Catcher Dave Criscione spent one month with the Baltimore Orioles in the summer of 1977. Though he appeared in just seven games, he made the most of them, receiving three standing ovations in one and connecting for a game-ending home run in another.
David Gerald Criscione (pronounced KRUH-shone) was born on September 2, 1951, in Dunkirk, New York, the third of the four sons of Peter Criscione and the former Katherine Tramuto, both children of Italian immigrants. Peter was a laborer on the Westfield section of the New York Railroad; Katherine worked as a machine operator in a silk mill.
Dunkirk is on the southeastern shore of Lake Erie, about 45 miles southwest of Buffalo in New York’s Chautauqua County. Criscione grew up there rooting for the New York Yankees and Buffalo Bills. He got his first baseball uniform from his Little League’s Columbus club.
By 1965, Dave’s eldest brother Pete, Jr. was coaching baseball at nearby Fredonia High School and his brother Mike was the Los Angeles Dodgers’ third-round draft pick out of Syracuse. (Pete would eventually earn induction into the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame as the winningest coach in Fredonia’s history. Mike lasted three seasons in pro ball as a catcher.)
Before the end of the 1960s, Dave had played for American Legion Post 62, the Dunkirk & Fredonia Rookies semipro outfit, a Buffalo-based AAABA club called Painters Union, as well as a steelworkers team and the Plaza Texaco entry in Babe Ruth League.1 At a Babe Ruth League tournament in 1967, he was named the MVP after catching the first game of a doubleheader and pitching his team to the state championship in the nightcap.2
It was at Dunkirk High School, however, that he really made his mark. In three years of both football and basketball, he captained each squad at one point. Twice he earned all-conference honors as a fullback/middle linebacker.3 In baseball, his Dunkirk Marauders won four straight league titles. The second baseman/catcher was recognized as a Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Athletic Association All-Star every year after leading his team in batting, RBIs, and stolen bases.4 After the Washington Senators picked him in the fifth round of the June 1969 amateur draft, scout Jack Sheehan signed Criscione to his first professional contract.
Criscione was a 5-foot-8, 185-pound right-handed hitter and thrower. He had many nicknames. On questionnaires that he filled out early in his career, for example, he listed “Criss”, “Little Giant”, “Squatty”, and “Stumpy”. One reporter described him as a “fire hydrant with shoes.”5
He split both of his first two seasons between Washington’s Single-A affiliates in Geneva, New York, and Anderson, South Carolina. For the Geneva Senators in 1970, he was one of only two future big-leaguers on the short-season club. Though he made fewer than half as many plate appearances as shortstop Bill Madlock, Criscione outhit the future four-time National League batting champ, .292 to .268. Steve Greenberg, the son of Hall of Fame slugger Hank Greenberg, was a corner infielder on the team.
Playing mostly in the faster Western Carolina League in 1971, Criscione ripped 25 home runs to tie for the circuit’s lead. In 107 contests, he batted .294, ranked eighth in the league with 70 RBIs, and drew 50 walks for an impressive .379 on-base percentage. While he remained primarily a catcher, he showed his versatility by playing 30 games at third base, 23 in the outfield, and one at second base. The Washington Senators became the Texas Rangers in 1972. Criscione spent the year with the Burlington (NC) Rangers in the Class A Carolina League, earning All-Star honors as a catcher.
“The seasons would end, and I would immediately start looking for a job,” he recalled. “I worked in a laundry. I worked at the Vineyard Motel. I worked for a lumber yard. It was never easy finding a job either, because nobody wants to hire you for just part of the year.”6
Criscione proved he could handle Double-A in 1973, playing in the Eastern League All-Star Game that summer alongside future stars Jim Rice and Scott McGregor.7 In 250 at bats for the Pittsfield Rangers, he hit .276. But his playing time dwindled late in the season, when he shifted to the outfield to make room for Jim Sundberg, Texas’s first-round pick that June. Criscione had his first Triple-A experience late in the year, appearing in eight games for the Pacific Coast League champion Spokane Indians.
