Name: Spurgeon Ferdinand "Spud" Chandler
Born: September 12, 1907 (Commerce, GA)
Died: January 9, 1990 (South Pasadena, FL)
Yankee Years: 1937-47
Primary number: 21
Yankee statistics: 109-43, 2.84 ERA, 3.30 FIP, 211 G, 184 GS, 1,485 IP, 614 K, 109 CG, 26 SHO, 73 ERA-, 88 FIP-, 23.2 rWAR, 24.7 fWAR
The wait for something long-anticipated can be painful. Often, it won't end up truly being comparable to the time invested. For Spud Chandler though, his Yankees career turned out to be well worth the wait.
The right-handed pitcher did not make his MLB debut until he was 29. He even turned 30 during that same season, an age at which many players begin to wind down. It was just the beginning for Chandler though, who reeled off some of the finest pitching seasons in franchise history and retired with an MVP and six World Series rings to his name.
Also, that name was "Spud." Outstanding.
Spud the Peach
He was born Spurgeon Ferdinand Chandler to Bud and Olivia Chandler on September 12, 1907 in Commerce, which was a part of Jackson County in Georgia. That wasn't where Chandler grew up though, as only a few years after his birth, the family moved to Franklin County, the home of the famous "Georgia Peach," Ty Cobb.
Indeed, Chandler modeled his approach after Cobb, albeit without the overt racism. He played with a remarkable intensity, even when he was a kid (known to his friends as "Spurge" before it was shortened to "Spud"). On the days he pitched, his game face was up there with the fiercest in history, from Bob Gibson to Roger Clemens. That stretched to other sports too, as baseball wasn't his only passion at Carnesville High School.
Chandler actually ended up winning a football scholarship to the University of Georgia. He was a fine pitcher for UGA too, but despite overtures from MLB teams, he remained a Bulldog and faithful to his scholarship. He most often appeared at halfback, but in those days, gridiron talents played all over the field, and he even kicked for them at times, as well.
Mark Stewart's SABR biography of Chandler recounted a story from his football days that would forecast things to come:
In November 1931, the University of Georgia football squad played New York University in front of 65,000 people at Yankee Stadium. Chandler was one of the stars in a 7–6 victory. After the game he walked out to the pitcher's mound and began throwing footballs through the uprights. When teammates asked what he was doing, he responded that he wanted to get used to the place because he expected to be pitching there someday.
It was a bold statement for Chandler to say that he would be pitching in Yankee Stadium one day, but he was a man who never lacked self-confidence. The boyhood Yankees fan was also correct, though it was some before he reached that mound.
Chandler's insistence on finishing his amateur football career held him back from signing with a team until he was 24, though his time in the minors was longer than he expected, too. It seemed as though the Cubs would sign him, but the Yankees lucked out when there was a cross-up with his paperwork. Scout Johnny Nee got the job done, and Chandler became a Yankee in 1932.
Fighting to the top
Chandler's minor league career got off to a promising start when he posted a 2.76 ERA over 98 innings for the Binghamton Triplets, as players struggled to hit a sinking fastball that inflicted almost as much pain on them as his elbow. However, he slowed down upon a promotion to the Springfield Rifles, with whom his ERA rose to 4.47 despite a perfect 4-0 record.
The next few seasons were a struggle for Chandler, who battled elbow problems and effectiveness everywhere he went. His ERA marks were anything but impressive: 4.15 in '33 with Newark and Binghamton, 6.68 in '34 with Minneapolis, Newark, and Syracuse, and 4.27 in '35 on the West Coast with Portland and Oakland. Chandler just wasn't going anywhere, and his arm continued to ache.
Entering the '36 campaign back in Newark though, Chandler had one advantage--his manager from the Oakland Oaks, Ossie Vitt, had just been hired to run the Newark ballclub, and he specifically requested Chandler. Together, they were able to establish a better relationship, and with the aid of a little more health that year, Chandler rebounded to a 3.33 ERA in 219 innings with the Yankees' top farm club.
The Yankees took note of Chandler's improvements, and did not waste much time in '37 when they thought he could help the big club. Just a couple weeks into the season, they called Chandler up. At last, he would get to pitch with his favorite team growing up and the mound he once envisioned as his future home.
