This 1974 Topps card of Willie Crawford has its share of flaws. The photograph is blurry, not just the fans but also the primary subject of the card. It is strangely off-center, when some simple cropping would have taken care of that concern. And some might argue that the photo is taken from the wrong angle, from behind the batter near the first base dugout, when it would have more sense to snap the picture from the other side of the field, near the third base dugout.
In spite of all these shortcomings, I like this card very much. It is an action card that captures the strong musculature of a sculpted athlete like Crawford. It also captures the most difficult skill in the game of baseball: hitting the ball. Look at the awkward follow-through of Crawford’s swing. His hands are so close to his body that it appears he has been jammed by the pitcher’s fastball. The card epitomizes the difficulty of hitting a ball squarely.
Additionally, I must confess that the player on the card has long intrigued me. At one time, Willie Crawford was regarded as the next best thing, a graceful, athletic left-handed hitter with power, speed, a strong throwing arm, and the physical skills to play center field. He was Darryl Strawberry 20 years before the fact, except that he was supposed to be better than the “Straw Man.”
In 1964, the 17-year-old Crawford drew the interest of every one of the 20 major league teams in existence. With his combination of five-tool talents, clubs like the Dodgers, Yankees, and Kansas City A’s envisioned him as the centerpiece to their outfield futures.
Dodgers executive Al Campanis simply raved about Crawford’s ability. He filed a scouting report with his superiors that indicated Crawford “hits with the power of Roberto Clemente and Tommy Davis at a similar age.” A’s owner Charlie Finley offered an even higher opinion of Crawford, calling the teenaged flychaser “a Willie Mays with the speed of Willie Davis.” In the context of early 1960s baseball, it was hard to get much better than a combination of Clemente, Mays, and the two Davises.
Finley liked Crawford so much that he gave the youngster a large, framed, signed portrait of himself, which eventually hung in the Crawford living room. Even more pertinently, Finley offered Crawford a bonus of $200,000 to play center field for his A’s; it was a staggering amount of money in the mid-1960s scheme of things. Crawford seemed genuinely intrigued by the advances of Finley, referring to him as “one of the nicest millionaires I know.”
Crawford gave serious consideration to Finley’s offer. At the same time, he also received warm overtures from the Dodgers, who sent a young scout named Tommy Lasorda to Crawford’s home. Only two days after he graduated from Fremont, Lasorda reached an agreement with Crawford. The youngster signed a contract giving him a bonus of $100,000. While it was only half of Finley’s offer, it was the largest bonus ever secured by an African-American player, exceeding the previous amounts given to Richie Allen and Tommie Agee.
So why did Crawford take the lesser sum of money? As a native and resident of the Watts section of Los Angeles, Crawford simply did not feel comfortable moving far away from the California coast. He also found himself swayed by Lasorda, a Dodgers scout at the time and a man who had taken the time to attend the funeral of Crawford’s grandfather.
In signing the massive contract with the Dodgers, Crawford became one of the last of the so-called “bonus babies.” The rules of the day dictated that such bonus babies be treated differently than other amateur players signing their first professional contracts. When a player received a large bonus that exceeded a certain amount, the signing team could send him to the minor leagues that season, but then had to keep him on the major league roster all of the following season. In some ways, it was a way of punishing a team for spending too much money. It also ended up punishing players who needed more seasoning in the minor leagues.
Assigned to Santa Barbara of the California League, Crawford hit .326 with six home runs in 65 games. The Dodgers then brought him up for a late-season look-se, and he proceeded to hit .313 in 16 at-bats.
The real problem came in 1965, when Crawford had to spend the entire season in Los Angeles. At only 18 years of age, and with Tommy and Willie Davis, Lou Johnson and Ron Fairly ahead of him on the depth chart, there wasn’t much wiggle room for Crawford. He came to bat only 27 times, spread out over 52 games. He batted only .148, capping off a wasted summer.
If there was one consolation, it was the opportunity to play in the World Series. In Game One, he stepped to the plate as a pinch-hitter and delivered a pinch single. The Dodgers won the game, and eventually the Series. At the age of 19, Crawford had a World Series ring.
The Dodgers hoped that Crawford could make up for lost time by spending a full season at Double-A in 1966. The minor league season produced a mixed bag of results for Crawford. On a positive note, he hit 15 home runs, slugged .448, and stole 15 bases. On a negative note, he batted a mediocre .265 and struck out 186 times, a horrendous total for the era. Even though the Dodgers gave him a late-season promotion, he clearly needed to work on his swing and his approach at the plate.
