SABR

Sam Crane

This article was written by Brian McKenna.

Sam Crane was tagged early in his career as a good-field, no-hit shortstop. It’s true that he didn’t hit well in the majors after he was brought up at age 19, but as no less an authority than Connie Mack noted, few shortstops of the Deadball Era were “knocking down fences.” He fielded well enough to warrant repeated tryouts. More than once clubs traded more than two players to bring him into the fold hoping that they could fine-tune his batting eye. But someone always hit a little better to claim the position. The Syracuse Herald reported, “He is one of the cleverest infielders…and if he was a good clouter he would be a star in the big show.” Few would remember such a light-hitting shortstop who only appeared in 174 games over seven major league seasons, only three of which exceeded eight games, if not for the tragic ending of his career.

Today Crane is remembered for killing his paramour and her new boyfriend. He spent 15 years in a Pennsylvania prison for the crime. Crane still found ways to enjoy his passion, baseball. He played for and managed the prison team, preparing them for Saturday afternoon contests against local semi-pro clubs. Mack tried year after year to speak or write to the parole board requesting his old shortstop’s release. He promised to give Crane a job and “take care of him.” Mack’s persistence, Crane’s good behavior and a good word from the warden finally won his early release from an 18- to 36-year prison sentence.

Samuel Byrem Crane was born on September 13, 1894 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (Baseball encyclopedias give his middle name as “Byren,” but it is “Byrem” on his World War II draft registration. His mother’s maiden name was “Byrem,” according to census records.) His parents Thomas and Jennie Crane, both Pennsylvania natives, were married around 1891. They had four children, but two died in infancy. Thomas worked for a railroad as a fireman and later as a locomotive engineer.

Sam Crane, a right hander, played amateur and semipro baseball in and around Harrisburg and Dauphin County and for a New Cumberland nine. He was a defensive whiz at shortstop. Tall and thin at nearly six feet and 150 pounds, Crane later gained the nickname “Leaping Sam” for his acrobatic ability to snag high line drives. In January 1913 he signed with his first club in organized baseball, Atlantic City in the Tri-State League. It’s not clear though if he appeared in any games for the club. In May he was given his unconditional release.

In 1914 Crane joined Greensboro in the North Carolina State League. Over 124 games he batted .244. Earle Mack managed the Raleigh club in the same league. He advised his father, Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Athletics, to draft Crane at the end of the year when the A’s were looking for a possible long-term replacement for shortstop Jack Barry. Mack gladly paid the $500 draft fee. Crane made his major league debut on October 2 at age 20. He went 0 for 3 in an 4-3 loss to Washington. The A’s had already clinched the pennant and were merely looking to rest Barry for a few days. Crane appeared in one more game and was invited to spring training in 1915. The Sporting Life explained Mack’s thinking, ”While the lad looks to be a grand fielder, his sticking looked mighty weak, especially on curve balls. It is likely that Connie will take him South, change his style to overcome this weakness, and then send him out for another season’s experience. This is the usual custom with Connie, and he gets startling results from players who are apparently due to be weak hitters always.”

After spring training Crane was shipped to Richmond on April 22, 1915. As he explained, “I wasn’t a wonder with a bat though Mr. Mack and Harry Davis tried hard to teach me how to hit. I guess they gave it up as a bad job, for I was shipped to Richmond in the International League in 1915.” Jack Dunn had relocated his Baltimore club to Richmond after the Federal League placed a ballclub, the Terrapins, directly across the street from his Orioles. In 97 games Crane hit .257 for Richmond. On August 23 Mack recalled the shortstop, but Crane fell sick in September and appeared in only eight games for Philadelphia.

Before Crane returned for spring training with the A’s in 1916, Mack announced, “Crane is my shortstop and I think he will prove a wonder at the place. He was tried there at a few games last season, but was too ill all right. I don’t know of any shortstop who is knocking down fences. I am perfectly satisfied with Crane. (Larry) Kopf, whom I sent to Baltimore, is still under an Athletic contract but I didn’t want him this year because I consider Crane the superior player.” Kopf, a product of Fordham University, had manned short for Mack in 1915 after Berry was sold to the Red Sox in July, but hit an anemic .225. Crane played on Opening Day, April 12, and the following day. He delivered a sacrifice, five assists and one of the Athletics’ four hits on the 13th, but developed a charley horse and couldn’t play. Whitey Witt replaced him and proved proficient enough to win the shortstop job for the next five seasons. On May 3 Crane was shipped back to Jack Dunn, who had returned his club to Baltimore. He appeared in 63 games for the Orioles, hitting only .222.

