Sunday, January 23, 2011

63. Karl Spooner: The Rise And Fall Of King Karl

I've said it before and I'll say it again. My Grandfather was a die-hard Brooklyn Dodger fan. Ol' Joe (the only reason I'm calling him that now is he's six feet under and can't smack me in the back of the head for it) loved his Dodgers so much that until he died continued to call them the "Brooklyn" Dodgers despite the fact they moved to Los Angeles in 1958. Ol' Joe just simply ignored that small detail, which was fine for him but confusing for me as small boy and budding baseball fan. Here I was going to Shea Stadium to see the crappy late 1970's Mets play when according to Grandpa the first-rate Dodgers were playing right next door in Brooklyn. I don't recall exactly how it was finally sorted out to me but what came out the confusion was a life-long interest in baseball history and a specialty in the Brooklyn Dodgers. As I got older, talking to my Grandpa was great, he really loved the Dodgers and never tired of telling stories about his guys. Funny thing is, I never remember him calling them "bums" though. When it came to the Brooklyn Dodgers, he was deadly serious. He'd sit on the couch watching a ballgame drinking his Ballentine beers relating one Dodger tale after another in machine-gun fashion. Anyway, out of those stories comes today's post. One story I always remembered was about a young lefty who struck out a bunch of guys in his first game and then did it again in the next one. Then he ruined his arm and that was that. After a little digging I found that the kid's name was Karl Spooner and the real story was even better than the one Old Joe could tell.

It was winter of 1941 when 10 year-old Karl Spooner discovered that there was something special about him. Young Karl dominated the usual schoolyard snowball fights and after injuring a teacher with an icy fastball to the face, decided it best to abstain from any more snowball fights. He had an arm like a rocket and he was quickly encouraged to play baseball. Karl Spooner developed into a flame-throwing lefty and it didn't take long before the scouts started making the trek to rural Oriskany Falls in upstate New York to take a look. Word had it the the National League champion Phillies were putting together a lucrative package to offer him but they needn't bother because Spooner was a Dodger fan and when the Brooklyn scout came around, Karl signed on the dotted line. He was a big fan of Brooklyn's left-handed ace, Preacher Roe, and to play in the same organization as him was a dream come true. They offered him $500 but Karl asked for an additional $100 for much needed dental work - the kid lost all but a handful of teeth by the time he graduated high school. So $600 brought Karl Spooner into the Brooklyn farm system.

Spooner was fast as hell, but wild, too and it would take some good coaching and and a lucky accident to bring it all together for him. He started out in the PONY League playing for the Hornell Dodgers. He went 10-13 that year and threw a no-hitter against the Bradford Phillies, striking out 12 but walking 8. His next start he struck-out 17 but his wildness became all too evident when he shattered Bud Dowlings jaw with a fastball.

Spooner moved up the ladder of Dodger farm teams leaving strike-out records in his wake. In 1952 he fanned 19 Greenville batters while giving up only 2 hits and the next year while playing for the Pueblo Dodgers he struck-out 18 and the very next start struck-out 15 more. Later that season he tossed another no-hitter, striking-out 13 Denver Bears as well. 1954 saw Spooner in the Texas League with the Ft. Worth Cats. Up until this point Karl Spooner was a very good prospect but despite all his strike outs, he was still pretty wild. Coupled with the velocity at which he threw, that made him dangerous and if he wanted to get to Brooklyn he needed to find his control. The minor leagues are filled with fire-balling pitchers who can't find the plate and it would take some luck for Spooner to avoid being one of them. An accident while horsing-around before a game brought it all together.

Spooner was playing a game of pepper when he wrenched his right knee. The cartilage was damaged and after a few weeks on the disabled list he emerged from the locker room wearing a big leather brace on his leg. This device forced him to take an abbreviated wind-up with a short stride. Somehow this modified motion brought Karl Spooner his much-needed control.

Throughout the hot summer of 1954 Spooner sent opposing players back to their bench in frustration. In 238 inning he struck-out 262, the most the Texas League had seen since the great Dizzy Dean was playing for Houston back in 1931. He won 21 and lost only 9 as the Cats made their way to the play-offs. Spooner, now nick-named "King Karl", pitched a mercurial 15 innings in the finale but lost 2 to 1 on a fielding error. Back in Brooklyn, the Dodgers were winding down their season, wallowing in second-place behind the hated New York Giants. With nothing left to lose, manager Walt Alston decided to call up a kid from the farm system to give him a try. Why waste his starters on a season already lost?

Alston scanned his scouting reports and finally settled on a young lefty - Tom Lasorda from the Montreal Royals. A long-distance call to Canada revealed that Lasorda had recently injured himself on a play at the plate and was on the disabled list. Second on Alston's list was another lefty, Karl Spooner.

Arriving in Brooklyn on September 21st, Spooner was told by Alston that he was starting against the Giants the next day. The skipper's only words of advice was to go sit next to Preacher Roe and go over the lineup with him. Ol' Preacher was his idol and now he was sitting in the clubhouse of the Brooklyn Dodgers going over how to pitch to the World Series-bound Giants with the one pitcher he looked up to. The two went through what the Giants were going to throw at him. Being a fellow southpaw, Preacher knew what advice to give the kid and besides being informative, it was this act of kindness from a veteran that Karl attributed his relative relaxed state of mind the following day.

