If it were not for bad luck, Creepy Crespi may not have had any luck at all. The infielder with one of baseball’s great alliterative nicknames played parts of five seasons in the big leagues, all with his hometown Cardinals, including the World Series title club of 1942. An ankle fracture sustained while playing baseball in the Army during World War II led to an unfathomable number of complications and setbacks that ultimately ended his major-league career.
“I played with Frank only one year, 1941, but there’s no doubt about it – he was the best second baseman in the National League that year,” said Terry Moore in 1983. “If World War II hadn’t come along, he would have been one of the best second basemen in baseball history.”1
Frank Angelo Joseph Crespi was born on February 16, 1918, in St. Louis, Missouri. He was the middle of three boys reared by Italian immigrants Luigi “Louis” and Theresa (Fumagalli) Crespi, following Angelo and preceding Richard. When Frank was born, the family lived on The Hill, a St. Louis Italian-American neighborhood that also produced Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola. A short time later, the Crespis relocated to the nearby suburb of Wellston, where young Frank attended Notre Dame de Lourdes School.2 Louis was a restaurateur until he died in 1933 at the age of 42, leaving Theresa to raise the three boys.
Crespi had black hair, thick eyebrows, deep-set brown eyes, and olive skin. He grew up a fan of the Cardinals during the Gashouse Gang era and was a member of the Knot Hole Gang at Sportsman’s Park.3 He played sandlot ball as a youth but eschewed sports at McBride High School, which he attended for one year, because the coaches put too much emphasis on calisthenics and conditioning.4 Instead, the right hander played softball and toiled with amateur baseball teams, first the Perfection Club in the DeMolay League and then the Kellogg Corn Flakes in the Municipal Baseball Association.
After high school, Crespi set his sights on a career as a machinist and enrolled at Hadley Vocational School. “I enjoyed tinkering with automobiles, taking an engine apart and putting it together without leaving surplus material on the ground,” he once said.5 His career plans changed when George Silvey, a St. Louisan and Cardinals minor league player-manager, saw him playing first base in the Muny League and convinced him he could make better money on a baseball field than in a machine shop.6
Silvey recommended Crespi to the Cardinals, signed him, and then served as his skipper with the Shelby Cardinals of the Class D North Carolina State League for the 1937 season.7 Silvey thought his strong arm would make him an ideal catcher, but after a few games at backstop Crespi asked out and was moved to shortstop. “I still think that with his agility and tremendous throwing arm – as quick and as accurate as it was strong – he’d have been very, very good behind the plate,” Silvey said decades later.8 Crespi’s .314 batting average and 43 doubles led the team, and his 11 home runs were an impressive sum for a 5-foot-8, 175-pound middle infielder. At the end of the season, he was voted by league managers and scribes to the circuit’s All-Star team.9
In 1938, Crespi moved up a rung to the Springfield (Missouri) Cardinals of the Class C Western Association. He played in all but one of the team’s 135 games, hitting .287 with eight home runs and 31 stolen bases. Though he acquitted himself well offensively, he committed a whopping 67 errors at shortstop. On August 30, it was announced that the Rochester Red Wings, a Cardinals affiliate in the Class AA International League, had acquired the rights to Crespi for the 1939 season in exchange for five players and cash.10
In September 1938, St. Louis was ostensibly out of playoff contention and gave Crespi an audition. The 20-year-old infielder made his major-league debut in the first game of a doubleheader against the last place Phillies on September 14 at Shibe Park. Mike González, in his first game as interim manager, installed Crespi at shortstop, hitting eighth in the batting order. The debut was a microcosm of Crespi’s minor-league season. He went 3-for-5, including a single in his first at bat off Claude Passeau, but his defense was erratic – he made three errors in the Cardinals’ 12-9 victory. In seven September contests, Crespi registered five hits in 19 at-bats and made six miscues in 32 defensive chances. That winter, Cardinals vice president Branch Rickey called him to Sportsman’s Park for a pep talk. “What happened to you last fall? You were a pretty frisky kid over at Springfield, but you didn’t open your mouth when you reported to the Cardinals. Don’t lose your color, your pep, your fighting spirit. It’s one of your best assets,” implored Rickey.11
By the spring of 1939, Crespi had acquired the moniker “Creepy.” The National League Green Book explained that the nickname came because he was “so close to the ground all the time as he scoots around” at shortstop.12 He saw action at third base, shortstop, and second base during Grapefruit League play and made the Cardinals’ opening day roster as a utility infielder. In 15 games, he recorded five hits in 29 at-bats for a .172 average. On July 12, he was optioned to Rochester to fill in for an injured Marty Marion, the Red Wings’ promising young shortstop.13 Crespi was called back up to St. Louis on July 21 but did not see any action before being sent to the Class AA Columbus Red Birds of the American Association, where he hit .243 in 49 games. Crespi was among 14 minor-leaguers recalled by the Cardinals in September but did not report to the team. His rights were then traded to Rochester for Preacher Roe.
