By J. Thomas McNamara
Fifty-three years ago (1966), Don Spain, an 18-year-old Eisenhower pitcher was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 41st round. His minor league baseball pitching career began that year in the Pioneer Rookie League in Ogden, Utah and ended right here at the old Fans Field in Decatur with the Commodores in 1971. Tom Lasorda was his Rookie League manager, who remain in contact with each other to this day.
One of his teammates on that Rookie League team was eventual long-time Dodgers shortstop Billy Russell. “He could really throw the ball,” recalled his long-time friend and District 61 Hall of Famer, Roe Skidmore, who grew up in the same neighborhood with him. When Eisenhower won its 1962 baseball state championship Skidmore was a junior and Spain was in the eighth grade. While he didn’t play on that state championship team, Skidmore informs that Spain was the winning pitcher when the Panthers won the Capitol Conference baseball championship which was his senior season. Earlier that year, he threw a no-hitter against St. Teresa. His won-loss record that year was 9-1 with a 0.26 ERA, recording 100 strikeouts in 70 innings.
“I faced him during winter ball one year,” informed Skidmore of how good Spain was as a pitcher, who could throw his fastball 94 to 95 miles per hour which was great velocity back then. “There were few pitchers who had that kind of velocity on their fast balls. “His fast ball really moved down and in on right-handed batters,” informed Skidmore about Spain and his ability to throw the ball. His slider was his other pitcher as pitchers in those days didn’t throw curves and changeups much. They came later.
Skidmore recalled that Spain was called up to the Eisenhower varsity boys baseball team as a freshman because of how well he threw the ball. Spain once was on the Atlanta Braves 40-man roster when Hall of Famers Joe Torre and Hank Aaron, along with others, played. In fact, Spain struck out the legendary Torre in an intrasquad game that he still talks about today. When he was with the Braves, Charlie Lau managed him, who is one of baseball’s most notable Major League baseball hitting instructors.
His minor league experience spanned six seasons and when it ended at the old Fans Field with the San Francisco Giants Decatur Commo-dores, Spain served as player/coach. A torn rotator cuff ended his promising baseball career and as Skidmore reminded in his interview about his long-time friend that was before the time when professional baseball had all the trainers and medical personnel they have today to treat injuries.
Before his injury, Skidmore quipped about Spain, “he could throw the ball through the proverbial wall. In addition to playing along side Billy Russell, he also played with Cito Gaston (former Toronto Blue Jays manager), Dusty Baker (former manager of the Giants, Reds, Cubs and Nationals) and Ron Schueler (former White Sox general manager). During his six minor league seasons, he threw 468 innings, recording a career Earned Run Average (ERA) of 4.35. After Don’s playing career,
Spain went on to be a pitching coach for the American Legion teams. He later managed the Mount Zion Senior Legion team, being one of the co-founders of Mount Zion’s Legion program. He managed the Mount Zion Legion players to their first and one Legion state tournament, Skidmore wrote in his recommendation of Spain for the D61 Hall of Fame. “He truly was a great pitcher,” continued Skidmore, adding that his long-time friend is in a bigger battle today than he ever faced on the mound throwing against the best hitters in baseball as he’s fighting cancer that doctors say is inoperable, not curable, but treatable.
Skidmore advises that Spain is showing his toughness as goes through his rounds of chemotherapy. In closing, the former Chicago Cubs and Eisenhower Panthers Hall of Famer, pleaded, ‘If anyone deserves to be inducted into the District 61 Hall of Fame, Don Spain does. “He was one tough pitcher and a great friend.”