Many loved him. Others feared him. But all respected him.
And a more colorful character on the local sports scene one would be hard-pressed to identify.
Marlin Spangler, Sr. succumbed to a brief and sudden illness on Monday morning. He was 70.
In terms of wins and losses, Spangler was the most successful coach that the Lebanon County American Legion Baseball League has ever known. From 1972 to 1998, Spangler’s Fredericksburg clubs dominated the local summer circuit, winning 14 county championships and a handful of regional titles, while compiling an overall mark of 468-191, a remarkable winning percentage of .710.
A fierce competitor, Spangler’s approach to the game was always somewhat controversial and questionable, and in 1998 it led to his ousting as Post 915′s manager. Spangler was inducted into the the central chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame, the Pennsylvania American Legion Baseball Hall of Fame and the Northern Lebanon High School Hall of Fame.
“When I heard about it, I couldn’t believe it,” said Kenny Hess, Spangler’s assistant coach from 1981 to 1998. “When (Spangler’s son) Mike called me and said, ‘Pop passed away this morning’, I said, ‘Now wait a minute. I just saw him not too long ago.’ This had to be sudden. It was certainly a shock, and very sad to hear.
“He’ll be missed,” added Hess. “He was a great friend. He was a great guy. I liked playing with him and coaching with him.”
“It was a shock,” said Elvin Felty, Spangler’s assistant coach from 1995 to 1998. “You don’t ever want to see that day come for anybody. When I heard I thought about when we all started here with the (Earl Wenger Memorial) field. We got it up and going.”
A native of Fredericksburg, Spangler starred in baseball and soccer during his playing days, and his competitive spirit eventually spilled over into his coaching. Very knowledgeable about the game, Spangler also umpired collegiate and scholastic baseball.
“He played the outfield and I played the infield,” said Hess. “And one time a ball went up into shallow center field. I called for it, but he just kept coming. He ran me over, and I got the worst of it.
“It was the same with coaching,” Hess continued. “He was always wondering, ‘Do we have enough runs?’, and we’d be up 10-1. Yes, he played hard, and he coached hard. He wanted to win. His win-loss record speaks for itself.”
On the golf course, Spangler won the 1993 Lebanon County Senior Amateur championship.
Professionally, Spangler ran Marlin Spangler and Sons contracting and sat on the Bethel Township planning commission.
“He was very successful,” said Felty. “He told the guys what he expected. He wanted the kids on the bench to work to get on the field. There’s a difference when a kid will lay out for a fly ball. Marlin expected you to be on your nose. He wanted you to make the catch. He wanted the out. He wanted to win.”
Spangler demanded a lot from himself and a lot from his players. He once said that because he was dedicating his free time to the Fredericksburg baseball program that he expected nothing less from his players.
“Marlin made it very clear, ‘You’re here to play baseball,'” said Hess. “‘You don’t miss practices. You don’t miss games.’ He was very strict, but very fair. And the kids respected him.
“You did’t go on senior week. You didn’t go on vacation. You didn’t go to those showcases,” continued Hess. “That’s the way Marlin was, and he didn’t make exceptions. It was right down the line, and I respected him for that.”
“He tried to intimidate umpires into getting his way,” said Felty. “He wanted the kids to respect him. And Marlin expected the kids to be here. He wanted you at every game. There were no excuses.”
Spangler was a strict disciplinarian. When he said something, he expected it to be done his way, the right way, right of way.
“I had a good time coaching with him,” said Hess. “And I will also say we had a lot of talent. We had our (Northern Lebanon) kids and we got the pick of the Cedar Crest kids too. He was fun to coach with. He gave me my assignments and I understood them. “
“When you have the talent it makes it easier, but he put the right mental toughness into it,” said Felty. “Anybody who puts that amount of time into a program deserves credit. He gave the time.”
In 1998, Spangler became a victim of changing times and his own rigidity. He was pressured to resign his post by the ladies’ auxiliary of Post 915, when he refused to allow stars Adam Keim and Andy Paine to attend a baseball showcase for college scouts.
But Spangler landed on his feet. After a brief stint with the Bethel entry in the Lebanon County American Legion league, Spangler served as the pitching coach for GSH Home Med Care and then the Lebanon Cardinals, a program which captured five Lebanon City-County teener championships in-a-row and won three Lebanon County Umpires Invitational tournament crowns.
“His ferocity curtailed his coaching career,” said Felty, who took over the head coaching position when Spangler left. “Ultimately what hurt him was not letting kids go to the showcases. I didn’t put up with it, and neither did Marlin.
“For coaches today, the wagon is pulling the horses,” Felty continued. “The inmates are running the asylum. Too many kids are running the team. I’d like to believe when I was there and when Marlin was there, the coaches were running the team. Marlin never listened to parents.”
This reporter interviewed Spangler on dozens of occasions during the 1980s and 1990s. Sometimes, when things hadn’t necessarily gone Fredericksburg’s way, Spangler would threaten to not speak to the press after games, but he never followed through on his promises.
The bottom line was Spangler enjoyed being interviewed about the game, the Fredericksburg program and his coaching methods.
“Working with Marlin, we didn’t give kids the opportunity to go on vacations or to showcases,” said Hess. “That’s not the case any more. Parents have stepped up.
“But that’s the way Marlin approached things,” concluded Hess. “‘If I’m going to be here, I expect you guys to be here too.'”