Crespi spent the offseason playing for González’s Havana Reds in the Cuban Winter League.14 During spring training in 1940, he had trouble hitting curveballs and continued to display shaky defense at shortstop. One reporter observed that Crespi was “blessed with a powerful throwing arm but when hurried usually parks the ball in the stands behind first base.”15 He hit .302 with six home runs for Rochester and committed 52 errors at shortstop. The Cardinals summoned him to St. Louis for the final series of the season, a three-game set versus the Cubs. Crespi started all three games and recorded three hits in 11 at-bats.
Marion had established himself as the Cardinals’ regular shortstop with a strong rookie season in 1940, but St. Louis had a vacancy at second base. Following the reigns of Rogers Hornsby and Frankie Frisch, the Redbirds had been trying to find an adequate replacement at the keystone for a half decade. Billy Southworth, the Cards’ skipper and Crespi’s former manager in Rochester, called him in during the winter and told him the second base job was his for the 1941 season.16 Crespi responded with a strong spring training to cement his status.
Crespi started the 1941 campaign with a seven-game hitting streak during which he hit .407 and clubbed his first career home run. Until dislocating a finger while diving for a ground ball on May 25, he had started each of the Cards’ first 34 games at the keystone while maintaining a solid .286/.348/.397 slash line.17 He returned to the lineup a week later and proceeded to hit .330 in June, including a pair of four-hit games. He tailed off in the second half, perhaps in part due to being struck on the face by a line drive off the bat of Lon Warneke during batting practice on August 4. X-rays were negative, but Crespi had trouble with his vision from that point on. “He was afraid to go see a doctor, afraid they’d put glasses on him or make him quit playing,” said friend and sportscaster Cy Casper.18 Crespi finished the season with a .279 average, four home runs, 46 RBIs, and an OPS+ of 93 for the second-place Cardinals. After playing inconsistent defense in the minor leagues as a shortstop, Crespi posted a respectable .962 fielding percentage and led the league in putouts among second basemen. “He reminds me a lot of Rabbit Maranville,” observed Southworth. “Notice the way he always fields the ball in front of him? In case he does miss it, he can always pick it up again and whip it across in time to get the man.”19
Crespi used a custom-made glove he devised during his minor-league days. It had “three short middle fingers and oversized thumb and little finger, giving it a scoop-like appearance,” described one reporter.20 At the plate, he used a 36-ounce bat with a thick handle on which he choked up. His preferred model of lumber, two ounces heavier than average, gave him better balance.21 When not at the ballpark, Crespi enjoyed movies and thumbing through comic books.22 For at least part of his baseball career he was employed by Wagner Electric Company in St. Louis during the offseason.
Following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and America’s entry into World War II, players throughout the game of baseball joined the war effort, both voluntarily and through the Selective Service System. Crespi had a draft status of 3-A because his mother was a widowed dependent, so he was not among the early draftees.23 He began the 1942 season as the Cardinals’ regular second baseman and leadoff man, batting in front of rookie Stan Musial and veterans Moore and Enos Slaughter. After hitting only .250 through his first 14 games, Crespi was dropped to seventh in the batting order.
Crespi injured his shoulder diving for a ball on May 24, at which time he was hitting .243. He delivered a game-winning pinch-hit single on May 28 but did not start another game for nearly four weeks. With Crespi hurt, the Redbirds shifted Jimmy Brown from third to second, inserted rookie Whitey Kurowski at the hot corner, and won 15 out of 18.
Crespi returned to the lineup on June 18 versus the Dodgers at Ebbets Field and found himself at the center of a brouhaha. In the bottom of the sixth inning, Brooklyn’s Joe Medwick attempted to advance to second base on a wild pitch. St. Louis catcher Walker Cooper quickly recovered the ball and threw to Marion covering at second. Medwick was 10 feet from the bag when the ball arrived, but he nonetheless slid spikes high into Marion. As Marion and Medwick exchanged words, Crespi took Medwick down with a “flying tackle” as both benches emptied.24 After cooler heads prevailed, Medwick and Crespi were ejected, and each was subsequently fined $25 by National League President Ford Frick.25 Bill Klem, umpiring supervisor of the National League, asked Crespi about the incident the next day. After Crespi admitted he got a couple of good licks in on Medwick, Klem offered his hand and said, “Put ‘er there kid, you’re alright.”26
By the end of July, Crespi was hitting only .231 and lost his starting job to his road roommate, Kurowski. Crespi got another opportunity in August when Brown was on the shelf with a toe injury but hit just .184 in 11 games. While Crespi was mostly relegated to the bench, the Cardinals accumulated a 46-12 record between August and September to surge ahead of the Dodgers and capture the NL pennant. Crespi finished the season with a .243 average, zero home runs, and an OPS+ of 65. St. Louis battled the mighty New York Yankees in the World Series. In what would be his only action in the series, Crespi pinch-ran for Ken O’Dea and scored a run in the ninth inning of Game One. The Cards would win the next four games to capture the title.
