Spider Jorgensen: A Brooklyn Dodger hero
John Donald (Spider) Jorgensen was a Brooklyn Dodger who sacrificed the heart of his career for his country. When ballplayers refuse vaccines to help make their country safer, Jorgensen was a throwback. He sacrificed what surely would have been an excellent major league career when he gave his country four years of military service. Here is his story.
Let’s start with his nickname Spider. It has a few variations but a central core. According to Baseball Digest writer Phil Elderkin, he was at Folsom High School. Elderkin wrote that Jorgensen wore black shorts with a vertical orange stripe on the sides while playing basketball. It prompted a teacher to tell the students that Jorgensen reminded him of a black widow spider he had killed in a woodshed. Wikipedia adds that while random, the nickname stuck with the gifted young athlete. Having encountered a black widow spider on the porch of a Colorado home, I know how the teacher felt. I wish the story was more interesting.
When a proposed scholarship to study business at the University of Santa Clara fell through, Jorgensen spent two years at various jobs and playing baseball in the semipro Sacramento Winter League. In 1939, and again in 1941, he played baseball at Sacramento City College. A second baseman when he entered college, he was moved to third base when the team’s regular third baseman was injured.
In 1940 Jorgensen participated in a Dodgers’ tryout camp. He performed well enough that, in 1941, after he had finished at Sacramento City College, scouts persuaded him to sign a contract with Brooklyn. The twenty-one-year-old left-handed-hitting infielder was assigned to the Dodgers’ Santa Barbara team in the Class C California League. In his first pro season, Jorgensen appeared in 140 games and batted .332 with nine home runs and forty-three doubles. He was named the league’s Most Valuable Player as Santa Barbara won the league championship.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the US Army. Assigned ted to the Army Air Corps and reached the rank of technical sergeant during the war. In Texas, he met Lenore Jones and married her in October 1946. They remained married until she died in 1994.
After his discharge, he reported to the Class AAA Montreal Royals, the Dodgers’ affiliate in the International League. At Montreal, Spider became part of an infield that included Jackie Robinson at second, and future Dodgers general manager Al Campanis at shortstop. Jorgensen hit .293 in 117 games with the Royals.
After spring training injuries to veteran infielders Cookie Lavagetto and Arky Vaughan, the Dodgers kept him in the “bigs.” Jorgensen told writer Phil Elderkin, “I came into Ebbets Field on Opening Day, scared to death. I didn’t think I was going to play. I didn’t have any equipment with me. My glove, bats, everything else went to Syracuse because the Montreal club opened up there. Then Jackie comes over and says ‘Here, use my second base glove.’ He was going to play first base. So, I used his glove and borrowed a pair of spikes, and I’m in the lineup. So, I really didn’t have time to get nervous.” This story gets credited to Bill Johnson of SABR.
Johnson continued, “Spider logged a walk and an RBI in three at-bats that day. Two days later, on April 17, he had what proved to be one of his best days in the majors, driving in six runs on a home run and two doubles. In the twenty-seven-year-old rookie’s only major-league season as a regular, he played 128 games at third base and hit .274, with twenty-nine doubles and eight triples. In the August 13 edition of The Sporting News, Dan Daniel called him the “best of the hot corner rookies.” Jorgensen played in all seven games in the World Series loss to the Yankees that fall, getting four hits with three runs batted in.”
Life throws curves, particularly to ball players. Jorgensen went hunting, and the gun’s recoil into his skinny shoulder (he was only 5’9, 155 lbs.) hurt him. His arm was bruised. He further injured it by playing too early and too hard. Teams didn’t have the phalanx of professional trainers and medical personnel that they now have. Jorgensen started the season as a reserve and was replaced at third base by the newly acquired Billy Cox. Within two weeks, the Dodgers sent him to their American Association farm team in St. Paul. It was the beginning of the end of Jorgensen’s major-league career. While he had hit .300 in thirty-one Dodgers games in 1948, he appeared in only 107 major-league games after that season. After a miserable showing in the ’49 World Series, his Dodger Blues were swapped for the hated Giants black and orange.
Spider played his final game in the majors on June 30, 1951, flying out as a pinch-hitter. The next day the Giants traded Jorgensen to the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League for outfielder Earl Rapp.
Spider continued to parlay his reliable defense and sufficient offensive skill into three more years of professional baseball. His regular playing career ended after the 1958 season, but the 39-year-old returned to the Dodgers family the next year as a spring-training mentor, and then coached for the Mounties during the season.
After the 1962 season with St. Petersburg, Jorgensen left professional baseball and returned to his home in Sacramento. However, he could not stay away from the sport. Although unpaid (another difference between him and most of today’s players), he put his knowledge and experience to work coaching amateur baseball, serving as head coach of the Fair Oaks American Legion team, a squad that won the Legion North Division championship in 1967. In a 2004 book, “How To Be Like Jackie Robinson,” Baker, by then manager of the Chicago Cubs, was quoted as saying, “In all the time he coached us, I never knew Spider played for the Dodgers. I knew he was a terrific coach, but he never once mentioned he was a former player.”
In 1969 Jorgensen returned to professional baseball as a scout and spring-training instructor for the Kansas City Royals. He then turned his intuition and sharp eye for talent toward scouting. He brought several people up from the minors to the majors, including hitting phenom Mark Grace.
Years later, in an obituary by Jim Gazzolo, others commented on Spider’s scouting ability and character. “I don’t think there is a person in the world who didn’t love him,” Ontario High baseball coach Bob Beck told Gazzolo. “To my knowledge, he didn’t have an enemy in the world. He had an unassuming manner about himself. He was just very friendly and accommodating, but he didn’t miss a trick. He always knew what was going on.” A baseball man to the end, Jorgensen was still scouting locally for the Cubs when he died on November 6, 2003, at 83 years of age.
I learned a lot from researching this and gained great respect for a Brooklyn Dodger I’d never heard of. I suspect, except for researchers and baseball enthusiasts, Spider Jorgensen will not be remembered by many. What he will be remembered for is an incident called “the handshake heard around the world.” The day Jackie Robinson played his first professional game, his teammate was Spider Jorgensen. Robinson hit a home run. There was no applause or atta boys from the dugout. The two men Robinson knocked in didn’t wait at the plate for him, nor did they greet him in the dugout. Jorgensen batted behind Robbie, came up from the on-deck circle, shook Robinson’s hand, and patted him on the back. To him, it was “doin’ what comes natchurly.” Spider Jorgensen made history being who he was, a nice guy and a good human being.
Editor’s Note: The overview of Spider Jorgensen’s life and career came to me from, “The 1947 Dodgers — The Team That Changed Baseball and America.”
Leave a Comment
Leave a Comment