Carl Spongberg

This article was written by Mike Mattsey

The 1908 Chicago Cubs are remembered by baseball fans for many reasons. The club, managed by first baseman Frank “Husk” Chance, ended the season by capturing its third consecutive National League pennant and defeated the Detroit Tigers for its second World Series crown. The Cubs were widely recognized in this era for being one of the finest teams ever assembled. In fact, four members of the 1908 team, Mordecai Brown, Joe Tinker, Frank Chance, and Johnny Evers, are enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. To win a spot on the Cubs roster, one would assume that even the rawest recruit would be of the finest quality with a minor-league pedigree that befitted the defending world champs. But on August 1, 1908, an unlikely pitcher made his debut for the Cubs.

Carl Spongberg, who had joined the team from Ogden, Utah, a few days before, was not only making the first big-league appearance of his career but also his last. That in itself is not uncommon. Many baseball players have shared a similar fate. What differs about Spongberg is that not only was this his only major-league game, it was his only professional game with a recognized major- or minor-league club. How could such an unheralded player win even a trial with the finest team the game had to offer? The answer may lie with a local scout who had previously uncovered a diamond in the rough, and a team that was looking for pitching wherever it could find it.

The club that played its home games at the West Side Grounds was in the midst of a run unparalleled in team history. The 1906 and 1907 pennant chases in the National League were uneventful due to the Cubs’ brilliance. They easily won both pennants and led their second-place challengers by a combined 37 games. By 1908, the league had caught up to Chicago. In July the Cubs faced stiff challenges from the Pittsburgh Pirates, led by the legendary Hans Wagner, and John McGraw’s New York Giants, who featured the great Christy Mathewson. The three teams were the class of the National League that summer, and many observers felt that this was the year the mighty Cubs would be knocked off their perch. The Cubs were desperate for pitchers to fill in the rotation behind Brown, Ed Reulbach, and Orval Overall. The two youngsters on the staff, Blaine Durbin and Bill Mack, were ineffective and had been sent back to Chicago as Chance decided against working them any further on a long road trip.1 Carl Spongberg was to be their replacement, and the Chicago Tribune noted that he was due to join the club in Boston as the Cubs prepared to face the Doves.2 Little was known about Spongberg. Upon his arrival in Boston, the Tribune remarked that he was a “big husky right hander who looks as he [knows] baseball.”3 It didn’t take long for the club to find out what it had. Shortly after arriving in Boston, Spongberg found his way into the game.

The August 1 tilt between the Cubs and the Doves saw Spongberg begin the game on the bench. No doubt he would have spent the game there, allowed to recover from a cross-country train ride, but the Bostonians erupted for seven first-inning runs against starter Carl Lundgren and reliever Chick Fraser. The game was out of hand by the second inning when Chance inserted the rookie pitcher, and Spongberg’s performance was abysmal. He allowed seven runs in the remaining seven innings, giving up eight hits including a home run to Doves left fielder Joe Kelley. In addition to being easy to hit, Spongberg obliged the Doves with seven walks and hit two batters.4 Spongberg’s only saving grace was his performance at the plate, where he managed two singles in three at-bats. It was a far from successful audition for the new pitcher and one had to wonder just how he had managed to secure it in the first place. The answer lay back in Ogden, where two influential baseball men may have vouched for the young pitcher to the Cubs.

At the time he was signed by the Cubs, Spongberg was pitching for the Ogden Lobsters of the Utah State League. The Utah State was an independent league at the time and was not a part of Organized Baseball. Spongberg was a pitcher for the Lobsters and also played outfield when not on the mound. On July 4, before a large crowd of about 3,500 celebrating Independence Day at the local fairgrounds,5 Spongberg did not disappoint the Ogden rooters as he twirled a no-hitter and fanned 13 batters to defeat Ogden’s archrivals from Salt Lake City, 6-0.6

Spongberg’s performance in front of the large crowd must have impressed Ogden manager Frank “Dad” Gimlin. The year before, Gimlin, among others, had alerted major-league managers to a young pitcher toiling in Weiser, Idaho, named Walter Johnson.7 By the summer of 1908, Johnson was the ace of the Washington Senators and would prove to be one of the greatest pitchers in the history of baseball. So a word from Gimlin to a major-league club about a hot young pitcher would have been well received in July of 1908. How was Gimlin able to get word so quickly to the Cubs about Spongberg’s potential? The answer to that question has been lost to the ages, but the process happened quickly.

The rapidity of Spongberg’s ascendance from baseball’s hinterlands to the National League’s preeminent club demands that someone, perhaps Gimlin, had the ear of either manager Chance or Cubs owner Charles Murphy. In any case, Chance arranged to sign Spongberg to a contract at a salary of $300 per month. The Cubs skipper wired $150 and a train ticket to Spongberg, and the young pitcher headed east to meet his new team.8

Spongberg never received a second chance with the Cubs after his initial appearance against Boston. Along with Bill Mack, he was given his unconditional release by the Cubs on August 4. Manager Frank Chance reported that “neither [was] ripe for fast company.”9 Chance and the players were sympathetic toward Spongberg and sought to find him a berth with a club in a more appropriate league. Chance and the Cubs felt sorry that Spongberg had traveled the width of the country “on the recommendation of a supposed friend of his and of the Cubs,” and the Cubs skipper arranged for the young pitcher to sign with Springfield of the Three-I League.10 Chance was not alone in seeking new employment for Spongberg. Pitcher Mordecai Brown had reached out to the Reading club and they agreed to take the jobless pitcher as well. Chance’s deal arrived an hour before Brown’s, so Spongberg was sent to Springfield.11 But Spongberg never featured for either Springfield or Reading. Instead, he headed home.

Spongberg never again pitched in Organized Baseball. The 1910 Census shows that he was living at home with his parents and younger siblings and working as a bookkeeper in his father’s grocery store in Montpelier, Idaho.12 He continued to pitch for the Montpelier town team; tales of his major-league past surely drew the interest of the spectators.13 In 1913 Spongberg married Jean Leishman in Salt Lake City, and a year later she gave birth to the couple’s only child, Jay Allan.14 Spongberg continued to pitch for the local squad in Montpelier while starting his career in business. Carl worked in a variety of retail grocery jobs in Idaho until 1928 when the former pitcher accepted a position with the Western States Grocery Company. The Spongbergs moved frequently over the next decade as Carl prospered with the company and eventually became a vice president of the firm.15 By the late 1930s the Spongbergs had moved to Los Angeles. Carl died there in 1938, two months after his 54th birthday.

In many respects, Carl Spongberg was a guy who was in the right place at the right time. He happened to pitch well and was sent to the major leagues on little more than a hunch. Though his lack of ability was instantly exposed by major-league hitters in his one appearance for the Chicago Cubs, he had made it to the highest level his sport had to offer. For the rest of his life, Spongberg could claim to have been a tiny part of a World Series-winning club and a major-league veteran. Millions of boys dream of a chance to play in the major leagues and for one day, Carl Spongberg was a big leaguer.

 

Notes

1 “Notes of the Cubs,” Chicago Tribune, July 29, 1908.

2 Ibid.

3 “Notes of the Cubs,” Chicago Tribune, July 31, 1908.

4 “Cubs Massacred By Doves,” Chicago Tribune, August 2, 1908.

5 “The Forth [sic] in Junction City,” Deseret Evening News, July 6, 1908.

6 “Spongberg Pitches A No-Hit Game,” Salt Lake Tribune, July 5, 1908.

7 “Johnson Recommended by Gimlin of Ogden,” Ogden Standard Examiner, October 2, 1908.

8 “Chicago Nationals Sign Spongberg,” Salt Lake Herald, July 25, 1908.

9 “Notes of the Cubs,” Chicago Tribune, August 5, 1908.

10 “Sponberg [sic] to Springfield,” Chicago Tribune, August 6, 1908.

11 Ibid.

12 US Bureau of the Census, “Thirteenth Census of the United States: 1910 – Population. Bear Lake County, Idaho, Montpelier Ward 3 District 45.” ancestry.com (accessed October 13, 2015).

13 “Out of the Past,” The News-Examiner, Montpelier, Idaho, May 25, 2011.

14 US Bureau of the Census, “Fifteenth Census of the United States: 1930 – Population. Multnomah County, Oregon, Portland Precinct 361.” ancestry.com (Accessed October 13, 2015).

15 The Spongbergs’ travels are detailed in city directories found at Ancestry.com.