This article was written by Donald J. Hubbard
Like many businessmen in the aftermath of the 1929 stock market crash, legendary Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack took a beating financially and, as a result, he dealt his star outfielder Roger “Doc” Cramer to the Boston Red Sox. Cramer joined other Athletics stars such as Lefty Grove and Jimmie Foxx in the exodus to Boston, whose much more financially secure Sox owner, Tom Yawkey, reaped the benefit
Born in Beach Haven, in southern New Jersey, on July 22, 1905, Roger Cramer earned the appellation “Doc” because of his friendship while growing up with a local physician named Joshua Hilliard. Cramer religiously accompanied his friend and mentor on his house calls to patients, often traveling on a “one-hoss dray” in nearby Manahawkin, where he and his family moved to when he was very young. He liked people calling him “Doc” but hated his other nickname, “Flit,” given to him supposedly by a sportswriter. Cramer’s parents Eva and John R. Cramer (a butcher) had six children, though one died young. The Cramers were mainly of Dutch extraction, with some German, and while Doc Cramer did not pursue medicine, he did apprentice as a carpenter. Even during his major-league career, he built houses as a union man during the offseason, always earning more than he made in any year he played professional baseball.
By the age of eight, Doc had begun to follow baseball obsessively, playing it as often as possible and watching many local games. He probably did not see any major-league games as a child or teenager, as his father did not share in his passion for the game. Perhaps Dad could not figure out why his son threw right-handed and batted left-handed; to his family, this remains a mystery.
Doc Cramer first played baseball on the Beach Haven sandlots with his brother, cousins, and friends, and when he wasn’t making rounds with Dr. Hilliard he played ball constantly. When he was in high school (where he was an A student), he and family members even formed a baseball team of their own, the Sprague and Cramer club. Doc also starred on the Manahawkin High varsity team; when not pitching, Doc played center field, second base, and catcher. He married his childhood sweetheart, Helen, on the day after Christmas in 1927 and they raised two daughters together.
Still, Connie Mack, a former catcher himself, must have commiserated with the plight of one of his backup catchers, Cy Perkins, to umpire a semipro doubleheader in 1928. All that Mack asked in return was that if Perkins saw any talented athletes, he let the Athletics know about it. With that caveat in hand, Perkins slipped off to a twin bill between the Manahawkin and Beach Haven clubs.
Perkins had advance knowledge that a special young man named Cramer might help out the major-league club. It seems that some time earlier, Perkins and his teammate Jimmy Dykes had stopped by the office of a realtor named Van Dyke to look for some vacation property, and Van Dyke tipped them off to the local phenom. Doc did not disappoint, and at the end of the second game, Perkins approached the young prospect and asked, “How would you like to come to Philadelphia tomorrow morning and see Mr. Mack?”
Cramer shot back, “What time does Mr. Mack reach the park?”
“About 9 o’clock,” replied Perkins.
“I’ll be there at 8:30,” Cramer promised, and the next day he arrived at Shibe Park to meet Connie Mack wearing a suit his brother Paul had bought him for the occasion. Doc’s father tried to persuade him not to go, but he did not listen and headed off for his tryout with his cousin Chris Sprague driving him there. Mack signed up the eager youngster and kept him on the Athletics bench for the rest of the season, then assigned him to the Martinsburg team in the Blue Ridge League.
It was there that in 1929, Doc Cramer began his professional career, in a Class-D minor league consisting of teams primarily from western Maryland. He hit .404 and won the batting championship, beating out future Red Sox teammate Joe Vosmik in the final game of the season. Vosmik needed to have a slightly better day at the plate to win the title. Although he had thrown 30-some innings over the course of the season, Cramer was a fixture in the outfield. An oft-repeated tale, perhaps apocryphal, has Cramer copping the batting crown for himself when his manager started him on the mound for that final game; Cramer kept Vosmik at bay by walking him each time he came to bat.
Apparently Connie Mack liked what he heard about the Blue Ridge batting champion because he secured him to serve as a reserve outfielder for the rest of the major-league season. Cramer debuted on September 18 in a ninth-inning pinch-hit role against the visiting St. Louis Browns. An 0-for-5 game starting in left field against the Senators was his only other appearance. In all, Cramer came to bat six times without a hit in 1929.
