Every true baseball fan knows about Kershaw and nearly everybody on the planet knows about Koufax, but only the truest of true Dodger fans know that there was yet a third outstanding left-handed “K” who once pitched for the Dodgers – Karl Spooner.
Karl Benjamin Spooner was born on June 23, 1931 in Oriskany Falls, a village in upstate New York about 20 minutes south of Utica. He grew up with all the benefits of a small town but his early life was filled with tragedy. His sister Geraldine died at the age of six of complications from measles when he was only five years old. His father Maurice, a farmer, died when Karl was eleven years old and had just started to take an interest in playing baseball. His cousins Stanley and Bernice Spooner became his legal guardians when his mother died from a stroke when Karl was seventeen.
Karl was a catcher on his high school team and was a good hitter. He also played with the town team, where he became a pitcher when his golden arm was discovered. He threw only three pitches, a curve, a sinker and a fastball with varying speeds – fast, faster and fastest.
One of the legends surrounding Karl was that local umpires were reluctant to call games when he was pitching. The task was boring calling unhittable strike after unhittable strike and they feared their credibility would be at risk consistently calling strikes.
How did he learn to pitch? When asked that question by sportswriter Red Smith, Karl responded: “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.”
Richard S. Cohen of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) once wrote: “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.
“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,” writes Cohen. “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.”
In August 1950, Karl was signed by Dodger scout Greg Mulleavy. His signing bonus was $600, most likely thought to have been a large sum by Karl who had worked on the family farm. Part of his bonus included money for his dentures, as he had lost most of his teeth by then. The next year his march to the majors began.
The “K” in Karl was for “Strikeout” as a familiar pattern developed:
- 1951- Led the Class D Pony League with 200 strikeouts in 170 innings.
- 1952 – In the Cotton States League (Class C) he struck out 19 in a game pitching for Greenwood, Mississippi.
- 1953 – With Pueblo in the Western League he led the league with 198 strikeouts and threw a no-hitter.
- 1954 – Pitching with Fort Worth in the Texas League his 262 strikeouts in 238 innings were the most strikeouts in that league since Dizzy Dean’s 303 in 1931.
His rise as a pitching sensation was not without the usual difficulty for young fireballers. His walk count was also league leading until something happened that may have changed the course of his career. He injured his right knee playing “pepper,” which caused him to miss a month of the 1954 season. Perhaps he would have eclipsed Dizzy Dean’s record of 303 strikeouts if he had not missed those games. On September 22, Karl Spooner made his famous debut with the Dodgers. His control had improved and speculation was that wearing a brace on his leg caused him to shorten his stride and helped improve his command. Little did I know that on that night in September, Carl Spooner made his pitching debut with his leg tightly strapped up.
I can remember it as clearly as I remember Sandy Amoros’ famous catch in 1955. At the tail end of the 1954 season, as I listened to a Dodger game out of Brooklyn on radio, I was spell bound as the game unfolded. It seems the Giant hitters were also spell bound as they watched the game progress. Billy Loes and Don Newcombe were unable to pitch as they both had sore arms. The Dodgers had been eliminated from play-off contention so there was no need to press them into action. Tommy Lasorda, who was pitching for the Montreal Royals in the International League at the time, was a logical choice to make that start; however, Lasorda had injured his leg in a home plate collision with Wally Moon, so the Dodgers gave Karl Spooner the call. That was a name I had not heard before.
Spooner struggled in the first inning walking Whitey Lockman and allowing Alvin Dark to reach on a bunt in front of the mound. He then retired Don Mueller and got Willie Mays to fly out to right. With two out things were looking relatively safe until he walked Monte Irvin to fill the bases. Roy Campanella went out to talk to the young lefty and was able to calm him down. Spooner struck out Bobby Hofman to end his first inning as a Dodger- a rough one. Spooner said he might not have survived the first inning if Hofman had not gone down swinging. That strikeout – along with Campanella’s mentoring – gave him the confidence that he could pitch at the MLB level and allowed manager Walter Alston to keep the young pitcher in the game.
After the first inning, Dodger history and baseball history were made. The Dodgers scored a run in the first inning and following his first inning woes, Spooner went to work. He struck out the side in the fifth, seventh and eighth innings. The Giants, who went on to win the World Series that year, managed three singles in a complete game 3-0 shutout for Karl Spooner. Along the way he struck out 15 Giants. Needless to say, I had Spoonermania.
Spooner started against Pittsburgh five days later and I was on hand to listen to the game, with more than a little nervous excitement. I did feel there was no way he could repeat his first game performance, but to my delight and the delight of Dodgers fans everywhere, he was equally effective with another complete game shutout. With Rube Walker as his catcher, he blanked the Pirates on four hits and struck out 12. Spooner became only the fifth major league pitcher since 1901 to have opened his career with back-to-back shutouts and his 27 strikeouts set a National League record for the most strikeouts in consecutive games. His total number of strikeouts in his first two games, 27, ranks second in Major League Baseball history only to Hall of Famer Bob Feller.
As the 1954 season came to a close, I was sure the Dodgers had found themselves a left-handed phenom. Sandy Koufax was not yet on the scene (arriving in 1955) and Johnny Podres was just completing his second of two good but not spectacular seasons. I was now sure the Dodgers had found an answer for Whitey Ford and Warren Spahn, two southpaws that always gave the Dodgers a hard time. The Dodgers must have felt they had unearthed a Jubilee Diamond, too – not in the rough, but cut and polished as close to perfection as a young pitcher could possibly be. Perhaps a vision of Bob Feller danced in their heads. I know it danced in mine and I just couldn’t wait for the 1955 season to start for a variety of reasons. Karl Spooner was near the top of that list.
How good was Karl Spooner? This is how his teammates assessed him:
“(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.” Campanella, the great Brooklyn catcher known for not mincing his words added: “He’s the greatest young pitcher I’ve ever seen.”
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 left-handers that I’ve ever seen.”
Fifteen years later, Gil Hodges was managing the Mets when he was asked to compare Nolan Ryan to the great fastball pitchers he had seen in his past. Hodges listed Karl Spooner, not Sandy Koufax.
Well, 1955 arrived and it was to be quite a year for the Dodgers, capped off by their first-ever World Series victory. However, Karl Spooner was not to play a significant part in that season. He did have surgery to remove cartilage from the knee he had injured playing pepper. His knee seemed to have healed properly by the time spring training arrived. However, in spring training, he tried to warm up too quickly to replace Johnny Podres and injured his shoulder during his appearance. He continued to pitch for two innings after feeling the pain. Karl explained:” 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.” Carl Erskine confirmed the sequence of events, “In those few moments one of the great arms of Dodger pitching had lost its magic.”
Spooner’s first appearance in the 1955 season was on May 15. He was knocked out of the game in the third inning. His next appearance was not until June 5 when he was again ineffective for four innings. Following that, manager Walt Alston used him as a reliever and sparingly as a starter. His last win was a special one. In relief, he pitched 5 2/3 innings to defeat Milwaukee in the game that clinched the NL pennant for the Dodgers. He finished the regular season with an 8-6 record and a 3.65 ERA in 98 2/3 innings.
Karl made his last major league appearance in game 6 of the 1955 World Series. He started the game but left in the first inning trailing 5-0. The last batter he faced in major league baseball was Moose Skowron who homered to knock him out of the game, thus ending a career that looked so promising just one year earlier. Karl Spooner tried for three years to make it back, but the pain and Novocain shots were just too much to handle.
During that 1955 season Karl Spooner sat on the bench with another young left-hander – Sandy Koufax. What if the Dodgers had been blessed with two left-handed “K” machines at the same time, Karl and Koufax? What if there had been a Frank Jobe back then, MRI’s, an understanding of arm injuries, better training methods, improved rehabilitation methods? What if?
Karl Spooner died in 1984 at the age of 52. He was a devoted family man raising five children with his wife Carol, with whom he celebrated their thirtieth wedding anniversary two months before he died. One of their daughters was named after his little sister Geraldine.
The magic in the arm was quickly gone, but those two games in 1954 will always be magical for me.