Crespi was reclassified by the draft board as 1-A during the offseason and was ordered to report at Jefferson Barracks for induction into the Army on February 20, 1943.27 He was assigned to the Cavalry Replacement Training Center in Fort Riley, Kansas, where he served as a private in the tank corps and played for the CRTC Centaurs baseball team. He was granted a leave of absence to attend the Cardinals’ championship celebration at Sportsman’s Park on June 18. Crespi, dressed in his Army uniform, received his diamond-studded gold championship ring from Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis.28
Crespi was playing second base for the Centaurs on July 18, 1943, on a rainy day in Wichita, Kansas, when he suffered an injury that would begin a cascade of career- and life-altering events. The incident occurred while Crespi was attempting to turn a double play. “The ground ball went to Joe Gantenbein at third,” described Crespi. “I went to second to cover, put my left foot alongside the bag and then, after taking the throw, I always pivot, take one step to the right to be in the clear and throw. But the left leg stuck in the mud and I couldn’t move it.”29 The baserunner, attempting to break up the twin killing, slid late and hard into the leg, causing a compound fracture above the ankle.30
Crespi was taken to Winter General Hospital in Topeka, where he underwent a series of surgeries and spent several months in confinement.31 He was still in a cast five months later when he visited his mother while on furlough but had recovered enough to be walking during a visit to St. Louis during the 1944 World Series between the Cardinals and Browns. A short time later, however, he re-broke the same leg, though accounts of how the injury occurred varied. Some newspapers reported that Crespi crashed his wheelchair while racing in a hospital corridor.32 Robert L. Burnes of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat later described that another soldier was pushing his wheelchair when another pair darted in front, causing him to stop suddenly and ejecting Crespi from the chair.33 The setback came just weeks after Frank received the news that his older brother Angelo had been killed in action while serving in Italy.
After the second fracture began to heal, doctors found that Crespi’s left leg was an inch shorter than his right.34 Several more bone and skin grafting surgeries were required to lengthen the leg and heal his wounds. By the fall of 1945, Crespi had undergone 14 operations on his troublesome limb.35 Nonetheless, he remained optimistic that he would return to the major leagues in 1946. “I probably won’t be ready for the opener, but I think I will be ready to go a couple of months later,” he said at the time.36 Following another skin graft, Crespi was convalescing at Camp Atterbury in Indianapolis and counting the days until his discharge when his string of bad luck continued. A nurse mistakenly bathed his leg in a solution of 34 percent acid rather than the intended one percent.37 The error damaged his skin grafts, leading to more surgeries and several more months in the hospital.
When the Cardinals returned to the World Series in 1946, Crespi was on hand to root them on. Sitting in the dugout wearing his Army khakis before Game Two, an occasional passerby would recognize him. “He would hobble painfully about on his bandaged left foot to greet old comrades,” observed one reporter.38 By that time, he had undergone 20 operations on the leg. “They’ve scraped the bone, taken some out, put some back, nailed and screwed the leg up like an old orange box,” said Crespi.39 He was finally discharged from the Army in the fall of 1946 and remained hopeful that he could resume his baseball career after four years out of the league.
By February 1948, Crespi’s surgery tally had reached 24 when he was hired to manage the Mount Vernon Braves of the Class D Illinois State League.40 The team was an affiliate of the Boston Braves, then managed by Southworth. The 30-year-old Crespi had hoped to play in addition to managing, but his leg would keep him on the bench for the whole season. It had become evident that his playing career was over. He retired with a .263 batting average and .657 OPS in 264 major-league games.
Crespi used the G.I. Bill of Rights to attend Oklahoma City University for the next two years. In 1950, he began working as a scout for the Cardinals and helped run tryout camps, a position he held for several summers. He sold mutual funds for a while and then in the 1960s went to work in the budget analyst department at McDonnell Douglas, an aerospace manufacturer and defense contractor based in St. Louis.
