Brooklyn Boro

Karl Spooner of the Brooklyn Dodgers: A tale of darkness

June 25, 2024 William A. Gralnick
Ebbets Field. AP Photo/Tom Fitzsimmons, File
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Not every month has a Brooklyn Dodger hanging from the bottom tip of the moon. Such a month is June. Yet sometimes, even if it is one ball player, that ball player may have done something to sear himself into our memories. June is such a month and Karl Spooner is such a person. Mark Langill wrote an article in Dodger Insider that was headlined with the words “Great Expectations.” This very paper called him “a flamed-out meteor.”  

Karl Benjamin Spooner transfixed me when I was a kid. To me, Spooner appeared to be a baseball God. He looked the part of an athlete. Even as a righty, I wanted to throw the ball like Spooner. The only thing I can compare to watching his fastball was the feeling I had later in life when I stepped into a batting cage and dialed it up to 100 mph. The ball went by me with the sound of a bullet cutting the air. That’s what I saw when this lefty reared back and let loose.

Yet he was to be a case of “only the good die young.” His life mirrored his career. He died at age 52.

Of all the ball players available to write about, why write about one who only played 31 games, and had a 10-6 record with an ERA of a bit over 3.00? Because the promise was there. According to Baseballreference.org, the Dodgers signed him for a $600 bonus the equivalent today of $7,800, and change. A pittance but he was on his journey to the “bigs.” 

The Greater Utica (New York) Sports Hall of Fame tells this story. 

“Signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers at 18 years of age in 1950, Spooner made his professional debut the following year for Hornell in the PONY League. It was a stellar first season in which Spooner led the league in strikeouts with 200 and hurled a no-hitter on his way to a 10-13 record.”

“Moving up to Greenwood in the Cotton States League in 1952, Spooner impressed his manager and coaches so much that they promoted him to Elmira in 1953. Despite a 1-6 record there, Dodger officials felt Spooner had something in his repertoire and moved him to Pueblo of the Western League. The league leader in strikeouts once again, this time with 198, Spooner tossed another no-hitter and finished with an 11-6 won-loss record.”

But darkness followed him. By his 18th birthday, he had lost his baby sister to measles, his dad to a heart attack and his mom to a stroke. He was raised by relatives.

Spooner was already a local legend. Oriskany Falls had never seen the likes of Karl Spooner. SABR tells us, Spooner played catcher until his pitching gift was realized. He threw a fastball, curve ball, and sinker, all of them fast. Local lore was that umpires did not want to call a game with Spooner on the mound – in part because of boredom calling strike after strike and in part because their credibility would be questioned by doing so. Spooner was also an excellent hitter. Another local legend had him hitting the ball so far out of the schoolyard that it landed on the highway. He was not only strong but also tough. 

Spooner himself said that it was one winter when he was about seven that he realized he had an exceptional throwing arm. The town had a bell tower. It wasn’t only that Spooner could throw a snowball over the tower but to do so, he had to make in his mind the same calculations that a sniper has to make setting up a shot. Young Karl was dubbed the “King of the Snowballs.” (LA Dodger Chronicles).

An exceptional athlete, he probably could have played college basketball, but baseball called. Skipping college, he played in the very competitive New York Central League. That’s when the Dodgers signed him. That $600 bonus would have amounted today to a mere $7,800 dollars.

Nineteen fifty-four was a great year for Spooner, not only did he get married, but he had his career year. He went 21-9 for Ft. Worth of the Texas League. He struck out 262 in 238 innings. The 262 K’s were the most in the league since Dizzy Dean struck out 303 in 1931, In mid-season, he arrived in Brooklyn. 

Again from the Chronicles: “The 1954 Dodgers, under first-year manager Walter Alston, were on their way to a second-place finish in the National League when on September 22nd Spooner made his Major League appearance against the hated rivals the New York Giants. 

In his first game, Spooner loaded the bases in the first inning. Rookie nerves? A relief pitcher, Tom Lasorda, was dispatched to the bullpen, but he wouldn’t be needed. Spooner escaped the early jam and cruised to a 3–0 shutout. Spooner struck out 15 batters, including six in a row in the seventh and eighth innings. It was the most strikeouts by a pitcher in his first game, surpassing the 13 strikeouts by the Giants’ Cliff Melton in 1937. Four days later, Spooner struck out 12 batters in a 1–0 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates. The 27 strikeouts in two games set a National League record and were one shy of Bob Feller’s MLB record of 28 strikeouts.” 

As every Dodger fan knows the next year was 1955, THE year. Brooklyn wins its first World Series. Spooner had had only an OK year. Baseball Stats has him at 8-6, with a record of 5-1 in relief. The end began simply enough. It was spring training. The game’s pitching rotation would have Podres throw the first 3 innings to be followed by Spooner. Podres was off his game. Spooner had to warm up hurriedly and took the mound not as ready as he would have liked. During that stint, he felt a twinge in his shoulder. He pitched through it and mentioned it to the trainer. By that night the pain was intense. He couldn’t lift his arm. He gritted his way through the season.

Spooner pitched two games in the ’55 World Series. His first outing in Game Two saw him pitch three innings and fan five members of the Yankees. As we said back then in Brooklyn, “So, wha’ happened?” The darkness followed him onto the field in game six.  

According to the LA Dodger Chronicles, in game six Spooner was a victim of bad management and bad play. He shouldn’t have pitched at all, but he was sent in to relieve Billy Lowes. Rizzutto was on first and stole second on a late tag by Jim Gilliam. Gil McDougle walked and scored when a grounder hit by Berra went past Gillium’s glove. Moose Skowron stepped up to the plate and walloped a home run. That was the beginning of the end. In 1957 SABR reported that the Dodgers arranged for Spooner to have shoulder surgery to clean out the scar tissue but that was it. The operation left a 9” scar and was not successful. With today’s advances in sports medicine, he would have had a long and probably great career. Instead, he bounced around for 3 years and then gave it up.

But then the darkness lifted for a while. Having five kids, Spooner needed a job and they were hard to come by. A friend fixed him up in Vero Beach, Florida in the citrus industry where he rose to become a manager. He was a loving husband of 30 years and a wonderful father to five children. All was well in the Spooner world but again came the darkness. He became sick and was diagnosed with Hepatitis C. That became cancer and at age 52 the light went out on a career that some said might have rivaled Sandy Koufax’s.

He was a good and well-liked teammate. He answered his fans’ autograph requests until he couldn’t, long after his playing days. Yes, maybe a flamed-out meteor but also a good guy.


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