Roger Craig retired at the age of 62, following the 1992 season. He completed a career that had spanned 43 years of nearly continuous employment in professional baseball. Craig isn't in the Hall of Fame, and doesn't deserve to be, but his achievements as a player, coach, and manager were many, and his range of experience - success, failure, and just plain adventure - ranks among the more fascinating in the long history of the sport.
Roger Lee Craig was an impressive physical specimen: 6-foot-4, 190 pounds, a right-handed pitcher with big broad shoulders and long, slim legs. He was born in Durham, North Carolina, on February 17th, 1930. Like so many other players through the decades, Craig lied about his age, passing himself off as having been born on that date in 1931. A one-year difference may not seem like much, but the ruse may well have succeeded in gaining Craig opportunities on several rosters.
Most careers include ups and downs, but few have such roller-coaster peaks and valleys as Craig's. Five years after signing off the North Carolina State campus with Branch Rickey's Brooklyn organization, as a major league rookie Craig found distinct success as a key contributor to the pennant and World Series triumph of the fabled "Boys of Summer" 1955 Dodgers. Yet before he reached the majors, Craig had so fiercely struggled with his control that twice he'd been demoted to lower classifications. In one season he walked 173 minor league batters, and in another 175.
After establishing himself as an effective major leaguer in 1955-56, Craig regressed so badly that he was sent back to the minors in 1958, where he endured a hideous 5-17 campaign. But the next year Craig would not only be recalled to the majors in mid-season, but would deliver a tremendous performance, sparking the now-Los Angeles Dodgers to a second-half drive to another pennant and World Series championship. The team sprinted to the 1959 finish, winning 17 of their final 22, and it was Craig anchoring the kick with four victories and a September ERA of 1.01. On the season's final regular season game, Craig delivered a complete-game 7-1 triumph, clinching a first-place tie.
But two seasons later Craig slumped terribly, his ERA ballooning to 6.15, as he was pummeled for 22 home runs in 113 innings. The Dodgers then allowed him to be picked up in the National League's first-ever expansion draft, and thus began the episode for which Craig is probably best-known: he was the ace pitcher for the famously hapless New York Mets of 1962-63. Deployed in a thankless workhorse role, in two seasons Craig appeared in 88 games for the Mets, 64 of them starts, and 469 innings. Despite pitching reasonably well under these brutal conditions - his ERA+ over that span was 92 - Craig was supported so pitifully that his won-lost record was 15-46. That two-season defeat total was the highest recorded by any major league pitcher since the early 1930s, and will almost certainly never be approached again.
Over the 90-day span from May 4 to August 4 of 1963, Craig lost 18 straight decisions, tying the most ever in the National League. With his record standing at 2-20, in an attempt to change his luck Craig switched his uniform number from 38 to 13. On August 9, with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth in a 3-3 tie against the Cubs, Mets' third baseman Jim Hickman hit a high, lazy fly. Cubs' left fielder Billy Williams settled under it, but the descending ball grazed the overhanging Polo Grounds second-deck scoreboard, fewer than 300 feet from home plate: a grand slam! Craig's streak was over. In the post-game clubhouse celebration, Hickman was quoted: "I think he kissed me."
Following that season Craig was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals. In late July of 1964 the Cards were below .500, in seventh place, before roaring down the stretch to capture their first pennant in nearly two decades. In that fall's memorable World Series victory over the dynastic Yankees, Craig was a particular hero, as described by St. Louis shortstop Dick Groat in Danny Peary's We Played the Game:
Game Four was the key game. We had to win it, but Sadecki fell behind 3-0 in the first inning. [Manager Johnny] Keane brought in Roger Craig with men on first and second. He had the best pickoff move in the league besides Elroy Face. And we picked off Mantle at second. That may have been the biggest play of the Series because it prevented them from scoring again. Craig and Ron Taylor shut out the Yankees on two hits for 8 2/3 innings. And in the top of the fifth, Ken Boyer hit a grand slam homer off Al Downing, which was enough for us to win 4-3. That was the turning point in the Series.
Craig's playing career finally reached its end in 1966, and the following year his old organization, the Dodgers, hired him as a scout. Then in 1968 Craig landed his first managerial job, for the Dodgers' Texas League farm club in Albuquerque.
From 1969 through 1977 Craig served as a major league pitching coach, for the Padres and Astros, as well as a stint as a minor league pitching instructor for the Dodgers. Among the pitchers who blossomed under Craig's tutelage in this period were Dave Roberts, Clay Kirby, Fred Norman, and Joe Niekro. In 1978-79 Craig managed the San Diego Padres; in their first season under his guidance the Padres achieved their first-ever winning record.
Then Craig became the pitching coach for the Detroit Tigers. In his playing days Craig's best pitch was the slider, but in Detroit his teaching of the split-finger fastball to Jack Morris gained Craig particular renown as something of a split-finger guru. In the 1984-85 off-season Mike Scott of the Astros sought out Craig and learned the split-finger from him; Scott's career would utterly turn around. Particularly in Scott's case, the split-finger, which became the emblematic pitch of the 1980s, was widely suspected to be something more of a spit-finger - as in foreign substance, that is.
