A Baseball Life

At 90, Jack Crimian can look back on a pitching career and a uniquely American odyssey that touched many of the sport’s immortals

It’s doubtful that any ex-ballplayer enjoyed his career as much, or remembers it as well, as 90-year-old Jack Crimian.

The long-time Delawarean spent parts of four years in the Majors and 11 in the minors as a right-handed pitcher, pursuing a quintessentially American odyssey that intersected with some of the immortals of the sport’s golden age—as well as Bing Crosby’s future wife.

The list of his encounters with future greats began at Olney High School, in Philadelphia, where Crimian, class of 1944, played baseball and football with Del Ennis, a star on the Philadelphia Phillies “Whiz Kids” team that won the National League Championship in 1950.

Four years later, as a minor leaguer in spring training in St. Petersburg, Fla., he shook hands with Babe Ruth. “Everything stopped when Ruth showed up,” remembers Crimian, “and we all went over to him. He could hardly talk.” A few months later, the Bambino would die of throat cancer.

In 1957, he served up Roger Maris’ first Major League home run—a grand slam. “It was a 3-2 count and I pitched him up and away. The ball went up and away, and it still hasn’t come down.” Adds the still competitive Crimian: “But it was Jim Bunning’s fault. He struck out Maris earlier in the game, so he told me how to pitch to him.”

Crimian fanned Maris’ future teammate, Mickey Mantle, five of the 11 times he faced the switch-hitting Yankee slugger. “One of his hits was a bunt down the third base line because we (the Kansas City Athletics) were the first to put a shift on against him, and there was nobody on the third-base side,” says Crimian.

He almost struck out Ted Williams, after a semi-epic battle of wits and skill (more later).

He was a teammate of Stan Musial (“one of the nicest men I’ve ever met”).

He played in Havana in dugouts guarded by Cuban soldiers carrying automatic rifles.

Crimian checks out a photo of the 1946 champion Blue Rocks, the team he broke in with. The Blue Rocks staff bought the photo on Ebay and presented it to him during the photo shoot at Frawley Stadium. Photo Jim Coarse

Crimian checks out a photo of the 1946 champion Blue Rocks, the team he broke in with. The Blue Rocks staff bought the photo on Ebay and presented it to him during the photo shoot at Frawley Stadium. Photo Jim Coarse

And he managed to connect peripherally with entertainment royalty. At a minor league game in Texas, players were recruited to escort contestants to home plate for a pre-game beauty contest, and Crimian was paired with Kathryn Grandstaff, runner-up in the 1952 Miss Texas competition. Years later, as Kathy Crosby, she would become the second wife of famed crooner Bing.

And in a final blaze of glory, he came out of retirement to go undefeated with the legendary Brooks Armored Car team in the Delaware Semi-Pro League from 1963-65.

But most important, throughout his career, Jack Crimian was a devoted husband to his late wife, Mary (“Mom” to him), and a loving father, grandfather and great-grandfather. And, in an age when players had to hold off-season jobs to make ends meet, he became a first-class auto body repairman in a Wilmington shop.

Crimian turned professional in his senior year in high school, when Phillies Scout Jocko Collins signed the 17-year-old son of a Philadelphia fireman to a $100-a-month contract with the Wilmington Blue Rocks.

“Got a check for $42.40 every two weeks,” says Crimian. “Lived at the YMCA.”

His budding career was interrupted a year later, near the end of World War II, when he was drafted into the Army.  After basic training in Alabama, he volunteered for the 82nd Airborne Division and went to jump school at Fort Benning, Ga. “First time I was ever in a plane I got kicked out of it,” Crimian laughs.

Kathryn Grandstaff, future wife of singer Bing Crosby, grins at the slightly flustered Crimian as he prepares to escort her to a home-plate beauty contest prior to a minor league game in '52. Photo courtesy of the Houston Chronicle

Kathryn Grandstaff, future wife of singer Bing Crosby, grins at the slightly flustered Crimian as he prepares to escort her to a home-plate beauty contest prior to a minor league game in ’52. Photo courtesy of the Houston Chronicle

Back from the service in ’46, he rejoined the Class B Blue Rocks. Working in the hot dog stand at the stadium, at 30th and Governor Printz Boulevard, was a pretty Wilmington girl, Mary Theresa Kelley. Crimian bought plenty of hot dogs, they began dating, and married two years later, honeymooning in—where else?—Niagara Falls.

A 5-10, 180-pounder with a three-quarter delivery, Crimian posted a 13-4 record with the Blue Rocks, and that winter was drafted out of the Phillies’ organization by the St. Louis Cardinals. Sent to Omaha, Neb., and now making the princely salary of $350 a month, he continued to stay at the Y during the season. In the offseason, the Crimians lived in the Olney section of Philadelphia and Jack went to work in the body shop at Roth Buick in Northeast Philly.

