RIP to Del Crandall, an 11-time All-Star, a 4-time Gold Glove catcher, and the last surviving member of the Boston Braves organization. He died on May 5 in Mission Viejo, Cal., at the age of 91. He had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease and, as of this 2020 article, was living in an assisted living facility. Crandall played for the Boston/Milwaukee Braves (1949-50, 1953-63), San Francisco Giants (1964), Pittsburgh Pirates (1965) and Cleveland Indians (1966). He also managed the Milwaukee Brewers (1972-1975) and Seattle Mariners (1983-84).
The phrase “end of an era” gets thrown around pretty liberally, but Crandall’s passing certainly qualifies. There was a National League team in Boston from 1876 until 1952, and Crandall was the last player who could lay claim to wearing that particular uniform. He gained that distinction with the death of pitcher Bert Thiel on July 31, 2020. Crandall was also one of a dozen surviving players who started their major-league career in the 1940s. One of his first managers in the minor leagues was Nick Cullop, who played in the mid-1920s. In Crandall’s last year as a minor-league manager, his team included Todd Hollandsworth and Ted Lilly. That’s a lot of baseball history covered by one man.
Delmar Wesley Crandall was born in Ontario, Calif., on March 5, 1930. He attended Fullerton High School and in 1945 was one of the stars of the Pomona Invitational tournament. Though Fullerton didn’t win, Crandall batted .400 in the tournament and was named to the all-tournament team. He was a first-team CIF (California Interscholastic Federation) player as a senior in 1947, and he was in good company. Joining him on the first team were future major-leaguers Rudy Regalado and Dick Williams.
Crandall signed with the Boston Braves and joined the organization in the spring of 1948. He showed off a major-league caliber throwing arm right away but was assigned to the Class-C Leavenworth Braves of the Western Association. The 18-year-old catcher made a great impression, batting .304 with 27 doubles and 15 home runs. He was promoted all the way to the AAA Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association at the end of the season and postseason. He moved up to the Evansville Braves of the Three-Eye League in 1949 and was leading the league in batting (.351) and RBIs (36) when Boston Braves manager Billy Southworth came to take a look at the youngster. Crandall had such a great game that he soon returned, bringing Braves owner Lou Perini with him. Not long after that, Crandall was brought to the majors at the age of 19. He wouldn’t return to the minor leagues until he started managing there.
When the Braves brought up Crandall, the team went all in on the youngster. They traded away Phil Masi, leaving him as the right-handed component to a platoon with lefty hitter Bill Salkeld. Crandall made his MLB debut on June 17 as a pinch-runner against Cincinnati. He started the next game and was hitless, but he went 3-for-5 with 3 RBIs against the Cubs on June 23. His 2-run double in the first inning knocked starter Dutch Leonard out of the game in the 12-5 Braves win.
Despite his youth and inexperience, Crandall held his own in the majors. He slashed .263/.291/.368 in 67 games and finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting, behind Brooklyn’s Don Newcombe. He also threw out 17 of 33 baserunners and hit 4 home runs. Others outside of the team questioned the wisdom of putting faith in such a young catcher, but the Braves loved him. “He has a mature mind,” said manager Southworth, “takes care of the seasoned pitchers like Johnny Sain and Spahn just like he does his roommate, Johnny Antonelli… The older fellows love it.” (When Crandall partnered with 19-year-old Antonelli, they formed the youngest battery in baseball.)
Crandall suffered through a sophomore slump in 1950, with a batting average that tumbled to .220. He battled injuries, including a broken finger, and a Braves trade that brought veteran catcher Walker Cooper to the team may have unnerved the youngster. Unfortunately, Crandall had to wait to turn his fortunes around, because he was inducted into the Army in March 1951. He spent two seasons away from the team, and the Braves had to make do with Cooper, who performed well in 1951 but played like a tired, 37-year-old catcher in ’52. Crandall returned to the Braves in 1953, now 23 years old and ready to take back his job. He swiftly elbowed Cooper aside and established himself as one of the top catchers of the entire decade of the 1950s.
The Braves moved to Milwaukee in 1953, and Crandall became one of the city’s first favorite players. He slashed .272/.330/.429 in his return to organized baseball, with 15 home runs and 51 RBIs. He was selected to his first All-Star team but had the misfortune of splitting his hand open on a foul tip right before the contest, so he was replaced on the roster by Cubs catcher Clyde McCullough. He would have multiple opportunities to play in a Midsummer Classic, though.
