SABR

Roger Craig

This article was written by Rich Shook.

Roger Craig and “split-finger fastball” will forever be linked in baseball history. It was Craig’s work teaching first Jack Morris and then Mike Scott how to throw the pitch that gave the former right-handed pitcher lasting fame. “People think I invented that,” Craig said. “I did not. Bruce Sutter did. I just found a way to teach it and it worked out.”

A split-finger fastball is cousin to the forkball, the difference being that the latter is set way back in the hands near the webbing while the former is closer to the fingertips. “The forkball is deeper and you can’t throw it as hard,” Craig said. “The key to it is you throw it like a fastball. You don’t try to turn it over or cut it.” The pitcher uses the same motion, arm slot, and arm speed as he does for his fastball, but the ball dips as it nears the plate. The pitcher has to figure out what release point works for him, but its effectiveness comes because the batter’s brain says a fastball is coming and by the time he figures out that it isn’t, it’s too late. The ball dives under the bat.

“The first guy I really worked on was Milt Wilcox,” Craig said. “He was a gutty pitcher.” Wilcox came to the majors with an overpowering fastball, but a sore shoulder prompted him to go into the trickery business. He got by with a sharp slider, but Craig wanted to tinker. “Let’s try something else,” he told Wilcox. “You have to have pretty good hands, and he did not, but it became a good pitch for him.

“But with Jack [Morris], it became a great pitch. Any pitching coach would be glad to have him. He was kind of tough to handle at times,” Craig said. “Jack used a blooper pitch, but he telegraphed it. He had big fingers so we worked on it between starts. He had a good one but he didn’t want to throw it during a game. He said, ‘Naw, I like my changeup.’ But I asked him, ‘For one game, let’s just try it.’ So the first six innings he had about eight strikeouts and he ended up having one of the best around.”

Craig said Randy O’Neal, who pitched in the majors from 1984 to 1990, “had one of best I ever saw. It was so good he could hardly get it over the plate. Juan Berenguer [whose big-league career stretched from 1978 to 1992] had a good one, so did Aurelio Lopez [1974-87]. I taught Mike Scott [of Houston], and a lot of my pitchers for San Francisco threw it.”

That secured Craig’s reputation as a pitching guru. He went on to manage the San Francisco Giants for seven seasons, taking over in September 1985.

Craig enjoyed a successful career as a pitcher, helping the Brooklyn Dodgers to their first World Series win, in 1955, and also pitching for the 1959 World Series champion Dodgers -- the franchise having relocated to Los Angeles -- and being traded to St. Louis in time to help the Cardinals win the World Series in 1964.

Oh, and along the way Craig also gained a measure of notoriety for losing 20 games in consecutive seasons for the 1962-63 New York Mets.

“I played and coached and managed in the World Series. That’s quite a feat. Not many guys have done that,” Craig said.

He came to the Tigers after two years of managing the San Diego Padres, 1978-79. “Sparky [Anderson, Detroit manager] called me. He wanted me to come up and be his coach. So I did,” Craig recalled.

After the Tigers fell just short in 1983, when most of the team felt it was a better outfit than the league champion Baltimore Orioles, general manager Bill Lajoie made a late spring-training trade that solidified the Tigers, acquiring left-handed reliever Willie Hernandez from the Philadelphia Phillies to take over from Aurelio Lopez as Detroit’s closer.

“I had a really good feeling in spring training. I started doing a diary. I did notes every day. Vern [Plagenhoef, who covered the Tigers for Booth Newspapers at the time] saw me doing it and said, ‘You ought to write a book.’ So I did.” The book, Inside Pitch: Roger Craig's ’84 Tiger Journal, was snapped up by Detroit fans hungry for anything that celebrated their world championship team.

“We got off to such a great start,” Craig said of the Tigers’ renowned 35-5 record out of the gate in ’84. “We had a balanced team. At every position we had maybe not a superstar, but a good ballplayer. Lance [Parrish] was a great catcher and leader. We had a pretty good pitching staff. Berenguer and Rozey [Dave Rozema] could start and relieve. But Willie was the key. And Sparky did a great job. I’ve been around a lot of them and he probably was one of the greatest. But it wasn’t an easy year for him. He worried. Every time we lost a couple of games he’d say, ‘Toronto is going to catch us.’ But he was right on top of everything. He was married to baseball, 24/7. He’d stay up all night watching games. He was easy to work for, though. He’d give you a job to do and let you do it.”

The magic ended after the World Series win in 1984, though. Craig asked for a raise, didn’t get it, and decided his time in Detroit had come to an end. In his book, Craig said he decided to retire. But baseball had other ideas.