In 1974, Criscione spent the entire season on manager Del Wilber’s Spokane club. Despite batting .286 and knocking in 38 runs in under 200 at bats, he saw action in only 61 games as he spent most of the year backing up Bill Fahey. When Fahey, another first-round pick, was briefly called up to the majors, Criscione told reporters, “I’m floating. When you’ve been sitting around as much as I have, you just ache to play. I’m not used to playing behind anybody, and when you sit around just warming up pitchers, it gets discouraging.”8
On August 16 he caught a 14-strikeout no-hitter thrown by his roommate, Steve Dunning, in Sacramento. His two-run single capped the 10-0 victory. “I don’t think he threw a strike in the bullpen,” Criscione remarked.9 When Spokane repeated as Pacific Coast League champs in September, Dunning and Criscione were the battery for the decisive game in Albuquerque. The catcher’s seventh-inning sacrifice fly drove in the tie-breaking run in a 4-2 final.10
Criscione went to spring training with the Rangers in 1975. He accompanied the Billy Martin-managed team to Texas for the Governor’s Cup series against the Houston Astros before Opening Day. However, when the season started, he was back in Sacramento. “I thought the team was going to carry three catchers,” he recalled. “But then they decided to go with two catchers and another utility player, so that left me as the guy out.”11 He was Spokane’s primary backstop in ’75 but hit a career worst .233 with only 7 home runs and a subpar .295 on-base percentage.
The Sacramento Solons became the Rangers’ new Triple-A affiliate in 1976, and Criscione took advantage of Hughes Stadium’s short left field fence to rebound, batting .293 with 15 home runs. Yet it still wasn’t enough to earn a September big-league call up. “I knew after last year, when I had a good season, that Texas wasn’t giving me a chance,” he told a reporter that off-season.12
The Baltimore Orioles liked Criscione enough to deal Bob Babcock, a 6-foot-5 right-handed pitcher, to the Rangers for him on December 15. “He’s short and stocky and very aggressive,” observed Baltimore’s Director of Player Development, Clyde Kluttz. “He’s a good hustler; he really loves to play.”13
“I think this is a good break for me,” Criscione said.14
It didn’t come immediately. For the fourth straight year, he began the season in Triple-A, albeit a lot closer to home. Baltimore’s top farm club then, the Rochester Red Wings, played about a two-hour drive from his home. Criscione had married the former Marjorie Frankowski before his first Triple-A season. By 1977 they was expecting their first child.
On July 8, 1977, the Red Wings were playing on Friday night in Toledo when the PA announcer paged Rochester manager Ken Boyer during the game. The nervous Criscione wondered if his wife could be going into labor. After the game, Boyer told him that Orioles catcher Rick Dempsey had broken a finger after being hit by a pitch — meaning Criscione would probably be summoned to the majors. Back at the team hotel, the news was confirmed around 11 o’clock.
“My mom and dad were already on the road to Toledo,” he recalled. “They drove through Canada and show up and my roommate ends up telling them that I’m in the big leagues because I can’t get in touch with anybody.”15
Criscione had caught a 6 A.M. flight to Baltimore and checked into the same hotel where the visiting Yankees were staying. That evening, he donned uniform number 40 and witnessed a big-league contest in person for the first time. Ron Guidry pitched against Jim Palmer. When the Orioles came back to win in the bottom of the eighth inning, they pulled within a game of New York for first place, delighting most of the 44,193 in attendance. The series finale was a Monday Night Baseball Game of the Week telecast, so Criscione was able to introduce himself to ABC’s Howard Cosell after spotting him in the hotel lobby.
When the Orioles flew to Texas, Criscione still didn’t play, but he did score a new bat from the Rangers’ Rookie of the Year contender, Bump Wills, his former Sacramento teammate.16 Finally, in Milwaukee, he made his big league debut in Baltimore’s last game before the All-Star break. After catching the bottom of the eighth inning with Hall of Fame umpire Nestor Chylak looking over his shoulders, he made the final out of Baltimore’s 3-2 defeat by lining out to second against the Brewers’ Bill Castro. “I can remember running to home plate for my first at-bat. I was so excited,” he said. “It was my goal my whole life. That I was going to make it to the big leagues, even though everybody said my size was going to hold me back.”17
Criscione spent the break in Rochester with his very pregnant wife. The Orioles had an exhibition scheduled there before beginning the second half anyway, but he missed it because that was the night his first child arrived. They named her Keri Lee; she’d be joined by sisters Casey and Kylee in the future.
The Orioles resumed the regular season the following evening and Criscione appeared in two straight games, catching a total of three innings and grounding out in his only at bat against the Rangers. With the Brewers in town for a doubleheader on Sunday, July 24, he drew his first big cheers from Baltimore fans when the Memorial Stadium scoreboard posted a message about his new daughter during the opener.18 Criscione made his first start in the second game, batting eighth and catching Rudy May. When he led off the fourth inning with a single up the middle against Milwaukee’s Jerry Augustine, he received a standing ovation. “I was a typical guy,” he said. “People can identify with somebody like that. I’d paid my dues in the minor leagues in order to get there.”19
Brewers third baseman Sal Bando retrieved the baseball and gave it to Orioles coach Cal Ripken, Sr. for safekeeping. In the bottom of the sixth, Criscione brought the fans back to their feet with another leadoff single. “Our first base coach, Jim Frey, came over to me and said, ‘You better tip your hat or they’ll never stop.’” he recalled.20 The Orioles let a three-run lead slip away in the top of the eighth, but the Birds scored in the bottom of the frame to seize sole possession of first place. After Criscione’s sacrifice bunt moved the winning run to third during the rally, he said, “I got another standing ovation.”21 That was nothing compared to what happened the next night.
