Stephen Strasburg was no Karl Spooner

Perhaps you caught his first major league start – the one where Stephen Strasburg launched his career with a masterful fourteen strikeout performance against the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Strasburg fanned the last six batters he faced and eight of the last nine – an amazing performance.

Perhaps you caught his second start on Sunday – where Strasburg seemed a bit flustered by his lack of comfort on the Cleveland Indians mound but still only allowed a run on two hits over five-plus innings.  If you did, you may know that Strasburg now has 22 strikeouts in his first two major league starts.

It’s the second best start, in terms of strikeouts, in the history of major league baseball.  However, unless you are a long-time fan, someone who remembers games played in old Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, you’ve probably never heard of the guy who set the record by striking out 27 batters in his first two major league starts.  Both complete games.  Both shutouts.

His name is Karl Spooner, and like Strasburg he was an easy throwing fireballer with a very professional demeanor and a hard fastball that captivated baseball fans immediately upon arrival.

Unlike Strasburg, Spooner was NOT a first round pick.  Rather, Karl Benjamin Spooner (b. June 23, 1931) was a scrawny high schooler growing up in Oriskany Falls, New York, a tiny community made even smaller when the Erie Canal was relocated and no longer flowed through the upstate New York hamlet.  He was dominating local amateur and semi-pro games after graduation, so a local newspaper man sent a tip to a Brooklyn scout named Greg Mulleavy, who went out and met with the kid.  Prepared to offer $500 to Spooner to join the Dodgers, Spooner told Mulleavy he needed to pay a $98 dental bill – upon reaching the majors, Spooner only had seven of his own teeth remaining – so Mulleavy upped the signing bonus to $600 and got Spooner’s name on a contract.

With a few bucks in his pocket, Spooner was dispatched to D Level Hornell in the Pony League where he immediately made in impact in more ways than one.  On May 15, 1951 in Bradford, PA, Spooner fanned a dozen and threw a no-hitter – though four of his eight walks came in the seventh inning, so the final score was 15 – 1.  In his next start, he fanned 17 and allowed just two hits – but his fastball landed in the face of Olean first baseman Bud Dowling, who left with a broken jaw.  When the season was over, Spooner led the league in strikeouts and had met his future wife, Carol.

Moving up to the Cotton States League in 1952, he tied a league record by fanning 19 batters in a two-hit, 10 – 0 white washing of Greenville, and when 1953 came along, the Dodgers prospect was in A ball throwing for Elmira in the Eastern League.  He threw a one-hitter, allowing a lone single to Bill Boyce – but it was his only win against six losses and he was getting frustrated.  In one start, he was throwing a shutout in the fourth inning when he was tossed by the umpire for arguing balls and strikes.  The Dodgers shipped him to a different A-Level league, sending Spooner to Pueblo in the Western League.

Spooner’s talent came through – setting a league record by fanning 18 Wichita batters on June 22, 1953 in his second start with Pueblo.  Two starts later, he fanned 15 Lincoln batters, making it 45 Ks in just three consecutive starts.  In August, he threw his second professional no-hitter, blanking Denver and striking out thirteen batters.  After winning another league strikeout crown, Spooner was moved up to AA Fort Worth for 1954.

Again, Spooner was the ace of his staff, leading the league in strikeouts and wins, finishing with 21 wins against just 9 losses, and 262 strikeouts in 238 innings.  In one outing, Spooner dueled Ryne Duren of Houston, striking out 14 in 12 innings and gaining the win when Duren finally tired and served up a homer.  Duren lost the game, but finished with 15 strikeouts.  Spooner’s 262 Ks was the most in the Texas League since Houston’s Dizzy Dean fanned 303 batters two generations earlier.

