After a promising trial at the end of the 1912 American League season, both managers he played for predicted a bright future for a young, 22-year old, right-handed spitball pitcher named Roy Crabb. James “Nixey” Callahan, manager of the Chicago White Sox, said, “That boy certainly looked good to me in that game he pitched against the Athletics. If Crabb keeps on developing, he will be back in the big leagues, never fear.”1 Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Athletics added, “Crabb is a promising young fellow, but he needs development along general lines as a box man. He has one great asset which will keep him going and that is nerve. I certainly expect the see him back on the big circuit.”2
But it was not to be. Crabb never again came close to returning to the major leagues. After a couple of years pitching on the West Coast, and a couple more back in the Midwest, Crabb was out of professional baseball by the time he was 26 years old. Over the next decade, he bounced around the Upper Midwest playing for semipro clubs. The man who once played against Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson later moved to a ranch in north-central Montana and pitched for small towns in places such as Havre, Montana and Kenmare, North Dakota.
James Roy Crabb was born August 23, 1890, in Monticello, Iowa, a small town on the eastern side of the state about halfway between Dubuque and Cedar Rapids. His parents were William and Kittie (or Kate) Crabb (née Bancroft) and he had one older sister Maude, and two younger sisters, Mabel and Irene. His father worked as a butter maker and dairyman in a creamery. By the time of the 1900 US Census, when Roy would have been around ten years old, the family moved a few miles away to the town of Elk, Iowa.
He started out playing for amateur teams near his home3 as early as 1908, first as a third baseman and later as a pitcher. He was compensated for his pitching on at least one occasion because when he left the Manchester, Iowa club to pitch for Strawberry Lake it was reported, “…a financial offer from our neighbor is the cause for his leaving.”4 Several sources5 said that he had signed with Bloomington of the 3-I League in January 1910 but no evidence could be found that Crabb never played for that club.
According to one story6 the Davenport, Iowa 3-I League team was playing an exhibition game against a picked nine during a picnic at Davenport’s fairgrounds in April, 1910. The local pitcher was weakening late in the game and someone encouraged Crabb, who was watching from the stands, to replace him. He entered the game in the fifth inning and struck out nine of the professionals in 4 2/3 innings. At some point soon thereafter he was signed by scout Walt Davis, and Crabb made his professional debut with Davenport that August.7
He returned to Davenport again in 1911 and got off to a slow start, but pitched much better in July and August and finished with a record of 13-15 in 34 games. On one occasion, Crabb was compared to the great Christy Mathewson. On August 19 he needed just 88 pitches, scattering three hits with no walks, in defeating Danville, 3-1. Several publications noted that his low pitch count set a record previously held by Mathewson.8 After the record-setting game, he was sold to Toledo, but his contract was retained by Davenport.
Back with Davenport in 1912, he had a record of 11-13 in early August, but pitched much better than his record indicated, allowing just 158 hits in 207 innings pitched. His work attracted the attention of the Chicago White Sox and on August 9 he was signed to a 10-day trial with the club. J. T. Hayes, secretary of the Davenport club, said, “It’s a grand chance for the boy, and the local club will not stand in the way of his advancement. He will be given a tryout by the Sox at once, and it’s up to him to show his stuff. Within ten days Callahan will know whether or not he wants the pitcher. If he accepts him, the deal for Crabb’s purchase will be closed; if not, the pitcher will be returned to our club.”9
Crabb made his major league debut on August 10 against the world champion Philadelphia Athletics at White Sox Park. He relieved starter Joe Benz and retired both batters he faced in an 8-0 loss, a game shortened to five innings by rain. Callahan gave him a start the next day in the second game of a doubleheader, also against the A’s. He allowed just six hits in eight innings and two runs, neither earned, but was outpitched by Jack Coombs in a 2-1 loss.