Baltimore nearly lost the rain-delayed Monday night contest on July 25 on a surprising, ninth-inning homer by Lenn Sakata, a 5-foot-9 Brewers rookie who’d been in the majors for five days. When the Orioles came back to force extra frames, however, Criscione entered the game in the 10th. Brooks Robinson led off the bottom of the 11th for Baltimore, and the catcher grabbed his Bump Wills bat to hit next.22 Rudy May told Criscione, “You know what we need, baby!”23
“I just kind of winked and then went out on deck,” he said.24
The 40-year-old Robinson grounded out in what proved to be the final Memorial Stadium at bat of his 23-year career. His locker was adjacent to Criscione’s, and the Orioles legend had welcomed him by name on his first day in the big leagues.25
As Criscione (wearing his orange, alternate Orioles home jersey) prepared to hit next, he knew that his brother Pete and family were among the leftover fans from the announced crowd of 8,219 on a late, damp night. They had driven down from Dunkirk, aware that chances to see him in major league action might be few.
Sam Hinds, a 6-foot-6 right-hander, missed with a fastball. He then threw a slider that his fellow rookie fouled off. There is a little uncertainty about how many pitches ensued (the exact count has been reported as 2-1, 1-1 or 1-2 by various sources). But nobody disputes that Criscione crushed a game-winning homer about 360 feet into the left field seats. “I was running so damn fast that I almost missed first base,” he said. “I was smokin’. I was on my way to second and said to myself, ‘This is going to be over before I get a chance to enjoy it,’ so I kind of slowed up.”26
“The fans, the players, everybody went berserk,” said Orioles publicist Bob Brown.27
When his brother joined the postgame clubhouse celebration, Brooks Robinson handed Pete a beer while Dave entertained reporters. “My father’s on his second childhood because I’m in the majors and Joe Garagiola told me he’d put me in the Italian hall of fame,” Criscione said.29 He also remarked, “I hope I never wake up.”30
Though his timely hit managed to stave off the pinch of reality for a little while, his ultimate fate was becoming clear. “I was being sent down. Earl Weaver was supposed to tell me after the game,” he explained later. “Kenny Rudolph had been released by San Francisco and they had already made the deal. They just had to wait for him to clear waivers.”31
Three days after his biggest hit, Criscione made his second and final start at Yankee Stadium. “I unfortunately called the pitch that Thurman Munson hit his 100th home run on,” he recalled.32 He caught the final inning of a Baltimore loss at the Seattle Kingdome on July 31, and was returned to Rochester a week later. For the Red Wings on August 27, he smacked another game-winning homer to beat the Columbus Clippers. “Before, I wasn’t sure I belonged in the majors,” he told a reporter. “Now I think I do.”33
However, Criscione wasn’t called back up in September. Then, in 1978 he was cast as a backup and had only 207 at bats all year at Rochester. “They want to play Kevin Kennedy every day,” he explained. “[Red Wings manager] Frank [Robinson] told me, ‘There’s nothing I can do about that.’” It prompted Criscione to ask for a trade.34
That request was not granted. Thus, in 1979, Criscione did not report to the team. “Why waste my time, go down there and get released?” he said. “I don’t want to play the same role again.”35 He finished his career with a .274 batting average and 79 home runs in 828 minor- eague games, and a .333 average with one very memorable round-tripper in the majors.
When Criscione stopped playing, he and his wife had just purchased a home in Fredonia. He’d landed a job at Ralston Purina, where he remained for six years. After that, he moved on to a 29-year run with an ink company called CPS-INX, where he was a quality control lab supervisor.
It would not be accurate to say he left baseball behind, however. From 1980-2002, at the State University of New York at Fredonia, he coached the baseball team, including the head coaching role for his last three years. He also helped out Little League and Babe Ruth league teams and kept himself in shape playing slow-pitch softball, bowling, golfing, and hunting. Criscione also took up tennis and won several tournaments.36
When the Orioles played their final game at Memorial Stadium in 1991, he was one of dozens of players who returned for the emotional closing ceremonies. Players from 38 years of Baltimore baseball took their old positions as the theme from Field of Dreams played. “Words cannot describe the feelings I had being on the same field with all the Orioles Hall of Famers,” Criscione said.37
In 2010, he joined his brother Pete, a 1994 inductee, as a member of the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame.
