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Jerry Lindquist's sports memories: Track star Butch Spiegel deserves Hall of Fame consideration

Jerry Lindquist's sports memories: Track star Butch Spiegel deserves Hall of Fame consideration

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It’s soap-box time for the memory man, wondering why a first-rate athlete, with credentials to match, somehow has been overlooked. OK, so it’s been a few years, like covering seven decades, but that shouldn’t make the accomplishments any less significant. Once again we stroll, roll, even cajole, down old-people’s lane. This is Volume 26: “The Six Seconds That Changed My Life.”

The first time he stepped into a starting block, he won. The next time he tied a VMI Field House record in the 60-yard dash. A high school sophomore, he did all of the above with virtually no training for track — at the suggestion of an assistant high school football coach who already knew how speedy the 5-11, 175 pounder was carrying some baggage. Without helmet, shoulder pads, etc., wearing little more than shorts and a smile, there was reason to believe he could flyyyyyy. “I always liked to run,” Jonas Barry Spiegel said, “I knew I was fast … and I liked to win.”

Now, some 65 years later, with a legacy of being one of the country’s premier sprinters, the question is: How has “Butch” Spiegel, of Richmond’s Thomas Jefferson High, managed to avoid being inducted in the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame, much less the state’s high school HOF? Check it out. He had best times of a world-record-tying 6.1 in the 60-yard dash, a 9.5 in the 100 and 21.0 in the 220. Spiegel was a high school All-American in track and field (1956) — when it was an award given nationally to one person per event (and really meant something) — and, while an undergraduate at the University of Maryland, won seven gold medals in three Atlantic Coast Conference championship meets.

He more than held his own against some of the top sprinters of his day, finishing ahead of such notables as Bobby Morrow (three gold medals in the 1956 Olympic Games) and Frank Budd. Add to all that Spiegel was three-times all-district outfielder — Metro batting champion (1957) — in baseball as well as All-Metro running back in football (1955). And he’s been bypassed for the ultimate recognition by both state halls? Go figure. He can’t. Neither can the dean of local track and field coaches, Jim Holdren.

“It’s frustrating,” said Holdren, in his 59th year teaching young people a once-high-profile sport that has sort of faded into the background. “He was world-class.”

At the risk of sounding immodest, which judging from a recent telephone conversation he certainly isn’t, Spiegel said, “It never made sense to me … after what I did in high school and college … I wouldn’t be honest to say it wouldn’t be a nice honor ... but it doesn’t dominate my thinking.”

Actually, at age 81, golf is mostly on his mind these days. He works on his game just about every day when it’s warm enough, shooting his age (or thereabouts) more often than not. Come winter, Spiegel can be found on the slopes, an avid snow skier of 35 years. And he thinks about Lem Fitzgerald, that assistant football coach — and head track coach — at Teejay, who “asked me to run indoor track.” And the blistering 6.3 he ran at VMI in 1955, what Spiegel calls “the six seconds that changed my life.” (A year later, as a junior, he broke the field house record with a 6.2.)

Spiegel was a natural, and he was blessed by that certain something common to most superior athletes. “Funny story: My oldest grandson Harrison was a very good sprinter [in high school]. His teammates called him ‘White Lightning.’ His coach Smith was an African-American, and at a state meet a [rival] coach said, ‘Coach, he walks kind of slow … he doesn’t look like a sprinter … and he’s white. What’s his secret?’ And coach Smith said, ‘He doesn’t like to lose.’ That was me,” Spiegel said. “You knew exactly what you had to do: focus and be competitive.”

He also learned “winning builds ego … losing builds character. But, competing builds self-esteem. That’s the most important thing … and carries over to other things in life.”

He might have taken up track, “by accident,” Spiegel said, but it paid his way to college. Without it, who knows? “I had offers to play college football … Virginia, William & Mary, Clemson, Georgia Tech … but didn’t have a great love for the game. You don’t get blindsided in the blocks.” So he decided not to play football his senior year. Fitzgerald again.

“He asked me if I was going to play football in college. I said, ‘No.’ He asked if I could go to college without a scholarship, and I said, ‘No.’ And he said, ‘Well, if you were my son you wouldn’t play football any more,’” recalled Spiegel, who liked what he heard. “It was good advice. I didn’t like getting hit.”

Instead, he ran track on a full ride at Maryland for legendary coach Jim Kehoe, whose stern, no-nonsense approach also shaped Spiegel for the better, he said. If only he had been devoted to working out then as he is to working on his golf game now … “I ran against some of the top sprinters in the world and beat them now and then but not nearly as often as they beat me. I didn’t like training that much. Maybe if I had ...”

He answers to Jonas now, “only a few people call me Butch anymore.” To be even more precise, it’s Dr. Spiegel. After Maryland (Class of ‘62), he attended Medical College of Virginia and had a dentistry practice of about 50 years in Lynchburg, where he still lives. He’s been, shall we say, very successful. Looking back, Spiegel says he owes so much to Teejay coaches Fitzgerald and Charlie Cooper for “the sacrifices they made for young people like myself. They worked so hard for so little … when all I had to do was stay in my lane and run fast.”

Being inducted into a hall of fame, Spiegel said, “would be a testament to them … and also to the sport because track and field doesn’t get as much attention as it should.”