Doc accompanied the Athletics to spring training the next year but did not make the cut when the A’s broke camp, being optioned to Portland in the Pacific Coast League. Years later Cramer related to Peter Golenbock a spring training incident between himself and the Hall of Fame hurler:
“I remember spring training my first year with the A’s. I hit a home run off [Grove] in an intrasquad game. I came up to hit the next time, and Mickey Cochrane said, ‘Look out, he’s going to throw at you.’ He hit me in the ribs. I went into the clubhouse, and after he finished his three innings, he came in and he said, ‘You didn’t hit that one, did you rookie?’”
Luckily for Cramer, he became “a great friend” to the notoriously moody and taciturn Grove.
Doc hit so well at Portland (.347 in 74 games) that Mack called him up to for another viewing in mid-summer.
For the rest of the 1930 season, Cramer was a utility outfielder, working his way into 30 games and chipping out a .232 batting average. Playing the field for Philadelphia proved most frustrating for Doc, as the A’s had three pretty fair veterans standing ahead of him on the depth chart: Al Simmons in left field, Mule Haas in center field, and Bing Miller in right. Otherwise, it was a pretty heady time for Doc to play for the team; besides the legendary manager and starting outfielders, Jimmie Foxx manned first base, Mickey Cochrane caught, and Lefty Grove, George Earnshaw, Eddie Rommel, and Rube Walberg pitched. Cramer did not play in the 1930 World Series, which the Athletics won in six games over the Cardinals.
In 1931, Cramer played on one of the last of the great Philadelphia Athletics teams and his playing time incrementally increased — 65 games and 223 at-bats for a .260 average. He hit his first major league home run, a solo shot, on August 16 off Sarge Connally at Cleveland’s League Park, contributing to a 6-4 Philadelphia win. Earnshaw and Walberg had 21 and 20 wins respectively, and Waite Hoyt came over from Detroit during the season and helped the club win the pennant with 10 wins. Grove remained the ace of the staff with a 31-4 record. To round out this wonderful season, Doc came to bat twice in the World Series that year, getting one hit and two runs batted in as the Athletics lost to the Cardinals in seven games.
In 1932, the Athletics failed to repeat, winning 94 games but finishing second to the Yankees. Mack permitted Cramer to pick up considerably more playing time, at the expense of Bing Miller, and Doc responded with a .336 average in 92 games. His time had finally arrived, but his limited at-bats in his first few seasons undoubtedly cost him a shot at 3,000 hits and an almost certain election to the Hall of Fame.
The country continued to suffer in the ’30s under its seemingly intractable Depression, and no team suffered more financially, despite relatively good attendance, than poor Connie Mack’s Athletics – despite their excellent rosters and contending teams. Beset with financial issues, Mack began to sell or trade his stars to more prosperous clubs, or at the least more adventurous owners. Outfielders Simmons and Haas both went to the White Sox. The development helped Cramer, who received more playing time. In 1933 he worked in 152 games and batted .295, but the team, shorn of some of its key stars, slipped to mediocrity. In a strange statistical quirk, Cramer, a singles hitter extraordinaire, registered a career-high eight home runs that season.
Lefty Grove departed after the ’33 campaign, and in the next year the club really felt the pinch by sliding into the second division, although again Cramer took advantage of his opportunities by batting .311. In 1935, Doc excelled again with a .332 average on a team increasingly unable to protect him in the order. With Jimmie Foxx, he dominated the team’s offensive categories. As a reward, he was named to the American League All-Star team for the first time, although he did not get a chance to bat in that year’s Midsummer Classic.
Chronic economic difficulties continued to plague the franchise, compelling Mack to deal Jimmie Foxx and talented pitcher Johnny Marcum to the Red Sox. Soon thereafter, Mack traded Cramer and then-promising shortstop Eric “Boob” McNair also to the Red Sox in exchange for $75,000 and throw-ins Hank Johnson and Al Niemiec. McNair had a couple of good seasons for the Red Sox and one very productive season for the White Sox in 1939, when he batted .324, good for 10th in the league. Cramer was voted onto the American League All-Star team each year from 1937 through 1940. He never forgot his first major league manager, though; Doc loved Connie Mack, always considering him a second father.
Philadelphia may have run out of money, but it launched Cramer’s career and in his last year there, the club brought onto its roster a catcher named Paul Richards from Waxahachie, Texas, one of the greatest baseball minds of all time and Doc’s best friend in baseball.
In 1936, his first season with the Red Sox, Doc had a .292 average, although he hit no home runs that year and did not hit any for more than three years afterwards. He did improve his batting average though, with a .305 mark in ’37 and a .301 campaign in ’38.
