SABR

Karl Spooner

This article was written by Richard S. Cohen.

Meteoric:

transiently brilliant; as a meteoric rise to famei

 

Southpaw pitcher Karl Spooner exploded onto the Major League Baseball scene with two record-setting games at the end of the 1954 season. His flame quickly faded following a shoulder injury during spring training 1955, and he struggled through that season. A member of the only Brooklyn Dodger team to win a World Series, his major league career came to a humiliating end in Game Six of the 1955 Fall Classic.

Karl Benjamin Spooner was born in Oriskany Falls, a village in Central New York, about 20 minutes south of Utica. It is surrounded by dairy farms, much as it was on Spooner’s birth date, June 23, 1931. When he was five, his sister Geraldine died at the age of six from complications of measles. Spooner would later name his second born daughter after her. Just when young Karl was starting to learn the game of baseball at the age of 11, his 72-year-old father, Maurice G. Spooner, died. The senior Spooner had been a farmer. When Karl was 17, his mother Nellie (née Miller) was found dead in her bedroom from a massive stroke.ii His cousins Stanley and Bernice Spooner became his legal guardians, and Karl also lived with his half-brother Don Barrows, his brother Maurice, and some family friends until his professional baseball career led him away from his childhood home.

Karl Spooner learned baseball with his fellow boys on the field behind the school in Oriskany Falls. He first put on a uniform in junior high school under coach Ben Livermore, and he was later was coached by Jack Farrow.iii He played not only for his school in the spring but also for the Oriskany Falls “town team” in a very active Central New York program of village ball.

Spooner played catcher until his pitching gift was realized. He threw a fastball, curve ball, and sinker, all of them fast. The local legend 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.iv Spooner was also an excellent hitter. Another local legend had him hitting the ball far out of the schoolyard onto the local highway. He was not only strong but also tough, especially on the basketball court, where he played a very physical game.v

When asked in 1954 by sportswriter Red Smith who taught him to pitch, he did not give credit to his childhood or minor league coaches. “I think I taught myself. In Pueblo in 1953. I think it was mostly a matter of attitude, getting confidence.”vi

No biography of Karl Spooner would be complete without mention of the clock tower on the Oriskany Falls United Methodist Church located in the center of town. It was the target of many a snowball during the winter and young Karl was the undisputed snowball king. (He also once put a cow into the tower as a childhood prank.)vii

Whether the competition was throwing over the clock tower, throwing into the tower to hit one of the bells inside, hitting one of the numbers on the clock, or trying to break one of the hands on the clock, the future major leaguer used his strong left arm to his advantage. Hitting the target on the church clock required not only accuracy but also power, flexibility, and control considering inter-snowball differences in size, shape, and aerodynamics. Indeed, the church may have been the equivalent in Spooner’s development to the better known side of the barn claimed by many rural pitchers as the tool that led to their professional skills. “I remember when I first knew I had a good arm. I was just a young kid. We used to throw snowballs, and nobody could stand up to me in a snowball fight.”viii

In August 1950, before what would have been his senior year in high school, Spooner was signed by Dodger scout Greg Mulleavy for what seemed to Spooner to be an enormous sum: $600. Mulleavy had scouted him playing for Clinton, a Utica suburb, in the New York-Mid State League. Spooner did not return to finish his senior year at Oriskany Falls and performed farm work until leaving his home town to enter professional baseball.

Nineteen fifty-one was Spooner’s first season of professional baseball. He played for Hornell, New York, where he led the Class D PONY League (Pennsylvania, Ontario, New York) with 200 strikeouts in 170 innings. However, he posted a record of just 10 wins and 12 losses, in large part because he also walked 163 batters. In Hornell, his life also changed as he became part of a new family. Raymond and Lilyan Pratt were season ticket holders and they regularly took their two daughters Carol and Norma to see the Hornell Dodgers. According to Carol, “Karl was the son they never had.”ix Carol and Karl dated, broke up, got back together, and in the spring of 1954 they married.

Spooner spent part of 1952 in the Cotton States League (Class C) and once struck out 19 pitching for Greenwood, Mississippi. He also performed for two Class B teams in the Dodgers chain: Newport News, where he was 1-6 with a 6.82 ERA, and Miami, where he was 0-2, 6.43. Control was still his big problem; he continued to walk roughly a batter an inning.

In 1953, he was sent to Pueblo in the Western League after going 1-6 in Elmira, New York. Pueblo proved to be good to him, as he led the league with 198 strikeouts and started to show signs that he could tame his wildness, walking “only” 115 and putting up a 2.53 ERA in 153 innings. His 11-6 record also included a no-hitter.

Nineteen fifty-four was a marvelous year for young Karl Spooner. Not only was it the year he and Carol were married, but it was also his career year in professional baseball. He went 21-9 pitching for Fort Worth in the Texas League. His 262 strikeouts in 238 innings (with 162 walks) were the most strikeouts in that league since Dizzy Dean’s 303 in 1931. He accomplished this feat in spite of missing about a month of the season after he injured his right knee fielding a bunt during practice that June, possibly while playing “pepper.” He would have cartilage removed from that knee in December that same year. But he recovered from this injury well enough to play, and the Dodger brass decided to give the young Central New Yorker a look. On September 22, 1954, Karl Spooner’s meteoric career began with his right knee “strapped up pretty tight.”x Indeed, wearing a brace on his knee that summer may have led Spooner to shorten his stride and improve his control.xi

On Wednesday, September 22, 1954, the day after the New York Giants won the National League pennant, the Oriskany Falls native not only shut out the NL champs – he became the first pitcher to strike out 15 batters in his first major league game. He broke the record of 13 set by the Giants’ Cliff Melton on April 25, 1937.xii Another debut game record set that day was his six consecutive strikeouts, of the only batters he faced in the seventh and eighth innings.

As they neared their hotel after the game, the Spooners noted a crowd of reporters eager to get a story from the young southpaw. Karl and Carol sneaked away from the attention and spent the rest of the afternoon and evening visiting with Carol’s uncle in his apartment. An unexpected consequence of this was missing an opportunity for an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, since there was a representative of the iconic TV program awaiting Spooner at the hotel. xiii

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

Spooner had the world on a string. His home town gave a parade in his honor, and he served as King of the 1955 Winter Carnival in Old Forge, New York, where he allegedly asked if he could keep the beaver skin coat lent to him by a major sponsor to keep him warm in the open air convertible in which he rode for the event’s big parade. Many in his home town suspected the injury that was to lead to the end of his career may have started by his throwing a few too many snowballs too hard at this event.

Meanwhile, back in Brooklyn, the following chant made the rounds: “We shoulda had Spoona soona!!” The future looked exciting, but the sage Shirley Povich wrote: “Baseball men like to reserve judgment on such spectacular performances as the 15 strikeouts of Karl Spooner, Brooklyn rookie, in his major league debut.”xiv

Indeed, calamity struck early during 1955 spring training, probably on March 9. As Spooner later told author Peter Golenbock, “[Johnny] Podres was supposed to go the first three innings, and I was supposed to go the second three, but Podres got in trouble and only pitched two innings. I tried to warm up real fast. I don’t think I was really good and loose, and I guess I just tried to throw too hard, too soon…I threw a real good curveball to Jim Rivera, struck him out, and I felt a kind of a pull in my shoulder, but it didn’t hurt that much, and so I finished the inning and the next inning. After I took a shower and was dressing, jiminy crickets, it started hurting real bad, and I could hardly even put my damn shirt on. And that’s when I told the trainer.”xv

There are other explanations of Spooner’s injury mentioned below, but this version was effectively confirmed by Podres – “I remember he had relieved me without really being warmed up”xvi – and by Carl Erskine, who confirmed the sequence of events. Erskine added beautifully, “In those few moments one of the great arms of Dodger pitching had lost its magic.”xvii

