As legacies go, Lou Spadia’s is indelible.
From his childhood growing up in the Potrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco and starring on the baseball diamond at Mission High School, to his Navy service in World War II, to his 31 years helping to run the San Francisco 49ers, to his fundraising efforts through the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame, Spadia left a permanent mark on his region.
But to define his legacy only by those accomplishments would be like leaving a painting unfinished. And Spadia’s completed work of art might just be worthy of Rome’s Galleria Borghese. The son of Italian immigrants, Spadia grew up modestly, but lived a rich life filled with family, faith and the 49ers.
His picture is only complete; however, when one factors in traits not included on a resume.
“He was such an amazing, interesting human being,” his daughter Louisa Spadia-Beckham – more affectionately known as Lulu – said. “Integrity was his best quality and humility was his middle name.”
So it is fitting that Lou Spadia is the inaugural recipient of the International Sports Heritage Association’s (ISHA) Legacy Award – one created to honor a person in the city hosting the organization’s annual conference. The 2018 conference is being hosted by the 49ers Museum in Santa Clara, Calif., from Sept. 26-28.
“We are honored that Lou Spadia was chosen for this very prestigious award,” said 49ers Museum director Jesse Lovejoy. “His contributions to both the Bay Area sports landscape and the history and trajectory of the San Francisco 49ers were wonderful and impactful, and he makes the perfect recipient for ISHA’s first Legacy Award”
Spadia died in 2013 at 92 years old, but his impact on the Bay Area not only lives, but also thrives. Lulu wept when receiving Lovejoy’s call to inform her of the honor. She also knows how her father would have reacted to receiving the same call.
“He would try to talk you out of it,” she said. “Not that he would be ungrateful, but he would want to defer the honor to [original 49ers owners] Tony and Vic Morabito.”
Fighting back tears, she added, “He would say that he was so incredibly proud and honored to have been part of the 49ers, but he was equally proud of his with work with the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame (BASHOF). It feels like an honor that he so deserves.”
Lulu would know. The youngest of four Spadia children, she was always around the 49ers during her father’s tenure with the team that spanned 31 years from 1946 to 1977. She traveled with the club and spent summers at training camp at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
“I remember when I was 16 years old at training camp one summer,” Lulu began. “My parents would go out to eat and I would eat with the team. One night I’m out by the pool around 10 p.m. and out walks someone with a bag of money and a list of food orders. This is when Dick Nolan was the head coach. So they give me the keys to [defensive end] Cedric Hardman’s red Cadillac Eldorado with the license plate ‘Nasty,’ and Mike Nolan and I head out to pick up this loot.
“We’re at a stop light and we see my parents. I slumped down in the seat, but my dad honked his horn and started shaking his finger at me. I was told, ‘This is your last summer at training camp.’ But I think I went two more times.”
She laughed as she shared that memory, and it is one of many she has of her dad, who started with the 49ers upon their founding by Tony and Vic Morabito in 1946.
After finishing his Navy service following World War II, Spadia was struggling to make ends meet when he read in the newspaper that his former commanding officer, John Blackinger, had been named the 49ers general manager. So he hit him up for a job.
Blackinger apparently figured that because Spadia had learned shorthand and could type, he would be useful in the office. He convinced the Morabitos to hire Spadia, who accepted the position for a reported $275 per month. Once in the door, Spadia handled some office duties, but helped with team travel, equipment, bed checks, contracts and whatever else was needed.
“You name it, he did it,” Lulu said.
He did it for three decades, eventually buying five percent of the team (with his wife, Maggie, buying five percent as well). He became chief executive officer and general manager in 1964 and team president in 1967.
In 1968, he hired Dick Nolan as the 49ers head coach. Two years later, the team started a string of three straight NFC West titles. Spadia never took credit for such accomplishments. He gave it to the Morabitos and anyone else he could.
“It was always understood that dad would downplay his decisions,” Lulu said. “That humility was instilled in my siblings and me (Lou Jr., Kate, Dorothy and Lulu). Our dad went to Mass every day and we were taught to respect what we had. We were blessed and lucky but our parents were adamant about staying out of the limelight.”
Spadia’s will and spirit were tested throughout the 1970s. Maggie Spadia was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1970 and fought for six years before succumbing to the disease in 1976. In the meantime, Lou lost his father in 1973 and his mother in 1974. The 49ers were then sold to the DeBartolo family in 1977 and Spadia retired when Joe Thomas was hired to run the team.
“It was a really tough time,” Lulu stressed.
But in so-called retirement, Spadia dedicated himself to helping underprivileged youth participate in sports. He started the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame as a way to raise money to give back to kids in need of an opportunity.
There was no brick-and-mortar structure because a building was expensive and needed to be maintained. Spadia wanted all of the money raised to go to the kids.
“He grew up without much money and he was that that kid,” Lulu said. “He wanted to give those kids a chance. It was about providing an opportunity for kids more than honoring athletes so that those kids could become those athletes.”
Since its inception in 1979, BASHOF has distributed millions of dollars to hundreds of local youth groups, fulfilling Spadia’s goal and then some.
That legacy, the one for which he is being honored at the year’s ISHA Conference, never waned.
“He was riding in an elevator at the Fairmont Hotel when a little boy and his dad get on,” Lulu said. “The dad is whispering to the boy about who it was in the elevator. The boy looks up and says, ‘Didn’t you used to be Lou Spadia? So my dad reached into his pocket, grabbed his wallet, showed the boy his license and said, ‘It says here I still am.’”
And who he was is why he is being honored by ISHA as much as for what he did. But then again, what he did was because of who he was.