afterwards, he didn’t lose any of his ability or attributes. God simply focused him in a new direction and let him work within the parameters Spoelstra had chosen long ago – the world of sports and specifically, the world of major league baseball.
Most of the words Spoelstra wrote over his lifetime have faded from memory. The games he covered are long since forgotten, the championships faded into the past. But the higher purpose he served in doing so remains. The organization God enabled him to start still flourishes, a testament to God’s sustaining grace and his propensity for using human instruments to accomplish heavenly purposes in a sinful world. Such a life was Watson Spoelstra’s.
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Fisher, David. Personal interview. 16 February 2006.
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