Search This Blog

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Greatest Pitcher You Never Heard Of

Twenty-year old Karl Spooner joined the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Class D farm club in Hornell of the Pennsylvania-Ontario-New York (PONY) League in 1951 He went 10-12 with an ERA of 4.18

By 1954, he had moved up through the C, B and A leagues and started the season with AA Fort Worth in the Texas League. Spooner walked nearly as many as he struck out, but he could dominate, as evidenced by a no-hitter in 1953.

He brought to mind Rex Barney, a young Dodgers fire baller from the previous decade whose fastball was compared to Walter Johnson’s, But Barney had major control issues. Sportswriter Bob Cooke said, “Rex Barney though that the plate was high and outside.” Spooner’s control compared favorably with Barney’s.

Spooner went a stellar 21-9, with a 3.14 ERA at Ft. Worth. He struck out 10 per nine innings, but also walked 6 per.  

He got a late season call up to the Dodgers. Manager Walter Alston had no intention of using Spooner, but changed his mind and sent him to the mound on September 22 to take on the Giants, who had clinched the pennant the prior game, ending the Dodgers’ hopes of a third consecutive World Series appearance.

In front of only 3,256 Ebbets Field faithful, Spooner took on 21-6 Johnny Antonelli. With Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Monte Irvin in the lineup, Karl Spooner had one of the greatest debuts in major league history.

Going the distance, Spooner scattered 3 hits and 3 walks while striking out 15 batters! And 2 of the walks and 1 hit came in the first inning. Spooner would destroy the Giants over the final 8 innings. The final two outs of the game were strikeouts. And he even scored a run himself!

A twenty-three year old who had never even pitched in AAA dominated the Giants, who would win the World Series in just a few weeks. It’s hard to imagine a more impressive start to a major league career.

The final game of the season saw the last place Pirates come to Ebbets Field on September 26. With only three days rest, Spooner was given the ball again. The hapless Pirates were 38 games behind the second place Dodgers. 9,344 showed up to see Spooner: nearly three times as many as for his first outing.

The Pirates had a couple good hitters: slugger Frank Thomas and Sid Gordon. But this was a weak lineup on a team that would lose 101 games. Still, Spooner had pitched only one game above AA and likely had just caught lightning in a bottle against the Giants. He would surely struggle in his second major league start. Nope.

Another complete game shut out: 4 hits, 3 walks, 12 strikeouts. Gil Hodges’ home run in the seventh provided all the scoring in the 1-0 win.

Karl Spooner appeared in two games in the final week of 1954. He tossed two complete game shutouts, giving up 7 hits, 6 walks and striking out 27 batters. After spending the season in AA ball! Only Hall of Famer Bob Feller had ever struck out more batters in back-to-back games (28).

Brooklyn fans were always waiting for that superstar pitcher who would carry them to World Series success. Don Newcombe, Ralph Branca, Carl Erskine, Rex Barney: the applicants were many but there was no Sandy Koufax (actually, there was, but he just wasn’t any good until a few years later in Los Angeles). Karl Spooner was going to be the one.

Except, he would pitch his last major league game barely one year later. On March 9, 1955, in spring training, Spooner was rushed into a game one inning earlier than he was scheduled to pitch. He hurried his warm-ups and something popped in his shoulder as he threw a curve ball. He kept pitching. The season would be a month old before Spooner and his sore shoulder would take to the mound in a real game.
But the magic was gone.  He was shelled in his first start in May and again in his second. In 1955, Spooner would appear in 29 games, starting 14 of them. He went 8-6 with an ERA of 3.65. Walter Alston turned to him to start game six of the World Series at Yankee Stadium. There was no fairy tale finish: 3 hits, 2 walks and 5 earned runs in one-third of inning. The last pitch he threw in the majors was a home run ball to Bill Skowron.

Spooner would appear in 39 minor league games over the next three seasons, with an unsuccessful surgery in 1957. Once a superstar in the making, he hung up his spikes at age 26. His meteoric rise was equaled by his abrupt fall. He died in 1984 at the age of 52.

Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella said, “The pitcher who was absolutely the fastest I ever caught was Karl Spooner. Nobody ever threw harder than that kid did in those first two games he pitched in the majors.”

Unexpectedly, for two wonderful days in the final week of the 1954 season, as the faithful said, “We shoulda had Spoona soona!” Karl Spooner was the greatest pitcher in Brooklyn Dodger history.


1 comment: