Remembering An Amazing Icon In Sam Suplizio

(Editor’s Note: Sam Suplizio was one of the most important men in the advancement of the NJCAA Division I World Series. A long time resident of Grand Junction, Colo., he passed away from congestive heart failure at his winter home in Pawleys Island, S.C. at the age of 74 in 2006. The following story was written 13 years prior to his death and originally appeared in Voice magazine. It serves as a snapshot in time of perhaps one of  the greatest baseball players you never heard of. In this current  period of global pandemic, it is a sports story of unforgettable loss and redemption. It is the story of a former slugging outfielder who wielded his power in pursuit of human dignity and social good for his community.)

Special To Collegiate Baseball

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. — Tonight, sheltered in the soft emptiness of twilight, Sam Suplizio is savoring a respite from his frenzied life. 

He is, in the vernacular of the game he loves, safe at home.

Tomorrow morning, Suplizio will preside over a hard-line board of directors meeting at Home Loan and Investment Company. 

The day after, he will board a jet from Grand Junction to the West Coast where he will throw batting practice strikes to the promising young California Angels of the American League. 

The tangled accomplishments of Suplizio’s life are, by now, well known anomalies, absorbed into the public imagination of this laid-back Colorado community.

For the moment, however, conversing with a guest in his living room, such incongruities seem far-off and uncluttered — much like the the landscape Suplizio surveys from his rambling ranch-style house overlooking the town in which in has lived for the past 35 years. 

The town he will forever feel rescued him when his life was going nowhere.

Like any prominent public figure with a successful portfolio, Suplizio has inherited his share of detractors and skeptics. 

Years of  sales and public speaking have polished his voice with a conciliatory coat. So, too, has the encyclopedia of inspirational sayings he has neatly shelved in his head.

On this night, Suplizio has swung open the library doors. From Pablo Casals to Yogi Berra, from one-liners to hushed 16-line sonnets in perfect pentameter. Certainly words a man could live by. 

Why else, thinks the listener, does someone go out of their way to remember verbatim such things?

Suplizio’s unequivocal view of life (“you can either cut and run or leap back into the fray”) was first shaped on the neighborhood streets and alleyways of DuBois, Penn. 

Known simply as ‘The Flats,’ a rough and tumble habitat of Italian and Syrian families and frequent fisticuffs, it supplied Suplizio with an uncompromising code of ethics and mannerisms that serve him to this day.

“You had to be tough…not mean tough…but survival tough,” remembers Sam. 

“It was an important lesson to learn early on.”

The Suplizio’s, like many families in Western Pennsylvania, lived in quarters charitably described as modest. 

Each morning, from his bedroom, the boy could hear his mother’s footsteps as she rose at 3:00 a.m. to begin preparing the spaghetti sauce for the day’s meals at the family restaurant. 

The Suplizio children would clean tables and polish chairs, and perform other daily duties — chores a young boy could do and still day-dream of green grass and fanciful places like old Forbes Field in Pittsburgh.

Now, 50 years removed from those boyhood visions and with a litany of lifetime achievement behind him, Suplizio still knows that coming to terms with prosperity and acclaim must continually be reborn inside him. 

Riding through the streets of Denver recently as Chairman of the Colorado Baseball Commission, he passed before 100,000 spectators celebrating the arrival of major league baseball to the city. 

He could now feel the tears well up — tears from places deep inside where he has come from, places he will always come from. 

From the winter of 1957, from the side of the road in the middle of the night, huddled near the vapors from the Glenwood Hot Springs pool to warm himself. 

In his possession, just 50 cents and faint hopes of flagging down a passing motorist. 

Someone, anyone, to take him to Denver to see the specialist who was treating his wasted muscle masquerading as his right throwing arm.

From a 21-year old, palpating his grief for the father suddenly lost in an automobile accident, the father who built box-cars all day for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad to support his five children. 

The same father the boy would visit at work during the summers to deliver lunch and hear the repeated admonition, “See, son, why you want to go to school.”

From the irony of a lifetime surrounded by athletes in perfect health, Suplizio remains haunted by the specter of his sister, Maria, dead of leukemia at age 46. 

On this night, Suplizio also speaks of his mother, Ann, her indomitable spirit and fierce reserves currently taxed by the cancer that eats at her stomach.

All these thoughts keep Suplizio close to his Catholic roots, close to the long-held canon that you need to get your eyes off yourself and onto others. 

There are no public records to record the numerous checks he has written to the disadvantaged, the food he quietly drops off at local churches.

There is no equipment to detect the soft spot in his heart for youngsters and the elderly who face life alone. 

Look closely behind the Pepsodent smile and see the sadness for the painful things all people must divide. 

Look closely to see from whence a man has come.

In 1989, Suplizio was voted Grand Junction’s Citizen of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce.   

In 1991, the Boy Scouts of America selected Suplizio for their prestigious Service to Youth Award.

