Remembering “Sourdough Sam” Suplizio (1932-2006)
That the surname of Samuel Victor Suplizio graces the baseball diamond at Grand Junction’s Lincoln Park sports complex is as about as instructive a testament as there is to all that the longtime local civic leader has meant to the game of baseball in Grand Junction. But Suplizio’s decades-long central involvement in Grand Junction’s National Junior College Baseball World Series barely begins to scratch the surface of what the man has meant to the game of baseball. Were it not for the key leadership role Suplizio played as a member of the Colorado Baseball Commission in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Colorado Rockies may very well not be in existence today as a Major League Baseball franchise.
As an athletically gifted country kid growing up in the small, rural northwestern Pennsylvania town of DuBois, Suplizio excelled on every athletic field or court he ever stepped upon. But it was baseball where Suplizio’s talents really stood out, so much so that Suplizio was destined to join the 1950s-era New York Yankees of Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Bobby Richardson, Yogi Berra et al. until what once seemed like a clear path to the big leagues was permanently foreclosed by a career-ending injury.
However, what Suplizio has meant to Grand Junction and the entire state of Colorado since he moved here in the late 1950s goes far, far beyond his success in baseball. On virtually every initiative of overriding civic importance undertaken in Grand Junction and Mesa County over the course of almost all of the last half century, Suplizio could be counted on to be actively involved in every undertaking.
As the former principal owner and president of Home Loan Insurance and Investment, Suplizio was enormously successful in business and saw to it that his company was always among the Grand Valley’s most stellar corporate citizens, a legacy that continues to this day.
Active for years in the Mesa County Republican Party, Suplizio briefly became the subject of a statewide boomlet of support urging him to run for governor against Roy Romer in 1994. Suplizio gave serious thought to seeking the GOP nomination for governor against the highly popular Romer but, as he told this corner at the time, he couldn’t bear the thought of leaving the Grand Valley for Denver.
Suplizio suffered a severe stroke four years ago while coaching during a Major League Baseball spring training camp in Arizona. For those who knew him well, it was obvious that Suplizio’s health was never close to being the same after he collapsed and came close to losing his life in the Arizona sun.
Samuel Victor Suplizio died suddenly of heart failure late Friday at his winter home in South Carolina. He was 74.
Like the thousands of his friends and admirers throughout the Grand Valley, Colorado and Major League Baseball, we will miss him dearly.
Grand Junction benefactor Sam Suplizio, 74
Sam Suplizio, whose career ended in injury, coached in the major leagues.
GRAND JUNCTION – Sam Suplizio, a one-time prospect in the New York Yankees farm system who rose to help bring major league baseball to Colorado and who made the National Junior College World Series a community institution on the Western Slope, died last week at his home in South Carolina
Mr. Suplizio, who lived in Grand Junction for more than 40 years and maintained a home here, died of heart failure at 74.
“Sam was a dynamic, charismatic and enthusiastic leader with a great passion for whatever he set out to do,” said Jamie Hamilton, who succeeded Mr. Suplizio as head of Home Loan Insurance.
Hamilton, who also succeeded Mr. Suplizio at the helm of the junior college tournament, held in Grand Junction the past 49 years, said his friend and mentor kept a favorite picture on his desk: Mr. Suplizio embracing Cal Ripken Jr. minutes after the Baltimore Orioles infielder set baseball’s ironman record.
Mr. Suplizio, then a coach for the Anaheim Angels, was on the field at Camden Yards the night of Sept. 6, 1995, when Ripken broke Lou Gehrig’s streak of 2,130 consecutive starts.
Mr. Suplizio called it his biggest thrill in baseball.
His own career ended with a badly broken arm when he was a star prospect for the Yankees. He had signed with New York after graduating from the University of New Mexico, where he played football and baseball and was the school’s first All-American baseball player.
“The guy was a hell of a baseball player, he really was,” said Gene Rozelle, a retired Grand Junction radio personality and sports announcer. “There was a big possibility that Roger Maris never would have hit 61 homers because Sam would be in right field instead. But then he got hurt.”
