Monday, October 22, 2012

#449 - Tommy McCraw

Tom – or Tommy – McCraw almost looks like he’s going to fall down at Yankee Stadium. New York was generally not a great place to fall down back then – especially in the Bronx – so let’s hope he kept his footing. Tommy had a pretty long run with the White Sox, but the last few years of his career he was pretty itinerant. In fact, from ’71 to his final card as a player in ’75 he was not once on successive cards with the same team. And his trades tended to occur at the beginning of the season so most of that time he was on a different team than the one on his card. The trade that got him to California for the ’73 season was one in which he and a minor leaguer were swapped for Leo Cardenas in April. Tommy was then the Angels’ first designated hitter on opening day, though most of the season he played the positions designated on his card. While Tommy probably didn’t play as much as he’d have liked – his primary role was backing up Vada Pinson in left – he did put up his best season average by that point in his career. He also got to hang out a bunch with Frank Robinson and strike up a relationship that would be beneficial down the road.

Tommy McCraw was born in Arkansas and relocated to southern California as a kid. He played at least hoops and baseball at Venice High School and hit .475 his senior year. He then continued both sports at Santa Monica College, a two-year school from which he was signed by the ChiSox in ’60. That year he hit .286 with 79 RBI’s in D ball. In ’61 he hit .326 with 96 RBI’s in C ball and then in ’62 he jumped all the way to Triple A where his average stayed intact as he moved to the top of the order and posted a .408 OBA. In ’63 he was hitting .282 at that level when Chicago first baseman Joe Cunningham went down with an injury and Tommy was called up to replace him. The rest of that season was an indication of the type of player he was for the Sox: very good defense, good speed, not too much average or power. His first few full years he split time at first – initially with Cunningham and then with Bill Skowron – and also played left field. In ’67 and ’68 he was the starter at first and then the next two years split time again – mostly with Gail Hopkins – at first and in the outfield as Chicago investigated putting more power at the former position. Tommy wasn’t too happy by the end of the ’70 season and after it he got moving, going to Washington for Ed Stroud.

DC wasn’t exactly a salve for not playing as McCraw, after a fast start, found himself in the familiar position of backing up first and the outfield. He did have a couple memorable moments, however: a lazy pop-up against Cleveland that went for an inside-the-park homer after three Indians banged into each other chasing it; and making the final Senators out ever when he was picked off trying to steal second after getting on base with a pinch hit, meaning he also had the final Senators hit ever. He also got to play for manager Ted Williams and though his average didn’t reflect Ted’s tutoring, his career would down the road. In ’72 Tommy and former Indian Roy Foster went to Cleveland for Ted Ford. There Tommy played first and all three outfield positions while getting his most at bats since ’68 and posting his best average and OBA (both of which would be topped the next year). In ’74 after starting the season with California he returned in mid-year to Cleveland in a sale. His stats for both teams that season would be eerily similar as he posted exactly 34 hits, eight doubles, three homers, and 17 RBI’s for each one, finishing the year with a .294 average. Before the ’75 season he was named a Cleveland player-coach to join new player-manager Frank Robinson. In the former capacity Tommy was released mid-season after hitting .275. That ended his time as a player with a lifetime .246 average with 75 homers, 143 stolen bases, and 404 RBI’s.

As noted above McCraw moved into his new coaching career right away. He stuck up top with Cleveland through the ’75 season and then moved to be a hitting coach in their minor league system from ’76 to ’79 when he was pulled back up to join Dave Garcia’s staff. He stayed with the Indians through ’82 and then moved to San Francisco (’83-’85) to re-join Robinson. He then moved to the Mets, first in the minors (’86-’88) and then in NY (’92-’96), sandwiched around three seasons in Baltimore (’89-’91). During his time up top in NY the team average rose from .235 to .270. He then went to Houston (’97-2000) and again hooked up with Robinson, this time in Montreal (’02-’06) where he remained through the team’s first season in DC. After that it was back in the Mets system where since 2007 he has been hitting coach of their Gulf Coast League team.

In that ’67 game from the first star bullet, Tommy nearly homered a fourth time when his last hit was caught on the warning track. He also had an interesting moment when he made it all the way home on a walk: the fourth ball got away from the catcher and Tommy was almost at second when the throw from the plate went into center; the outfielder then overthrew third base and Tommy was in. Topps gets big points for their forecasting in the cartoon.

Here we use an AL guy who finished up in the NL:

1. McCraw and Elliott Maddox ’71 Senators;
2. Maddox and Ron Hodges ’78 to ’80 Mets.

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