“In the middle of the [1985] season, Al Rosen called me,” Craig said. “He asked if I was interested in becoming his manager. Bob Lillis was the manager with Houston then and I told Al I wouldn’t take his job. Al told me, ‘You won’t be taking his job, I’m moving to the San Francisco Giants and they’re about to lose 100 games.’”

In San Francisco in 1985 Craig made Will Clark his first baseman and Robby Thompson his second baseman even though neither player had any Triple-A experience. The infusion of young talent and energy bumped San Francisco from 100 losses to a brief visit to first place before fading to third at the end of the season. Under Craig, who made “humm baby” a baseball catchphrase during this era, San Francisco won its division in 1987, then won the 1989 pennant, getting swept in the so-called Earthquake Series by Oakland. “I spent seven years there,” Craig said. “It was a great city and a lot of fun. I enjoyed managing there.” Craig retired after the 1992 season, giving his advice when asked.

“I helped Bob Brenly when he managed the Arizona Diamondbacks,” Craig said. “I did it for three years and he ended up giving me a World Series ring -- paid for it out of his own pocket, I found out later. He said, ‘You trained me to become a major-league manager.’ It’s nice to know people don’t forget you. I helped Tram [Alan Trammell, who managed Detroit from 2003 to 2005] a little bit in spring training, too. Since then, I’ve been retired. I’ve played a lot of golf.”

Craig returned to Detroit on Sept. 27, 2009, to help the Tigers celebrate the 25th anniversary of the 1984 season despite learning “the day before I have prostate cancer. I’m 79 and they told me I might die of something else before I die of cancer. If I went today I’m one of the luckiest guys who ever lived. I played, coached, and managed baseball. I’d have done it for nothing, but it kept my family going.”

Family was always big for Craig, one of 10 children raised by John Thompson and Mamie Irene Craig in Durham, North Carolina.

“My dad was a shoe salesman; he was on the road a lot,” Craig said. “Raising 10 kids, I don’t think he made more than $50 a week in his life. I was number eight. My mom worked at Watts Hospital in Durham. She was like the housemother at a nursing home. My parents never really had a lot. It’s still amazing they raised 10 kids with the little money they made. But we never felt we were poor. We never complained about it.”

That’s where Craig got his rock-solid roots. He said his parents were the biggest influences on his life.

Craig’s road to the mound started at shortstop. Although he was 6-feet-4, big for a shortstop even now and huge by the standards of the 1940s and ’50s, Craig was slender and was only the No. 2 pitcher on his high-school team.

“We had an outstanding pitcher, Julius Moore. We ended up being the two best in the state [North Carolina]. He signed with the Yankees but broke his wrist in a car accident and never pitched much higher than B ball [there was Class A, B, C and D in those days, as well as Double-A and Triple-A]. But he had a major-league arm in high school. He’d strike out 17, 18 a game. He had better control than I did.”

Craig was followed in high school by what is still known as a bird dog, a person who gets paid sort of on a free-lance basis to scout amateur prospects. His bird dog reported to Frank Rickey, the brother of the boss of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey. It was Frank Rickey who signed Craig for the Dodgers out of high school.

In 1950 Craig was sent to Class D Valdosta of the Georgia-Florida League. He pitched 23 games for Valdosta, turning in a 14-7 slate and a 3.13 earned-run average, which got him promoted to Newport News of the Class B Piedmont League, where he pitched six more games, losing once and being tattooed for a 7.11 ERA.

Craig spent all of the 1951 season with Newport News. He went 14-11 with a 3.67 ERA in 38 games, 28 of them starts. Then he was drafted, serving his obligatory two years in the Army.

“I was lucky,” he said. “I was pretty good in basketball and I played both baseball and basketball at the Fort Jackson [South Carolina] post. I was a little disappointed. All my buddies went to Korea, but in those days you did what they told you. I wanted to go.”

Future major leaguers Ed Bailey (Cincinnati), Frank House (Detroit), and Heywood Sullivan (Boston) caught Craig in those years and kept telling him his stuff was good enough to get him to the majors.

“Then in 1954 I broke my left elbow. I tripped,” Craig said. “I talked the doctor into not putting a cast on it and went to spring training the next day.”

Al Campanis, the Dodgers’ scouting director, saw Craig doing one-handed push-ups and came over to yank on his left arm. Nice move, Al; it put Craig out of action until midseason.

Even with his truncated season, he wound up splitting time with three teams in 1954, working 20 games back at Newport News (8-3, 2.50) before moving up to Class A Pueblo of the Western League, where he pitched in six games (1-1, 9.64), and then working two innings in three games for Elmira of the Class A Eastern League, giving up six runs, two of them earned.