Clark Griffith of the Washington Senators was looking for a replacement for George McBride at shortstop. On January 27, 1917, the Senators traded Rip Williams, Jack Bentley and Turner Barber to the Orioles for the 22-year-old Crane. Crane played 32 games at short for Washington but he hit an unproductive .179 and made 16 errors. He did have an uncharacteristic four-hit game on May 24 against the White Sox. Griffith farmed him out to his old minor league teammate Joe Cantillon of the Minneapolis Millers in the American Association on June 21. Crane hit a staggering .332 in 53 games for Minneapolis, and Griffith recalled him on September 24. Crane’s lively efforts with the bat in Minneapolis sparked sarcastic laments about the quality of pitching in the American Association. Facing the military draft, Crane sought war-related employment after the season.

When the Senators trained in Atlanta in 1918 Griffith saw catcher Val Picinich, a Cincinnati farmhand, playing with the local Southern Association club. In March Griffith initiated trade discussions, offering Crane and other players. Crane held up the deal because he didn’t want to play in the South, but eventually he and Merito Acosta were sent to Atlanta. Crane batted .243 in forty games for the Crackers. On June 16 he was sent to Indianapolis in the American Association, a club managed by Nap Lajoie. Near the end of July Indianapolis sent him to the Baltimore Orioles, who offered him more pay and assurances of steady playing time. He appeared in 48 games for the Orioles, batting .276. In August Crane returned to Indianapolis. In a total of forty games with Indy the shortstop hit a measly .209.

Crane was in an Indianapolis uniform for the entire 1919 season. The club finished fourth in the league as their shortstop hit .253 in 149 games. On September 3 Crane smashed a liner up through the box, breaking pitcher Jess Haines’s ankle. After the season the Cincinnati Reds acquired Crane in return for Hank Schreiber. However, the Reds had a regular shortstop in Larry Kopf, and Crane was relegated to a utility role. He played third base, second base and right field in 1920. On August 26 Kopf suffered a compound fracture of his thumb, and Crane took over at short for several weeks. Once again, he put up meager numbers with the bat: a .215 average inn 54 games with only four extra base hits and nine RBI.

Crane returned to the Reds in 1921, splitting shortstop duties with Kopf, who had threatened to retire in spring training. In May the Oakland Tribune commented that, “Sam Crane, playing everyday, has found himself – is batting elegantly and is the most sensational shortstop anyone could wish to see.” In 215 at bats in 1921 Crane hit .233. On January 24, 1922, he was traded to the Brooklyn Dodgers for Pete Kilduff, Ernie Krueger and $7,500 in cash. The Dodgers planned to move their regular shortstop Ivy Olsen to second base to make way for Crane. The experiment didn’t work, though; Crane lost the job to Andy High after only three games. On April 22 he positioned himself improperly twice trying to prevent double steals. He made his final major league appearance on April 23. In total Crane appeared in 174 major league games, batting .208 with 30 RBI. On May 4 he was sent to Seattle of the Pacific Coast League for cash. In 482 at bats for the club he hit .266.

Crane hit .253 and .269 while playing fulltime in 1923 and ’24. The club won the pennant under Red Killefer the latter season. But Crane began 1925 with an injured ankle and appeared in only fourteen games through June 11, hitting a meager .176. On the 11th he committed three errors in the second inning as Portland scored seven runs on only two hits. Upset with his performance, he quit right then—in the second inning. He went to the clubhouse, cleaned out his locker and left the club. He soon returned home to Harrisburg. On July 24 he signed with his local club in the New York-Pennsylvania League, though he played few if any official games for the club.

On February 17, 1926 Seattle sold Crane’s contract to Buffalo of the International League. The Bisons won 92 games, but that was only good for a fourth-place finish. Crane batted .276 in 110 games. The San Antonio Light noted, “One of the most valuable players among the Buffalo regulars is shortstop Sam Crane, who is daily pulling off marvelous fielding stunts, many of his stops appearing of impossible order.” Nevertheless, over the winter he was transferred to Reading of the same league. He batted a poor .196 over 113 games for the club in 1927.

Crane didn’t play in 1928, although he was offered a slot with Buffalo. He turned it down to chase a young woman—one who wasn’t his wife. While playing with Seattle, Crane had met and married Thelma V. Peterson, a Minnesota native born in 1901 who worked as a stenographer for a Seattle insurance company. In Reading in 1927 Crane met a 25-year-old Harrisburg native named Della Lyter, a stenographer for the state highway administration described as a “pretty divorcee.” The two started seeing each other at the end of the summer of 1928 and Thelma Crane filed for divorce. Crane set up an apartment for himself and Lyter. He mortgaged his mother’s house to do so, as his father had passed away in 1917.

