Happy Birthday, Carl Spongberg!

Carl Spongberg went from an educated pitcher tossing in obscurity in a small Idaho town to being a member of the 1908 Chicago Cubs and back in the span of eight months. His reward? Baseball encyclopedias spelling his first name wrong for more than a century.

Born May 21, 1884, Carl Gustave Spongberg with the first of six children born to a pair of Swedish immigrants, Gustave and Anna (Sellstrom) Spongberg, in Idaho Falls, Idaho. The Spongbergs and Sellstroms arrived in the United States around 1881 and soon moved to Montpelier, Idaho where Gustave became a bank clerk and later ran a grocery. Carl was both a good student and athlete – in his teens he went away to a business school in Salt Lake City, the first of many times he would leave his Idaho home for Utah.

Baseball took to the Pacific Northwest in the late 1800s and Spongberg took up the sport in his hometown of Montpelier. He’d play a variety of positions, but only on the days he wasn’t pitching. Pitching became his calling card in Montpelier – and groceries… More on that later. After a particularly good season in the Snake Valley League, he joined John Dubel’s Salt Lake City team in the Utah State League. He pitched well enough there in 1907 to earn a tryout with Aberdeen, which was replacing Spokane in the Northwestern League. He didn’t stick, so Spongberg returned to the Utah State League for 1908, only this time with Odgen.

For a kid not good enough to pitch in Aberdeen, he suddenly became a national name in the span of a month pitching for Ogden. Owner of multiple double-digit strikeout games that season, Spongberg’s outing on July 4th against his old Salt Lake City team drew raves. “Most of the credit for the victory goes to Spongberg, the pitcher who hails from Idaho,” wrote the Salt Lake Tribune. “Time and time again with lightning-like rapidity a batsman would retire after but three balls and been thrown over the plate.” Spongberg fanned thirteen batters, walked nobody, and the only Salt Lake base runner reached by an error. Two weeks later, he made a difficult catch of a softly hit infield fly and turned it into a triple play. Spongberg was on fire.

Two people with scouting ties were on hand to see Spongberg pitch. One was his manager, Frank Gimler, who also played centerfield. The other was Joe Shea, who gained fame for finding Walter Johnson, the Idaho pitcher now a star with the Washington Senators. They passed this information on to Frank Chance, a west coast native now managing the Chicago Cubs, who just so happened to be looking for additional pitching help.

Chance and Chicago owner Charles Murphy were willing to take a chance on Spongberg, not only because of the tip, but because it would be an inexpensive investment. As the Utah State League was not part of “Organized Baseball,” the Cubs wouldn’t have to pay a purchase price for Spongberg to head east. Chance sent $150 in advance for Spongberg’s $300 per month salary and covered transportation costs for the pitching prospect. Spongberg made one last start for Ogden on July 26, 1908 – leaving after one inning because a sore on his second finger began to bleed – and headed on a train east to Boston.

Pitcher Karl Sponberg reported to Manager Chance tonight. He is a big husky right hander who looks as if he knew baseball, but will get no chance to show it until he recovers from his long journey from Utah.

“Notes of the Cubs,” Chicago Tribune, July 31, 1908: 10.

Carl Spongberg

The Cubs, in that famous race with Pittsburgh and New York for the 1908 National League pennant, had just left Brooklyn for Boston to begin a five game series with the Doves – and Spongberg was making a four-day journey across the country. Spongberg arrived in Boston on July 30, met the team and got a uniform that would fit his 6′ 2″, 208 pound frame.

The Cubs won the first four games of the series, but Boston got the best of Chicago starter Carl Lundgren in the fifth game on August 1, Chance pulling him after just four batters. Chick Fraser came in to finish the inning, but the Cubs were now behind 7 – 0. Chance pulled himself, one other player, and Fraser, inserting Spongberg into the lineup as the new pitcher.

“Manager Chance gave up the game right there and decided to try out Sponberg {sic}, his latest recruit from the west. The youngster had not regained his land legs after a five days’ journey from Utah and the scenery, including the home plate, was still moving past the car windows for him.”