Crandall’s batting average tailed off for a few seasons, as he fell to .242 in 1954 and then the .230s for a couple of seasons. His power continued to grow, and he smacked a career-best 26 homers in 1955. Crandall’s defense was invaluable; in 1956 he committed just 2 errors in 109 games behind the plate, for a .996 fielding percentage. He could throw out more than half of all would-be base-stealers, too. Thanks largely to his defensive prowess, he received a handful of MVP votes regularly and kept getting selected to All-Star Games. He had also become the team’s captain — quite an honor for a player so young. New manager Charlie Grimm said he considered Crandall as his “assistant manager.” “I don’t call any pitches,” Grimm said. “I turn the game over to Del and I never second-guess him.”
With Crandall ensconced as catcher, the Braves began acquiring the talent to transform them from a competitive team to a legitimate pennant threat. The addition of young stars like Henry Aaron and Eddie Mathews certainly helped, and starters Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette anchored the pitching staff. Milwaukee finished in second place in 1955 and ’56 before finally clinching the National League pennant in 1957. Crandall batted .253 during the season, with 15 homers and 46 runs driven in. He also was pressed into service as a right fielder briefly when Andy Pafko was out with a bad back. When the Braves faced the New York Yankees in the World Series, Crandall hit .211 in 6 games, but he threw out 2 baserunners in a close 1-0 Braves victory in Game Five. He also homered in Game 7 to put the finishing touch on a 5-0 Braves victory to make the team World Series champs.
Crandall had one of his best seasons in 1958, when he hit .272 with a career-best 23 doubles and 18 home runs. He won a Gold Glove for his work behind the plate and finished 10th in the NL MVP vote — the highest he ever placed in his career. The Braves and Yankees faced off again in the World Series, with the Yanks coming out on top. Crandall played in all 7 games and batted .240 with a home run and 3 RBIs. He also nearly set a World Series record. “The fellow I’m most angry with is Eddie Mathews,” he told a banquet crowd. “Eddie set a new strikeout record for Series play with 11 whiffs. If he hadn’t struck out 11 times I’d have the record with 10.”
The Braves remained a talented team, though they would not win another pennant in Crandall’s time. Though he was 29 years old in 1959, he was even more durable than in his youth. He appeared in 150 games in 1959 and 142 in 1960, adding four more All-Star appearances, two more Gold Gloves and two more Top 15 MVP votes in those two years. He homered in one of the two 1960 All-Star Games, taking Bill Monboquette of the Red Sox deep. He also set a career record with 77 RBIs and 81 runs scored in 1960.
From 1953 through 1960, Crandall played in an average of 130 games. In 1961, however, a shoulder injury limited him to just 15 games, mostly as a pinch-hitter. He had 6 hits in 30 at-bats for a .200 average. Crandall came back in 1962 to slash .297/.348/.417. He made his final two All-Star Teams and won his final Gold Glove. But he wasn’t the same durable catcher he had been. He made just 88 starts behind the plate and also made his first career starts at first base. The writing was on the wall, as far as Crandall’s future with the Braves. During the ’61 season where he was largely absent, a 20-year-old catcher named Joe Torre came up and had a pretty excellent year. He spent 1962 as a frequent replacement for Crandall in the lineup, but by 1963 their roles had reversed. Torre was handling the bulk of the catching duties, and Crandall was in the reserve role, with a .201 batting average in 86 games.
Crandall’s time with the Braves came to an end on December 3, 1963. He was traded with pitchers Bob Hendley and Bob Shaw to the San Francisco Giants for outfielder Felipe Alou, catcher Ed Bailey and pitcher Bill Hoeft (and infielder Ernie Bowman as the player to be named later). He served as a backup to Tom Haller in 1964 and batted ..231 with 3 home runs — 2 off the Milwaukee Braves. He also had a pinch-hit RBI single in the top of the 23rd inning against the New York Mets on May 31 — though it was likely June 1 by the time Crandall’s heroics led to an 8-6 Giants win. That game also saw a 10-inning scoreless relief outing by Gaylord Perry and Willie Mays playing at shortstop from the 10th through the 12th innings.
Crandall spent his last couple of seasons as a backup catcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cleveland Indians for one season each. Though he spent much of the time on the bench, he still had the occasional heroics left in him. He hit a walk-off home run off the Cubs’ Lindy McDaniel on July 25, 1965 to end a 13-inning game in a 3-2 Pirates win. While with Cleveland, he was partnered frequently with pitcher Sam McDowell and helped to harness the wild but talented lefty’s talent. McDowell ended up leading the American League in strikeouts that year.