A disappointing 3,256 fans showed up for Wednesday's afternoon game. The Giants quickly jumped on the kid - Whitey Lockman walked and Al Dark bunted safely. Then Don Mueller grounded out to short and Willie Mays popped out to Furillo in right field. With two away Spooner then walked Monte Irvin to load the bases. Catcher Roy Campanella called time and walked out to the mound. Spooner was rattled by his baptism to the major leagues, but Campanella was a veteran and knew how to handle his pitchers. What he said to Spooner is lost to time, but what ever it was helped. He worked the count up on Bobby Hofman and struck him out swinging to end the inning. After that, the Giants never had a chance. Inning after inning Spooner set them down, eventually striking out 15 men in a complete game shut-out. It was a phenomenal debut.

Dodger relief pitcher Clem Labine called his fastball "unbelievable" and Campanella was telling the papers that Spooner was the greatest young pitcher he'd seen. Ever. Years later when Gil Hodges was managing the New York Mets, he was asked who, if anyone, the fire-balling young phenom Nolan Ryan reminded him of. Hodges replied: "Karl Spooner." The other players thought he was cocky and they were right. This would have caused friction for any rookie fresh from the bush leagues, but you know what, Karl Spooner backed it up with his actions and his new teammates respected that. They gathered around to watch him warm up. His fastball, besides being flung with a velocity that was at least in the higher end of the 90 mph range, seemed to explode when it reached the plate. Pitcher Ed Roebuck stated that his long arms helped to throw the batters timing off. His pitching motion was smooth and effortless.

Four days after his debut he took the mound at Ebbets Field again, this time to face the Pittsburgh Pirates on the last day of the 1954 season. 9,334 showed up and Spooner didn't disappoint. Gil Hodges' homer was the only run Brooklyn needed as King Karl shut-out Pittsburgh on 3 hits, striking out another 12 batters. The Brooklyn fans, severely disappointed after their team lost the pennant to the hated Giants now had something to look forward to. The only question was whether Spooner was going to win 20 or 25 games in 1955...

The Dodgers quickly gave him a $7,500 contract for the next year and sent him to Puerto Rico for the winter league down there. The islands at this time had a thriving league that attracted all the best young talent - white, black and brown. Puerto Rico would be the best place for the Dodgers future star to play against top-notch talent and keep in shape for the next year.

But the future wasn't what it was meant to be for Karl Spooner and the Dodgers. Early in spring training a note appeared in the press room of the Dodgers Vero Beach complex: "Karl Spooner has a kink in his left shoulder." What had happened was that Spooner was rushed into a practice game without properly warming up. Throwing a curve ball he felt a pull in his shoulder. Not thinking much of it at the time, he threw a few more innings without much pain but by the time he finished showering he couldn't lift his arm.

He was never the same again.

Spooner spent the 1955 season with Brooklyn, going 8-6 mostly in relief, but the magic just wasn't there. The Dodgers sent him to the minors for 1956. Back then no one really knew what to do about a sore arm - some thought that plain-old rest would mend it while others thought you should keep throwing, that what ever was wrong would work itself out eventually. The Dodgers subscribed to the latter school of thought. If anything, he got worse and by the end of the season Spooner claimed he couldn't have even busted a lip with one of his fastballs. Desperate for help he checked himself into Long Island College Hospital and had the shoulder operated on. The Dodgers had released him and he was now under contract to the Cardinals. They had him ease slowly back into pitching, leaving it up to him to say how much he could take on. Despite the care taken it just wouldn't work. The arm, and Karl Spooner's career, was dead.

Suddenly the next superstar found himself out of a job. He was 23, newly married and without a career. He tried to find a place for himself in baseball but jobs were few and far between. There was no need for another scout and he had absolutely no managerial experience. He thought about a career as an umpire but besides not having the right attitude for the job realized he could make more as a manual laborer than wearing the blue suit. Finally accepting that baseball and the future he had planned on was over and done, Spooner took stock of his life. He had a wonderful wife and three great kids. With this in mind he switched gears. He relocated to Vero Beach, Florida, spring training home of the Dodgers where he'd made many friends. First he got a job refinishing floors, then tending bar, then construction and finally working in a citrus-packing plant. He was a manager there when he died at the age of 54 from what the New York Times called "a long illness."

Last season's debut of Stephen Strasburg brought Karl Spooner's story back to the forefront with the more enlightened sports writers tripping over themselves drawing parallels between the two rookie pitcher's debut. 12 games later and he was on the disabled list and finished for the season. I'm not that up to date on his situation since he hurt his arm but I hope that he gets the proper attention and rehab that Karl Spooner lacked back in 1954.

1 comment:

  1. Harsh stuff. I've got Spooner's '56 Topps card, and I knew he got hurt early, but I had no idea he got hurt that early, nor that he got worked over like he did after he got hurt.

    More Brooklyn Dodgers, please!