He spent the next four-and-a-half seasons in the minors, mostly as a reliever. “One year,” says, “I pitched 19 days in a row, sometimes three innings at a time. There was no such thing as a one-inning pitcher back then.”

He developed a slider, which became, he says, “my pitch. If you were gonna hit me, you were gonna hit my slider.”

In July 1951, the Cardinals called him up to “the show.” But the National League, stacked with sluggers like Willie Mays, Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges and Ralph Kiner, gave him a rude welcome. He pitched in 17 innings over seven games in July, all in relief, allowing 24 hits and eight walks. He did manage his first win, against his original team, the Phillies, in Philadelphia’s Shibe Park, and struck out his high school teammate Ennis.

He had another brief stint with the Cards in June of 1952, but was roughed up again and returned to the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings for the reminder of the season.

Crimian loved his time with his Cardinal teammates, in particular Musial and second baseman Red Schoendienst. “They were like one big family,” he says. “They were the only club where if you went there as a rookie, they weren’t trying to cut your throat because you were trying to take their job.”

When he was sent back to the minors, Crimian says, “I called [Cards Manager Eddie] Stanky everything in the book.”

In 1955, he became a starting pitcher for the Toronto Maple Leafs, posting a 19–6 record and 2.10 earned run average, with 16 complete games. The performance earned him Most Valuable Player of the Year in the International League, and in October he was acquired by the new American League franchise, the Kansas City Athletics. That fall, Jack, Mary, six-year-old Ann Marie and two-year-old Mary Ann moved to Green Street in Claymont.

The A’s called him up for the ‘56 season. Working in 54 games —seven as a starter—and 129 innings, he won four of 12 decisions and recorded three saves for the last-place team.

The most vivid memory from that season: his first time in Yankee Stadium. “I looked around and said, you son of a gun, you made it now.”

He also discovered a difference in the balls: “National League balls had stitches that were high, and American League stiches were flat.” Crimian preferred the high stitches for the better grip they gave him, and he hated new balls. “Too slippery,” he says.

Crimian's baseball card from his days with the Kansas City Athletics. Card courtesy of Drew Davis

Crimian’s baseball card from his days with the Kansas City Athletics. Card courtesy of Drew Davis

 

His battle with Williams occurred in the’57 season in Boston’s Fenway Park. A’s Manager Lou Boudreau brought Crimian in at the top of an inning, with Williams set to lead off. “Boudreau told me, ‘just throw one [type of] pitch warming up, and don’t throw it after that, because he will have it timed.’”

As Boudreau predicted, Williams watched intently as Crimian threw nothing but fastballs during his warmup.

Williams stepped into the box and pitcher and hitter battled to a 3-2 count. That’s when Crimian decided he had shown the Splendid Splinter too many sliders, so he went to a changeup curveball for the full-count pitch. At first, it looked as if the off-speed delivery had worked. “I had him halfway out to the mound,” says Crimian, meaning Williams was off-stride, his front leg extended, as the ball came toward the plate. “But those hands were still back, and—pow!—he flicked his bat and hit one off the Green Monster (Fenway’s famed left field wall, the opposite field for the left-handed Williams) for a double.”

In the off-season, the Athletics included Crimian in an eight-player trade to the Detroit Tigers, who used him in just four games in April—one of which was the Maris grand slam game—before sending him down to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The ’57 season would be his last in the Major Leagues. He made $9,000.

In ’58 he won 15 of 23 decisions for the Leafs, then, his arm hurting, he retired.

In his MLB career, Crimian pitched 160 innings, allowing 177 hits and 65 walks while recording 69 strikeouts. His minor league record was151-91.

The Crimian family, which now numbered six with the addition of Michael in ‘56 and Kathleen two years later, had followed their paterfamilias around the country throughout his career. Now they all settled into their Claymont home, and the ex-hurler didn’t watch a game or throw a ball for more than two years. He kept busy with the family and became a specialist on large wrecks at John’s Body Shop, a fixture on Wilmington’s West Third Street.

Then, in 1961, friends persuaded him to join the softball team at Holy Rosary Catholic Church, his home parish. “I played a little third base and found out I could still throw, and it was softball, so I had some power [at bat],” Crimian says.

Then came his last hurrah, what he calls his most enjoyable time in baseball: three years with the Brooks Armored Car juggernaut. Brooks Manager and third baseman Lou Romanoli went to John’s shop and persuaded Crimian to join two other former Major Leaguers, Ray Narleski and Bob Davis, on the 1963 Brooks pitching staff.

By then, his fastball, which he estimates was in the mid-90s in his prime, had deserted him, so he morphed into the wiley veteran. He particularly loved playing in Canby Park. “It had a good mound, and my pitch came right out of that white house across the street.”