In September of 1985 Al Rosen, newly installed as the General Manager of the San Francisco Giants, hired Craig as his field manager. The once-proud Giants had been encountering hard times: the 1985 club that Craig took over in the season's final couple of weeks lost 100 games for the only time in franchise history, going all the way back to 1883. Craig undertook bold action in 1986, installing as regulars first baseman Will Clark and second baseman Robby Thompson, even though neither had any experience as high as triple-A. The young team was completely revitalized, surging to first place before eventually finishing third. Craig's positive, good-humored spirit was infectious, and with his all-purpose catch phrase, "Humm Baby!" he became an enormously popular figure in the Bay Area.
In 1987 Craig's Giants won their first division championship since 1971, and in 1989 they captured their first pennant since 1962. Craig's managerial style made audacious use of the squeeze play and featured some highly questionable baserunning aggressiveness: for instance, Clark in 1987 was thrown out 17 times in 22 steal attempts. Nevertheless Craig's teams were loose yet focused, and disciplined on defense. Player after player thrived under Craig's firm-but-warm leadership. Among those who achieved career-best performance while playing for Craig were Clark, Kevin Mitchell, and Candy Maldonado, along with pitchers young and old: Jeff Brantley, Mike Krukow, Kelly Downs, Don Robinson, and his most prominent San Francisco split-finger pupil, the wickedly effective Scott Garrelts.
One of Craig's teammates from his Brooklyn days, Randy Jackson, described him this way:
On the road, I ran around with my roommate, Roger Craig ... Roger was probably my favorite roommate. He was a smart, funny guy.
Through the twists and turns of his long career, Craig maintained that sort of popularity. Few figures in the sport were more respected, and few enjoyed careers as interesting as his.
Hall of Famers who were teammates of Roger Craig:
Sparky Anderson, Richie Ashburn, Lou Brock, Jim Bunning, Roy Campanella, Don Drysdale, Bob Gibson, Ferguson Jenkins, Sandy Koufax, Tommy Lasorda, Tony Perez, Pee Wee Reese, Frank Robinson, Jackie Robinson, and Duke Snider.
Additional All-Stars who were teammates of Roger Craig:
Dick Allen, Gus Bell, Ken Boyer, Ralph Branca, Jackie Brandt, Bob Buhl, Lew Burdette, Johnny Callison, Chris Cannizzaro, Leo Cardenas, Gino Cimoli, Mike Cuellar, Ray Culp, Tommy Davis, Willie Davis, Johnny Edwards, Sammy Ellis, Don Elston, Carl Erskine, Ron Fairly, Dick Farrell, Curt Flood, Carl Furillo, Jim Gentile, Jim Gilliam, Dick Groat, Tommy Harper, Tommy Helms, Bill Henry, Ray Herbert, Jim Hickman, Don Hoak, Gil Hodges, Tommy Holmes, Frank Howard, Ron Hunt, Grant Jackson, Larry Jackson, Randy Jackson, Julian Javier, Joey Jay, Cleon Jones, Darold Knowles, Ed Kranepool, Harvey Kuenn, Clem Labine, Norm Larker, Billy Loes, Sal Maglie, Jim Maloney, Felix Mantilla, Lee May, Tim McCarver, Billy McCool, Dale Mitchell, Wilmer Mizell, Wally Moon, Walt Moryn, Charlie Neal, Don Newcombe, Irv Noren, Joe Nuxhall, Jim O’Toole, Jimmy Piersall, Vada Pinson, Johnny Podres, Rip Repulski, Cookie Rojas, Pete Rose, John Roseboro, Bobby Shantz, Chris Short, Curt Simmons, Bob Skinner, Tony Taylor, Frank Thomas, Bill White, Stan Williams, Maury Wills, Rick Wise, Gene Woodling, and Don Zimmer.
Hall of Famers who managed Roger Craig:
Walt Alston and Casey Stengel.
Hall of Famers who were coached and/or managed by Roger Craig:
Steve Carlton, Gary Carter, Rollie Fingers, Gaylord Perry, Ozzie Smith, and Dave Winfield.
Additional All-Stars who were coached and/or managed by Roger Craig:
Kevin Bass, Steve Bedrosian, Jack Billingham, Vida Blue, Jeff Brantley, Bob Brenly, Chris Brown, John Burkett, Brett Butler, Will Clark, Royce Clayton, Chili Davis, Mark Davis, Ron Davis, Larry Dierker, Pat Dobson, Dave Dravecky, Mark Fidrych, Ken Forsch, Phil Garner, Scott Garrelts, Rich Gossage, Billy Grabarkewitz, Atlee Hammaker, Mike Hargrove, Dave Henderson, George Hendrick, Tommy Herr, John Hiller, Randy Jones, Terry Kennedy, Bob Knepper, Mike Krukow, Mike LaCoss, Jeffrey Leonard, Mickey Lolich, Aurelio Lopez, Willie McGee, Greg Minton, Kevin Mitchell, Jack Morris, Terry Mulholland, Joe Niekro, Matt Nokes, Claude Osteen, Dan Petry, Dan Quisenberry, Mike Remlinger, Rick Reuschel, J.R. Richard, Dave Righetti, Lary Sorensen, Chris Speier, Gene Tenace, Robby Thompson, Manny Trillo, Matt Williams, Don Wilson, and Joel Youngblood.
Steve Treder is a staff writer for The Hardball Times, has presented papers to the Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and had numerous articles published in Nine: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture. A lifelong San Francisco Giants' fan, he is Vice President for Strategic Development for Western Management Group, a compensation consulting firm headquartered in Los Gatos, California.