I. E. Sanborn, “Cubs Massacred by Doves,” Chicago Tribune, August 2, 1908: 15.

Spongberg gave up two runs in the second inning, another in the third and fourth – including a homer to Boston manager Joe Kelley – before finally getting through an inning cleanly in the fifth. Walks and an error by Johnny Evers plated three more runs in the sixth, but Spongberg finished two more clean innings before the game was over. Boston won 14 – 0, and Spongberg’s line included six innings, seven walks, eight hits, two hit batsmen, and seven runs allowed. However, he had two of the Cubs’ five hits. Cecil Ferguson struck out Spongberg in the Swede’s first at bat, but Spongberg got two hits the next two times up.

And that was it. Chance released Spongberg, but he and pitcher Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown both felt awful that Spongberg came all that way for a one-game tryout. Each reached out to contacts to help find Spongberg another baseball gig in the east – Chance getting a job with Springfield, Illinois one hour before Brown got Spongberg a job with Reading. Spongberg was given a tryout, things didn’t work out, and by season’s end, Spongberg was back in the Utah State League, but with Salt Lake City.

Spongberg returned to Montpelier, initially taking a clerk’s role with an implement store and pitching for his old Montpelier team. In fact, while Spongberg lived in Montpelier, he could be counted on to pitch for his local team through at least 1919. In 1913, he returned to Salt Lake to take a position with a large bank there. He met Jean Leishman and they married in May. In time they had one son, Jay Allen. Their stay in Salt Lake was temporary. Before long, he went home to Montpelier and operated a grocery into the 1920s. Western States Grocery Company then reached out to Spongberg and made him a manager of their wholesale grocery company. This necessitated two moves – one to Oregon, and a second to Los Angeles.

In the summer of 1938, Spongberg fell ill. He came down with pneumonia and died on July 21, 1938. He was buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles, leaving behind his wife and son.

FYI, if you look up Spongberg in the encyclopedia or even Baseball-Reference.com, you will see his name spelled as Karl Spongberg – but every other reference from his time period, with RARE exception spells it as Carl. Including documents like his World War I registration card which includes his own signature…

SOURCES:

Baseball-Reference.com
FindAGrave.com
World War I Registration Card
1900, 1910, 1920, 1930 US Census
Utah Marriage Index
California Death Index

“For Utah Schools,” Salt Lake Herald, September 13, 1901: 3.

“Each Won a Game,” Montpelier Examiner, July 28, 1905: 1.

“Was The Whole Show,” Montpelier Examiner, May 10, 1907: 8.

“Aberdeen Gets Sponberg {sic},” Salt Lake Herald, March 25, 1908: 10.

“Indians Hit Ball Hard’ Win 11-3,” Spokane Spokesman-Review, April 25, 1908: 14.

“Spongberg Pitches a No-Hit Game,” Salt Lake Tribune, July 5, 1908.

“Ogden Winner in Fast Game,” Salt Lake Herald, July 20, 1908: 7.

“Chicago Nationals Sign Spongberg,” Salt Lake Herald, July 25, 1908: 10.

“Thunder-storm Prevents Game Between Champions and Dodgers,” Chicago Inter Ocean, July 26, 1908: 17.

“Ogden, 4; Occidentals, 3,” Salt Lake Herald, July 27, 1908: 7.

“Notes of the Cubs,” Chicago Tribune, July 29, 1908: 12.

“Notes of the Cubs,” Chicago Tribune, July 31, 1908: 10.

“Boston Gives Cubs an Awful Walloping,” Chicago Inter Ocean, August 2, 1908: 13.

I. E. Sanborn, “Cubs Massacred by Doves,” Chicago Tribune, August 2, 1908: 15.

“Sponberg for Springfield,” Chicago Tribune, August 6, 1908: 6.

“Sponberg Didn’t Last,” Washington (DC) Evening Star, August 9, 1908: Part 5, Page 1.

“Spongberg Still in Demand,” Montpelier Examiner, August 21, 1908: 2.

“Lobsters Trim White Wings,” Salt Lake Herald, September 21, 1908: 7.

“Local News,” Montepelier Examiner, May 17, 1912: 5.

“Two Fast Ball Games on the Local Diamond,” Montpelier Examiner, July 31, 1914: 1.

“Ball League Opens with Good Games,” Montpelier Examiner, June 6, 1919: 1.

Carl G. Spongberg, Los Angeles Times, July 23, 1938: 32.

Carl G. Spongberg, Salt Lake Tribune, July 23, 1938: 13.

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