Relying on a slow curveball, he says, “I found out how to pitch with Brooks.” He used the talented defense behind him, throwing strikes and allowing opponents to ground out or fly out. Romanoli says Crimian used to chide Narleski, a strikeout pitcher, “Ray, it takes you at least three pitches to get somebody out. I like to get ‘em out on one.”

That approach proved effective. From 1963-65, he went 24-0 for Brooks, whose 1963 playoff games with John Hickman’s Parkway team were the stuff of legend, drawing more fans than Phillies games.

Crimian retired for good after the ’65 season. He was 38 and a mainstay at John’s, where he built the unique car with two front ends, welded back to back, that came to symbolize the shop around town.

The tight-knit Crimian family was devastated in 2010 when Mary passed away. She was buried in the Delaware Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Middletown, and until recently, when he could no longer drive, Crimian went to see “Mom” every day. Setting up a folding chair by the graveside, he says, “I would just sit and talk to her for a while.”

Today, he has seven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren (with another due this month) and lives with Kathleen in Boothwyn. Looking back, he says, “I wouldn’t trade the life I’ve had for anything.”

He and his extended family are regulars every Tuesday for half-price burgers at Kid Shelleen’s in Wilmington. “Sometimes there are eight or nine of them,” says Drew Davis, the restaurant manager.

A memorabilia collector and student of baseball history, Davis didn’t realize who Crimian was when he began coming to the restaurant several years ago. Then he spotted Crimian in a photo of the Brooks 50th reunion dinner. Now he views the nonagenarian as a living national archive of baseball lore.

“I shake his hand every time I see him,” says Davis. “I love pointing him out to people and introducing him. He has a new story for me almost every week, and they all check out.”

The nonagenarian wanted to deliver a pitch from the Frawley Stadium mound, and the Blue Rocks staff made it happen. Photo Jim Coarse

The nonagenarian wanted to deliver a pitch from the Frawley Stadium mound, and the Blue Rocks staff made it happen. Photo Jim Coarse

Crimian uses a walker now, and he has taken a couple of falls, breaking some ribs, but the competitive fire hasn’t gone out. One of Davis’ favorite stories involves the time Crimian, who compiled a respectable .231 average in only 26 at-bats in the Majors, was poised to put down a sacrifice bunt against Hall of Famer Bob Feller. Crimian didn’t know that Feller, a noted fireballer, had a curveball in his repertoire, so he was startled, he said, when “Feller threw a ball that started at my head and fell in for a strike.”

“So did you bail out?” asked Davis.

“Hell, no,” Crimian bristled. “I got the bunt down.”

Reflections on ‘The Show’

John Melvin Crimian knows how to tell a story and deliver a punch line. Here are his takes on some of the Major Leaguers he played against and with, along with comments on the game in general:

• Harry “The Hat” Walker, an outfielder for the Cards, Phils, Cubs and Reds and National League batting champ in 1947: “He must’ve touched his hat a hundred times during an at-bat.”

• Jackie Robinson, who was on first base when Crimian came into a game against the Brooklyn Dodgers: “I threw over to first 10 times straight. I had him twice, but they wouldn’t call him out.”

• Yogi Berra, the great Yankee catcher who was a notorious bad-ball hitter: “You couldn’t get a ball by him, unless it was right down the middle. Anything anywhere else, he’d get a bat on it.”

• Joe DiMaggio, “The Yankee Clipper”: “In Spring Training, I threw him a fastball inside and he ripped it down the line and tore the glove off my third baseman. He [the third baseman] was so mad because I threw inside to DiMaggio that he wouldn’t talk to me afterward.”

• Bobby Shantz, diminutive pitcher for several teams, including the Philadelphia Athletics, with whom he won the American League MVP in 1952: Shantz, 91 and still making personal appearances, is bald and has always worn a toupee —but not on the field. Says Crimian, who played with Shantz in Kansas City: “When he was pitching, he wouldn’t come out of the dugout while they played the National Anthem because he would have to take off his cap. On the road, his suitcase was clothes on one side and hair products and toupees on the other.”

• Joe Garagiola, a below average Major League catcher who gained fame as a broadcaster: “They sent him down to the minors because he could not throw the ball back to the pitcher. Believe it.” 

• On the movie 42, about Robinson, which Crimian saw with his grandson: “Everything in it is true.”

• On today’s baseball players. “Nobody can bunt anymore. And the way they keep adjusting their gear and moving in and out of the box? In my day, they would’ve been on their butt all the time. And pitchers should not throw in the off-season. Your arm needs time to recuperate. That’s what winter’s for. From the last pitch of the season to opening day, I never picked up a ball. The only thing I did was go to Spring Training early and run on the beach. We did a lot of running.”

• On coming close to hitting a home run: “We were in Toledo, and I hit one off the top of the fence, and man, I thought it was a homer and I’m Cadillacin’ around the bases, only I missed first base. They called for the ball and threw it to first and I was out. Didn’t even get a hit out of it.”

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