With today’s unfortunate news out of Washington I thought it was appropriate to do something I’ve never done here before, and re-post much of what I wrote about Stephen Strasburg on June 13 under the title “Right Now He’s Karl Spooner, Maybe Harry Krause.” This was, sadly, prophetic, and I sincerely hope it’s only temporary.
…as comparisons have been thrown out to Clemens, Ryan, Koufax, Pedro Martinez, Kerry Wood, Smoky Joe Wood, and everybody except Smokey Robinson And The Miracles, it is useful to remember that there have been more impressive starts. It is also useful to remember – as The Strasburg is either a potential victim of bad mounds around the sport, or is generating such strength that he’s gouging out good mounds – that injury has undone pitchers who have broken in even more impressively than has The Strasburg.
Karl Spooner is the most obvious
warning story, but the match is a lot weaker than first blush might suggest. Spooner is the most tragic of baseball’s pitching prospects (this side of Steve Dalkowski, anyway). After a 21-9 season at Fort Worth of the Texas League in 1954 (262 strikeouts, 162 walks), the lefthander was promoted by the Brooklyn Dodgers, who gave him two late-season starts. Spooner proceeded to shut out the New York Giants on three hits, 3-0, in his debut, striking out 15. Four days later he shut out the Pirates on four hits, 1-0, striking out 12 more. With Strasburg exiting early today, Spooner’s record of 27 strikeouts in his first two starts remains unchallenged.
But those strikeouts are a little less impressive than they look. The Giants, who had already clinched the National League pennant and would within two weeks sweep the heavily-favored Indians in the World Series, began pulling their starters in the second inning. In fact, ten of Spooner’s 15 K’s were against seven batters who averaged only 62 At Bats in 1954. Three came at the expense of back-up shortstop Billy Gardner, two against Joey Amalfitano (a “Bonus Baby” who had only five At Bats all season), two against pitchers. Five Giants regulars faced Spooner: Alvin Dark, Whitey Lockman, Don Mueller, and future Hall-of-Famers Monte Irvin and Willie Mays. They got nine AB’s against him; he struck out only one of them (Irvin).
In Spooner’s second start he didn’t do quite as well against a much weaker Pirates’ line-up. Nine of the twelve strikeouts came against rookies, including three from Nick Koback, a catcher who only had seven At Bats that year in which he didn’t strike out against Karl Spooner. Starting shortstop Gair Allie, who only appeared in the majors that one season, struck out twice, as did transient pitcher Jake Thies. That trio accounted for seven of Spooner’s dozen.
Spooner, of course, hurt his knee during a spring training game in 1955 and lingered ineffectively through his full rookie year with the Dodgers – then never pitched in the majors again.
Bob Feller was at The Strasburg’s second start today in Cleveland – on the right you’ll see how TBS just barely caught the extraordinary pitcher in the press box during this, his 55th season in retirement.
The mind reels at the thought that the year before Feller signed with Cleveland, Walter Johnson was still managing the Indians, and Babe Ruth was still playing. Feller knew them both – knew Johnson very well – and knew all the others, including guys who played in the World Series of the 1880’s, and everybody since – and today he watched The Strasburg.
It’s intriguing to look back at Feller’s debut, fresh out of high school and with his 18th birthday still months away. Impressively, the Indians rolled Feller out slowly in 1936, having him work exclusively in relief for his first month, then finally starting him against the St. Louis Browns on August 23. He struck out 15 that day, and while a review of the box score would not produce a lot of household names only one K came at the expense of an utterly obscure player, a St. Louis catcher named Nick Giuliani.
The Tribe again used Feller in relief for a time before giving him his second start on September 7, again against the Browns. He struck out ten. On the 13th he came back with his mind-boggling 17 strikeouts at age 17, against a Philadelphia A’s team that had a fill-in double-play combination of Hugh Luby and Rusty Peters who whiffed four times combined, and pitcher Randy Gumpert, who added a pair.
The play-by-play is incomplete for the pitcher with the greatest two-month start in the game’s history. Like Spooner, Harry Krause provides a cautionary tale about injury. He had started two games for the A’s early in the 1908 season, splitting decisions, and then went back to the minors. He stuck again in 1909 but didn’t get a start until May 8. After a neat 1-0 win, he still didn’t get another start until the 17th (the A’s had Hall of Famers Chief Bender and Eddie Plank ahead of him, and Cy Morgan, and Jack Coombs – who would blossom in ’10 to win 31 games). Krause then did it again – a 1-0 win (in twelve). Still he didn’t get another start for twelve days. The third victory earned him his spot in the rotation, and by July 11 he was merely 10-0 with 10 complete games, six shutouts, and four 1-0 wins. And then something in his arm began to hurt…
Krause was 11-1 lifetime at the time of the injury. He went 25-25 the rest of the way. Remarkably, despite whatever the injury was (“Sore Arm” was literally the catch-all medical diagnosis well into the 1970’s), he would win 249 games over 16 further seasons in the Pacific Coast League.