HE WENT DOWN SWINGING
“That s.o.b. won’t let me play! It’s not fair! He can’t do that!”
Bill Spiller fought them to the end, cursing their names in the middle of the night in the small hardwood hallway of his 122nd Street home.
Illness had diluted his mind, but not his indignation, which still covered him like a cologne used in quarts instead of drops.
Decades after golf tournaments threw him out because he was black, Spiller would jolt awake, sit up in his bed, shout the names of the long-deceased people who ran those tournaments.
Sometimes he would grab his gun, stalk into the living room, wave the pistol, promise 3 a.m. revenge.
“I’ll get them for this, you’ll see! I’ll get them!”
Bill Spiller fought them night after night, front door to back.
His wife was so worried he might mistake her for a golf official and shoot her, she ordered him moved to a convalescent home.
He died there two years later, in 1988, at 75. His oldest son immediately phoned numerous media outlets--including this one--with the news.
Gone was the man many feel was most responsible for blacks being admitted to the Professional Golfers’ Assn.
Gone was the pioneer who pestered the PGA for nearly 15 years until it finally dropped its “Caucasians-only” clause in 1961.
Contrary to popular belief, Tiger Woods’ appearance in this week’s Nissan Open is not due to a shoe company, but to Spiller.
The son figured somebody might want to give his death a headline.
Nobody was willing to give it even a sentence.
“Either they didn’t know him, or weren’t interested in him or both,” said the son.
There was no obituary, so there were no friends at his memorial service. There were no calls from the PGA, no condolences from the organization he fought so intensely.
In the end, even Bill Spiller’s demons won.
“Man died with a broken heart,” said Maggie Hathaway, a local NAACP activist and former Los Angeles Sentinel columnist who chronicled Spiller. “He should have been the hero. But they made him the scapegoat.”
The history of racial equality in sports is not always as clearly defined as a Jackie Robinson slide or an Arthur Ashe serve.
Sometimes that history is as cluttered as those ordinary neighborhoods from which it springs, as forgotten as those ordinary people who create it.
In the 1940s, South-Central Los Angeles was one of those neighborhoods. Bill Spiller was one of those people.
He was a porter at Union Station, a postal clerk, the owner of a doughnut shop, a resident of 122nd Street, a tidy beige house with a manicured front lawn. He was a father, a neighbor, a fixture.
He was also a golfer, one of many who hung around what is now known as the Chester Washington Golf Course, an unassuming spot of freshness on a blighted block of Western Avenue.
It is there that the only formal tribute to Bill Spiller remains.
It is a simple plaque, leaning back in a glass trophy case overlooking the 10th tee, crowded by haphazardly hung newspaper articles about, ironically, the likes of Tiger Woods.
“To William ‘Bill’ Spiller,” begins the inscription, “In recognition of your achievement as a professional black golfer. . . .”
That’s all he ever wanted to do. Make a living playing golf.
He was good enough to shoot a 68 and tie Ben Hogan for second place after the first round of the 1948 L.A. Open, a tournament that consistently ignored the PGA’s ban on blacks.
He won many national tournaments held by blacks during that time.
“He was a great golfer, one of the best ever, black or white,” said Charlie Sifford, the first black regular on the PGA Tour.
But Spiller had a problem with patience. While many other black golfers quietly accepted the PGA’s assurances that they would soon be allowed to join the tour, Spiller bought nothing.
While others remained quiet for fear of hurting their chances, Spiller howled.
He broke whites-only rules in clubhouses everywhere. He filed a landmark suit against the PGA. And in 1952, he stood in front of a player’s swing and stopped an entire tournament in San Diego. That protest helped lead to the rules change that opened the door for the inclusion of blacks on the tour. Many black golfers call it the single most important event in their fight.
Each step brought Spiller closer to his goal, but took him further from the world he so desperately wanted to join.
Typical was that time in Bakersfield in the early 1950s when Spiller and several friends had played well in a tournament, but were denied access to the clubhouse afterward.
“Spiller just walked inside and asked the wife of the club president to dance,” said Frank Snow, a former playing partner. “He said that when he came back out, all the other blacks had left him because they were afraid.”
Another playing partner, Ed Satchell, remembers having a drink with a PGA official after they had played a round with Spiller and been hassled the entire time about not allowing blacks in tournaments.
“He said, ‘Ed, you’re a nice guy, you shouldn’t be messing around with Spiller,’ ” Satchell said.
By the time golf became this country’s last major sport to officially desegregate, in 1961 after then-California Atty. Gen. Stanley Mosk vowed to fight the PGA to the end of the earth, Spiller was too old to shoot the qualifying scores of his youth and too disliked to ask for any favors.
Sifford became golf’s Jackie Robinson while Spiller was frying crullers at the corner of Century and Normandie at 4 a.m.
Lee Elder became one of golf’s most noted pioneers after becoming the first black to play in the Masters while Spiller was hustling bets as a caddie at Hillcrest Country Club.