In his biography “A King’s Legacy,” Clyde King waxes eloquent about Willie Mays. The “Say Hey Kid” was winding down a long, illustrious career with the Giants when King spent fewer than two years as manager (1969-fired May 23, 1970) with the transplanted New York team long-since moved to San Francisco. Mays was wildly popular with the public, and King wasn’t about to suggest otherwise — in print. In conversations with a reporter during King’s two years as Richmond Braves skipper (1971-72), however, he painted a strikingly different picture … of a prima donna Mays who wouldn’t travel with the team nor stay at the same hotel on the road. There could have been satisfactory reasons for his loner attitude but, as far as King was concerned, Mays “wasn’t a team player.”

Actually, Mays apparently wasn’t exactly fond of King, either. They clashed over a misunderstanding in 1969. King wanted to fine Mays who, instead, was ordered to apologize to King. In his autobiography “Say Hey,” Mays is quoted as saying he lost “any respect I had for King … I thought of him as a backstabber [and] we didn’t talk for the rest of the season.” Mays also probably recalled being struck out many years earlier by a soft-throwing Brooklyn Dodgers’ righthander named King on three quick pitches, which were legal then.

A devout Christian who didn’t smoke or drink, King spent the last 30-some years of his baseball career working for the Yankees and unpredictable owner George Steinbrenner in a variety of positions including manager, general manager and scout but mostly as troubleshooter for “The Boss.” It was in this latter role especially that King was said to be distrusted by team members as well as the tough New York media. One of the beat writers later apologized to the Goldsboro, N.C., native, for being unfair with his criticism.

I remember Clyde, who was 86 when he died Nov. 2, 2010, for hooking me up with third baseman Graig Nettles during the 1978 World Series with the Dodgers. Nettles was having a great postseason, especially in the field, but didn’t like the New York media, so wasn’t always available. He couldn’t have been more cooperative with me, but then I didn’t tell him I was born and raised on New York’s lower east side. Clyde also lined up an early pregame one-on-one with embattled Boston Red Sox manager Don Zimmer prior to the Bucky Dent playoff disaster at Fenway Park. Again it was a matter of seeing a friendly face for a change, If Zimmer was under intense fire before the game …

Just because it’s scripted doesn’t mean professional rasslin’ always comes off as planned. Sometimes things go terribly wrong, like on May 23, 1999, at Kansas City’s Kemper Arena during World Wrestling Entertainment’s “Over the Edge” pay per view. Veteran Owen Hart fell 100 feet to his death in a stunt that had been done before without incident.

“The Final Days of Owen Hart” is a made-for-TV documentary first aired in May of 2020 and details Hart, the family man whose career needed a boost, his untimely death and wife Martha’s wrongful-death lawsuit that resulted in a settlement said to be $18 million. Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple, This is rasslin,’ after all. So lovable WWE owner Vince McMahon counter-sued the widow Hart, for what or for how much Mr. Filmmaker didn’t bother to tell us. We were told the Harts of the renown Calgary, Canada-based first family of wrestling were against the suit and tried to get the Mrs. to drop it.

Oh, and despite the fatality, the remaining matches were held. The show went on, like nothing happened. “It was foolish,” said Jim Cornette, who has done just about everything that can be done in rasslin.’ “It was unnecessary. It didn’t need to happen.”

So we watched, as tears rolled down Cornette’s face, and thought about another incident involving — if not featuring — O. Hart here at the Richmond Coliseum. His opponent was Michael Shawn Higgenbottom. It was three and a half years earlier — Nov. 8, 1995, to be exact. Higgenbottom, who wisely changed his name for entertainment purposes to Shawn Michaels, and Hart were going at it pretty good when Michaels knocked Hart over the ropes to the floor below.

Suddenly, Michaels, standing there alone, put his hands to his face and collapsed. Climbing back into the ring, Hart looked bewildered. So did referee Earl Hebner. This wasn’t in the script, was it? The TV announcers, McMahon and former rassler Jerry “The King” Lawler, acted like they didn’t know what was going on, either. For those of us watching at home, it could have been a heart attack, for all we knew. McMahon climbed into the ring as paramedics tended to Michaels, the only sound coming from spectators who clearly were upset. Lawler stopped talking, like he didn’t have the proper words to express his concern. Talk about eerie!

It sure looked (and sounded) real, in rasslineese a “shoot” rather than a “work.” On local TV the following Saturday, Michaels said how much he appreciated everyone’s interest in his well-being here. SUCKERS!

That was a “work,” dumbnuts. McMahon and Lawler were in on it. There was some question whether Hart was, too. The back story had to do with a real beating Michaels took from a couple of Marines outside a Syracuse, N.Y., bar in October. Higgenbottom, reportedly high on drugs at the time, suffered a concussion, which was worked into the story line for the latest match with Hart. There even was a hint of retirement for Michaels, but he was back, pulling more punches a couple of weeks later. He’s 55 now and working for WWE, mostly behind the scenes.

Is it only our imagination but … is it possible the ACC no longer appeals to the masses as it did during the glory years, prior to major expansion that was bound to water down some of our favorite rivalries? Otherwise, how to explain the ACC Network remaining absent in much of the Richmond viewing area? By now, more than a year in, you would think Virginia Tech and Virginia fans/viewers alone would have pressured Comcast into making a deal. Or maybe no one really cares.

Until next time ...

Jerry Lindquist can be reached

by email at mbl749@comcast.net.

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