Fresno High School in California has produced eight major-league pitchers, most notably Tom Seaver, a 1962 graduate who earned a plaque in Cooperstown with 311 wins in 20 seasons. In contrast, the big-league career of 1926 alumnus Howard Craghead consisted of 15 mop-up appearances out of the Cleveland Indians bullpen in 1931 and 1933. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound right-hander surrendered 27 hits, 12 walks, and 16 earned runs in 23 innings, with a 6.26 earned-run average and no wins or losses.
Still, the story of Howard Craghead is more than two short stints in the big leagues: He won 182 games in 13 Pacific Coast League seasons, earned a master’s degree in philosophy, served as a naval officer in World War II, and became a corporate executive with San Diego Gas & Electric Company. Along the way his scholarly manner created nicknames of Judge and Professor from baseball teammates and sportswriters.
Born in Selma, California, on May 25, 1908, Howard Oliver Craghead was the second of four children of Nile and Ethel Craghead. Others in the household were an older brother, Owen, and later, Melvin and Loretta. Originally from Missouri, Nile Craghead married California-born Ethel Akers and ran a farming operation in rural Selma, 16 miles southeast of Fresno.
Howard was a well-rounded youngster, sharing chores around the farm and excelling in classroom studies. With no organized youth baseball program available in those days, Howard’s talent for throwing fastballs by opposing batters was discovered in area pickup games.
Entering Fresno High School as a sophomore in the fall of 1923, he put baseball aside to concentrate on academics. He joined the school nine in his junior year and the Fresno Warriors rode Craghead’s fastball to league championships in 1925 and 1926. He averaged 17 strikeouts in 15 games pitched over the two seasons, topped off with 24 whiffs of frustrated Fresno Tech batters in his final high-school game.
Aware of the youngster’s record, Oakland of the Pacific Coast League signed Howard to a contract on graduation day, June 12, 1926. Eleven days later he made his professional debut in relief, taking over in the eighth inning of a 10-4 loss to Portland; in two scoreless frames he recorded five strikeouts. Craghead remained with the second-place Oaks for the remainder of the campaign, hurling 83 innings in 20 games, with two wins, three losses, and a 3.25 ERA.
After the season he started classes at Fresno State College; enrolling in winter sessions over the next several years, he received a bachelor’s degree, majoring in psychology and philosophy, and was a member of the school’s varsity debate team. A master’s degree in philosophy came later.
Craghead’s 1927 season started with Ogden in the Class C Utah-Idaho League., where veteran catcher-manager Del Baker schooled a duo of promising 19-year-old Oakland prospects, pitcher Craghead and receiver Ernie Lombardi. The Gunners won the league championship, and the young hurler took an improved curveball back to Oakland, where he finished out the year with another pennant winner. He recorded identical won-lost marks of 4-4 with both clubs. In late October he was recruited with other Fresno-area youngsters to play with Yankee greats Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, barnstorming out west as the Bustin’ Babes and Larrupin’ Lous. The Fresno game drew a crowd of 5,000.
Craghead blossomed with the Oaks over the next three seasons, pitching in 138 games and logging 923 innings. His victory count was 18 in 1928, followed by 21 in both ’29 and ’30. Craghead led PCL moundsmen with 190 strikeouts in 1929, and the New York Yankees took an option on his services that season. His best pitch in 1929 was made off the baseball field, to an Oakland nurse named Leola, who became his wife.
The Yankees had exercised earlier options to purchase Oaks infielders Lyn Lary and Jimmie Reese, but gave up their rights to Craghead in 1930. The Cleveland Indians stepped up and acquired the right-hander for $25,000 and minor-league first baseman Mike Powers.
Craghead reported to spring training with the Indians in 1931, and made the Opening Day roster. His major-league debut came on April 30, the 13th game on Cleveland’s schedule. Relieving in the eighth inning, he held visiting Detroit scoreless for two frames in a 9-4 Tigers victory. A week later, on May 7, he was summoned in the sixth inning at St. Louis, and gave up three hits and a run in two-thirds of an inning as the Browns triumphed, 10-4.