In 1967, the Dodgers sent Crawford back to the Texas League and watched him improve almost all of his offensive numbers. Cutting his strikeout total to 120, he hit .305 and slugged .520. Crawford was one step closer to the major leagues.
Bumping him up to Triple-A in 1968, the Dodgers hoped that Crawford would adjust to a higher level of pitching. He did. Over the first half of the Pacific Coast League season, he batted .295 with 45 walks. He didn’t show much power (two home runs) but his improving plate discipline indicated he was ready to be recalled. So in July the Dodgers brought him back to LA.
The Dodgers already had three left-handed hitting outfielders, but their collective lack of power convinced manager Walter Alston to give Crawford a look. Given the difficult hitting environment of 1968, Crawford did respectably, compiling a .735 OPS in nearly 200 plate appearances. He also played well in the outfield, where he showed a strong arm and a good tendency to play shallow as a way to cut off potential bloop hits. Given his all-around play, the Dodgers believed that Crawford’s minor league apprenticeship had come to an end.
Crawford would undergo an eventful spring training in 1969. He showed up to the Dodgers’ camp sporting what appeared to be a large Afro. That was the kind of fashion statement that simply was not being made in the conservative game of 1969. Crawford then began to pull at the Afro, removing it from his head. Drawing some laughs, he revealed that he was wearing a wig covering his clean-shaven head.
That episode of amusement aside, Crawford became involved in a real controversy in late March. He and teammate Mike Strahler, a right-handed pitcher, began to rib each other. The joking escalated into insults, which gave way to a physical alteration. Landing a punch, Crawford broke Strahler’s nose.
The incident did not please the Dodgers. The team’s publicity man, Red Patterson, denied a rumor that the fight had been racially motivated. (Strahler is white.) As a way of easing the situation, Crawford agreed to pay all of Strahler’s medical expenses.
Thankfully, the incident with Strahler had no lingering effects. Used by Alston in a platoon role, Crawford received the most playing time of his career to date. In 129 games and 440 plate appearances, Crawford hit 14 home runs and drew 45 walks. For the first time in his young career, he had shown some of the talent the Dodgers had once coveted.
After a downturn in 1970, Crawford bounced back with a better performance in 1971. He showed significant improvement at hitting the inside pitch, which had given him trouble in his first few seasons. He batted a career-high .281, though his power and his walk totals both lagged.
Another season of frustration came Crawford’s way in 1972. His playing time shrank, as did his production. Now 26 years of age, he faced the first major crossroads of his career.
Crawford’s fortunes began to change that offseason, as he played winter ball under Frank Robinson, one of his Dodger teammates in 1972. Robinson exhorted Crawford to stop trying to pull the ball, to hit the ball where it was pitched and use the entire field. Crawford took the advice and ran with it.
As the 1973 season approached, Crawford also made changes to his personal life. Influenced by teammate Willie Davis, he turned to Buddhism and began chanting prior to games.
Crawford hit significantly better in ‘73, prompting Alston to give him more playing time. Not only did he bat .295, but he also clubbed 14 home runs, drew 78 walks, and stole 12 bases. By the end of the season, he had become the Dodgers’ regular right fielder.
In 1974, Crawford put up similarly good numbers. His production took on greater meaning given the Dodgers’ improvement as a team. The Dodgers won the National League West before slamming the Pirates in the Championship Series.
For the second time in his career, Crawford participated in World Series play, this time as a platoon partner with Joe Ferguson. Given a start against Jim “Catfish” Hunter in Game Three, Crawford clubbed a solo home run. The long ball could not prevent a tough, one-run loss to the world champions, but it did put Crawford on the World Series map.
Crawford returned to the Dodgers in 1975, but did not hit as well as he had done the previous two summers. The Dodgers did not play as well either, finishing second to Sparky Anderson’s “Big Red Machine” of Sparky Anderson.
After the disappointment of the 1975 season, the Dodgers traded for two accomplished outfielders in Dusty Baker and Reggie Smith. Crawford reported to spring training facing a full fleet of outfield competition. Trade rumors began to circulate. In early March, the Dodgers found a trading partner, sending Crawford to the Cardinals for second baseman Ted Sizemore.
The trade turned out to be a godsend for Crawford. Cardinals manager Red Schoendienst used him as his platoon right fielder and watched him crack .300 for the first time in his career. With an OPS of .801, Crawford became a valuable role player for the Cardinals.
