'Lucky charm' Craig's career had legs

'Lucky charm' Craig's career had legs

Tommy Lasorda jokes that of all the members of the 1955 world champion Brooklyn Dodgers, he was the second-to-last candidate to become a future manager.

"And that's because Sandy Amoros spoke Spanish," Lasorda said.

When the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958, the roster featured veteran first baseman Gil Hodges, who became a manager in 1963 with the Washington Senators and later piloted the 1969 world champion New York Mets. Other position players from 1958 Los Angeles roster included future managers Don Zimmer, Frank Howard and Bob Lillis, while Minor League infielder and future Hall of Fame skipper George "Sparky" Anderson was traded to the Phillies after the 1958 season.

The only pitcher to become a manager was Roger Craig, the right-hander from North Carolina who was a rookie in 1955. He spent 12 seasons in the Majors with the Dodgers, Mets, Cardinals, Reds and Phillies. His lifetime record of 74-98 is deceiving -- he lost 24 and 22 games, respectively, during the Mets' first two seasons in the National League in 1962 and 1963.

"Roger had good wit and humor, but he was a very serious guy when it came to getting on a baseball field," said Ed Roebuck, who was Craig's teammate in both Brooklyn and Los Angeles. "And he had a lot of leadership qualities. I think some of the guys got upset that he was so positive and confident. He'd say, 'Just get me one run, that's all I need.' He sort of exuded confidence and leadership."

At age 78, Craig is retired and lives in the San Diego area. He missed the Dodger Adult Camp in Vero Beach, Fla., last month due to a mild heart attack. But he sent a letter to the campers expressing his regrets and said he looked forward to a quick recovery.

Craig pitched three seasons in Brooklyn, but he returned to the Minor Leagues in 1958, spending most of the year at Triple-A St. Paul, where he went 5-17 with a 3.91 ERA in 28 games.

"Roger Craig is blessed with a lot of ability," Dodgers pitching coach Joe Becker said in 1958. "He has a good fastball and a good curveball. The trouble with Roger is he doesn't get the curve over on a consistent basis. But he's only been here 2 1/2 years -- and we expect great things of his in the future."

In June 1959, Craig was promoted to Los Angeles only because veteran Carl Erskine decided to retire to due arm troubles. Erskine wanted to give the Dodgers a chance to compete, especially coming off a seventh-place finish in 1958. General manager Buzzie Bavasi and other veteran players urged Erskine to keep trying, but with a 0-3 record and 7.71 ERA, Erskine knew he was through.

Craig's arrival, along with the promotion of right-hander Larry Sherry, produced one of the most unlikely 1-2 bullpen punches in team history.

Despite being with the Dodgers for a little more than half the 1959 season, Craig came within one inning of qualifying for the National League's best ERA (2.06), along with a 11-5 record in 153 innings. Seventeen of his 29 appearances were starts, and Craig tied for the league lead with four shutouts.

He ended the season with a five-game winning streak, including three consecutive complete games in which he allowed only two runs in 27 innings. Craig's 7-1 victory over the Cubs on the last day of the regular season put the Dodgers in a playoff with the Milwaukee Braves.

Sherry joined the Dodgers in July and went 7-2 with a 2.20 ERA in 23 games. In one game, he relived starter Johnny Podres in the first inning and pitched 8 2/3 scoreless innings, hit a home run and two singles and drove in three runs in a 4-3 victory over St. Louis. Sherry won World Series MVP honors with two wins and two saves against the White Sox.

In the victorious locker room after Game 6 at Chicago, Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully called Craig the team's "lucky charm" -- because, like in 1955, he had been recalled by the team en route to a World Series title.

"I hope from now on I don't have to go to the Minor Leagues and join the team in June," Craig said. "I don't think there was one guy who was outstanding the whole season. Everyone did a wonderful job."

Craig remained with the Dodgers through 1961. He was selected by Mets in the Expansion Draft and was considered the ace of the staff, if such a term could exist on a 1962 team that finished with a 40-120 record.

After his playing career, Craig managed two seasons with the San Diego Padres in 1978 and 1979 and he was Anderson's pitching coach on the 1984 world champion Detroit Tigers. He also spent time in the Dodgers organization as a Minor League pitching instructor.

Craig's next managerial assignment was the most rewarding of his career as he changed the fortunes of the Dodgers' biggest rival, the Giants. San Francisco was on its way to a 100-loss season in 1985 when Craig replaced Jim Davenport as manager with 18 games remaining. During Craig's first five full seasons at the helm, the Giants did not have a losing record.

San Francisco won the National League West title in 1987, but barely missed the pennant after losing a seven-game League Championship Series against St. Louis. By 1989, the Giants were back in the World Series, although it was a brief appearance as San Francisco lost an earthquake-delayed Fall Classic in four games to the Bay Area neighbor Athletics.

The motto to Craig's early years was "Humm Baby." The original term was given to third-string catcher Brad Gulden in 1986. Craig felt although Gulden didn't have much talent, he had plenty of heart. Craig's other trademark was teaching his pitching staff how to throw the split-fingered fastball.

Three of the last four Giants managers to guide their team to a World Series have been former Dodger players -- Leo Durocher (1954 Series), Craig (1989) and Dusty Baker (2002). The lone exception was Alvin Dark, whose 1962 team defeated the Dodgers in a three-game playoff at the end of the regular season.

Mark Langill is the team historian of the Los Angeles Dodgers. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.