The next day in Cleveland he took over in the eighth inning with the Boston Red Sox leading, 8-4, and worked two scoreless frames, striking out two. May 16 was the Californian’s final contest in the majors that year; inserted in the final frame, he was touched for three runs on four hits and a walk in a 12-5 Philadelphia Athletics win. Four days later he was optioned to Oakland.
Toiling in 36 games for the Oaks, Craghead won 13, lost 15, and recorded a 4.17 ERA. When he reported to the New Orleans training camp of the Indians in the spring of 1932, the Cleveland starting rotation was the same foursome of Wes Ferrell, Mel Harder, Willis Hudlin, and Clint Brown. Howard was quickly optioned to Toledo of the American Association for steady work. In 41 games he turned in a won-lost mark of 18-15 with the fourth- place Mud Hens.
Destined for their third straight fourth- place AL finish in 1933, the Indians bolstered their starting rotation with the addition of Oral Hildebrand. Craghead, with a promising spring, went north for Opening Day, again working out of the bullpen. He pitched just 11 times in the season’s first 69 games; his last major-league hurrah came on June 28 at home against Washington. He entered the fray in the top of the first inning with no outs after starter Wes Ferrell had given up five runs on four hits and a walk. Craghead retired the side, but not before Heinie Manush belted a grand slam.
Craghead stuck around to pitch three innings in the 15-2 rout, allowing seven runs on seven hits and four walks. His appearance at the plate in the second inning produced a run on a groundout; it was his only RBI in three hitless big-league at-bats. Afterward he was returned to Toledo in exchange for pitcher Monte Pearson. With the Mud Hens he won only five of 14 decisions and sought treatment for a sore arm at season’s end.
In 1934 Cleveland sold Craghead to Seattle of the Pacific Coast League. Back in the loop where he started, and the sore arm gone, he was a workhorse in 1934 and 1935, logging two-year totals of 556 innings pitched, 34 wins and 37 losses on a pair of sixth-place teams. He was referred to frequently in the Seattle press as “curveball artist” and “professor.”
Off to a slow start in 1936 with a record of two victories and seven defeats, the professor was traded to the San Diego Padres in June for left-handed pitcher Ed Wells. San Diego entered the PCL with the shift of the Hollywood franchise by owner Bill Lane after the 1935 season. The WPA (Works Progress Administration, a federal public-works agency) hastily built a new ballpark alongside the waterfront in early 1936, and Lane Field, with a seating capacity approaching 10,000, became the initial home of the Padres.
When he came to San Diego, Craghead was met by two ex-teammates, pitcher Herman Pillette from Seattle and catcher-infielder George Detore from Toledo; the Padres roster also included future major leaguers Gene Desautels, Vince DiMaggio, George Myatt, Bobby Doerr, and Ted Williams. Craghead moved right into the pitching rotation, winning 14 of 19 decisions after manager Frank Shellenback, an ex-hurler, suggested that the veteran add a changeup curve to his arsenal. The Padres finished in a second-place tie with Oakland, 1½ games behind pennant-winning Portland.
Bobby Doerr left for the Red Sox after the 1936 season, and Ted Williams followed the next year. Teddy Ballgame’s emergence in 1937 (.291 batting average and 23 home runs) helped the Padres sweep Sacramento and Portland in the PCL playoffs and be crowned loop champions. Craghead contributed 16 victories and received a lifetime pass to league games upon completion of ten years of PCL service.
After the playoffs Craghead returned to Seattle, where he worked in the winters for an engineering firm. The next year, 1938, the Cragheads moved permanently to San Diego, where the professor finished with a record of 18-18 with the Padres with a fine ERA of 2.86. The Padres dropped to fifth place in the standings (92-85).
Craghead was employed in sales by a San Diego heating manufacturer in the winter of 1938-39, and thought of quitting the game. When team workouts began in 1939 he relented, and joined his mates in spring drills. The season was bittersweet, however, as the club finished with a losing record (83-93), and fifth again. Bothered by a sore right elbow, Craghead saw his ERA climb to 4.74 and his won-lost record drop to 11-16.
The soreness in the elbow subsided, and in 1940 the 32-year-old hurler came back for a final season. The club climbed to fourth place (92-85), with a minimal contribution from Craghead: 8 wins, 14 losses, 4.89 ERA. Without a pitching decision in two seasons with Cleveland, the veteran posted a winning record of 209 victories and 207 defeats in 15 minor-league seasons.