The 1954 Dodgers were a veteran crew that had fallen behind the Giants in the National League race.  As September came around, a number of prospects were being considered for cups of coffee, including a rubber armed left-hander pitching in AAA Montreal named Tom Lasorda.  However, Lasorda injured his leg in a home plate collision with Wally Moon, so the Dodgers gave that coffee cup to Karl Spooner.  And, with the Giants having clinched the pennant, Walter Alston needed someone to start when both Don Newcombe and Billy Loes came up lame.  Alston asked Spooner if it mattered that he faced the Giants  for his maiden start.  When Spooner said, “Doesn’t matter to me – I just want to play,” Smokey Alston put Spooner’s name on the lineup card.

Spooner struggled in the first inning – walking Whitey Lockman and allowing Alvin Dark to reach on a bunt in front of the mound.  However, he retired the next batter, got Willie Mays to fly to right and looked safe – that is, until he walked Monte Irvin to fill the bases.  Roy Campanella talked to his pitcher to calm his nerves.  Though still nervous, Spooner got a third strike past Bobby Hofman and went to the dugout.  Spooner said he might not have survived the first inning had not Hofman gone down swinging.

From that point, however, the Dodgers helped by scoring a run in the first, and the tired Giants, who had clinched the pennant two days earlier, started swapping out players.  Spooner got hot – he mowed down the side after allowing a single in the fifth and struck out the side in each of the seventh and eighth innings.  When it was over, the Dodgers had a shutout win and Spooner had 15 strikeouts.

Spooner also started against Pittsburgh five days later and was equally effective with Rube Walker as his catcher, blanking the Pirates on four hits and striking out 12.  Spooner was the fifth major leaguer since 1901 to have opened his career with back-to-back shutouts, and his 27Ks set a National League record for the most Ks in consecutive games.

Let’s see if we can’t give you an idea of what Spooner was like as a pitcher.  He had very flat feet – so much so that he would buy special cleats with extra arch supports and high ankles; more like football cleats than baseball cleats.  In Fort Worth, he was playing pepper and wrenched his knee pretty badly, so he began pitching with a rather large leather knee brace which helped shorten his stride and improved his control.  He didn’t seem to smile a lot – perhaps because even as a young adult, he was wearing mostly false teeth.

What he had was a very smooth delivery that resulted in a powerful fastball.  After his first start, Campanella said his fastball was as quick as any he had seen – which was probably the excitement of that first game – and Rube Walker said his fastball had a late explosion on hitters.  15 years later, Gil Hodges was managing the Mets when he was asked to compare Nolan Ryan to the great fastball pitchers he had seen in his past.  Hodges listed Karl Spooner.  I’m not suggesting that Spooner hit 100 MPH, but he probably got to the mid-to-high 90s, wouldn’t you think?

As you can imagine, after two amazing starts, the Dodgers saw “superstar” and started predicting silly things like 25 win seasons for 1955 and beyond.  Oriskany Falls and Hornell called Spooner back and had festivals and parades and “Karl Spooner Day” events.  He hit the post-season speaking tour and even hired an agent to deal with these requests.  After a few of these engagements, the Dodgers sent him to Puerto Rico for additional seasoning.  Spooner signed a contract for $7,500 to pitch with Brooklyn in 1955.

When Ponce (P.R.) finished its season, Spooner tried to play golf and found his knee had never really healed.  So, after a review by the Dodgers, the team decided he needed surgery to repair his knee.  When spring training came around in Vero Beach the next spring, the team declared his knee sound and let him start pitching.  Spooner couldn’t have been totally comfortable, though – even he admitted that he was short-arming pitches early on and as the spring continued, Spooner developed a problem with his throwing shoulder.

Instead of winning 25 games, Spooner spent most of the 1955 season on the bench with another young lefty – bonus baby Sandy Koufax.  Spooner found some success pitching in relief – an inning here and another inning there and built up a little tolerance for his sore shoulder.  He had two complete games and a shutout down the stretch as the Dodgers made it to the World Series, and with some confidence, Walter Alston let Spooner pitch in the Series against the Yankees.  Spooner threw three innings of one-hit relief in game two, a loss, striking out five batters.  When the Dodgers came back to win three straight games, taking a 3 – 2 lead into game six, Spooner was given the start.