Crane’s friends later said that he was head-over-heels for Lyter and thought of nothing else. Lyter apparently wasn’t as committed. The couple’s relationship soon deteriorated and Lyter started seeing an old boyfriend, 28-year-old John D. Oren, in July 1929. When she ended her relationship with Crane, he was devastated and started drinking heavily. In mid-July Thelma Crane obtained a divorce, adding to Sam’s misery. On Saturday August 3, 1929, he got drunk—unfortunately with a gun in his pocket. He later claimed he was planning to do himself harm; whether he stalked Lyter and Oren or merely ran into them is left to conjecture. Crane found the couple in a saloon at the Bria Hotel in Harrisburg. He followed them into a side room where Oren was strumming a ukulele. Crane pulled his revolver and fired five shots. Two bullets hit Lyter before Oren could whack Crane with his ukulele. Crane then shot Oren twice and fled.

Still drunk and groggy, Crane walked into the police station at 3 o’clock the next morning and calmly said, “I’m told I shot somebody.” Oren died in the hospital that day and Lyter died on August 7. Crane was held without bail at the Dauphin County Jail. He testified briefly at his trial, declaring that he was insane from love and alcohol. On September 25, 1929, he was found guilty of the second-degree murder of Lyter, a sentence that carried a 10-to-20-year prison sentence. On March 26, 1930, he was convicted of the second-degree murder of Oren and sentenced to 8 to 16 years. During both trials prosecutors asked for the death penalty. On April 14 final sentence was set at 18 to 36 years and Crane was remanded to Graterford Prison, a Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution about thirty miles outside Philadelphia.

At Graterford, Crane managed and played shortstop and outfield for the prison nine. Local semi-pro and amateur clubs would travel to the prison on Saturday afternoons to play the prison team; however, that privilege was revoked in 1934 after a prison riot. Crane also spent time listening to baseball games on the radio, reading The Sporting News and discussing baseball with other inmates. He performed clerical duties in the superintendent’s office, drove the prison fire truck and kept a pet squirrel. Crane entertained visitors as well, with his aging mother, Connie Mack and Billy Whitman, a former scout for the Cubs and Browns, the most frequent. Other baseball men that visited him included Chief Bender, Max Bishop, Lena Blackburne, Joe Boley, Jack Coombs, Harry Davis, Bill Killefer, Bing Miller, Brick Owens, Herb Pennock, umpire John Quinn, Wally Schang and Ira Thomas.

Crane applied for parole every year beginning in 1934. He was a favorite of warden Elmer Leithiser, who stated, “He has learned his lesson and I honestly believe he could be a useful member of society again if given a chance.” Connie Mack made pleas to the parole board every year. In 1935 he told the board, “I’m afraid that if something is not done soon for this boy, it will be too late. He is on the verge of a mental breakdown.” In later years Mack stated, “I think the ends of justice have been met by Crane’s exceptionally good record.” Whitman and Mack provided character letters for Crane at each parole hearing and pledged to look after him if he was granted his release. Mack promised to give him a job and Whitman promised to give him a home. In 1940 Mack told a reporter who was headed to Graterford to pass on a message: “Tell Sam to keep a stiff upper lip. Sam should have his liberty. He has paid his debt to society. I’ve a job for him at Shibe Park the moment they decide to release him to my custody.” However, the Oren and Lyter families opposed parole at each hearing, ensuring Crane’s continued incarceration.

On September 5, 1944, at nearly 50 years old, Crane was granted parole. He said one of the first things he wanted to do was see a night game. He added, “Uppermost in my thoughts at this time is to thank everybody who has helped me in this struggle. I’d like to get some new clothes, see my mother in Harrisburg and go fishing.” In October Crane turned down a $35-a-week job working maintenance at Shibe Park to make more money in a war plant.

Sam Crane died of cancer at age 61 on November 12, 1955, at Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia. He was interred at Hillside Cemetery in Philadelphia. One of his obituaries, from The Sporting News, claimed that he was survived by a wife and two children.

Sources

Ancestry.com

Berkshire Evening Eagle, Pittsfield, Massachusetts

Billings Gazette

Bismarck Daily Tribune

Boston Globe

Bridgeport Telegram, Connecticut

Chester Times, Pennsylvania

Chicago Tribune

Christian Science Monitor

Cumberland Evening Times, Maryland

Daily News, Huntingdon, Pennsylvania

Denton Record-Chronicle, Texas

Evening Independent, Massillon, Ohio

Fresno Bee

Hamilton Daily Republican-News

Hamilton Evening Journal

Hartford Courant

Janesville Daily Gazette, Wisconsin

Los Angeles Times

Lowell Sun, Massachusetts

Mansfield News, Ohio

Modesto Evening News, California

Morning Herald, Hagerstown, Maryland

New Castle News, Pennsylvania

New York Times

Oakland Tribune

Portsmouth Daily Times, California

Retrosheet.org

Sabrwebs.com

San Antonio Express

San Antonio Light

Sporting Life

Syracuse Herald

The Sporting News

Titusville Herald, Pennsylvania

Warren Evening Mirror

Washington Post

Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune

Wisconsin State Journal

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