Granted his unconditional release by the Padres in February 1941, Craghead launched a long career with San Diego Gas & Electric Company, starting as a heating engineer. As World War II progressed, he took a leave of absence in early 1943 to enlist in the Naval Reserve officer program. He was commissioned a lieutenant (j.g.) upon graduation from training school in Tucson, Arizona, in April 1943, and spent most of his active duty at the naval base in Long Beach, California.
Discharged in 1945 with the rank of lieutenant commander, Craghead returned to San Diego Gas & Electric as a heating engineer, and steadily progressed through the company as a power salesman, supervisor of governmental sales, supervisor of governmental and industrial power sales, and assistant secretary. When the secretary retired on July 1, 1957, Craghead was elected to the position by the utility’s board of directors.
As corporate secretary he was the company’s business spokesman, and his speaking ability expanded into the business world. Before and after retirement from the Padres Craghead had fulfilled numerous requests by youth and civic groups for talks on his experiences in baseball.
His presence in the San Diego community was enhanced by active engagement with several organizations: the Electric Club, the Civitan Club, and American Legion Post 492. He served as Electric Club president in 1951, and helped promote the annual public-school motor winding contest, a stimulus to students interested in careers in electrical engineering. He was a co-founder of San Diego’s Civitan International chapter, and held leadership roles as club director, president, and district lieutenant governor.
In 1954 the Post 492-sponsored team won the National American Legion Junior World Series in Yakima, Washington. With a roster of youngsters from East San Diego’s Hoover High School, the alma mater of Ted Williams, Post 492 defeated a team from Gastonia, North Carolina, for the championship. Craghead was post adjutant that year, and assisted in coaching pitchers and driving players to and from games. One of the hurlers, left-hander Larry Elliott, made it to the major leagues as an outfielder with the Pirates and Mets in the 1960s.
When the mother of Post 492 infielder Tom Rinks died, the childless Howard and Leola took him into their home. Rinks went on to graduate from San Diego State, where he was a starter on the Aztec baseball team and later played minor-league ball. He related in a telephone interview that Craghead was called Judge in his playing days by players seeking advice from their well-respected teammate. He set an example for Al Olsen, a southpaw hurler who joined the Padres in 1939 after graduation from San Diego High School. Craghead told the San Diego Union (December 13, 1960): “I like to think I had something to do with Olsen’s decision to go with his college work while he was playing baseball. We used to discuss the subject a lot. I did all of my college work in the same manner – playing ball in the summer and going to school the rest of the year.” Armed with college degrees, Olsen taught physical education and later became director of athletics at San Diego State.
In another San Diego Union article (September 15, 1957), Craghead related how a career in baseball had benefited him in his current vocation: “Participation in knowing, meeting, and getting along with people. The travel connected with baseball is certainly a very considerable advantage to anyone.”
Other civic duties he performed included terms on the 1958 San Diego County grand jury and as president of the 1959 United Fund, the principal supporter of the San Diego Boys and Girls Aid Society. In February and March 1961 Craghead was one of a number of former ballplayers serving as instructors at coaching clinics sponsored by the PCL Padres for 900 Little League managers.
On July 15, 1962, Howard was playing in a San Diego Gas & Electric Company golf tournament at the Balboa Park municipal course in San Diego when he collapsed and died; he was 54 years old. According to his wife, Leola, he had battled a heart condition for ten years. He was buried with military honors at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego. Leola died on May 22, 1992, and was laid to rest next to her spouse.
Howard Craghead was not forgotten in Fresno; in 1974 he was inducted into the Fresno High School Hall of Fame, joining a host of other ex-major leaguers, including Ted Wills, Jim Maloney, Pat Corrales, Bobby Jones, Dave Odom, Dick Selma, Dutch Leonard, and two members also in the Cooperstown Hall: Frank Chance and Tom Seaver.
In preparing this biography the writer accessed Baseball-Reference.com; Retrosheet.org; Ancestry.com; and Genealogybank.com. Also helpful was Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball.
Special thanks to Tom Rinks for a telephone interview on April 6, 2013.