Naturally, his MLB debut was anything but idyllic. He entered in relief in Detroit on May 6, 1937 in a tight 7-6 ballgame and promptly made a mess of things by allowing two hits and recording no outs. Manager Joe McCarthy pulled him, both runs came around the score, and Chandler's career began with an ERA of infinity. Promising.
Given another chance on two days' rest at Comiskey Park for his first start, Chandler looked much better, giving up just one earned run over eight innings in a tough-luck 2-1 loss. (Chicago turned out to be a lucky place for Chandler, who later met his wife Frances there, who was a stewardess for National Airlines at the time.) A little over a week later back at home, he got his vengeance against the White Sox, shutting them out on six hits for his first career victory, and the first of 26 career shutouts. His debut on that hallowed Yankee Stadium mound was far better. Shutout number two came just six days later, when he blanked the Cleveland Indians.
McCarthy now felt comfortable with Chandler on his regular roster as at least a spot starter, but then the injury bug bit him again. After five fine starts over the subsequent month and a half, Chandler's shoulder began to bark, and he pitched just three more times in the rest of the '37 campaign. His first World Series ring was won with him on the sidelines.
Unfortunately for Chandler, that trend continued in '38 and '39. He was happy that the team around him kept winning championships and allowing him to cash World Series bonuses in tight financial times, but for a fierce competitor like him, it was torture not to be able to pitch in the Fall Classic due to injuries. If those years were rough, then 1940 might have been worse, as Chandler was able to pitch a full season (albeit with discomfort), but turned in a dud on the mound with a 4.60 ERA and 1.419 WHIP in 172 innings. The Yankees missed the pennant by two games, which could have very easily been different if Chandler had pitched a little better.
Chandler began the '41 season in another rut. In mid-June, he was lagging along with a miserable 5.83 ERA and without a definite rotation spot. Due to his late MLB debut, he was already almost 34. It would have been entirely normal, if not expected, for his short career to fizzle out soon. Instead, he embarked on one of the most surprising and dominant multi-season stretches of Yankees baseball to ever occur.
On June 12th, McCarthy gave Chandler his first start in three weeks, back at the location of his first major-league success, Comiskey Park. He threw eight innings of two-run ball, helping the Yankees to a 3-2 victory. No one realized it at the time, but it was start of an absolutely amazing few years of pitching from the unsung righty:
Chandler made himself invaluable to McCarthy for the rest of the season, twirling a 2.21 ERA in 122 innings with 10 complete games and two shutouts while limiting opponents to a pitiful .538 OPS. This time, when the Yankees won the pennant, Chandler was ready for the World Series. He narrowly lost his lone start by a 3-2 margin, but the Yankees took home the crown anyway. He was at last a very active participant in the glory.
Over the next two years, Chandler was even better, but these very late signs of development were as stunning as they were welcome. How did Chandler suddenly figure everything out? The secret was a time-honored tradition among pitchers. He had finally developed the ability to pitch with intelligence rather just relying on that sinking fastball. He could throw any pitch in any count with at least some measure of skill. Over that three-year period, opposing hitters were utterly flummoxed. Yankees catcher Bill Dickey called Chandler the best pitcher he ever caught, and this was a man who caught Hall of Famers like Red Ruffing and Lefty Gomez.
In 1942, Chandler was an AL All-Star and cracked the 200-inning plateau for the first time as the Yankees won their second straight pennant. He missed a little time here and there between starts but still made 24 while completing all but seven of them, with three shutouts, garnering some down-ballot MVP votes in the process. In the World Series opener against the Cardinals, Chandler relieved Ruffing and with the go-ahead run at the plate in the legendary Stan Musial, he retired him on a comebacker to secure Game 1. Two days later, he threw eight brilliant innings, allowing just one run on three hits, but Ernie White shut out the vaunted Yankees offense. St. Louis took home the crown, the only time in Chandler's career that his team lost a playoff series.
The next season presented a unique opportunity for Chandler. Unlike some of his star teammates like Joe DiMaggio and Phil Rizzuto, Chandler did not have to truly enter the service for World War II. Oddly enough, due to what they called "limited movement in his right arm" and his age, he was classified by the military as 1-A(L), which meant that he was only available for limited service. That meant in '44 and '45, he did have to serve at Camp Shelby in Georgia, training with weapons.
In '43 though, Chandler was free to pitch, and against the debilitating competition, he flat-out dominated.
