Brooklyn Boro

Karl Spooner: A flamed-out meteor

July 10, 2023 William A. Gralnick
Ebbets Field. AP Photo/Tom Fitzsimmons, File
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First, a tip of the cap to Robert S. Cohen and the Society for American Baseball Research’s Baseball Biography Project. They provided the framework for me to fill in.

For decades it was like no other day in baseball. On Wednesday, Sept. 22, 1954, the day after the New York Giants won the National League pennant, Oriskany Falls, N.Y. native Karl Spooner, pitching for the Brooklyn Dodgers, not only shut out the NL champs but became the first pitcher to strike out 15 batters in his first major league game. 

He broke the record of 13 batters set by New York Giant Cliff Melton on April 25, 1937.  Another debut game record he set the same day was six consecutive strikeouts of the only batters he faced in the seventh and eighth innings. All of these achievements were vintage Karl Spooner.

Spooner’s next outing, four days later, added more hot-as-a-stove excitement to the perennial “Wait ’til next year” chant of Dodger fans. He struck out 12 Pirates, giving him 27 strikeouts in two successive games. It was a senior circuit record (not just for rookies) and was second only to Bob “Rapid Robert” Feller’s 28 on the major league list. Shutouts in Spooner’s first two major league starts also placed him in rare company.

 

In four years, he was gone from professional baseball — forever. His blessing became a curse, his career degraded by demotion after demotion down to the cellar of “D” league baseball in the minors. He was dead by age 52 of liver cancer. 

The story of Karl Spooner, born on the 24th of this month in 1931, was shadowed by tragedy. In about a decade, he lost his baby sister to complications from measles, then his dad, and finally his mom to a massive stroke. 

In between tragedies, however, Spooner made a local name for himself in sports. He was strong and agile, a formidable basketball and baseball player who could do it all. He went from catcher to pitcher. The Dodgers scouted and signed him for what in Oriskany those days seemed like a princely sum, $600. In today’s dollars, that would be $7,500. 

He skipped his high school senior year and headed into a very uneven minor league apprenticeship, the walk being his principal demon. On average, he walked one man every inning he pitched. Then he had a year of triumph. It got him into the majors and history.

When I was a kid in Brooklyn, we used to say, “It’s the little things that kill ya,” and so it would be for Karl Spooner. As a kid, he had been known as the King of the Snowballs, and come winter, it was best to stay out of his way. There wasn’t a challenge he wasn’t up for, and the clock tower at the local Methodist church often presented that challenge. 

I remember a year when Duke Snider hurt his arm throwing a ball over the wall at Ebbets Field. For Spooner as a kid, it wasn’t just hitting the clock tower, his every throw goal was hitting the bell inside the tower. To do this, with every heave, he had to make adjustments. 

Snowballs are not the precise spheres that baseballs are. Size and weight are different for every snowball. The old-timers in Oriskany whispered that the ailment that struck Spooner down started with throwing too many snowballs over the church tower.

The certified story is this. In March 1955 during spring training, Johnny Podres was to pitch for three innings. Spooner would take the next three. Podres was having a bad outing, and Spooner had to come in an inning early from the pen. 

He didn’t have time to warm up properly. At his own recounting, he struck out the first batter. During the second at-bat, which also went his way, he felt something pop in his shoulder. It didn’t bother him, so he continued to pitch. By the end of the game, changing his clothing, he couldn’t lift his arm. That’s when he decided to tell the trainer. His descent was sudden and shocking.

Spooner, having arm and knee issues, nonetheless won the pennant clincher that set up the end to Dodger fans waiting for next year. The Washington Post called him “the sensational Brooklyn southpaw.” But what you see isn’t always what you get.

Then came the Series. He pitched twice. In his first game, he was indeed “the sensational Brooklyn southpaw.” In game one, in relief, he had five K’s in three innings and otherwise retired all he faced. Then came game six. It proved to be prophetic. He couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn. He was knocked out of the game in three innings.

Who knows why anyone remembers anything? I remember Spooner. There was something about him, about the figure he cut, how angular he was, and his delivery that has stuck with me. But then, it was “out of sight, out of mind.” He was gone. I had other Dodgers to follow. 

Now the Society for American Baseball Research article awakened a lot of long-buried memories. Does anyone remember the shout, “We shouda had Spoonah soonah!”?

Spooner returned to his roots, became a farmer, raising five children and naming the second after his deceased baby sister. He never went back to baseball. His wife Carol said he preferred fishing to eating. He was a contented man when cancer took him.

Aside from wishing him a happy birthday, we can end this by saying he got something many never get—his “15 minutes of fame.”


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