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We’re Contacted by Nephew Of Former Major Leaguer Bob Speake!
“Bob Speake, left handed first basemen from Springfield, Missouri and one fine man.” -Ernie Banks, commenting on his former Cub teammate, Bob Speake
We love it when we’re contacted by descendants of former major leaguers. It doesn’t matter if they were stars or subs, all former players are special in our eyes. Invariably, whenever we look closely into their careers, we find something of interest. That’s the case with today’s feature on former major leaguer, Bob Speake. I was recently contacted by his nephew Mark Harrell who kindly shared information about his uncle.
Eighteen-year-old Bob Speake was signed by the Cubs on November 8, 1948. He moved through the Cubs’ system for three years with stops at Sioux Falls, Carthage, Springfield, and Des Moines. After two years lost to the military during the Korean War, he was back with Des Moines in 1954 where his outstanding season (.264, 20 homers) earned him a ticket to Wrigley Field. The 24-year old rookie made his major league debut on April 16, 1955, taking over at first base for injured Hank Sauer.
Over his four-year career (1955, 1957-‘59) with the Cubs and Giants, the Springfield, Mo. native hit .231 with 31 home runs and 104 RBIs. Although his career was short, it’s not lacking for significant achievements: In his first month in the majors, Speake hit 10 home runs and 29 RBIs within his first 90 at-bats, possibly rookie records. Another memorable moment occurred when Speake hit a sixth inning home run off Dodger great Sandy Koufax in 1957 to break up Sandy’s bid for a no-hitter.
After his dramatic start in 1955, a wrist injury limited him to a .218 average and just two more homers. He spent 1956 with the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. Playing in Little Wrigley field (where Home Run Derby was filmed), he hit .300 with 25 home runs, helping this great team win the PCL pennant. Speake was back with the Cubs in 1957, hitting .232 with 16 homers. His reputation as a “Giant Killer” prompted the Giants to trade for him in 1958 in exchange for veteran Bobby Thomson. After hitting .211 in 1958, he was released on Jun 8, 1959, and finished out the year with the PCL Phoenix Giants.
In the mid-1960s, after his baseball career was over, he entered the insurance business in Topeka, Kansas, helping found the American Family Life Insurance company. He operated it for 31 years until his retirement. According to Mark: “He ended up staying with that company and he became very wealthy. Not bad for a guy who used to milk cows and raise chickens when he was a kid!”
Bob, now 87, is healthy and in great shape. He became a “golf addict” after baseball and is still playing. He’s also a serious wood carver, with a huge shop where he carves images mostly of cowboys, Native Americans, and wild life. Surprisingly, Bob was only a casual fan after his career ended and never really followed one team. Asked if Bob is a Cub fan, Mark replied: “Last October Bob and Aunt Joanie stayed with us during the World Series and he was pulling for the Cubs. Being a major league player never was a big deal in his mind. He’s very humble. You’ll not meet a nicer, more honest and warm person than Bob.”
Mark also mentioned that once Bob left baseball – a sore subject for him – he left it behind for good: “The Giants more or less choked his career away. With the likes of Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, and Felipe Alou, he never really had a chance to crack the lineup. And the Giants blocked his return to the Cubs after they claimed him off waivers.”
Mark is a baseball historian of sorts and counts his Uncle Bob as a huge influence. Over the years, Mark asked Bob “just about anything I could think of about his time in the majors.” He related many wonderful stories about playing against Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella, about being teammates with Ernie Banks and Willie Mays, and about playing against Stan Musial.
Mark says baseball has always been his own first love. For the last 13 years he has been team photographer for the St. Louis Cardinals’ AA affiliate in Springfield, Missouri. He’s seen players like Matt Carpenter, Tommy Pham, Kolten Wong, Carlos Martinez, and many more come through the Cardinals’ system, and is even able to count many as friends, adding:
“Because of my uncle playing in the majors, I’ve had conversations with Ernie Banks, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda and many others. I picked Warren Spahn up the airport once and I asked him if he remembered Bob Speake. He said he sure did. He hit him in the back with a line drive! I told Ernie I was Bob’s nephew and the first thing Ernie said was, ‘Bob Speake, left handed first basemen from Springfield, Mo and one fine man.’”
After learning a little about Bob Speake, I’d concur with Ernie’s assessment!
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Photo Credits: From personal collection of Mark Harrell; and from Google search
Information: Excerpts edited from information sent by Mark Harrell; and the Bob Speake Wikipedia page and other Internet sources.