Were the Dodgers trying to cover up the injury of their young phenom? Vin Scully later attributed the injury to Spooner’s throwing the ball for a publicity photograph.xviii Manager Alston, possibly trying to distance himself from any role in the injury, said years later, One of the best prospects Brooklyn ever had, Karl Spooner, wrecked his arm merely throwing on the sidelines before a game. You never know about these things”xix

The New York media did not comment on the injury until after the Washington Post and Times Herald and the Los Angeles Times reported on March 14, “Karl Spooner, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ pitching sensation of last September, shut out the Chicago White Sox on two hits in as many innings today… The rookie, who had a cartilage removed last winter, said his knee gave him no trouble but his shoulder was stiff.” The New York Times story of that same day made no mention of the injury. Following a paragraph heading, “Spooner Does Better,” the Times article continued, “Karl Spooner, another potential ace, did better in the sixth and seventh and emerged unscored on, although in a bit of trouble.”

On March 18, nine days after the injury, the Washington Post and Times Herald reported: “Karl Spooner, sensational Brooklyn southpaw of last September, was sidelined today by a sore arm. Spooner came up with a pain in his left shoulder pitching to batters yesterday.” On March 19, ten days after the injury, the New York Times finally made mention of Spooner having a problem, “Karl Spooner came up with a sore spot in the front of his left shoulder yesterday. ‘I don’t think it’s anything serious,’ said the southpaw. “Maybe I threw too hard a little too soon.”

If the Dodger brain trust was keeping under wraps any mishandling of their exciting new pitcher, they did it quietly and effectively. Even so, Spooner’s first appearance in the 1955 season was on May 15, one month into the schedule. Manager Walter Alston decided to start his injured rookie against Johnny Klippstein and the Cincinnati Reds. A walk and two singles in the first gave the Reds a 1-0 lead. Spooner had a 1-2-3 second inning, but he was knocked out of the game in the third inning after giving up two runs on a single, a walk, then two more singles. A sacrifice fly off Joe Black added a third earned run.

Spooner’s next appearance was not until June 5, and this gave him the opportunity to travel to Hornell to meet his one-day-old daughter Karen, who was born on May 29. Months earlier, the news of the pregnancy became public when a reporter in Brooklyn asked Spooner if he and Carol had any children. Carol had not yet seen a doctor to confirm the diagnosis of pregnancy, but she and Karl had suspected it. Spooner became tongue-tied while answering the reporter, thus indirectly signaling what was up. The rest of the Spooner family thus learned of the pregnancy by reading of it in the press before the diagnosis had even been confirmed.

The June 5 game was versus St. Louis. Again, Spooner was tested as a starter, and again, he left the game early. He lasted four innings, giving up a lone earned run (plus three unearned runs) while striking out six with four hits.

Alston had learned his lesson about trying Spooner as a starter. Spooner’s next five appearances were in relief from June 12 to June 25. During this stretch, he won one game, saved two, and had two no decisions in 11 2/3 innings. He struck out 13, including seven in three innings against the Cubs on June 23. Spooner then started six games in July, and he pitched in relief once. He lost three of the starts and had a no-decision in his four other games. It was back to the bullpen in August with three wins and a loss in six relief appearances. In two starts that month, he had a 6-1 win and a no decision. In his three September starts, he had a 2-0 win, an 8-2 loss and an 8-6 no decision.

Karl Spooner’s last major league win was very special. Coming out of the bullpen, he beat Milwaukee 10-5 in 5 2/3 innings in the game that clinched the NL pennant for the future 1955 World Series champions. He finished the regular season with an 8-6 record and a 3.65 ERA in 98 2/3 innings.

Baseball was not Spooner’s only meal ticket in 1955. As was common at the time, baseball players had a second job. To supplement his Dodger salary, Spooner made appearances, spoke at dinners, and worked for a Buick dealership in Brooklyn to bring in customers. The following year, he worked at a Dodgers-sponsored boys camp. xx

Brooklyn then moved on to the World Series, facing the New York Yankees for the fifth time in nine years. Spooner appeared twice, both in losing efforts. Any thoughts that he might start in an early Series game, as the Times speculated, xxi vanished in Game Two as Alston brought him on in relief. The Yankees scored four runs off starter Billy Loes in the fourth inning and were leading by what would turn out to be the final score of 4-2. Spooner entered the game in the bottom of the fifth; in three innings, he struck out five – Gil McDougald, Joe Collins, Billy Martin, Jerry Coleman, and McDougald again – with three groundouts and a walk, keeping the Dodgers in contention. Tommy Byrne was too much for the Dodgers’ lineup that day, however, going all the way. This outstanding middle relief outing would prove to be Karl Spooner’s last quality pitching performance.xxii

Carl Erskine started Game Four, won 8-5 by the Dodgers’ Clem Labine in relief, and Roger Craig started and won Game Five for the Dodgers, 5-3. The Dodgers now led the Yankees three games to two, and Alston gave the Central New Yorker his chance to truly make World Series history with a start in Game Six.

Had he performed as well as he had in relief in Game Two, and had his second baseman Junior Gilliam performed to his capabilities,xxiii Karl Spooner, not Johnny Podres, may have been carried off the field by the World Series champion Dodgers. But in the first inning at Yankee Stadium, Spooner walked Phil Rizzuto. Billy Martin struck out while Rizzuto easily stole second – Gilliam was late covering the base. Then, after Gil McDougald walked, Gilliam let a possible double-play ball from Yogi Berra get by him for a single which scored Rizzuto. Hank Bauer then singled in McDougald, and Bill Skowron homered, knocking Spooner out of the box.

Karl Spooner had exploded onto the baseball scene with a record-setting performance only one year, 12 days earlier. His Major League Baseball career ended at age 24 with that home run ball, which gave the Yankees a 5-0 lead in the first inning.

Spooner tried to hang on for three more years. In the winter of 1955-56, the Dodgers sent him to play winter ball in Puerto Rico, “but I just couldn’t pitch at all, he said in 1958.xxiv Carol Spooner recalled her husband receiving Novocaine injections to his injured shoulder during this time. This procedure would mask the protective symptom of pain and could have led to further injury.xxv In 1956, he pitched in only four games with St. Paul, and he was placed on the disabled list twice. He was called up to the Dodgers at the end of the season, but he made no appearances. In 1957, Spooner threw 60 innings in 13 games for Macon in the Sally League. Following the 1957 season, he had shoulder surgery that left an eight-inch scar.xxvi

The St. Louis organization bought Spooner’s contract for 1958.xxvii He played in nine games for Dothan (Class D) and in two for Houston (Triple-A). He gave it a last try in spring training 1959 before retiring.

Upstate New York had been home to Spooner and his young family, but work was scarce. In 1958, the Spooners moved to Vero Beach, Florida. There Karl had a good friend in Dave Albrecht, with whom he golfed and fished – “Karl would rather fish than eat,” said Carol.xxviii Albrecht, who was in both the construction business and the real estate business, helped Karl find work, initially in construction. Spooner also tended bar. He later joined the Haffield Citrus Company; he started as a supervisor and quickly moved to a managerial position, where he remained the rest of his career. Owner Jerry Haffield and Spooner became good friends. The citrus industry remains in the family, as son Kevin Spooner runs his own company. Karl’s wife Carol played a major role in supporting the family both emotionally and financially. She worked for 47 years at Piper Aircraft, where she became the first woman manager of any company located in Vero Beach.xxix

Karl Spooner loved being a father and participating in all of his children’s activities. Kim Geraldine was Karl and Carol’s second child, born in May of 1957, and Kelly came exactly one year later. Kerrie was born leap-year day in 1960, and Kevin, the Spooner’s fifth and final child, was born in 1964. Kevin was a very good hitting catcher – his father’s original position – at Valdosta State College (now University). A fractured wrist his senior year ended his career.xxx

Kevin said that his father rarely spoke about his sporting career – and that Karl discouraged him from playing professionally. “He didn’t push us (to play baseball). But he loved baseball for the opportunity it gave him.” xxxi

In 1981, Spooner was hospitalized with jaundice and went into a coma for eleven days. The diagnosis was Hepatitis-C. After a partial recovery, his friend Jerry Haffield told Spooner that he was welcome to return to work at any time, but Spooner was just not up to it. The hepatitis progressed to become liver cancer. He and Carol celebrated their thirtieth wedding anniversary in February 1984. On April 10, 1984, Karl Spooner died at the age of 52.

Karl Spooner was memorialized in 2002 by his home town, Oriskany Falls, which named the local Little League field after him. Nearly 50 years earlier, Spooner had taken retired judge Dick Brady, then just eight years old, under his wing. He gave the lad an autographed glove. Under Brady’s leadership, the village returned that favor. Present at the dedication of Karl Spooner Memorial Field were Carol, Kevin, Karen, Kerrie and their families. Kevin wore his father’s 1955 World Series Championship ring, one of the few times he ever put it on. Kevin told the assembled crowd, “In the last days of his life, my father talked of the hills, and he always thought of this as his home. He loved it here and the people who were always so good to him.” Karen reported that her dad “played in softball leagues and a few Old-Timers games, always amazed at how much people still cheered for him…To the day he died, he got fan mail and requests for autographs. He answered them all.”xxxii

His big-league teammates and contemporaries also remembered him in glowing terms. “(Erskine) was really fast that day, but the pitcher who was absolutely the fastest I ever caught was Karl Spooner,” said Roy Campanella. “Nobody ever threw harder than that kid did in those first two games he pitched in the majors.”xxxiii In 1955, the Chicago Tribune wrote, “Cincinnati’s Birdie Tebbetts is the most recent to endorse Karl Spooner as having a faster pitch than Herb Score.”xxxiv Clem Labine recalled, “That man had a fastball that was unbelievable, not for sheer speed, but for how much the ball moved. He was one of the toughest lefthanders that I’ve ever seen.”xxxv “We used to call him “King Karl,” said Ed Roebuck. “He thought he was the best pitcher ever to put on a uniform. And he proved his cockiness.”xxxvi

Karl Spooner’s baseball career was indeed meteoric. But his early exit from Major League Baseball gave him the opportunity to fill his shortened life with a successful career and loving family. “I guess my biggest frustration nowadays is reading the sports pages and seeing those six-figure contracts some guys get,” he said in 1981. “They’re not half as good as I was.”xxxvii

The author wishes to very much thank the following for their assistance: Carol Spooner, Kevin Karl Spooner, Maurice and Veronica Spooner, Richard and Joan Day, Ed and Mildred Clair, Jim Faulkner, Brian Holt, Gary Cieradkowski, Beverly Cholcto-Devlin and the MidYork Library System, the Limestone Ridge Historical Society (Oriskany Falls, New York), the staff at the Giamatti Library at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

 

Photo Credit

Spooner family collection

 

i Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, second edition, 1979

ii Nellie Spooner obituary, Utica Observer-Dispatch, November 16, 1948, 5A.

iii Conversation with childhood friend and teammate, Jim Faulkner, January 11, 2011.

iv Ibid.

v Conversation with high school classmate Richard Day, August 19, 2010.

vi Red Smith, “Views of Sport,” New York Herald Tribune, December 7, 1954.

vii Conversation with Mrs. Carol Spooner, April 3, 2011.

viii Peter Golenbock, Bums (New York, New York: Contemporary Books, 1984), 377.

ix Conversation with Mrs. Carol Spooner, April 3, 2011.

x Smith, “Views of Sport”

xi David Hinckley, “Golden Arm Karl Spooner Chapter 190,” New York Daily News, November 24, 2003.