The man most responsible for the appearance of blacks on the PGA Tour was never even allowed to become a member of the PGA.
On a recent weekday afternoon, a promotional flyer was stuck to the front of the trophy case overlooking the 10th hole, obscuring Spiller’s plaque.
Hathaway tore off the paper.
“Everybody still trying to cover poor Bill up,” she said.
Bill Spiller Jr. has a gentle smile, a huge laugh, answers the phone at his Redondo Beach residence by saying, “House of Joy,” allows no tears to be shed inside.
“My father was a very angry man, possibly the angriest man I have ever met,” he said. “Two chips. Both shoulders. This was his burning cross. He carried it with him to his grave.”
Bill Spiller Jr. smiled.
“How angry was my father? He was angry enough to keep this.”
In front of the son was his father’s scrapbook, brown leather cover, black pages, the usual kind with one exception.
It celebrated as many defeats as victories.
For every faded scorecard with every birdie circled, there was a newspaper story about his protest of some exclusionary tournament.
On one page, there was a yellowed newspaper story about triumph in a black tournament.
On another page, a protest poem he wrote about carrying passengers’ bags at Union Station for dime tips.
Spiller carried that basic understanding of life’s unfairness with him when he started playing golf, in 1942 at the age of 29.
By then, he knew all about about being black in America.
Despite a degree from Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, and a teaching certificate from that state, the best job he could find there was at a rural school for $60 a month.
So he moved to Los Angeles in 1938 to live with his mother. The best job he could find here? As a redcap at newly opened Union Station.
Searching for new ways to gamble with his working pals--besides pool, cards, dice and sports events--he joined a friend for a round of golf on Christmas Eve.
He shot a 114 that day. Four years later, he was winning every black tournament in Southern California.
He bought that house on 122nd Street with $7,000 he won in an all-day golf game with boxer Joe Louis.
Spiller began traveling on the black pro circuit in the mid-1940s, winning tournaments around the country.
In one year, he had one first, four seconds and two thirds while playing in events such as the National Negro Open and Texas Negro Open with equally talented Southern California buddy Ted Rhodes.
Imagine, Bill Spiller thought, how much money he could make if only he could play in the real show.
He would imagine, then he would walk into a place like the Bel-Air Country Club to try to qualify for the U.S. Open. Friends talk of the time Spiller got into an ugly staring match with Fred Astaire there.
“Well, I guess you can stay,” Astaire finally told Spiller, according to friends.
Spiller realized he was really supposed to be there in 1948 in the L.A. Open when he shot a first-round 68, tying him for second.
By the time the weekend ended, he had fallen 20 strokes behind eventual winner Hogan. But according to newspaper reports, the unlikely redcap had been followed and cheered by more than 12,000 fans.
He finished well enough to qualify for the next week’s PGA tournament in the Northern California town of Richmond.
That is where the trouble started for Bill Spiller. Rather, that is where he started it.
After playing in two practice rounds, he was confronted by a tournament official who gave Spiller his first look at the PGA constitution, Article 3, Section 1.
It contained the little publicized rule, instituted at the PGA’s inception in 1916, that PGA members must be Caucasian.
Spiller had heard about the rule, but to actually see it in print a year after Robinson had integrated major league baseball stunned him.
A couple of days later, according to the golf history book “Gettin’ to the Dance Floor” by Al Barkow, Spiller spent $150--a first-place purse on the black tour--to wine and dine local newsmen before announcing that he and two others, including Rhodes, were suing the PGA for $250,000.
In Spiller’s scrapbook, next to stories about the suit, was pasted a story describing how white E.J. “Dutch” Harrison--”That big fellow from Arkansas”--led the Richmond tournament after three rounds.
On an adjoining page is a photo of a stunned Harrison after he won the tournament, but was given a blank winner’s check because Spiller’s lawsuit froze all funds.
“Blankety-Blank” read the caption in the San Francisco Examiner.
“Bill Spiller had the original impact,” said Jack Burke, former pro and member of the PGA Touring Committee during Spiller’s fight. “He could play, and he deserved a chance. But there was a bunch of people not knowing what they were doing, a bunch of Caucasians not knowing what was going on.”
Six weeks after the Richmond tournament, the PGA offered to end its discrimination against blacks if Spiller would drop his suit. He did. It was a huge mistake.
“They tricked him,” Sifford said.
The PGA did not change its Caucasians clause, only the name of its tournaments. By calling each tournament an “Invitational” instead of an “Open,” it could continue banning blacks with no need for explanation.
Spiller despondently returned to the black tour. He tried to behave like a big-time golfer without the sponsorships or prize money, and his family struggled.
At times, he was reduced to performing a shuffling dance with Rhodes in hopes of convincing wealthy golfers to hire him for lessons. Spiller hated that dance.
“He was sad,” Hathaway recalled. “We would go to the bar [at Chester Washington] every day after he played his rounds and he would say, ‘Maggie, I’ve got to play golf.’ ”
The more he was spurned during the day, the tougher things became for his family.