On a personal level, Cramer flourished in Boston, his favorite city. His daughter Joan remembers birthday parties with the players and their children in attendance. In one of her more memorable parties, the young Joan saw Ted Williams walking toward her with his tan pants and brown and white sports coat and in a fit of mischief grabbed a garden hose and sprayed the Splendid Splinter from head to toe. Ted was furious, but he never did catch her.
Another time Doc went to visit a jewelry store in Boston and found it closed. Turning to leave, he stepped on a bag in the foyer, which upon inspection revealed dozens of uncut diamonds. The store had closed for the day, but Cramer contacted the store’s owner the next morning and to the merchant’s great relief, returned the bag to the grateful owner — so grateful that he supplied the Cramer family with bracelets and rings free for years thereafter.
No matter how famous or well-known Cramer became, he never forgot the times in his own youth when his family did not have money, so each year before Thanksgiving and Christmas, his wife would buy several bags of groceries and load them into the family’s 1937 Chevrolet pickup truck. Then, Doc and daughter Joan drove to folks in town having a tough go of it. Obeying her father’s instructions, Joan would go to each house and drop off the groceries on the front porch, never knocking or ringing the bell, and from there they would go to the next needy family until their rounds were complete.
In 1939, it was thought that the Sox might finally overtake the Yankees and win the American League pennant, a hope fostered greatly by the emergence of Ted Williams. No one had to tell Williams how great he was, but on one occasion Doc took exception to the rookie’s cockiness and threw a punch at him in a vain attempt to inject him with humility. As a seasoned veteran, Doc could be expected to replicate his usual production, and if the pitching held and this Williams fellow fulfilled his hype, pennant fever would embrace the Hub.
Unfortunately, Doc began the season feebly, swatting away at virtually everything without success, and until mid-May his batting average hovered below .200. Exhibiting his frustration, he attempted to attain superhuman feats in the field, throwing himself into the center-field screen in a vain attempt to snare a Hank Greenberg drive on May 4, and then days later performing a somersault in catching a “fierce liner” off the bat of Rudy York.
Finally, in a game against the Senators on May 14, he went 3-for-7 at the plate, raising his average to .213, thereafter becoming the Doc Cramer of old, with multi-hit games following swiftly after the breakthrough. By the end of the month, he had raised his average close to .300, but by then manager Joe Cronin had taken him out of his customary leadoff spot, supplanting him with a slugging young second baseman named Bobby Doerr.
Cramer was never a prolific base stealer despite being highly-regarded as a swift runner in the outfield. Some have wondered why Doc did not steal more, although catchers threw him out frequently (he stole 62 bases but was caught 73 times). He was well-known as a singles hitter; one also wonders if he often did not try to go for the double and held up at first instead. During the remainder of the summer, Doc had his typical year: strong defense, swift running in the outfield (but woeful in consummating steals), plenty of hits, but no home runs. The Boston Globe’s Mel Webb credited him with saving five runs by himself in a game against the Yankees on September 7, and he stoically stayed in a game against St. Louis on September 19 after he tripled home teammate Red Nonnenkamp. On the latter occasion, the Browns’ Johnny Berardino had thrown the ball from the outfield to his third baseman but inadvertently hit Doc, who was, in the words of sportswriter Gerry Moore, “so stunned from the blow on the head he was unable to get up and score himself when the ball caromed clear to the grandstand wall off the Cramer cranium.”
Yet it was a game against Detroit on the second of June, which seemed to exemplify Doc’s year, and indeed his entire career, in a microcosm. In an 8-5 loss, Doc went a perfect 5-for-5 at the plate, a pretty rare feat, and yet the next day’s Sox headline in the Globe lauded the team’s manager/shortstop, trumpeting the fact that CRONIN POLES 2. Like Rodney Dangerfield, Doc got no respect, and his singles hitting paled in the face of power hitting every time.
Although the Yankees pulled away from the Red Sox and clinched the pennant in September, Cramer continued to play hard in what became, at best, a race for second place. His devotion paid off as he finished the season with a .311 average, a truly impressive statistic given his glacial start at the plate.
As the threat of World War II increased the Sox gathered for the ’40 campaign, and Doc batted .303, but the winds had shifted at Fenway, with the advent of another pretty slick outfielder named Dom DiMaggio. Fenway has always been friendly to power hitters but less enamored of singles hitters, and as he grew older, the home park became less tolerant of Doc’s style.