For nearly four decades, Crespi’s baseball career had provided only memories. He had been ineligible for a pension from the Major League Baseball Players’ Association because he was not on a roster in September 1946 when the benefit took effect. Then, a much-deserved bit of good luck came his way in 1983. A letter to Marvin Miller, executive director of the MLBPA, resulted in Crespi being declared injured and not retired at the time of the pension cutoff, thus making him eligible for a long overdue monthly check.41
When Crespi retired from McDonnell Douglas in the spring of 1983, a party was held in his honor at Stan Musial and Biggie’s (a restaurant co-owned by Musial). Emcee Jack Buck and a plethora of Crespi’s coworkers roasted him relentlessly. “Crespi was depicted as a misanthrope, crab, loner, cynic, scowler, critic, insulter. Not to mention irreverent, non-smiling and antisocial,” described Neal Russo of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “However, Frank’s other face, that of a pussycat at heart, was exposed over and over and over.”42 As an example of his lighthearted personality, sportswriter Bob Broeg recalled that Creepy at one point earned another nickname, “Booboo,” for his Yogi Bear impersonations.43
Crespi was a bachelor and lived with his mother, Theresa, for most of his life. He married the former Frances Marzuco Lonigro in 1985, becoming a stepfather to her three children (Linda, Richard, and Thomas). Crespi suffered a heart attack on February 14, 1990. He died on March 1, 1990, at Christian Northwest Hospital in Florissant, Missouri, and was buried at Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis.
This biography was reviewed by Warren Corbett and Rory Costello and fact-checked by Dan Schoenholz.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author relied on Baseball-Reference.com.
1 Neal Russo, “Friends Roast Crespi at Retirement Party,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 17, 1983: 27.
2 Dent McSkimming, “Crespi Top Card in Shuffle,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 30, 1941: 14.
3 Sid Keener, “Sid Keener’s Column,” St. Louis Star and Times, March 26, 1941: 17.
7 Ray J. Gillespie, “Cardinal Organization Will Still Function Successfully Minus Rickey, Breadon Says,” St. Louis Star and Times, October 30, 1942: 20.
8 Bob Broeg, “Crespi Gets Hit Gift; Dinner Will be Dessert,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 6, 1983: 23.
9 “Tommies Lead on Team,” Charlotte Observer, September 23, 1937: 64.
10 “Rookie Star to Red Wings,” Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, NY), August 31, 1938: 23.
11 Sid Keener, “Sid Keener’s Column,” St. Louis Star and Times, March 24, 1939: 24.
12 Phip Harris, “It Occurs to Me,” Tampa Bay Times, February 14, 1939: 13.
13 “Cardinals Nose Out Rochester, 5 to 3,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, July 13, 1939: 13.
14 J. Roy Stockton, “Extra Innings,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 29, 1940: 14.
15 Elliot Cushing, “Meet the Red Wings,” Democrat and Chronicle, April 14, 1940: 21.
16 Hy Turkin, “Creepy Crespi Plugs Cardinals’ 2d Base Slot,” Daily News (New York, NY), May 9, 1941: 60.
17 “Lanier to Hurl Tonight’s Game,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, May 27, 1941: 12.
18 Hal Middlesworth, “On the Level,” Daily Oklahoman, May 16, 1946: 38.
20 Edward Kitch, “Frank Crespi Uses Special Glove and Bat with Cards,” Arizona Republic, May 14, 1942: 12.
22 J.G. Taylor Spink, “Looping the Loops,” The Sporting News, October 1, 1942: 12.
23 Carl Lundquist, “Blattner: ‘Table Tennis Made Me What I Am – Rickey’s Best Bet,’” St. Louis Star and Times, January 30, 1942: 17.
24 “Medwick and Crespi Chased as French Beats Redbirds,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 19, 1942: 14.
25 “Medwick and Crespi Fined,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 19, 1942: 13.
27 “Crespi to Report at Barracks Feb 20,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 9, 1943: 8.
28 “Flag Raised, Cards Receive Series Rings,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, June 19, 1943: 13.
29 Robert L. Burnes, “The Bench Warmer,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, December 4, 1945: 17.
30 Crespi later recalled that the baserunner’s name was Farrell, but newspaper accounts of the injury reported that the baserunner was Goldie Howard.
31 “Sports Celebrities in U.S. Service,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 22, 1943: 27.
32 Hugh Fullerton Jr., “Sports Roundup,” Sedalia Democrat (Sedalia, MO), October 20, 1944: 7.
35 “Crespi Faces 14th Operation on Leg,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 4, 1945: 22.
36 “Crespi Faces 14th Operation on Leg.”
38 Elliot Cushing, “Sports Eye View: Crespi Plans Comeback,” Democrat and Chronicle, October 9, 1946: 20.
40 Hal Middlesworth, “On the Level,” Daily Oklahoman, February 14, 1948: 19.