He and wife Goldie had two boys and a girl, none of whom play golf. Goldie sold his clubs when he died to rid herself of the memory.
“He was having such a tough time himself, I think he took out a lot of his frustrations on us,” said middle son James, an accountant who still lives in his father’s home.
The children would often come home to find their father angrily penning a letter of protest, or making a series of frustrated phone calls.
“He would look in the paper, see what somebody on the tour did and say, ‘That so-and-so, I can beat him!’ ” Bill Jr. recalled. “And he would get mad all over again.”
While watching Tiger Woods wade through adoring fans at this week’s L.A. Open, note that at the same tournament nearly 50 years ago, Spiller made another memorable scene.
He was angry because the three most prominent blacks in the tournament were grouped together. When the more placid Rhodes told him that it was because some Texans didn’t want to play with them, Spiller shouted, “I thought this was the L.A. Open, not the Texas Open. If they don’t want to play with us, tell ‘em to go the hell back to Texas.”
Spiller said he didn’t know that the starters’ microphone had been turned on during his outburst, blaring his words to the Riviera crowd.
Fittingly, the most important golf tournament in Bill Spiller’s life was one he watched from behind the ropes.
It was the third weekend in January, 1952. Spiller had recently played 36 holes in the rain to qualify for a charity event in San Diego that was not an official PGA tournament.
Spiller, Eural Clark, Rhodes, Joe Louis and Leonard Reed were given lockers and assigned caddies.
Just before the tournament began, the PGA disqualified all of them, ostensibly because they didn’t have PGA players’ cards.
Because Louis was involved, a public outcry ensued. The promoters relented and agreed to allow Louis a spot, but asked the others to keep quiet until the rules were reexamined at a PGA meeting the next winter.
All but Spiller agreed. Spiller was furious and resented Louis being treated as a token. He threatened another lawsuit, barged into meeting from which he had been excluded and charged the PGA with changing its rules to fit its needs.
“Bill was a real fighter there,” Clark said. “Fighting to make them change that PGA clause. They held a lot of stuff against him because of that fight.”
Spiller stood on the first tee and refused to let the tournament begin. When he was finally talked down by his own colleagues, he confronted PGA officials and warned them that blacks were soon going to be playing in tournaments whether the establishment liked it or not.
Sure enough, the PGA relented and inserted a clause that allowed blacks to play in PGA events if invited by sponsors.
“PGA Clears Path For Negro Golfers” read the headlines.
It was a small change with big ramifications.
“It was the start of the whole thing,” Clark said. “San Diego was where everything broke open.”
Spiller played in 10 tournaments that year. For younger black golfers, there was finally hope.
“This is when I started playing a lot,” Sifford said. “San Diego was important.”
The organization also promised to discuss the deletion of the Caucasian clause, and Spiller was going to hold them to it.
“I’ll go along with this until the national [PGA] convention in November,” Spiller said in a newspaper account of the incident. “Then I want to see something done about that non-Causcasian clause.”
It was nearly 10 years before the PGA fulfilled the second part of the deal.
By then, Spiller was a caddie.
“How many people do you know became a caddie after they were a pro?” Hathaway asked. “That’s the story of Bill Spiller.”
Failing eyesight--which family members said was caused by the flour used in his Mrs. Spiller’s Old Fashioned Doughnuts store--had forced him to stop playing in big-time tournaments.
In 1960, he was 47 and reduced to making tips and hustling bets.
While carrying bags at Hillcrest he mentioned to member Harry Braverman that he was banned from the tour because of the Caucasian clause.
Braverman promised to speak to Atty. Gen. Mosk, a close friend. At about the same time, Mosk received a letter with a similar complaint from Sifford. Mosk subsequently threatened legal action against the PGA, which had its annual championship scheduled for Brentwood Country Club in 1962.
Mosk lobbied other attorneys general to consider similar action, and by 1961, the Caucasians-only clause was stricken. But before that was done, the PGA had moved the 1962 championship from Brentwood to Philadelphia because of Mosk’s challenge.
“I was surprised that the Caucasian restriction was right there in writing. Usually that sort of thing is kept quiet,” Mosk said. “I guess just nobody ever thought of challenging it.”
So Mosk was given the credit in legal circles, and Sifford is generally given the credit in clubhouses.
Spiller retired to Chester Washington, where he played recreational golf until his eyesight was so bad, he could no longer make a putt.
He eventually suffered two strokes and Parkinson’s disease and found himself in a convalescent home. In his final days he complained to friends that he wanted to return to his house, but his family wouldn’t let him because he was so mean.
“This is not my fight,” Spiller once said. “It is one of the many phases of the great fight Negroes are waging in all fields of activity to become an actual part of American life.”
But it was his fight; and ultimately, his victory.
“I just wish somehow he would know that,” said Bill Spiller Jr. “If there is a God, if there is an afterlife, somehow, I think that would make him rest easy.”
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