Crawford also became a strong clubhouse presence. A champion needler, he succeeded in keeping his teammates loose with a keen sense of humor and an ability to make tense issues light ones. He also indoctrinated new acquisitions to the Cardinals by handing each a calling card that stated: “In case of riot, the holder of this card has been made an honorary Negro. This card must be renewed after each riot. (Void unless signed by a bona fide Negro).”
While Crawford’s good-natured humor and his hitting stroke seemed like a good fit for St. Louis, his trade value had also reached a zenith. Furthermore, the Cardinals needed pitching. So before the winter meetings, they sent Crawford and left-hander John Curtis to the Giants for two promising young pitchers, Mike Caldwell and John D’Acquisto.
Crawford did not last spring training with the Giants. He became embroiled in a contract dispute, which fueled a series of trade rumors. One particularly lively rumor had the Giants sending him and starting shortstop Chris Speier to the Pirates for either Al Oliver or Bill Robinson.
On March 26, the Giants announced a trade, but it did not involve the Pirates. Instead, the Giants sent Crawford and light-hitting infielder Rob Sperring to the Astros for second baseman Rob Andrews, who was not exactly the second coming of Oliver or Bill Robinson. It was a strange trade for the Giants, to say the least.
Crawford began the season platooning with Cliff Johnson in left field. But he wasn’t happy with the time-sharing plan and requested a trade. After hitting only two home runs in 42 games (a predictable problem given the vast dimensions of the Astrodome), Crawford received his wish. At the June 15th trading deadline, the Astros sent him to the A’s for third baseman/outfielder Denny Walling.
For the first time in his career, Crawford took his services to the American League. He had also come full circle. Having turned down Charlie Finley’s initial overture in 1964, he would now finally play for one of the game’s most combative and controversial owners.
The move to the A’s would leave both the owner and the player dissatisfied. The most memorable moment of Crawford’s tenure in Oakland was likely his decision to wear No. 99 on the back of his jersey. Other than that, not much happened. Crawford hit a measly .184 in a half-season, looking little like the talent that Finley had once compared to Mays. Crawford didn’t like playing for the A’s, either. “It was depressing,” Crawford told The Sporting News. “They went with the kids. I was just a spectator up there.”
As for his relationship with Finley, the man he had once called the “friendliest millionaire” he ever met, Crawford was able to offer little insight. “I didn’t have any communication with the man,” Crawford said bluntly, and rather sadly.
At the end of the 1977 season, Finley and the A’s allowed Crawford to become a free agent. He signed a make-good deal with the Dodgers, but failed to make their Opening Day roster. Not wanting to call it quits, the 31-year-old Crawford traveled south of the border to play in the Mexican League.
Crawford’s playing career would involve one more twist. In June of 1979, the Panama Banqueros of the new Inter-American League announced the signing of Crawford as a first baseman/DH. But Crawford would never play for the Banqueros. That’s because on June 17, both the Panama and Puerto Rico franchises disbanded and ceased operations. Crawford would never play in the Inter-American League, which soon dissolved into oblivion.
His playing career over, Crawford now faced some demons that began to intensify in his life. Principally, those problems involved alcohol. One night he was drinking from a bottle of vodka and listening to a Billy Graham radio sermon when something that the preacher said triggered a response. Upset with what his life had become, Crawford began to cry.
He called Al Campanis that night, asking for help. Campanis put him in touch with Don Newcombe and Lou Johnson, two former Dodgers who have also struggled with alcoholism. Crawford began to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, sometimes with Newcombe or Johnson, and sometimes by himself.
When Crawford realized that the AA meetings were not sufficient, he enrolled himself in The Meadows, a rehabilitation center in Arizona. That experience helped him understand why he had turned to drinking. “When you drink, you’re trying to suppress something,” he told freelance writer Steve Calhoun. “The Meadows helped me find out why I was drinking. I was suppressing anger. I felt that I always had to fight for respect.” More specifically, Crawford was angry about his career, that he had almost always been a platoon player, and rarely given the chance to play every day.
Given his seeming ability to overcome his problems with addiction, it would be nice to think of Crawford achieving a happy ending. Unfortunately, he developed severe kidney disease, which left him debilitated and took his life at a young age. Crawford died in 2004. He was only 57 years old.
His life was short, but at least we can take solace in the belief that it was a life that Crawford lived well. By all accounts, he was a hard-working player who showed up to the ballpark early and did his best to develop his skills. A well-liked teammate, he had the kind of good humor that helped him connect with everyone, regardless of skin color. Never forgetting his roots in Watts, he was the kind of man who went home each winter and held baseball clinics for kids in his old neighborhood.
Willie Crawford made the game a little bit better during his short life, and ultimately, that’s all we can ask of one of our heroes.