The next day Callahan turned him back to Davenport10 with the White Sox keeping him under option. According to Crabb’s recollection, he was disappointed with the way his departure from Chicago was handled. After the Sunday game against Philadelphia, Crabb said he went to Callahan and asked about his status. “You pitched a grand game,” said Cal, “and should have won it.” “Well, what are you going to do with me?’ Crabb asked. “Hey, I don’t know,” was Callahan’s response and Crabb was told to report to White Sox offices at 10 o’clock the next morning. When he did he was given his release. “No explanation was offered”, said Crabb, “and I knew that it was all off with me in so far as the White Sox were concerned.”11
No doubt remembering how well he pitched against his club, Philadelphia manager Connie Mack purchased him from Davenport12 and Crabb was back in the big leagues a week later. In his first start for the Athletics, on August 28, Crabb pitched a complete game, 4-2 win over the Detroit Tigers. One Philadelphia paper gushed about the new recruit saying, “In the face of his work it is not extravagant praise to say that young Mr. Crabb’s dayboo (sic) was an unqualified success.”13 He followed that up with a matchup against Walter Johnson of the Senators in the second game of a doubleheader on September 2. He was taken out in the fourth inning when he couldn’t hold an early 5-1 lead and had a no-decision in a 9-7 Philadelphia win.
Crabb was given another start the next day and allowed two runs in four innings before being lifted for pinch-hitter Harl Maggert in the fifth. He was charged with the loss in a 4-2 Washington win. Three days later he scattered 14 hits in a 4-2 complete game win over the New York Highlanders. Crabb was knocked out in the sixth inning of an 8-6 loss to the Tigers on September 10. His final two starts were also losses but he pitched well in both, a 4-2 loss to the Indians and a 4-3 setback to the Browns at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis. In nine big league games combined with the White Sox and Athletics, eight of them starts, he won two and lost five, but had a very respectable 3.29 ERA.
Mack thought enough of Crabb to sign him to a contract for the 1913 season but turned around and traded him, along with Maggert, to Los Angeles of the Pacific Coast League for outfielder Tom Daley that November.14 Despite a 10-10 record in 41 games for the Angels, Crabb was waived by Los Angeles in April 1914 and claimed by Oakland, but was released by that club in June. One explanation for his struggles on the coast was, “Lack of control seems to have been his undoing in the west.”15 Another opinion was that Crabb was somehow jinxed. “Crabb seems to have everything that it takes to make a winning pitcher, but for some reason he has a tough time getting by. He seems to have been hoodooed ever since coming to Los Angeles. I have a hunch that he might have better luck with some other club. It is lack of this which has prevented him from winning here.”16
Although his record in Baseball-Reference.com does not reflect it, Crabb was signed by Omaha after his departure from Oakland and pitched the rest of the 1914 season in the Western League.17 He began the 1915 season with Omaha but was released in May when rosters were cut to the 15-man limit.18 He hooked on with Peoria of the 3-I League where he pitched the rest of that season and again in 1916. That season he posted a 13-6 record in 24 games with 1.96 ERA.
When Crabb registered for the draft in December, 1917, he listed Winifred, Montana as his home, and his occupation that of a farmer, but his whereabouts over the next couple of years are not clear. No record of his military service could be found. He married Lulu Curran on August 11, 1910 in Iowa and the couple had a son named John William (Jack), born September 8, 1912, so it may have been that he received a deferment as sole support of his wife and child or that his occupation of farming was deemed essential labor to the war effort.
At the time of the 1920 US Census, Crabb was living in Cleveland and he listed his occupation as that of a gear cutter at an Axle company. At the same time, he was pitching for an amateur team called the Torbensen Axels in Cleveland so his employment may have been more due to his baseball talent than his skills on the factory floor. A report from 192219 said that Crabb was now living in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and the following year he returned to professional baseball, pitching briefly for Aberdeen, South Dakota in the Class D Dakota League.20
Sometime shortly thereafter he returned to Montana. The circumstances surrounding Crabb’s connection to the state are not clear, but there were several clues. As early as 1908, a teammate from Manchester, Iowa, said he planned to spend the winter in Montana.21 Apparently Crabb’s in-laws, Lulu’s parents, lived in Montana at some point because a report from 192322 indicated that Roy’s wife and son were leaving Iowa for Lewistown, Montana, to visit her parents. In addition, as early as 1915, a brief newspaper item noted that Mrs. Roy Crabb was a guest at the Bright Hotel in Winifred.23
He may have been in Montana several years earlier as a report from 191224 said that he had spent the previous offseason selling stock horses, “his work took him to the Dakotas …” so he may have first been to the state then. An item from 1915 indicated Crabb worked as a wholesale merchant in Winnipeg, Mont. and “… therefore a leading light around the Montana town.”25 There is no evidence Crabb was ever in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, so the report probably meant Winifred, instead of Winnipeg. That spring an Iowa paper reported, “He [Crabb] has been located on a ranch in Montana for the past several months …”26 It is known that he homesteaded 320 acres in Fergus County, Montana, in 1918 at a location described as “just east of Winifred on Dry Trail Road.”
