We were driving through upstate New York and I saw a sign for Oriskany Falls.
Right away, I flashed to a ball park in Brooklyn on the last day of the 1954 season, the Dodgers and Pirates playing out the string.
Before Sandy Koufax became Sandy Koufax, before Clayton Kershaw was invented, there was Karl Spooner.
I was there, one of 9,344 fans. A lefty from the minors, who had shut out the hated Giants on Thursday, came back and shut out the Pirates on Sunday.
Eighteen innings in his first two games. Seven hits. Twenty-seven strikeouts. No runs. One of the best two-game debuts in major-league history.
As my friend and I took three subway lines back to Queens that day, we envisioned the career ahead for Karl Spooner. As Brooklyn Dodger fans always said, wait til next year.
Next year arrived, and Spooner had an 8-6 record, and the Dodgers finally won a World Series.
But he had already blown out his shoulder in spring training of 1955, and never again pitched in the majors. Nowadays, there might be an operation for it, but by 1958, he was retired and living in Vero Beach, Fla., the training base of the team that had just deserted us.
He died in 1984 at the age of 52.
I ascertained via the Internet that a ball field is named for Spooner in Oriskany Falls, so my brother and I made a detour and asked a nice man at the filling station for directions. “I saw him pitch in 1954,” I said. I asked whether people in town still remembered Karl Spooner, and he said a few. I did not ask for their names or numbers; I had my own memories.
We found the field down the hill. This being America in 2014, nobody was on the ball field – no league game, no kids playing choose-up, no game of catch. There was a modest sign, painted in Dodger blue, and on the other side facing the field is a resumé of Spooner’s career, from childhood to Ebbets Field. The records were compiled by Dr. Rich Cohen.
“My friend, my doctor,” said my kid brother Christopher Vecsey, a professor at Colgate University. They umpire Little League games together, and every spring they gambol in a game of town ball, the ancestor of modern baseball.
Dr. Cohen has also written a lovely biography of Spooner for SABR: http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/b6f00e89
My brother said he might take his grown son, who still pitches in an adult league, to this field. He can imagine his son taking aim at the short porch in right field. I strolled out to the mound and approximated a left-handed delivery, in homage to the man I saw pitch in 1954.