Picturing His Way to the Hall of Fame
Writer Ro Logrippo
Photography Courtesy of Sharon Gaboury and the World Golf Hall of Fame and Museum
When Anthem resident Mike Spinelli started photographing the world around him as a teen, little did he realize his images would one day hang in the world’s most recognized museum and in two hallowed national sports venues.
In the 1960s, Mike’s life path led him to Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky. where he did work for United Press International during his school years, including covering the Kentucky Derby in 1966 and 1967. He continued doing UPI work after graduation, covering two more Kentucky Derby races in 1969 and 1971.
After college, he joined the U.S. Air Force, serving at bases in Texas, Florida, California and Vietnam where he was based at Ton Sun Nhut Air Base in Saigon.
While serving in Vietnam, he earned both Best of Show and First Place honors in the military’s Third Biennial Inter-Service Worldwide Photographic Competition, which drew 15,000 entries from all U.S. military branches the year he participated. That recognition brought him to the attention of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, which chose one of his works to hang among their collections. An image Spinelli titled “The Swingers,” which featured children on swings at sunset in Hermosa Beach, Cal. became part of the Smithsonian’s photography archives.
After his service discharge, Spinelli settled in Northern California, becoming assistant photo editor of a major metropolitan daily newspaper on the San Francisco Peninsula. Additionally, he taught photography classes in the Bay Area, where he served as president of the San Francisco Press Photographer’s Association.
His 1970s and 1980s assignments included every major U.S. sporting event from the World Series, Super Bowl and U.S. Open to the NCAA Final Four. While on staff at the paper, the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio chose to exhibit two of Spinelli’s images spotlighting wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff at play during Super Bowl XI in Pasadena.
The photographer’s most recent renown came this past February from the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Fla. Mike received word that two of his outstanding golf photos of Payne Stewart and Tom Watson were worthy of being featured in permanent “locker” displays.
“Payne Stewart is one of the Hall of Famers our visitors ask about most often, says World Golf Hall of Fame museum curator Travis Puterbaugh, who takes pride in perfectly executed exhibit installations.
“Stewart had a way of connecting with fans that made him one of the most popular golfers on the PGA Tour,” the curator adds.
“He had his struggles,” continues Puterbaugh. “I think as much as golf fans yearn for superstars to dominate the game, they relate more to guys like Payne Stewart who have their ups and downs. It makes them much more relatable, and the fact that his career was cut so short I think makes people’s memories of him even fonder.”
Reflecting upon Spinelli’s skills, the curator adds, “It’s a pleasure to be able to incorporate photography from someone of the caliber of Mike Spinelli into our exhibits. The photos we have on display in both Payne Stewart’s and Tom Watson’s lockers greatly add to the stories we are trying to tell about both members.
“With Payne, the photograph truly captures his elegance as a golfer and adds a certain poignancy as well because of his tragic death.
“The black and white photo of Tom Watson hugging his caddy Bruce Edwards is from his signature win at the U.S. Open in 1982, and we have a few items in his locker which relate to that event as well, so we feel the photograph ties the locker together perfectly.”
Looking back on how he happened to capture the Watson photo, Spinelli reflects, “Interestingly, I had been following Watson the entire round but walked to the 18th green before he took his famous chip shot on the 17th. I could hear the crowd erupt in excitement as I neared the 18th, and figured I must have missed an important shot. Little did I realize that fate had a better photo moment in store for me—the famous ‘hug.’ I’ve read that Watson considers that hug one of his best golf memories. I truly consider it one of the best photos in my career.”
Regarding the Stewart photo, Mike notes that while he never personally met Stewart, he always considered him a great golfer. He was pleased he had the opportunity to photograph him the year before his life tragically was taken.
Looking back on his own life, Spinelli notes that early in his career, he studied with Ansel Adams, Wynn Bullock and Cole and Brett Weston. His images have earned honors from the Associated Press for outstanding news photography and were syndicated internationally by Universal Press Syndicate to illustrate its “Primary Colors” feature columns.
Magazines that have spotlighted his work include Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, GQ and Vogue.
His distinctive images are also featured in several books, including “Spirits in Stone,” an art book on Zimbabwe tribal sculpture; “Giant Steps: The Autobiography of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar”; “I Have a New Friend,” a multi-cultural children’s book; “In My Room: Designing For and With Children”; “In My World: Designing Living & Learning Environments for the Young”; and “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives: The Funky Finds in Flavortown,” a Food Network book
In 2005, Mike moved to Arizona, where he remains active in photography and involved in helping plan the future of the Anthem community where he lives. Now semi-retired, Mike remains active on a part-time basis as a commercial photographer working primarily in digital format. He does much of his corporate work for annual reports, public relations events and advertising.