Craig opened 1955 with Triple-A Montreal of the International League and was 10-2 with a 3.54 ERA before being summoned to help the Brooklyn Dodgers win the pennant and then their first World Series.

“I was 10-2 in July when they called me up,” he said. “I beat the Yankees in the fifth game of the World Series that year.”

Craig pitched 21 times in 1955, starting 10 games and going 5-3 with a 2.77 ERA and the following season he was a regular member of the rotation.

“I hurt my arm in the last game the Brooklyn Dodgers ever played. It was raining and sleeting in Philadelphia when I pitched. Today I know it was a rotator cuff, but this was 1957. I had to learn how to pitch all over again.

“One of best things that ever happened to me came in 1958,” Craig said, although the good fortune came in a most roundabout way.

“My arm was hurting so bad in spring training they sent me to St. Paul,” he said. “The manager, Max Macon, pitched me every fourth day to see if I could build up arm strength.” Craig struggled through 28 games for St. Paul of the Triple-A American Association in 1958, going through a 5-17 season with a 3.91 ERA. On top of that, he was still having arm problems, so near the end of the season Macon gave Craig shock treatment.

“He told me, ‘We got a chance to win this thing so you’d be better off to go back home to get your education. You’re never going to pitch in the big leagues again.’” Craig said. That lit a fire under Craig, who tossed a couple of complete games down the stretch.

Craig pitched in 14 games (6-7, 3.19, six complete games, and a shutout) for Spokane of the Pacific Coast League in 1959 but was brought up to what had become the Los Angeles Dodgers, where he posted a 2.06 ERA, missing the ERA title because he was 1⅓ innings short of the 154 needed to qualify for the title (one inning pitched per game the team played); the Giants’ Sam Jones led with a 2.83 mark. Craig showed his effectiveness by winding up in a seven-player tie (Johnny Antonelli, Bob Buhl, Lew Burdette, teammate Don Drysdale, Sam Jones, and Warren Spahn) for the league lead with four shutouts. He clearly held his own in excellent company.

“They had all those great players,” Craig said. “I saw Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Jim Gilliam. ... It was like an All-Star team and I said, ‘I don’t really belong here.’

“It was very special, a great experience. I was just fortunate enough to be on the only world championship they won [in Brooklyn]. The Los Angeles Dodgers, that was a different club,” he said. “We still had Gil Hodges and Snider, but Pee Wee was a coach. Maury Wills came up and was an outstanding player. We had Gilliam and Wally Moon, who was famous for what they called ‘Moon shots,’ home runs over the left-field fence in the Los Angeles Coliseum. We had Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax, Stan Williams, and Clem Labine. We beat the Chicago White Sox in the World Series [in 1959].”

Craig was used more and more out of the bullpen in 1960 and ’61, then was allowed to be taken by the New York Mets in the 1962 expansion draft. He gained a certain amount of fame for going 10-24 and 5-22, losing 18 straight decisions over the 1962 and ’63 seasons.

“I lost a lot of ballgames,” he said, “but I had 27 complete games in those two years. I started the first game the New York Mets ever played.”

The St. Louis Cardinals traded for Craig after the 1963 season. Although he was only 7-9 in 39 games, 19 of them starts, he posted a 3.25 ERA and helped the team come from seventh place in late July to gain a berth in the World Series, where the team defeated the last great New York Yankees team of that era; Craig won Game Four in a relief effort.

Craig worked long relief for Cincinnati in 1965 and pitched a handful of games for Philadelphia the following season before his arm gave out. He also returned to the minors, working six games for Seattle of the Pacific Coast League in 1966.

The Dodgers hired Craig to scout in 1967 and in 1968 made him the manager of their Albuquerque farm club in the Double-A Texas League, where he also pitched his last pro game.

After terms as a major-league pitching coach for San Diego and Houston, Craig was hired by the Padres to manage their team in 1978. He guided San Diego to its first over-.500 finish in the franchise’s history, at 84-78, but a slip back in 1979 to 68-93 cost him his job.

That was when Anderson rescued him to teach Detroit’s young pitchers.

 

Sources

Craig, Roger, and Vern Plagenhoef. Inside Pitch: Roger Craig's ’84 Tiger Journal. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1984.

Treder, Steve. “Humm Baby!” Baseball Analysts, January 11, 2007. http://baseballanalysts.com/archives/2007/01/humm_baby_1.php (accessed October 30, 2009).

Lee Sinins’ Complete Baseball Encyclopedia; http://www.baseball-encyclopedia.com/ (accessed October 30, 2009).

Shook, Richard L. Telephone interviews with Roger Craig, October 5, 2009; July 15, 2010.

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