On the fringe of a quiet golf course in the foothills outside San Diego, music from the Highwaymen galloped from the sound system. Family and baseball, inextricably intertwined, had gathered to say one final goodbye to Roger Craig. Horses and golf, two other staples in this North Carolina country boy’s life, gracefully filled the green pastures and dusty trails of the imagination as the songs rang out.
I was a highwayman
Along the coach roads, I did ride
Craig was 93 when he died this month. He was married to his beloved Carolyn for 71 of those years. And at a memorial on Saturday filled with laughter, tears and the kind of sweet and funny stories that, thankfully, outlive eras, Craig’s legacy gleamed as the central cog of a group of three men who together spanned the past 111 years of Major League Baseball.
Craig had been the starting pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers’ final game in 1957 and then was the starter for the Mets in the expansion franchise’s first game in 1962. His manager with the Mets, the ineffable Casey Stengel, made his debut with Brooklyn in 1912. Craig, who went on to success as both a pitching coach and a manager, was a mentor for, among others, Bob Melvin, the current manager of the San Diego Padres.
“I wouldn’t be managing today had I not played for him,” Melvin, who was a catcher under Craig for three seasons, said over the weekend as he led his Padres against Tampa Bay. “Roger forced me to watch the game as a manager.”
From 1912 to 2023, Stengel to Craig to Melvin. Maybe it doesn’t pack the literary punch of, say, “Tinker to Evers to Chance,” the famous line from the poem “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon.” But there is an undeniable richness in the hardball relay.
“Can I get a ‘Humm baby!’ from everybody?” Mark Grant, the former Giants pitcher and current Padres television analyst, asked at the beginning of his remarks during the memorial. The congregation at the outdoor ceremony loudly obliged, shouting, “Humm baby,” Craig’s joyful and universal go-to phrase, which served as an exhortation, an exclamation and a descriptor. It was appropriate, and encouraged, for all occasions.
Craig was a teammate and a husband, a father and a teacher. He excelled in split-fingered fastballs and relationships. With laconic grace, he easily defused tension and disarmed tightly wired players.
“He meant the world to me,” said Alan Trammell, the Hall of Fame shortstop who was one of the afternoon’s speakers.
Trammell was in Detroit for all five of Craig’s seasons as the pitching coach for Sparky Anderson — a run that culminated with the Tigers’ 1984 World Series title. The easygoing Trammell was appreciated by Craig when Jack Morris, another Hall of Famer, was pitching.
Morris, whose career took off when Craig taught him the splitter, ran hot on the mound. When things got tight, Anderson would send Craig out to dispense words of wisdom. Craig dutifully obeyed, knowing the volcanic Morris wanted no part of it. So the pitching coach often would simply chat with Trammell instead, completely ignoring Morris. Eventually, Morris would lose patience and order them off his mound.
Craig would return to the dugout, assure Sparky that his ace was good and the game would proceed.
That kind of character was forged by many battles won, and more than a few that were lost. As a member of the expansion Mets staff, Craig went 10-24 in 1962, leading the majors in losses. Then he led the majors with another 22 losses in 1963.
During an afternoon with Craig and his wife at their San Diego condominium a decade ago, Roger and I discussed that, and he grinned. Writers would still call, he said, and ask him whether he was “ashamed” of his record with the Mets. He would happily point out that he had thrown 27 complete games over those two seasons.
His major league debut had come under happier circumstances back in 1955, when Brooklyn called him up from Class AAA Montreal for a spot start. He did so well, throwing a complete-game three-hitter against Cincinnati, that Manager Walter Alston told him to take a couple of days and move his family from Montreal to Brooklyn. Reading the uncertainty on Craig’s face, a veteran teammate offered, “Come on, kid, I’ll give you a ride to the airport.”
It was Jackie Robinson.
“It was my first day in the big leagues,” Craig said. “And Jackie Robinson is taking me to the airport.
“He never said one word about what he went through. And I saw a lot of it. He just told me, ‘Kid, you’re going to be a great pitcher.’”
That autumn, Craig was the winning pitcher in Game 5 of the World Series as the Dodgers defeated the Yankees in seven games for their only championship in New York.
After seven seasons with the Dodgers, which included the team’s move to Los Angeles, Craig was thrust into a far different situation. The Mets, figuring a familiar face would help sell tickets in New York, made a calculated decision to select him with the sixth pick in the expansion draft.
He was 32 by then, and Stengel delighted in calling him MISTER Craig. He was, after all, the elder statesman in a rotation of twenty-somethings. As the Mets set a modern record for futility by finishing 40-120, Stengel would often ask Craig to skip his between-starts throwing session.
“MISTER Craig,” Stengel would say. “I know you pitched nine innings today and won’t pitch again for four days, but don’t throw between starts just in case we’re ahead. I may need you to pitch an inning or two in relief.”
A half-century later, Craig was still laughing. On those rare occasions when the Mets were winning? Sure enough, Stengel would lean forward and look down the bench until he caught Craig’s eye. And Craig would begin to warm up. He started 33 games that season, and relieved in nine others.
One night in New York, during those losing years with the Mets, Craig bumped into the old owner, Bill Veeck, who told him that, after all he had gone through, he would make a good pitching coach or manager one day.
“He was right,” Craig said. “I never forgot that. Every time I’d see him after that, I’d thank him. You learn so much from losing. Because you keep thinking, ‘How can we fix that?’”
Following his successful stint as a pitching coach, Craig was named manager of the Giants, a team that had gone 62-100 in 1985. Mr. Fix-It turned them into N.L. West champions in 1987, with a record of 90-72. Two years later, Craig led the team to its second pennant in San Francisco.
Craig, who earned three World Series rings as a player (1955 and 1959 Dodgers, 1964 Cardinals) and one as a pitching coach (1984 Tigers), was still ready for action when another of his former catchers, Bob Brenly, came calling in 2001.
Brenly, who was managing the Arizona Diamondbacks, invited Craig to camp that spring as a guest coach and, after the Diamondbacks had defeated the Yankees in the World Series, asked Craig for his ring size. The manager told his old mentor that he had talked the team’s owner into giving Craig a ring.
“It’s not so much for what you did last year,” Brenly told Craig. “It’s for what you did for me as a player, coach and manager.”
Later, Melvin, who was on that Diamondbacks staff, told Craig a different tale: “I’m not supposed to tell you this, but Bob paid for that ring himself.”
At Petco Park over the weekend, Melvin smiled and nodded when the story was recounted.
“That’s how much Roger meant to him,” Melvin said. “And I felt he should know that.”
Familial ties were ever-present for Craig, both inside and outside the clubhouse. He and Carolyn raised four children, who gave them seven grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren. One of the granddaughters, Chelsea Willingham, closed Saturday’s service with a scripture reading, Psalm 23, and a sweet request.
“In the spirit of Humm Baby, please hum along as I sing ‘Amazing Grace,’” she said. The chorus was immediate, and robust, as hearts soared and horses played and, somewhere, probably, Stengel was asking Craig to warm up. Just in case.