By the mid-1920s he had settled in Lewistown and over the next few years (except for 1929 when he played in North Dakota) pitched for some of the top semipro clubs in north-central Montana, including Montana Power out of Great Falls, Havre, and his hometown Lewistown Ramblers. In 1928 he worked for the Fergus County Herd Improvement Association, so he may have been involved in the dairy business, an avocation he likely learned from his father. At the time of the 1930 US Census, Roy listed his occupation as that of a fireman in Lewistown and later he worked as a painter.
Roy Crabb died on March 30, 1940, at the age of 49 at the Burke Hotel in Lewistown of a hemorrhage of the lung. He complained of pain in his chest ever since he was hit by a line drive during his playing days, and that may have been a contributing factor in his death. He was survived by his wife, Lulu, son Jack, and two sisters. After a services at the Creel Chapel he was buried in an unmarked grave in the City Cemetery in Lewiston. Lulu later moved to Seattle, Washington, where she died in 1978. Jack served in the National Guard during World War II and died in 1981.
The author would like to acknowledge the contribution of Montana baseball historian Jeremy Watterson. He shared his original research with the author, much of which was used in the completion of this biography, which was subsequently reviewed by Bill Lamb and Joel Barnhart and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.
Unless otherwise indicated, Crabb’s playing statistics are taken from Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org and family and genealogical information from ancestry.com.
1 “Callahan Talks Of Roy Crabb.” Davenport (Iowa) Times, January 6, 1913.
2 “Crabb Goes To Coast; M’Cormick to Peoria.” Davenport (Iowa) Times, November 13 1912.
3 Some early reports refer to him as being a resident of Greeley, Iowa, which is another small town not far from his birthplace of Monticello.
4 Manchester (Iowa) Democrat, August 11, 1908.
5 Springfield (Illinois) State Journal, January 2, 1910; Manchester (Iowa) Democrat, January 3, 1910; and “To Try Out With Bloomington”, Manchester (Iowa) Democrat, January 12, 1910.
6 “Baseball: Crabb Grabbed.” Santa Fe (New Mexico) New Mexican, September 17, 1912.
7 “Crabb Joins Prodigals.” Davenport (Iowa) Times, August 19, 1910.
8 “Bettered Record of Mathewson’s.” Grand Forks (North Dakota) Evening Times, August 21, 1911.
9 “Chicago White Sox Send For Roy Crabb.” Davenport (Iowa) Times, August 9, 1912.
10 “Pitcher Roy Crabb Back With Prodigals.” Davenport (Iowa) Times, August 14, 1912.
11 “Crabb Says Goodbye And Leaves For East.” Davenport (Iowa) Times, August 21, 1912.
12 “Roy Crabb Sold To Mack.” Marshalltown (Iowa) Times-Republican, August 20, 1912.
13 “Pitcher Roy Crabb Makes His Debut And Deserved to Hand Up Shutout On Detroit.” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 29, 1912.
14 “Mack Makes Trade.” Rockville (Illinois) Star, November 13, 1912. This source identified the player involved in the trade as “Pete Dailey” and another source “Pete Daley” but Tom Daley was a member of the Los Angeles team in 1911 and later played with Philadelphia.
15 Manchester (Iowa) Democrat, June 24, 1914.
16 “Waivers on Crabb.” Los Angeles Times, April 26, 1914.
17 “Crabb With Western League.” Manchester (Iowa) Democrat, July 22, 1914.
18 “Crabb Released.” St. Louis Star & Times, May 25, 1915.
19 Sioux Falls (South Dakota) Argus-Leader, April, 20, 1922.
20 Aberdeen (South Dakota) Journal, April 25, 1923.
21 “Manchester Base Ball Club Disbanded.” Manchester (Iowa) Democrat, September 23, 1908.
22 Watertown (Iowa) Courier, July 6, 1923.
23 Fergus County (Lewistown, Montana) Democrat, June 24, 1915.
24 “Crabb Also Reports.” Davenport (Iowa) Times, April 12, 1912.
25 Omaha Daily Bee, March 22, 1915.
26 Manchester (Iowa) Democrat, March 17, 1915.