Chandler was unstoppable in '43. The All-Star led the AL in ERA (1.54), wins (20), complete games (20), shutouts (5), FIP (2.30), WHIP (0.992), and WAR (6.5). In addition to all these career-highs, he threw 253 innings, putting the somewhat-limited team on his back and leading them to a romp of the AL with 98 victories, their third straight pennant. The closest competitor was 13.5 games behind. As the Yankees pulled away from the pack, he completed 13 of 15 starts between July 7th and September 25th, including a 14-inning, one-run masterpiece against the Tigers to clinch his 20th victory. He became the first and only Yankees pitcher to ever win the Most Valuable Player award.
McCarthy obviously turned to Chandler to lead the Yankees in the Fall Classic, as they sought vengeance against the Cardinals. It was plenty of pressure, but Chandler was up to the task. Had the award existed, he would have pulled off the World Series MVP, too:
The defending champion Cardinals, who beat the Yanks in '42, still had one of the greatest hitters to ever play baseball though, Stan Musial, but Chandler held "Stan the Man" to a 1-for-7 with a walk in his two starts. Chandler won Game 1 by a score of 4-2, keeping the game tied at two after the fifth until his offense scored the decisive runs in the seventh. The Yankees won two of the next three games and had a chance to close out the Cardinals in Game 5 with Chandler back on the mound. He twirled a 2-0 shutout and won on the strength of a two-run homer by his catcher, Dickey. He allowed just one earned run in the whole series; the Cardinals had no answer for Chandler.
The Yankees were champions again, and this one could almost be exclusively tied to the otherworldly performance of Chandler.
The elbow strikes again
Chandler made just five starts between '44 and '45 due to his limited military service, but he returned with the rest of the club in '46. Some of his teammates were rusty, but Chandler was not. Determined to prove that he could hold his own against more than wartime competition, he proved his worth with another All-Star berth, a 2.10 ERA, 20 complete games, 5.5 WAR, and a career-high 257 1/3 innings. Incredibly, against the AL's best, he allowed just seven homers all year long, good for a 0.2 HR/9.
The Yankees finished a distant third in '46, undergoing a bit of a tumultuous season with three managers thanks to McCarthy quitting the club in late May after a storied career. In '47 though, they were ready to return with Bucky Harris at the helm, and he expected Chandler to lead the club again.
All those years of fastballs and the late arrival to The Show had taken their toll on Chandler though, who was on the verge of turning 40. His arm ached and he needed surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow just to pitch again. When he did, he was still quite sharp with an AL-leading 2.46 ERA and the last of his four All-Star appearances. Regrettably, Chandler only made it into four more games after the All-Star break. The last of those came in the '47 World Series, two innings of two-run ball in relief against the Dodgers. The Yankees took home the title, and Chandler called it a career. His elbow just couldn't take it anymore.
Chandler was never a regular Yankees coach, but he was no stranger to the organization, scouting for them for many years afterward. He also managed a couple years in the Indians' system and served as the Kansas City Athletics' pitching coach in '57 and '58. (The A's were essentially a Yankees feeder club in those days anyway, so he did coach for them in a way.) Chandler lived a long time past his baseball days with his wife and two kids, surviving until just past his 82nd birthday. He died on January 9, 1990.
One might be tempted to dismiss Chandler's accomplishments since his finest year came in '43, when most of the AL's best players were gone. However, baseball was still quite stocked with talent in '41, '42, '46, and '47, all of which were terrific performances as well. He just thrived against whoever was there to face him. Maybe he wouldn't have been quite as phenomenal in '43 had the Ted Williamses and Hank Greenbergs of the world been around, but given his other success, it sure seems like he would have fared just fine. Regardless, he retired as one of the best pitchers to grace that Yankee Stadium mound he cherished, owning a sterling 2.66 career ERA at home in over 800 innings.
So instead, raise your glasses to a man named Spud, the last player outside the top 50 Yankees. It's been a helluva ride for the series, and it was a helluva ride for Spud.
Andrew’s rank: 53
Tanya’s rank: 59
Community rank: 43.0
WAR rank: 54.5
Stats from Baseball Reference and FanGraphs
Appel, Marty. Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.
Barber, Red. 1947: When All Hell Broke Loose in Baseball. New York: De Capo Press, 1984.
Eig, Jonathan. Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.
New York Times. "Spud Chandler, 82, Star Yankees Pitcher On 7 Pennant Clubs," 11 Jan. 1990.