Crandall decided to retire after the 1966 season, and he and his family moved back to Fullerton for his new job as an insurance salesman. He also ran a restaurant for a time, though he didn’t stay out of baseball for very long. In 16 seasons in the majors, Crandall had a slash line of .254/.312/.404. His 1,276 hits included 179 doubles and home runs each, as well as 18 triples. He had 657 RBIs and 585 runs scored. Crandall also led the NL in fielding percentage four times in his career, assists 6 times and putouts 3 times. He had a lifetime fielding percentage of .989 and threw out 46% of all basestealers.
Crandall had worked as a scout for the Dodgers in his retirement, but he got back into baseball full time in 1969 when he became the manager of the Albuquerque Dodgers. “I think I went into both of those businesses [insurance and restaurateur] with the sincere idea that that was what I wanted to do, but I kept finding myself spending more and more time thinking about baseball,” he said. After two seasons in the Dodgers organization, he moved to the Evansville Triplets of the Milwaukee Brewers organization. He was leading a very good Triplets team when he was called to the major leagues again. The Milwaukee Brewers had decided to fire manager Dave Bristol, and Crandall was summoned to take his place. He won his first game 3-1 over the Yankees, on May 30, 1972, thanks to a 1-hitter by Skip Lockwood.
Crandall’s philosophy was that baseball should be fun. Though he had plenty of baseball experience, he did not take a hard-line approach with the Brewers. He adopted a pretty modern philosophy. “Years ago, no one cared whether you related to them or not. You gave orders and that was it,” he explained. “I cannot say young players are any different today, but society is different. Kids are brought up different. Communication is more important to them. They demand it, and I’m not sure they’re not right.”
Under Crandall’s direction, the Brewers finished the season with 91 losses, but they showed improvement with him. They won 74 games in 1973 and then 76 in 1974, finishing 10 games under .500. Rookies Darrell Porter, Gorman Thomas and Robin Yount made their major-league debuts under his watch, and Aaron returned to Milwaukee to finish his career, too. Crandall lobbied hard for the 18-year-old Yount to get the starting shortstop job, in fact. The Brewers management never supplemented the youngsters with veteran talent, and the team fell to fifth place in 1975, with a 68-94 record. The manager also had several run-ins with second baseman Pedro Garcia, who was benched and fined at various times over the season. Team ownership failed to back up Crandall in the conflict, when he tried to fine the infielder for wearing the wrong kind of socks. Crandall was fired with one game left in the season, and Harvey Kuenn managed the team to its final win of the year.
Crandall returned to the minor leagues to manage, first for a season in the Angels organization and then back to the Albuquerque Dukes in the Dodgers organization. His 1981 Dukes team went 94-38 for a .712 winning percentage, thanks to outstanding performances from Mike Marshall (.373 average, 34 home runs, 137 RBIs) and Candy Maldonado (.335-21-104) and pitchers Ted Power (18-3 record, 3.56 ERA) and Brian Holton (16-6, 3.44). All total, he led the Dukes to four Pacific Coast League titles.
Once again, Crandall was brought to the majors in mid-season when the Seattle Mariners hired him on June 25, 1983, after firing Rene Lachemann. The Mariners’ clubhouse was apparently in serious need of an attitude overhaul, as pitcher Gaylord Perry and infielder Todd Cruz was released at the same time. The Mariners, though, were at about the same level of development as the Brewers were, if not behind them. They had some young talent (Dave Henderson, Harold Reynolds, Phil Bradley), but no willingness to make a deep dive into the free agent market to supplement it. Crandall had a 34-55 record with the Mariners to finish the ’83 season and a 59-76 record in 1984 before he was fired and replaced with Chuck Cottier. In his 6 seasons of managing in the majors, Crandall had a 364-469 record.
Crandall remained in baseball as a color commentator for the Chicago White Sox and Milwaukee Brewers. He also served as a scout and special instructor for the Brewers and Dodgers. His last regular on-field role came in 1996 and ’97 when he managed the San Bernardino Stampede. He led the team to a cumulative 120-121 record when he resigned in July of 1997. “I just wasn’t enjoying the things that were going on, on a daily basis,” the 67-year-old manager said. “Little things, like arguing with umpires, just didn’t get me excited.”
The Atlanta Braves inducted Crandall into the team’s Hall of Fame in 2003. He called it the biggest honor of his life. “To be included with such great players… it’s hard to put into words just how much it means to me,” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He was also inducted into the Albuquerque Baseball Hall of Fame in 2008, along with the entire ’81 Dukes team, and the Pacific Coast League Hall of Fame in 2012.
Crandall and his wife, Fran, had seven children. One, Ronnie, had cerebral palsy and died when he was 7 years old. He is survived by six children, 11 grandchildren and 8 great-grandchildren.
For more information: Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel