DEAD PLAYER OF THE DAY
In which I pick a page from the encyclopedia at random and riff on what I find.
Karl Spooner LHP 1954-1955 (1931-1984)
An epically mishandled super-prospect, though no one knew any better at the time. Signed by the Dodgers in 1950 for just $600, Spooner had great raw stuff for a left-hander, but the Dodgers failed to nurture it. His 1954 with Fort Worth of the Texas League was amazing, and by today’s standards spectacularly abusive. He pitched 42 games, starting 31. He threw 238 innings, allowed 176 hits, 162 walks, and struck out 262. His ERA was 3.14. According to the Sporting News, “His blazing fastball has brought him a one-hitter, three two-hitters, one three-hitter, one four-hitter and two five-hitters. He once struck out 15 men in one game, twice whiffed 14, once fanned 13, and three times struck out 12.” (He also pitched two no-hitters at the lower levels.) To that innings total, add in winter ball during the previous winter and several starts in the ’54 Texas League playoffs. In the last of them, Spooner pitched 16 innings.
Spooner had help on at least one of his Fort Worth strikeouts. In a July road game against the Houston Buffs, the umpire called Spooner’s first pitch on batter George Lerchen a strike. Lerchen argued the call, stepping out of the box to do so. The umpire ordered him to hit, but Lerchen kept arguing. The umpire told Spooner to pitch to the empty box. He did, and the umpire called strike two. A whole bunch of ejections followed, including Lerchen, his manager (Dixie Walker), and two other Buffs. When the pinch-hitter to finish Lerchen’s at-bat was slow in arriving, the umpire told Spooner to pitch again, even though there was no batter at the plate. Strike three was called. More ejections followed and a near-riot on the part of the Buffs fans, but the K is part of the record…
The Dodgers were in the process of losing the pennant to the Giants by a mere five games, in large part because their starting rotation was weak, so their failure to call up Spooner sooner played a significant role in the race. Spooner was a drawing card for the Cats and ownership was reluctant to let him go, so the Dodgers left him in Texas until the very end of the season. When a couple of their starters went out with sore arms at the very end of the season, manager Walter Alston decided to give him a try. Spooner started against the NL champion Giants on September 22 (though Leo Durocher rested most of his regulars after an at-bat or two each) and pitched a three-hitter (Alvin Dark, Willie Mays, and Johnny Antonelli got him), walking three and striking out 15. He struck out the side three times, and at one point struck out six consecutive batters. He K’d his last batter, pinch-hitter Dusty Rhodes, who was having a season for the ages (.341/.410/.695), one which he would carry into the World Series. In Peter Golenbock’s Bums, Clem Labine recalled, “That man had a fastball that was unbelievable, not for sheer speed, but for how much the ball moved… I can remember Dusty Rhodes… saying to Leo, ‘Give me a bat. I can hit this kid.’ And he went out there and took three strikes, boom, boom, boom, never swung at one. He went back to the dugout and conceded, ‘Yeah, he has good stuff.’”
After the game, catcher Roy Campanella said, “He’s the greatest young pitcher I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t believe it.” Spooner had time for one more start before the season ended. He pitched a four-hit shutout against the Pirates, striking out 12. That was the last game of the season. Spooner’s debut went into the books: 18 innings, seven hits, no runs, six walks, 27 strikeouts.
Spooner and the Dodgers spent the winter dreaming on the terrific rotation they would have in 1955, with the young fireballer joining don Newcombe, Carl Erskine, and Johnny Podres. During spring training, as Spooner was hurriedly warming up to get into a game, something tore in his shoulder. The Dodgers nursed him through 29 games, but the stuff was gone forever. Surgery failed to bring it back, and Spooner’s career was over.
A Serious Question
I was watching a bit of today’s Dodgers at Pirates game and counting the empty seats. I gave up when I reached 35,000 (announced attendance was 9,352). Last season, the Pirates finished third-to-last in the majors total attendance at 1.58 million. During the postseason years of 1990-1992, they ranked no higher than sixth in the NL. The year PNC Park opened, they drew roughly 2.5 million, which was good enough for only 11th in the NL. The novelty of the new park quickly wore off, and since then they have typically finished 15th out of the 16 NL teams. Pittsburgh has been losing population continuously since the 1960s, a trend the current census will undoubtedly continue. Demographics suggest that the local fanbase lacks the funds to adequately support the team.
Why is there major league baseball in Pittsburgh? PNC Park is not the reason. Just because someone was willing to build the Pirates a wonderful ballpark does not mean that it should have been built, nor does it make the Pirates a viable franchise even if they start winning, though that last point will remain an irresolvable hypothetical for so long as the Pirates remain a second-division team. With only 38,000 seats, unless PNC somehow develops a Fenway-like cachet and resultantly inflated pricing, the Pirates may never get adequate support from attendance.
The Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area currently ranks 22nd in the nation. Of the 21 larger markets, all but one, the Inland Empire area of California, has a team. When the current census is completed, we could see several MSAs surpass the old-time Steeltown, among them Portland, Sacramento, Orlando, and San Antonio. The average income in these places is higher. As in the early 1950s, when baseball found itself out of alignment with the population and suffered declines in attendance as a result, it is detrimental to the health of the game to cling to a location just because it has a long tradition of being there.
You often hear of places like Portland that although they’re sort of nice places, they could never support a MLB franchise. Depending on your point of view, Pittsburgh either proves or disproves that. Baseball doesn’t need more small-market franchises, but as population shifts are documented, areas now viewed as marginal will become viable and areas now considered viable will become unsupportable. Pittsburgh is already there, it’s just that no one is ready to acknowledge it. Baseball leaving is an inevitability.
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