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HARRY CRAFT: BASEBALL LIFER

It was probably Sept. 9 or 10 in 1959 when Harry Craft, manager of the Kansas City Athletics, sidled over to Yankees counterpart Casey Stengel during batting practice at Yankee Stadium for a friendly chat. Harry, of course, knew Casey. Everyone knew Casey, and so did everyone seem to know Harry, one of the best-connected, best-liked men in the game.

These were the days when one umpire would sit in the stands during B.P. to make sure there was no fraternization going on. It was strictly enforced, and fines of up to $25 could be imposed if you said hello to an old teammate and made some fans think that something fishy was going on.

What Craft had in mind on this September day with just over two weeks left in the season, was a “tip” for Casey. He said something about, “You guys ought to try and get this Maris fellow — he’s a terrific ballplayer.”

Perhaps it had already occurred to the Yankees, who were regularly relieving Kansas City of all of their good players anyway. But Harry may have known his time as Athletics manager was winding down. It was the nature of the business, the team had been seventh in all three years he had managed them, and it may have been time to clean his personal possessions out of his office.

So he slipped Casey the tip, and a few months later, the Yanks traded for Roger Maris, who promptly won MVP awards in 1960 and 1961 and beat Babe Ruth’s home run record in the process. Good tip.

Following a tip from Kansas City Athletics Manager Harry Craft, the New York Yankees traded for Roger Maris following the 1959 season. Maris had great success in New York which included being named American League MVP in 1960 and 1961, winning the Gold Glove in 1960, and breaking Babe Ruth's single season home run record in 1961.

If anyone fit the definition of “good baseball man,” even if not the most successful of managers, that would be Harry Craft. His friendships in the game spoke to a time when there would always be a job available if you had the proper connections, and if you had a good mind for baseball. And that was Harry.

If you happen to have hosted a sports talk radio show, how much would you have loved to spend a half-hour with this guy? Do you think there would be enough to talk about?

I knew Harry. He was a spring training coach with the Yankees in my early years doing PR for the club — the Bobby Murcer, Thurman Munson years. He was a baseball lifer who had so many interesting facets to his career that he’s worth better remembering. When Harry broke into the big leagues, his manager had been a teammate of Buck Ewing, the great 19th century catcher. When he retired as Orioles farm department official, Armando Benitez was the hot Baltimore prospect. That’s quite a span of baseball history.

Harry lived from 1915 to 1995, and played for the Cincinnati Reds from 1937 to 1942, which meant he was there for their National League championships in 1939-1940, the Johnny Vander Meer no-hitters in 1938, the Ernie Lombardi “snooze” at home in the ’39 World Series, and the in-season suicide of catcher Willard Hershberger in 1940. He caught the final out of Vander Meer’s second no-hitter.

One of the most gifted outfielders to ever play for the Cincinnati Reds, Harry Craft’s contributions were key to the team’s National League championship in 1939 and World Series victory in 1940. Craft joined the Navy in 1942 and served with distinction during World War II. By the time he returned to baseball, his skills had deteriorated, and he never made it back to the major leagues as a player.

In his rookie season, his best year, he was a teammate of three future Hall of Famers —Lombardi, Chick Hafey and Kiki Cuyler, and his manager for part of that year, another Hall of Famer, was Bobby Wallace. Wallace had played for the Cleveland Spiders from 1894 to o1898, and there he was, still at it, still suiting up. (Craft would himself be selected for the Reds Hall of Fame in 1963). 

In 1939, Harry was in the middle of a controversy over a homer he hit against the Giants in the Polo Grounds that was argued so heatedly that it led to the rule requiring netting along foul poles to better assist umpires in making fair-foul calls. Baseball rules tend to evolve. First there was the installation of foul poles, then the height extension of said poles, and with Harry’s brouhaha, the netting.

In 1940, the Reds’ World Championship season, he set a National League record for fielding percentage by an outfielder, .997. But by 1942 he was back in the minors, this time in the Yankees’ organization, and he went off to serve in the Navy in 1944-45, After the war, he returned to continue playing for the Kansas City Blues, and put in three final seasons there, 1946-1948.

