For Lou Spadia, who died over the weekend shortly after his 92nd birthday, 1977 was what he called “the worst year of my life.” The love of his life, his wife, died of cancer, and he would never remarry. The other “love of his life,” the 49ers, were being demolished by general manager Joe Thomas, who had told Spadia not to come to the office.
A lesser man would have crumbled. Spadia fought back, implementing a longtime dream of raising money for youth sports by founding the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame, in conjunction with the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce.
Spadia was determined that all the money raised would go to youth programs. He would not spend money on a structure, leading his longtime friend, former Chronicle sports editor Art Rosenbaum, to dub it “the Hall without a hall.” Plaques for those voted into BASHOF are first displayed in the United Airlines terminal at SFO, then moved into a location of the inductees’ choosing.
Moreover, all those working on the various BASHOF fundraising ventures are not paid. Ken Venturi, who runs a very profitable golf tournament for BASHOF, once quipped, “Lou Spadia’s first name should be ‘Crime’ because crime doesn’t pay and neither does Spadia.”
Spadia regarded the BASHOF creation as his biggest accomplishment, but this was not the first time he had conquered adversity. The son of Italian immigrants, he didn’t even speak English until he went to grammar school, but he learned well enough to become student body president as a senior at Mission High School, where he also played second base for the varsity baseball team.
After serving in the Navy during World War II, he came to work for the 49ers in their first year in 1946. The franchise was a bare-bones operation, and Spadia was the only employe in the front office. He put together abbreviated media guides and game programs, sent out season-ticket applications and made sure all the lights were out when he left at night.
For their first four seasons, the 49ers were part of the All-America Football Conference, which had been formed by Arch Ward, sports editor of The Chicago Tribune. After the 1949 season, the conference was disbanded. The NFL absorbed the 49ers, Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Colts. Eventually, the 49ers would prosper as the popularity of pro football rose.
Spadia’s rise in the organization, eventually becoming club president and minority owner, paralleled the 49ers’ rise. Along the way, he made some important contributions to the NFL. In the early ’60s, he worked with Pete Rozelle, then the general manager of the Los Angeles Rams, to found NFL Properties, which is now a huge moneymaker for the league. He worked with the Rams and Dallas Cowboys to form the first computer-based analysis of draft prospects; though the teams shared information, they made their own decisions on draft picks.
Now, every team has a computer system to evaluate draft prospects.
But with all these accomplishments, it was the BASHOF creation which was most typical of Lou Spadia. He was a remarkable man, and I was proud to call him a friend for more than 40 years.
Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.