BY CAROLYN LaWELL
BELOIT, Wisconsin | Nancy Spelius sits directly behind home plate. The only thing between her and the balls constantly hit foul in her direction is a tight net. The bat cracks, the ball flies, the net catches it and sways right in front of her face.
She doesn’t flinch.
“Catch that, Nancy,” says her husband, George. “I know you’re not a scaredy cat. Show them where the scar is from when it came through the net.”
George and Nancy always sit in the yellow seats in the front row of Pohlman Field. George was one of three men who led a group of 21 fans and citizens to bring the game to Beloit and this stadium in 1982, and has worked as president of the Midwest League since 1987.
They rarely miss a Snappers game. They always provide comedy and camaraderie for all around them.
Snappers third baseman Miguel Sano steps to the plate in the first inning and George leans toward a man a few seats to his left and exchanges words. Sano slams a homer just left of the Beloit Floral sign in leftfield.
George leans back in. “Told ya,” he says.
♦ ♦ ♦
Before Beloit Floral moved into a shop on Cranston Road to house its bouquets and arrangements, the business operated out of a downtown room that featured wreaths on the walls. Thomas Panos opened the flower shop in 1916, four years after his boat sailed from Greece to the United States. He learned the craft from a family member already in the country, then passed it on to his own children, Peter and Nancy. They worked there for years. Nancy still does.
Nancy normally arrives at Beloit Floral around 10 each morning. She says hello to her staff and retreats to her office – basically a closet just large enough for a desk and a chair – to make calls and run the books. Photos on her walls and her desk document the shop’s history and much of her 76 years.
There’s a black and white photo of her father in the old shop, when his customers called on his services most often to decorate caskets and churches. There are photos of her children, George and Mary, and photos of her two grandchildren, boys who live in Arizona. And, of course, there are photos of her and George.
He took a bus from Milwaukee to Beloit, about 75 miles between them. The first time they met was at the station in Beloit.
The first time George set sight on Nancy, it was a photo. One of Nancy’s friends knew a nice boy and asked if she could give him Nancy’s photo and phone number. Soon after, George called.
He took a bus from Milwaukee to Beloit, about 75 miles between them. The first time they met was at the station in Beloit. They drove her father’s car to Milwaukee for a debutante ball. George stayed with the Panos that night. Nancy says he fit in with the family immediately.
October 21, they’ll celebrate 50 years of marriage.
In 1962, Nancy was working for her father at the shop. George was a traveling salesman for a leather goods company with a territory of Wisconsin and the states that surround it. “My father-in-law said, ‘You travel a lot, you travel like 35,000 miles a year. That’s a lot of traveling. Come on over to the flower business,” George says. “I said, ‘Yeah.’ So I learned the business.”
One day in January 1963, George remembers going to an attorney’s office and Nancy thinks they wound up at the courthouse, but the exact place where Panos called them that day is an insignificant detail. “The attorney said, ‘Do you and Nancy have a dollar?’” George says. They did, and handed it to her father. Without knowing it, they had just bought Beloit Floral. George still jokes it was Panos’ way of roping him in and keeping the leash tight.
♦ ♦ ♦
It was here in Beloit that George and Nancy raised two children, and it was here that George started working in local sports and radio – back in 1958, he was stationed with the U.S. Army in Tokyo-Yokohama, Japan, and was the catcher for the Far East champions, the Camp Zama Ramblers. After he returned home, he still wanted to be involved in baseball, he went to a Beloit Little League meeting to find out how to become a manager.
“I came home and Nancy said, ‘How did it go?’
“‘Did they give you a team?’
“‘No. I’m the vice president.’
“So I became the president of the Beloit Baseball Association,” he says.
That was only the beginning of his decades in baseball.
In 1979, George came across a story in a newspaper that said the Midwest League wanted to expand from eight teams to 12. George and two others led a group of investors who went to the league and said they wanted a team and would build what would become Pohlman Stadium. The team was theirs for $5,000, George says, its first game in 1982, along with other new teams in Madison, Wisconsin, and Danville and Springfield, Illinois.
“I would answer the phone, 'Midwest League.' My friends would call and say, ‘Oh, sorry, wrong number’ and hang up.” - Nancy Spelius
“Then, after five years, I threw my hat in when we, unfortunately, lost (league president) Bill (Walters),” George says. “I drew the short straw, and here I am.”
Here he is, president of a league that has added another four teams to grow to 16. He travels to each of them at least once a year to talk with the players and managers, and check in on operations. He has seen teams move, cities build stadiums, fans shift their focus from the game to entertainment.
All the while, his family has been part of the experience. Sometimes, Nancy and Mary travel with him. And for decades, the Speliuses invited umpires over for a home-cooked meal at least once a series. At one of those dinners, Mary met her future husband, Marty Foster. Marty is a Major League umpire. He and Mary still live across the street from George and Nancy.
“I’m known as an umpires’ president,” George says. “These guys are loaners, and there are only two of them. When crews come in here, I take them out to eat and it saves them a few bucks.”
For years, George ran the Midwest League out of Beloit Floral, balancing two different jobs and two different phone lines out of one office. Then he moved the office to his house.
“I would answer the phone, ‘Midwest League’” Nancy says. “My friends would call and say, ‘Oh, sorry, wrong number’ and hang up.”
The confusion ended after George moved the league office to its own space, an unmarked building across the street from Beloit Floral. In the last few years, a foot problem has forced him to use a cane, so Nancy drives him to work. If she doesn’t pack him a lunch, she picks up one, drops it off at his office and crosses the street to the flower shop.
♦ ♦ ♦
Nancy never cheers. She has lived in Beloit her entire life, but as the Midwest League president’s wife, she roots for both teams. She watches every game intently, but breaks away to talk with friends and acquaintances, listen to stories and use the signature phrase that embodies everything about her. “Oh, how nice.”
The front row is the perfect view for George, the fan, to analyze every move players and managers make. “What are you looking at him for?” he asks rhetorically. “Two outs, man on second.”
Now 78, George hasn’t squatted behind home plate in a chest protector and mask in decades, but there have been few days – or maybe none at all – when he hasn’t thought about baseball. He plans to retire in a couple of years.
“I always wanted the job, it would have bothered me if I hadn’t done it,” he says about his title for the last 25 years. “But I’ve had it to so long now. And I still appreciate it, but baseball has changed.”
There are three achievements of which he is most proud: In 1995, the Snappers won their only league championship; in 2001, he was a part of Minor League Baseball’s 100th anniversary; and, in 2010, he received his second Warren Giles Award, which honors outstanding service as a league president.
Until he retires, he’ll continue to cross the 16-team league to watch games and make sure operations are running smoothly. He will continue to come to Snappers’ games and sit in the front row, next to Nancy, until the last out. They will crack the kinds of jokes only couples married a half-century can crack, the kinds of jokes never lost on those who love.
“Nancy,” he says, “you’re walking home.”
She rolls her eyes. “Whatever you say, George.”
Want to read stories about the other teams on our schedule? Click here and scroll to the calendar.