Suplizio’s leadership qualities were always in evidence, as a young quarterback for the University of New Mexico; as a long time tutor of amateur and professional baseball players; as a trainer of sales personnel; as a motivational speaker in constant demand across America; as a frequent confidant to U.S. Senators and Congressmen.

He was once Ronald Reagan’s area campaign manager.

For the past year, Suplizio has wrestled privately with a ground swell of influential support urging him to pursue Colorado’s highest elected public office. 

Just last month, “after turning over every stone,” Suplizio announced he would not be a candidate for Governor.  

“I realized I couldn’t sever the ties I have with this community. The tradeoffs were just too great,” cites Suplizio.

“To my way of thinking, there is no greater thing than to help provide people with self-worth, to foster their sense of being needed and living in harmony with one another. It’s impossible to think of ever leaving this community,” says good neighbor Sam.

Suplizio’s rah-rah approach to ordinary life springs from his lifelong infatuation with the game of baseball. 

For 35 years, Grand Junction residents have known Suplizio as the founding force behind the wildly successful Junior College World Series contested every May on the field now named after Suplizio himself.

There are those who remember Suplizio as the player, and later manager, of the Eagles, the town’s now defunct semi-pro team. 

In 1952, women would sit on the outfield fence and throw pebbles at the handsome outfielder. 

It was a time to be rich in the innocence and romance of a child’s game.

There are also those who remember Suplizio as a minor league prodigy with major league promise. In 1953, Suplizio was signed to a bonus contract with the New York Yankees and assigned to Binghampton. 

By 1956, Suplizio had climbed the ladder of the Yankee farm system in impressive fashion.  In those 4 years, he had been voted to the All-Star team of every league in which he had played. 

In the 1955 season, he had hit 24 home runs while batting close to .300.

Late in 1956, Suplizio, now playing for Birmingham of the Southern League, was told he would be joining the Yankees during their September call-ups. 

Yankee skipper Casey Stengel had explained to the slugging outfielder that he would be a late-inning replacement for Mickey Mantle in centerfield. 

“If you hit like we know you can, we’ll move Mantle and his bad knees to right field and the center field job is all yours, kid.” 

To a kid who grew up breathing baseball, dreams don’t come any bigger.

Exactly one week before he was to see his lifelong ambition realized, Suplizio slid into second base at Nashville, attempting to break up a double-play. 

His arm slammed into the knee of the Nashville second baseman and Suplizio rolled over in a dust cloud. 

When he gazed at his throbbing right arm, it was flipped grotesquely on its hinge, bones protruding from the skin. His arm had been fractured in seven places.

The young phenom took another look, as if staring at the face of the future, and promptly passed out. 

Seven days from going to Yankee Stadium, Suplizio was instead headed to the hospital, his dream in as many piece as his mangled arm.

“The winter of ‘56 was pretty tough financially and otherwise,” recalls Sam. 

“It was the bleakest time I’ve ever experienced. I would have thought nothing of jumping off a bridge and finishing it. I had a wife and two kids and another on the way. I couldn’t throw and I couldn’t do anything. Baseball had been my life.”

Muddling through odd-jobs the next few years, Suplizio decided to move his family from Pennsylvania to Colorado, where he took a job selling insurance for Home Loan. 

Today, Suplizio is  Home Loan’s President and principal stock holder. 

He has laboriously built the local institution from a small agency selling $300,000 worth of annual premiums in 1957, to its current annual figure of $10 million.

“I’ve always tried to do the very best I can at whatever I attempted to do, no matter how big or small.  I guess I have never been bitter about things. Early on, I realized that our own state of mind is self-given” says Sam.

Although his aspirations as a player were shattered along with his arm, Suplizio has maintained an uninterrupted relationship with the game of baseball. 

He was signed as a coach and outfield instructor for the Milwaukee Brewers and began a second career of criss-crossing the country, still a kid chasing a fly ball at heart.

In sitting with Suplizio, it’s hard to miss his glittering World Series ring, a treasure he earned in 1982 as a member of the Brewers coaching staff. 

Suplizio’s greatest emotional prize, however, came in 1986, when the Brewers summoned him to Yankee Stadium to coach a mid-season series against The New York Yankees.

“There were 40,000 people in the stands, and as I was introduced to the crowd, I stood there with tears in my eyes. 

“No one really knew what I was feeling at that moment. It had taken me 30 years to get there, to suit up at Yankee Stadium. But I finally made it.”

In reality, Sam Suplizio is both hard and soft, public and private, driven and haunted. Compelled by a sense of obligation to his community, to his employees, his ballplayers, his friends, Suplizio says, “It’s a hard world. We owe each other things like loyalty, kindness and love.”

Relaxed and for the moment reflective, Suplizio prolongs the conversation with his guest deep into the night. 

His vision of life clearly re-woven from the fabric of his own experience, from the recollection of his own dreams… you suddenly find yourself listening for a voice that whispers….’Go The Distance.’   

Sam Suplizio has done exactly that in real life.