June 15, 2010
Pitchers Who Fizzled
It was a week ago that Stephen Strasburg, who is no relation to Steven Spielberg even though some say he has to be an extraterrestrial, made his major-league pitching debut. If a Hall of Fame vote had been held the morning after he zapped the Pirates with 14 strikeouts and nary a walk, the only real blemish coming when Delwyn Young hit a changeup for a home run, Strasburg would have been our first unanimous Hall of Famer.
But allow a warning to be issued here. As Lee Corso of football fame would say, “Not so fast, my friend." See, we’ve been there before.
Not to belittle a pitcher with a 100-mph fastball with as good a curveball to come into the major leagues since Bert Blyleven, pinpoint control and an unflappable disposition, but time and time alone will be the judge of Strasburg's greatness. Consider briefly what occurred in 1953 and 1954, seasons when we were treated to a host of shooting stars across our horizon who wound up going down in flames.
It began on May 6, 1953, when Alva Lee “Bobo” Holloman made his major-league debut for the St. Louis Browns. A rather ordinary pitcher at best, Holloman was a $10,000 acquisition by owner Bill Veeck from the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs. Hollomon had been used in relief before he got his first start that rainy night in St. Louis, where just 2,477 fans showed up. Who knew that Holloman would throw a 6-0 no-hitter, a rather unimpressive one at that, leading Veeck to write the following in his autobiography, Veeck As In Wreck:
Veeck wanted to send Holloman back to Syracuse but knew there was money to be made, saying “I don’t think it’s really wise to send a man back to the minor leagues right after he’s become immortal… It looks as if you’re punishing him for throwing a no-hitter.” So it was that Holloman finished out a 3-7 year—his only big-league season—with a 5.23 earned run average.
In early July of 1953, another pitcher burst on the scene spectacularly. That was Al Worthington of the New York Giants, who opened with two-hit, 6-0 shutout of the Philadelphia Phillies at the Polo Grounds, then followed that up with a 6-0, four-hit, seven-strikeout performance against the Brooklyn Dodgers in Ebbetts Field against a lineup that included Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Jackie Robinson and Gil Hodges.
Worthington, 24, could not, of course, keep pace and finished with a 4-8 record, following that up with 0-2, 7-14 and 8-11 years before finally having a winning season. He did, however, become one of the best early closers in the mid-1960s for the Twins.
Perhaps the most spectacular pitching debut, and the one which raises the red flag, was by a left-handed flamethrower named Karl Spooner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who was called by no less a player than future Hall of Famer Campanella “the greatest young pitcher I’ve ever seen” after he debuted with consecutive shutouts. Spooner struck out 15 New York Giants in his debut, 12 Pirates in his second game and allowed only seven hits combined with no runs.
Spooner’s career died along with his left arm, his major-league stay running form Sept. 22, 1954-Oct. 3, 1955. After those two victories, Spooner went 8-6 with a 3.65 ERA and two saves and made his final appearance in the big leagues as the starter of the third game of the 1955 World Series. His was a sad tale, injuring his arm so severely that he never could recapture his magical moment.
Spooner, who died at age 53, would often have the tragedy of the course his career followed brought up to him, but he would answer, “I’ve always got those two big ones on my record. They can never take those away from me.”
Perhaps the cruelest of all was the career course Wayne Simpson took after a spectacular debut with the 1970 Cincinnati Reds, who were just becoming the Big Red Machine. Simpson was a hard-throwing right hander who stood 6-foot-3, weighed 220 pounds and had a reputation for being wild, compounded with troubled vision, which only helped as he went out in his hometown of Los Angeles on April 9 to face the Dodgers.
The Reds, who had won their first three games of the season and would go on to win 70 of their first 100, were facing Don Sutton, a Hall of Fame pitcher, making it a difficult debut for Simpson. If Simpson was nervous, he certainly didn’t show it as he made fast work of the Dodgers, completing a two-hit shutout in one hour and 58 minutes, throwing only 82 pitches and not walking a batter. Simpson retired the first 16 batters he faced before Ted Sizemore collected one of the two singles he would give up, along with one to Willie Crawford.
Simpson would be the most dominant pitcher in the National League, winning 13 of his first 14 decisions, the only loss coming when an error by Dave Concepcion let two runs score against St. Louis in a 3-1 defeat. Following that April 24 game Simpson’s ERA was 0.58. On July 5, Simpson outdueled the Houston Astros' Denny Lemaster, 3-1, making his record 13-1 and his ERA 2.27.
Simpson would win two more games that year, his right arm injured but no one knowing just how bad it really was. Even his manager, Sparky Anderson, had said his problems were mental, not physical.
I recall one afternoon before he was supposed to pitch sitting alone with him in the clubhouse, Simpson in tears, saying: “They tell me there’s nothing wrong with my arm and I can’t throw the baseball across this room.”
Shortly thereafter the shoulder hemorrhaged, the blood showing on the surface. It was the beginning of the end of Simpson's career, a tragic end that Ira Berkow of The New York Times revisited after his career had ended as he bounced around and won 36 and lost 31 with three different teams. Berkow would write:
With all this in mind, let us just let the career of Stephen Strasburg play out, for baseball has this way of choosing who it wants to bestow long-term greatness upon.