Monday, January 5, 2015

Connie Mack went to bat for double-murderer

Though he played in seven major
league seasons 1914-22, Crane
appears on few baseball cards. On this
1922 E120 American Caramel issue
he's shown with the Dodgers, for
whom he played only three games.

Uncommon commons: In more than 30 years in sportscards publishing I have thrown hundreds of notes into files about the players – usually non-star players – who made up the majority of the baseball and football cards I collected as a kid. Today, I keep adding to those files as I peruse microfilms of The Sporting News from the 1880s through the 1960s. I found these tidbits brought some life to the player pictures on those cards. I figure that if I enjoyed them, you might too.

On Sept. 5, 1944, former major league shortstop Sam Crane had his 18-to-36 year prison sentence for a double homicide commuted by Pennsylvania Governor Edward Martin. At the stroke of midnight on Sept. 25 he was released from the Eastern Pennsylvania Penitentiary at Graterford where he had served 15 years. After 11 unsuccessful appearances before the parole board, he was approved for early release on the 12th try, just a few days short of his 50th birthday.

(You’ve probably seen the rotting hulk of Graterford prison on television in recent years. It has been featured several times on “ghost hunter” types of shows, Halloween specials, etc.)

A major factor in Crane’s release was an appeal by his former manager Connie Mack, who promised Crane a job with the Philadelphia Athletics if he made parole.

A couple of years after having ended his professional baseball career, Crane shot and killed a former girlfriend, Della Lyter, and her escort Jack D. Oren, on Aug. 3, 1929, when he found them together in a Harrisburg, Pa., hotel bar.

Crane said he was drunk at the time of the shooting and had taken the pistol from his home with the intention of killing himself. He was convicted of two counts of second-degree murder.

While in prison Crane played shortstop, and later in the outfield, on the institution’s baseball team. During the latter days of his imprisonment, he managed the team. In 1944 his squad won 13 of 15 games (all home games, of course) against semi-pro and service teams from the Philadelphia area.

Crane’s “day job” in the prison was as a clerk in the superintendent’s office. He also drove the prison’s fire truck and maintained a pet squirrel named “Pete.”

In a story by Don Basenfelder in the Sept. 14, 1944, issue of The Sporting News, Crane was quoted as saying upon receiving the news of his successful appeal, “Uppermost in my thoughts at this time is to help everybody who has helped me in this struggle. I’d like to get some new clothes, see my mother in Harrisburg and go fishing.”

Like all state prisoners in that era, Basenfelder reported, upon his release Crane would receive a suit of clothes “manufactured in the prison tailor shop according to his measurements and specifications, and a $10 banknote as the state’s parting gift.”

A retired warden of the prison, Capt. Elmer Leithiser, promised to fulfill Crane’s desire for some fishing, planning to take him out on Lake Wallenpaupack, “an angler’s paradise” near Hawley, Pa. Leithiser was pictured in a photograph accompanying the TSN article shaking hands with Crane.

Crane expressed baseball ambitions other than taking the proffered position with the Athletics. He said he wanted to see a night game and, if possible, the World Series. “I’ve never stopped following baseball while I’ve been in here,” he told the reporter. "I read The Sporting News regularly and listen to reports of the games via radio, which is piped throughout the prison.”

Though he hadn’t heard from Mack in the first few days after his commutation, Crane said he wasn’t worried. “I’ll be happy to take any kind of job that Mr. Mack has for me,” he said.

Mack did offer Crane a job, at $35 a week on the maintenance crew at Shibe Park. He gave his blessing, however, when Crane landed a higher-paying factory job supporting the war effort.

"Red" Crane was born Sept. 13, 1894, in Harrisburg. He was reported playing pro ball as early as 1911  in the Tri-State League, including 1913 at Atlantic City.

Mack acquired Crane late in the 1914 season from Greensboro of the North Carolina League, where the 20-year-old redhead was playing shortstop and third base, hitting .244. Mack chose Crane for the A’s on the basis of a recommendation from his son, Earle Mack, who was manager of Raleigh in the same league.

Crane reported to Philadelphia after they had clinched the American League pennant and was played at shortstop to give a rest to Jack Berry prior to the World Series with the Miracle Braves.

“I wasn’t a wonder with a bat,” Crane admitted to the reporter, “though Mr. Mack and Harry Davis tried hard to teach me how to hit. I guess they gave it up as a bad job, for I was shipped to Richmond in the International League in 1915.” He moved to the Baltimore Orioles in the same league in 1916.

He returned to the American League with the Senators in 1917 (.179 in 32 games), then was farmed out to Minneapolis. Washington loaned Crane to the Cincinnati Reds in 1918, but the Senators’ asking price was too steep and he was returned. He played with Atlanta, Baltimore and Indianapolis in 1918-1919. In 1920 Crane was bought from Indianapolis by the Cincinnati Reds and played there in 1920-21. Crane finished his big league days with a handful of games for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1922, before he was sent to Seattle in the Pacific Coast League, where he also played 1923-25.

After making three errors in a game in June, 1925, Crane packed his gear and left the team, saying he was through with baseball. A month later he was sold to Harrisburg, but refused to report. 
Crane is included in the 1923 and 1925
Zeenut candy card sets of Pacific
Coast League players.

Buffalo purchased Crane in 1926. His final professional engagement was with Reading of the International League in 1927.

Basenfelder closed his article with, “The red has faded from Sam Crane’s hair. It is streaked with silver and gray. His eyes have a look of sadness and tragedy. In a few weeks he’ll be going home—to forget, if he can—the events of the past 15 years.

“And the Grand Old Man of Baseball will have another assist to his credit.”

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