Mr. Suplizio then came to Grand Junction to play for and manage the semipro Grand Junction Eagles. By the late 1950s, he and others were lobbying for the -JUCO tournament, which debuted in 1959.
“We made many, many trips to Kansas to promote our town because there were a lot of places bidding to get it,” recalled Hurst Otto, who served on the local JUCO committee. “But we succeeded in keeping it here.”
In the years to come, Mr. Suplizio coached for the Angels, St. Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers and Seattle Mariners. He was a member of a number of halls of fame, including the National Junior College Association, University of New Mexico National Coaches and Colorado.
A Republican activist, Mr. Suplizio entertained political ambitions, said longtime friend Tillie Bishop, a former state senator newly elected to the University of Colorado Board of Regents.
“He was all set to run for the Colorado House in the mid-’70s but realized his business would take too big a loss if he were away that amount of time,” Bishop said. “Later on he talked about running for governor but decided against it.”
Mr. Suplizio’s relationship with Gov. Roy Romer led to his appointment as co-chairman of the Colorado Baseball Commission, where he helped bring the Rockies to Denver, Bishop said.
Mr. Suplizio said in the late 1990s that Major League Baseball officials were concerned Denver might not be large enough to support a franchise. So surveys were taken of license plates and season-ticket holders to the Denver Broncos.
The results showed Denver’s major sports teams attract faithful fans not only from the Front Range but also the rest of Colorado and parts of Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas and New Mexico.
One of Mr. Suplizio’s closest friends, lawyer Terry Farina, said Mr. Suplizio “contributed mightily to the life and times of Grand Junction, and he left the Home Loan Community Benefit Foundation, which contributes thousands of dollars yearly to nonprofit agencies.”
Mr. Suplizio, born in Dubois, Pa., married Lonny Sullivan, and they had four children. They divorced, and nine years ago he married Caroline Sorrento, who survives.
Other survivors include two sons, Sam Jr. and Tom Suplizio; daughters Carter Anderson and Cindy Mueller; brother Paul Suplizio, of Washington, D.C.; sister Ella Jean Reynolds, of El Dorado, Mo.; and nine grandchildren.
Services are scheduled at 10:30 a.m. Friday at Precious Blood of Christ Catholic Church in Pawleys Island, S.C. Another service is tentatively scheduled late next week at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Grand Junction.
GJ’s Mr. JUCO dies
By ERIK LINCOLN The Daily Sentinel
Sunday, December 31, 2006
Longtime Grand Junction civic leader and businessman Sam Suplizio died Friday at his home in Pawleys Island, S.C., of heart failure. He was 74.
Suplizio, a Major League Baseball coach, was instrumental in bringing the annual Alpine Bank Junior College World Series to Grand Junction and was a key player in bringing Major League Baseball to Colorado.
Suplizio’s family said services will be held in Pawleys Island and in Grand Junction.
Former New York Yankees infielder Bobby Richardson was Suplizio’s friend for 52 years.
The two met in the 1950s when Suplizio was an outfielder for the Yankees and was penciled in to replace Mickey Mantle.
However, Suplizio suffered a compound fracture to his right wrist at age 24 that never completely healed.
“That literally ended his career,” Richardson said. “He hated it because his dream was to play centerfield for the Yankees.”
Suplizio came to Grand Junction in 1958 and went to work for Home Loan and Investment Co. in Grand Junction, a firm he headed when he retired in 1998, and sold the business to Jamie Hamilton.
Hamilton, the current president and CEO of Home Loan and Mesa State College’s athletic director, said Suplizio taught him to find a balance between doing what he loves and his business career.
Hamilton first met Suplizio at a baseball clinic as a senior at Regis High School in 1974. The two later crossed paths when Hamilton was playing baseball for Mesa College in the late 1970s.
Suplizio promised to help Hamilton find a spot on the Angels, and even when Hamilton wasn’t drafted, Suplizio called his friends on the team and got Hamilton a place in the Angels’ infield.
“Sam was the guy who gave me the opportunity to play professional baseball,” Hamilton said.
Later, Suplizio helped Hamilton follow a path similar to his by helping him to coach for the Milwaukee Brewers, Chicago Cubs and Mesa State College while Hamilton was also working at Home Loan.