xii Washington Post and Times Herald, September 23, 1954. On September 5, 1971, J.R. Richard also whiffed 15 in his debut for the Houston Astros.

xiii Conversation with Mrs. Carol Spooner, October 15, 2011.

xiv Washington Post and Times Herald, September 26, 1954.

xv Golenbock, Bums, 380.

xvi Bob, John, and Robert S. Bennett, Johnny Podres: Brooklyn’s Only Yankee Killer (Bloomington, Indiana: AuthorHouse, 2005), 25.

xvii Carl Erskine, Tales from the Dodger Dugout (Champaign, Illinois: Sports Publishing LLC, 2004), 121.

xviii Dodger Blue, May 30, 1984.

xix Frank Finch, “Alston to Have Tough Decision on Which Pitchers Will Start,” Los Angeles Times, December 8, 1959, C-1.

xx Conversation with Mrs. Carol Spooner, April 3, 2011.

xxi Roscoe McGowen, “Spooner Appears a Series Starter,” New York Times, September 13, 1955, 36.

“Spooner’s arm trouble, which handicapped him from spring training, now seems to have disappeared entirely. He has been pitching well and has demonstrated that he certainly is the top lefthander on the staff. He may rate alongside Don Newcombe and Carl Erskine. His sore elbow [sic], while it seemingly doesn’t trouble him, may not be fully healed. So even at this distance from the World Series, it may be said that Alston’s starters will be Newcombe, Erskine, Spooner, and Loes--not necessarily in that order.”

xxii Al Wolf, “Yanks Hand Bums 2nd Series Defeat,” Los Angeles Times, September 30, 1955.

“The Yankees all praised the pitching of Brooklyn’s Karl Spooner… “He looked good,” said Berra. “I’d say he’s on par with our Bob Turley with that fast ball.” “A nice looking youngster,” commented Stengel.

xxiii Roscoe McGowen, “Gilliam’s Two Errors of Omission in First Inning: Bombers Benefit by Infield Lapses,” New York Times, October 4, 1955, 42.

“Junior failed to come up with a grounder hit by Yogi Berra that practically all observers expected him to snare for a certain force out and possibly a double play…Gilliam’s errors of omission loomed larger and larger as the game went on.”

xxiv Mockler, Stan. “Spooner!” United Press, January 4, 1958.

xxv Conversation with Mrs. Carol Spooner January 18, 2012

xxvi “Karl Spooner Has Hopes Of Return As Ace Pitcher,” Associated Press, February 20, 1958.

xxvii Ibid. This article said that St. Louis was able to draft Spooner for $4,000 – reportedly because of a “slipup” by the Dodgers, who were “engrossed in finding a home in Los Angeles.”

xxviii Conversation with Mrs. Carol Spooner, April 3, 2011.

xxix (No author cited), “Spooner,” Inside Sports, April 1981.

“But let’s be honest. After pitching didn’t work out, I was heartbroken. My arm went dead on me overnight…I wasn’t trained to do anything except pitch. I certainly didn’t have any skills…I was always in debt…without my wife, I never would’ve made it. She definitely pulled me out of my depression. I guess she’s still doing that. We’re getting by now, but I hate the fact that my wife has to knock herself out. She’s working on an assembly line in an airplane factory.”

xxx Conversation with Kevin Spooner, January 30, 2012.

xxxi “Field Dedicated to Karl Spooner,” Waterville Times, July 10, 2002.

xxxii Ibid.

xxxiii Roy Campanella, It’s Good to be Alive (New York: Signet 1974 edition), 266. Campy was referring to Erskine’s performance in Game Three of the 1953 World Series, when “Oisk” set a Series record by striking out 14 Yankees.

xxxiv Arch Ward, “In the Wake of the News,” Chicago Daily Tribune, June 6, 1955.

xxxv Golenbock, Bums, 377.

xxxvi Ibid.

xxxvii “Spooner,” Inside Sports, April 1981.

 

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