Cramer loved Boston and wanted to keep playing there, but after 1940 the Red Sox traded him to the Washington Senators for Gee Walker. Doc always felt that Cronin traded him out of spite, as the two strong personalities never got on. The same day, the Red Sox packaged Walker with pitcher Jim Bagby and catcher Gene Desautels in a deal with the Cleveland Indians for catcher Frank Pytlak, infielder Odell Hale, and pitcher Joe Dobson. Initially the trade seemed to work out a bit better for the Indians as Bagby won 17 games for them in 1942 and 1943, but Dobson proved to be a very good pickup for the Sox, for whom he won more than 100 games through 1950.
Without the luxury of batting in the same lineup with Williams, Foxx, and Doerr, Cramer saw his offensive levels drop off and he never hit over .300 again (he did hit .300 on the nose in 1943). Although many ballplayers joined the armed forces in World War II and the talent pool was diluted significantly during the war years, Cramer, by now in his late 30s, did not really capitalize on this phenomenon and he never made the All-Star Game after the trade.
Cramer’s stay in Washington lasted only one year and he hated every minute of his time there, preferring to play in Boston. Although Cramer had led the American League in hits the year before the trade, as a Senator in 1941, he had 20 fewer hits in one less at-bat and his average dropped from .303 with Boston in 1940 to .273 in Washington. In the offseason, the Senators traded Cramer and Jimmy Bloodworth to Detroit for Frank Croucher and Bruce Campbell. Campbell had been a good hitter in the ’30s with more power than Cramer, but he played for the Senators only in 1942 and did not play again.
With the Tigers, Cramer experienced more frustration at the plate in 1942, batting only .263. But he rebounded nicely the next year with an even .300 mark. He hit well in 1944, too, tallying up a .292 average. And that year Paul Richards joined the Tigers in 1943 to be reunited with Cramer, and they had a much longer run as teammates than the first time as they played together with the Tigers for the next four years.
Having played for a World Series team early in his career, Doc received one last opportunity to play in another Fall Classic in 1945 when the Tigers won the last crown of the war years. During the regular season, Doc continued to range center field while batting .275, even managing to swat six home runs, turning 40 years old in July. In the World Series against the Cubs, Doc got much more of an opportunity to play than his first time, playing in all seven games, batting a lofty .379 with 11 hits, and even stealing a base as the Tigers bested the Cubs.
In 1946 and 1947, Doc played sparingly, and in 1948, he rounded out his playing days with no hits in four at-bats, although he did walk three times. He closed the book on his career with a .296 batting average and 2,705 hits, only 37 of them being home runs. He had two 6-for-6 games at the plate during his career. He coached for the Tigers in 1948 and then joined his best friend, Paul Richards, who was managing in Triple-A and hired Cramer as player-coach with Buffalo and Seattle. When Richards became manager of the Chicago White Sox in 1951, Cramer joined him as a coach, helping to tutor Nellie Fox and a young Latin Star, Minnie Minoso.
After ’53, Cramer left major-league baseball, spending most of the rest of his life as a carpenter; he even built his own house in Manahawkin. He enjoyed watching baseball and tried each year to attend a Phillies game. He also enjoyed attending as many old-timers games as he enjoyed meeting up with old acquaintances, and also stayed in touch regularly with Hank Greenberg, Lou Finney, Paul Richards, Pinky Higgins, Rudy York (who often donated cocker spaniel puppies to the family), and Ted Williams. He always had mixed feelings about the Splendid Splinter, believing that the influence that his old friend Ted exerted over the Veterans Committee kept him out of the Hall of Fame.
A very popular and humble man, he constantly had old ballplayers like Jimmie Foxx over to his house. Babe Ruth was a frequent guest of the Cramers and the Babe often carried a flask of alcohol with him in his shirt pocket. Once Doc asked him to visit a young local boy who had recently lost a leg, and Ruth drove over with Cramer to visit the thrilled youngster.
Doc Cramer died on September 9, 1990, after honoring 12 mailed requests for his autograph, in his beloved Manahawkin, where a street is named after him today.
Interviews with Joan Cramer, March 8 and April 17, 2008. Letter from Joan Cramer dated May 9, 2008.
National Baseball Hall of Fame Doc Cramer file, reviewed March 7, 2008. The first meeting with Perkins is noted in an unidentified article by Harry Edwards.
Golenbock, Peter, Fenway, An Unexpurgated History of the Boston Red Sox, Peter Golenbock (orig. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Son’s, 1992, paperback reprint, North Attleboro, Massachusetts: Covered Bridge Press, p. 81.) The author thanks Peter Golenbock for sharing his time with him to talk about Cramer and giving his permission to use stories about Cramer from Fenway.
The fight between Williams and Cramer was related to the author by Richard A. Johnson, who has revealed the incident previously in his Red Sox Century, co-written with Glenn Stout.