“He wanted to stay close to the game and his business,” Hamilton said. “Success allowed him to do that.”
Suplizio, while running a business in Grand Junction, also found time to coach for the California Angels, Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals and, most recently, the Seattle Mariners.
Richardson said Suplizio was well thought of as a coach, particularly at mentoring outfielders.
“He probably has more friends in baseball than anybody I know,” Richardson said.
Suplizio’s connections with baseball helped the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series thrive. It was through his efforts that the tournament was able to draw keynote speakers to the JUCO banquet.
Major League Baseball Commissioners Bowie Kuhn and Bud Selig; former managers Bobby Valentine, Whitey Herzog, Tommy Lasorda, Davey Johnson, Joe Torre and Buck Showalter; Yankees owner George Steinbrenner; and former major league stars Paul Molitor, Reggie Jackson, Tom Seaver and Bob Gibson are among the baseball dignitaries who have given the keynote address at the pre-tournament banquet.
“If he couldn’t get them, he knew people who could,” said Mesa County Commissioner and Suplizio friend Tillie Bishop.
Suplizio, along with Jay Tolman, D.S. “Dyke” Dykstra and Dale Hollingsworth, helped to bring the tournament to Grand Junction in 1959.
With Suplizio’s baseball background, Dykstra, who was the tournament chairman during its first nine years in Grand Junction, put Suplizio in charge of tournament play and the groundskeeping.
“I depended on Sam quite a bit for his baseball knowledge and the people he knew,” said Dykstra, the sole member of the four who is still living.
Suplizio served as chairman of the tournament for 33 years.
Carter Elliott and his wife, Lena, met Suplizio when they moved to the city in 1958.
Suplizio was the Elliotts’ insurance man, and they got to know each other through attending the same church, Immaculate Heart of Mary.
Elliott and Suplizio coached the boys basketball team at St. Joseph’s and played basketball on the “Fifth Street Basketball Team.”
“We were terrible,” Elliott said.
Elliott said Suplizio was the kind of man who always left a good impression on people and was friends with everyone. He was also the kind of person who would help his friends with problems.
“You have to consider yourself very fortunate to have a person like that come into your life,” Elliott said. “Sam was a good man.”
Richardson, a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes Hall of Champions, said Suplizio had a spiritual dimension to him. Suplizio and his wife, Caroline, were very giving.
The Suplizios helped with fundraising for the Baseball Assistance Team, which gives financial assistance to major and minor league baseball players who have fallen on hard times.
In addition to his wife, Suplizio is survived by two sons and two daughters.
Sentinel reporter Kent Mincer also contributed to this report.
Erik Lincoln can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.
Suplizio remembered as baseball player, confidant and inspiration
Sam Suplizio was a baseball player, coach, confidant and inspiration to both young athletes bound for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and for those bound to wheelchairs, a protege remembered today.
Paul Molitor, who played briefly for Suplizio in Grand Junction, eulogized him before more than 1,000 mourners this morning at St. Joseph Catholic Church.
Suplizio, 74, died Dec. 29 in South Carolina.
He was the prime organizer of the National Junior College Baseball World Series, which Grand Junction hosts every May, and a businessman.
He was more than that, though, said Molitor, who was inducted in 2004 into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Suplizio was an insistent coach, a sounding board and a friend, Molitor said.
Soon after his induction in Cooperstown, Molitor received a call from Suplizio asking him to participate in an annual baseball game on the White House lawn for children with disabilities.
At Suplizio’s insistence, Molitor wore his old Milwaukee Brewers uniform. Suplizio wore his Anaheim Angels uniform. “The kids responded to the uniform,” Molitor said, and “had a day that they would never forget.”
Other players who showed up in street clothes didn’t get the hugs that the familiar baseball togs elicited, a reaction Molitor never expected, “but Sam got it.”
Stadium commissioner Sam Suplizio, right, discusses the future Invesco Field at Mile High during an unveiling of the stadium model in Denver on Oct. 15, 1998. Suplizio, who died Friday, is better known as a key figure in bringing major-league baseball to Denver. (Post / John Prieto)