Nobody has written a song about the Raccoon River that flows through downtown Des Moines, Iowa, but Bob Speake, left-fielder for the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, spins a good yarn about it.
Speake played first base for the Des Moines Bruins of the A Western League in 1954. The Bruins were the Class A farm club of the Chicago Cubs. Besides Speake, six other ’54 Bruins played for the ’56 Angels: Raymond “Moe” Bauer; Hy Cohen; Gene Fodge; Don Lauters; Elvin Tappe and Casey Wise.
The Missouri-born Speake was dubbed “Wonder Boy of the Ozarks” in 1955 when he clubbed 10 home runs in the month of May. “I never saw anybody have a greater single month than Speake did,” said Cubs manager Stan Hack. “Whenever we needed a run to win he came through for us.”
Speake hit only two more homers the rest of the season, finishing with 12. At L.A. the next year, he batted .300 with 25 home runs and 111 runs batted in to earn another shot in 1957 with the Cubs.
In 1954, the Des Moines Bruins played at Sec Taylor Stadium near the confluence of the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers. Today, Principal Park, home of the Iowa Cubs, sits on the same site.
The Bruins and Cubs were playing an exhibition game in Des Moines. Speake was batting. “Bob,” the Cub catcher said, “this one is straight down the middle.”
“And I hit that thing, as we say, into the Raccoon River,” Speake recalled.
Several years later Bob was executive vice president of a Topeka, Kansas, insurance company. Two business colleagues were headed to Des Moines for a meeting. “When you get there,” Bob told them, “get a cab driver to take you to the Raccoon River side of the ballpark and you’ll see a statue where I hit the ball. It was the longest ball ever hit out of that ballpark.”
After their dinner meeting, the executives asked a cab driver if he remembered a guy named Bob Speake. “He played ball here and hit a home run into the river by the ballpark.”
“Oh, yeah, I remember Bob Speake,” the driver replied.
“You know,” Speake explained, “a cabbie is going to remember everybody because he’s working on a tip. So he drives them out there, looking for this thing.”
Of course, there’s no statue. Finally, they realized Speake set them up.
“When they got back to Topeka, boy, they were letting me have it. I said, ‘Wait a minute. Back off. Had it been raining?’”
“Yeah,” they said.
“Well,” Speake said, “the river was high and it just overflowed.”
The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.
The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:
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