Criscione still has the balls from his home run and his first hit. He also still receives autograph requests through the mail more than four decades after his last game. “Those memories mean more than anything money could ever bring to my family and me,” he said.38
Last revised: November 5, 2020
Special thanks to Dave Criscione for filling in some blanks in a telephone interview with the author on September 29, 2020.
This biography was reviewed by Rory Costello and Norman Macht and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.
1 Criscione’s Baseball Questionnaires.
2 1978 Baltimore Orioles Media Guide: 80.
3 1978 Baltimore Orioles Media Guide: 80.
4 Criscione’s Baseball Questionnaires.
5 Dan Rodricks, “Orioles Player Was a Big Hit with Fans, Team in July 1977,” Baltimore Sun, July 29, 2002: 1B.
6 Carson Carey, “32 Years Later, Fredonia’s Dave Criscione Remembers Major League Blast,” https://www.chautauquasportshalloffame.org/davecriscione2009.php (last accessed October 6, 2020).
7 “Sherbrooke’s Arrington Tops Eastern All-Stars,” The Sporting News, July 28, 1973: 51.
8 “Criscione Responds,” The Sporting News, June 1, 1974: 34.
9 Bill Conlin, “Dunning’s No-Hitter Baffles Solons at Hughes,” The Sporting News, August 31, 1974: 36.
10 “Pacific Coast League,” The Sporting News, September 28, 1974: 35.
11 Carey, “32 Years Later, Fredonia’s Dave Criscione Remembers Major League Blast.”
12 “Babcock Traded for Catcher,” Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, New York), December 22, 1976: 2D.
13 “Babcock Traded for Catcher.”
14 Greg Boeck, “Wings’ Kelly Lost Cause,” Democrat and Chronicle, December 23, 1976: 2D.
15 Josh Reilly, “Home Run Hero,” https://www.chautauquasportshalloffame.org/davecriscione2007.php (last accessed October 6, 2020).
16 Letter from Dave Criscione to Ryan Salsman, http://greatoriolesautographproject.blogspot.com/2011/03/coolest-thing-to-ever-happen-to-my-blog.html
(last accessed October 6, 2020). Hereafter referred to as Criscione-Salsman letter”.”
17 Reilly, “Home Run Hero.”
18 Greg Boeck, “Criscione a ‘Big Bird’,” Democrat and Chronicle, July 31, 1977: 8D.
19 Chuck Korbar, ”Dave Criscione Dunkirk’s Lone Major Leaguer,” https://www.chautauquasportshalloffame.org/davecriscione1982.php (last accessed October 6, 2020).
20 Rodricks, “Orioles Player Was a Big Hit with Fans, Team in July 1977.”
21 Rodricks, “Orioles Player Was a Big Hit with Fans, Team in July 1977.”
22 Criscione-Salsman letter.
23 Rodricks, “Orioles Player Was a Big Hit with Fans, Team in July 1977.”
24 Criscione-Salsman letter.
25 Doug Wilson, “Dave Criscione and the Best Two Weeks Ever,” http://dougwilsonbaseball.blogspot.com/2015/07/dave-criscione-and-best-two-weeks-ever.html (last accessed October 6, 2020).
26 Reilly, “Home Run Hero.”
27 Boeck, “Criscione a ‘Big Bird’.”
28 Lou Hatter, “Criscione’s HR Brings Orioles Win,” Baltimore Sun, July 26, 1977: C10.
29 Boeck, “Criscione a ‘Big Bird’.”
30 Rodricks, “Orioles Player Was a Big Hit with Fans, Team in July 1977.”
31 Korbar, “Dave Criscione Dunkirk’s Lone Major Leaguer.”
32 Criscione-Salsman letter.
33 “International League,” The Sporting News, October 1, 1977: 34.
34 Greg Boeck, “Robby’s a Boss, But Friend, Too,” Democrat and Chronicle, June 18, 1978: 5D.
35 “Criscione Won’t Report to Wings; Chevez Doubtful,” Democrat and Chronicle, March 17, 1979: 4D.
36 “Dave Criscione,” https://www.chautauquasportshalloffame.org/davecriscione.php
37 Criscione-Salsman letter.
38 Rodricks, “Orioles Player Was a Big Hit with Fans, Team in July 1977.”