Unfortunately, Spooner’s shoulder wasn’t right and the Yankees bats were – and Spooner only got one batter out.  Billy Martin struck out as Phil Rizzuto stole second after he had walked to open the inning.  After a walk to Gil McDougald, both Yogi Berra and Hank Bauer singled home a run, and Moose Skowron hit a three-run homer.  Spooner’s day was over.  Fortunately, the Dodgers won game seven to finally beat their cross city rivals.

Instead of rest, Spooner was sent to the Dominican Republic to pitch there, but came home to sell cars in Brooklyn soon after.  When spring training came around in Vero Beach for the 1956 season, Spooner’s shoulder was in even worse shape than the previous year.  In fact, Spooner’s inability to pitch gave an opportunity to another young Dodger prospect, teenaged sensation Don Drysdale, who wound up making the club.  Staying in Vero Beach to recover his form, he was shipped to Brooklyn in May where he pitched batting practice.  When that seemed to go well enough, he was dispatched to St. Paul to test his flapper against minor league hitters.

As a member of the Saints, Spooner pitched fewer than 12 innings, losing one decision, and allowing 7 earned runs.  If the experience didn’t knock him out, a Joe Pignatano toss did.  The young catcher threw the ball as Spooner looked away, catching Spooner squarely on the nose.  As Spooner walked to the clubhouse, he collapsed in right field.  With his shoulder dead, he was placed on the disabled list in late June and sent back to Vero Beach to coach a youth program there and earn his salary.  The team told him to rest and be ready for the 1957 season.

In the spring of 1957, he was told he had calcium deposits in his shoulder, but before he could make the Dodgers, Spooner was loaned to Macon in the Sally League to find his fastball.  While his first outing was encouraging and he won his first two decisions, Spooner lost the next four and wound up sitting out more than he pitched.  In November of 1957, the Dodgers tried surgery, where a team doctor found frayed tendons lying in a groove in his shoulder socket that was jagged and causing pain.  Today, that pitcher would get a year before he might toss a ball – but Spooner was trying to throw in the spring.

However, he wouldn’t be in Vero Beach.  Spooner was drafted out of the minor leagues by Houston in the Texas League, an affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals, in December of 1957.  Spooner went to the Cardinals’ spring training camp, was sent to Houston, and spent time on their disabled list before being given a chance to pitch in late June.  He made his first start but lasted only four innings.  After a second outing, Spooner realized he would get limited work, so he asked to be sent to a lower level team where he could pitch more frequently.  The Houston team obliged and shipped Spooner to Dothan, Alabama.  Pitching mostly in relief, Spooner got his lone win on the last game of the season, and won a complete game over Selma in a minor league playoff game.

However, his arm was shot the following spring and at the end of the 1959 spring training season, the Cardinals released him outright; the Sporting News writing that “…he couldn’t throw hard enough to scare a little leaguer.”

After that, the only time you would hear about Karl Spooner was when some young phenom came along.  In fact, one article noted that those pitchers who entered the league with a pair of shutout victories had short and rather less-distinguished careers.  The next pitcher to match the double shutout record was Tom Phoebus of Baltimore – case in point.

Not only was Spooner’s baseball career unfairly short, his life was, too.  Staying in Vero Beach where he tended bar and would pitch in old timer games for an inning if he could, among other jobs, Spooner died on April 10, 1984 at age 52.


4 thoughts on “Stephen Strasburg was no Karl Spooner

  1. So much talent wasted, what a hard luck story. Say – why are there no Rube’s in today’s league?

    Strasburg is in good company with Spooner, if not in a league of his own. Financially, it sounds like he is the future of baseball in DC and beyond. An exciting time to be a fan of baseball for sure! Great history lesson, Paul. Love the way you spin a yarn.

  2. Thanks, Steve, for your kind comments.

    Strasburg is the real deal – and one hopes that he makes his career last for a full generation. At least until we can see him in Florida!

  3. Pingback: Happy Birthday, Dodger and Royals Stadiums… | Mighty Casey Baseball

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