The 1940 World Champion Cincinnati Reds.

He spent those years as a teammate of Jerry Coleman, Ralph Houk, Hank Bauer and Tommy Byrne, among other future major leaguers. Houk was the Yankees’ manager when Harry came to spring training as a coach in the ’70s.

In 1949, at age 34, Harry began his managing career in the Yankees’  organization and was assigned to the Independence, Mo., outpost in the Class D Kansas-Oklahoma-Missouri (KOM) League. There, he would be Mickey Mantle’s first professional manager, (winning the league championship), and the two of them moved up to Joplin in the Class C Western Association the following year (again finishing first). Mick hit .383 for him at Joplin at 18.

As a key figure in Mantle’s career, he was on the field for Mickey Mantle Day ceremonies in 1969 when Mantle’s number was retired by the Yankees.

During Harry Craft's career, he managed dozens of great players including Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, Elston Howard, Vic Power, Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Lou Brock, and Nellie Fox . . . just to name a few.

After a couple of seasons at Beaumont, Texas, he was promoted to his old team, Kansas City, to manage the Blues in their final seasons before the city welcomed major league baseball and the Kansas City Athletics. With the Blues he managed Elston Howard, who was preparing to become the first African American to wear a Yankees uniform, as well as Vic Power, who would be traded to the Athletics. The team also included Bill Skowron, Bill Virdon, and Bob Cerv.

In 1955 Harry became a popular coach with the Athletics, his name well-known now among local baseball fans. In 1957, he replaced Lou Boudreau as manager; his first major league managing job. His players included Clete Boyer, Hector Lopez, Ryne Duren, Cerv and Power. 

After coaching under Boudreau with the Chicago Cubs in 1960, (as he had at Kansas City), Harry took his place on the Chicago Cubs “college of coaches,” managing 16 games in 1961, that year of rotating managers, (and having Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Billy Williams and Lou Brock on his roster). That same year he managed San Antonio and the Houston Buffs in the American Association, the final year of minor league baseball in that city. So that made two cities in which he presided over the end of minor league ball.

Harry was selected by general manager Gabe Paul to be the first manager of the Colt 45s. (Paul had been traveling secretary on Harry’s Cincinnati teams). He managed the Colts for three seasons before the ’65 name change to Astros and the opening of the Astrodome. His final managing stop included a roster with veterans like Bobby Shantz and Nellie Fox and rookies like Joe Morgan and Rusty Staub. In ’63, Harry started an all-rookie lineup, which besides Staub, Morgan, Jerry Grote, Sonny Jackson, and Jim Wynn also included a fellow named Aaron Pointer, whose sisters formed a popular singer trio you have probably heard of.

As the inaugural skipper of the Houston Colt 45s, Harry Craft managed several big-name veteran players as well as rookie, and future Hall of Famer, Joe Morgan

The Yankees employed Harry as a scout from 1967-72 (when I knew him), his old friendships with Houk and Lee MacPhail (who had been farm director in the late ‘40s), serving as the connection. He scouted for the Astros (1975-77), the Yankees (1978-82) and the San Francisco Giants (1983-91), and was a Giants and Orioles farm department official before retiring to his home in Conroe, Texas. He died of cancer in the summer of ’95, 10 days before Mantle. And yes, he had a World Series ring from the ’89 “earthquake” World Series to complement his 1940 Reds championship ring.

 “You bet he got one,” said Al Rosen, who was the Giants general manager. “We all loved Harry. A great man.”

I’m not sure there are too many people in baseball these days whose journeyman lives took them to so many interesting stops with so many interesting associations. His was also a good story of “it’s who you know” that keeps you in the game. This was indeed the story of a baseball lifer.

Cincinnati Reds’ catcher Ernie Lombardi is greeted at home plate by teammate Harry Craft after hitting a home run against the Boston Bees in June of 1939. The team finished first in the National League that year but were defeated by the New York Yankees in the World Series.

 

 

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