Roger Craig: Pitcher Who Started the First Game In Mets History (1962-1963)
Craig arrived at Ebbetts Field in Brooklyn in July 1955 earning a complete game win in his debut against the Reds. He started out 3-0 that month with two complete games.
Overall for 1955 Dodgers championship team he was 5-3 with two saves, posting a 2.78 ERA pitching in 21 games. In the 1955 World Series he got the win in Game #3 at Ebbetts Field, pitching six innings allowing two runs on four hits while striking out four.
He came back & had a good start to the 1956 season, going 8-2 by July 1st with a 3.06 ERA. By the end of the month he was a ten game winner but the rest of the year he struggled finishing at 12-11 with a 3.71 ERA, striking out 109 batters in 199 innings pitched, tossing eight complete games with two shut outs.
The Dodgers won another pennant & Craig took a loss pitching in Game #3 of the 1956 World Series. He appeared in two games of the Series allowing eight runs in six innings of work.
He dropped to a losing record during the Dodgers last season in Brooklyn in 1957, going 6-9 making 19 appearances in relief while starting just 13 games. As the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958, Craig got the start in the sixth game of their first long, 19 game home stand. He allowed seven earned runs & spent most of the year at AAA St. Paul where he went 5-17 returning to L.A. that September.
In 1959 he began the year at AAA Spokane joining the Dodgers in mid June. He won his first four decisions & in the fourth win pitched 11 shutout innings of three hit ball against Milwaukee Braves. Craig was 6-2 with a 1.82 ERA by the end of July & would have his best season, going 11-5 with a 2.06 ERA, while leading the league with four shut outs.
Post Season: He & the Dodgers went to another World Series that year, facing off against the Chicago “Go Go” Sox. Craig lost the Series opener, allowing five runs in two innings of work.
He had another rough outing in Game #4, in front of 92,000 fans at the L.A. Coliseum, allowing four runs on ten hits, in seven innings of work, getting no decision. The Dodgers went on to win the Series and earn their first Championship in Los Angeles.
Craig spent two more seasons in L.A. pitching in both relief & as a starter.
In the 1961 expansion draft, Craig was the sixth player chosen going to the New York Mets. Although he was an original Met, it wasn't all pretty, in fact Craig spent two seasons with the Mets and lost twenty games in each season, leading the league in losses both times.
Two days before the first game in Mets history, Craig was warming up & twisted his ankle. He kept it a secret from his Manager; Casey Stengel but confided in his room mate Hobie Landrith.
Quotes: Craig looked back on the 50th Anniversary in 2012: “I told Hobie, ‘I’m not going to tell anybody, because I want to pitch that first game.’ The trainer taped it up and it didn’t bother me too much. I remember thinking, ‘I waited a long time and worked too hard to be an Opening Day pitcher and now I might lose it.’ If Casey would have known, he wouldn’t have let me pitch.”
But Craig was the starting pitcher in the very first game in Mets history on April 11, 1962, at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis. He never reached the 4th inning, and allowed five runs on eight hits as the Mets lost their first game 11-4. In his second game he allowed five earned runs to the Pittsburgh Pirates taking loss number two.
On April 27th he finished off a 8-6 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, allowing three runs, taking another loss. The next day he came in to pitch three innings of relief against Philadelphia, earning his first Mets win when Jim Hickman hit an 8th inning HR. On May 15th he pitched in relief of an extra inning game against the Chicago Cubs, earning a win when Hobie Landrith drew a walk off bases loaded walk from Cal Koonce.
In June he pitched eight innings allowing just two runs to the Phillies, but earned no decision as Cal McLish shut out the Mets 2-0. In his next start, he pitched into the 9th inning, allowing just one run to the Cubs. He beat Dick Ellsworth 2-1 at Wrigley Field. Then on June 19th he pitched a complete game at Shea Stadium beating the Milwaukee Braves 6-5.
Craig went 1-7 in July, his only victory came at the Polo Grounds on July 6th when he beat Ray Sadecki & the Cardinals. On August 4th he pitched a complete game one run victory over the Cincinnati Reds, striking out seven batters. In his next start he pitched another complete game, a two run performance against the San Francsco Giants at Candlestick Park.
In September he actually won three straight decisions, including another complete game on September 16th. It must be noted that Craig actually led the 1962 Mets team in most pitching categories. He led the staff in wins (10) strike outs (118) innings (233) complete games (13) as well as losses, 24- which also led the N.L. HRs (35) & hits (261). He allowed 117 earned runs which equaled a 4.51 ERA.
The next season he started out 0-2 with a save and then pitched two consecutive complete game victories at the end of April. But they would be last two wins he would have for the next four months as he would begin a record setting losing streak.
On May 4th he lost to the San Francisco Giants and things just got worse from there, as he lost an incredible 18 straight decisions. He did not win another game until August 8th. Manager Casey Stengel gave him strange words of encouragement telling Craig; “You gotta be good to lose that many”.
Craig kept his sense of humor throughout the streak, changing his uniform number from 38 to 13. His worst month was July as he went 0-7, beginning with a heartbreaking 2-1 loss to the Cubs in Chicago.
On the next home stand, he lost a nine inning outing to the Los Angeles Dodgers & then a horrible day where he allowed five runs to Houston, had him exit the game before the 1st inning ended.
On the road he then lost two games in San Francisco & one game in Philadelphia, Houston & Los Angeles. During his losing streak, Craig pitched into the eighth inning or beyond allowing just two runs or less nine times.
The woeful Mets team went 4-20 during Craig’s losing streak, but again in his defense his personal ERA was just at 3.90 at the end of the streak & had only went above four one time. On August 9th, Craig finally broke the streak, pitching a complete game victory against the Cubs in the Polo Grounds.
He wouldn’t get another decision until the end of the month when he beat the Pittsburgh Pirates. In the final two months of the season, he pitched mostly out of the bullpen and although he blew one save on September 1st, he earned three straight wins after he broke the famous losing streak.
Craig finished the season at 5-22 with two saves & a 3.78 ERA. He pitched fourteen complete games allowing 99 runs in 236 innings pitched. To his credit Craig pitched 27 complete games in his two Mets seasons, but only won 15 of them, losing eleven of them by shut out. On November 4, 1963 he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for George Altman and Bill Wakefield.
Quotes: Craig in 2012: “Some reporter asked me this year, ‘Are you proud of your (Mets pitching) record?’ I said, ‘No, I’m not proud, but I’m not ashamed of it.’ Losing a lot, it really helped me when I was a pitching coach and a manager,” says Craig. “It really helped me relate to people that were in slumps and pitchers who were having trouble.
He went from the worst team in baseball to the best, as the Cards went on to win the 1964 World Series. Craig was 7-9 with five saves posting a 3.19 ERA. He saw action in two games of the 1964 World Series earning a win in Game #4.
In his post season career, Craig played in four different World Series (winning three of them) pitching in seven Series games going 2-2 with 6.49 ERA.
Craig was traded to the Cincinnati Reds in 1965, where he pitched 40 games going 1-4 with three saves. He was released & signed with Philadelphia for the 1966 season finishing out his career.
Over 12 seasons Craig was 74-98 with 19 saves, striking out 803 batters in 1536 innings pitched. He threw 58 complete games with seven shut outs posting a 3.83 ERA.
Retirement: After his playing days Craig became a very successful pitching coach & manager. He is credited with perfecting and sometimes credited as inventing the split finger fast ball. He began his successful run as one of baseball’s best pitching coaches in San Diego with the Padres from 1969 through 1972.
He moved on to the Houston Astros from 1974-1976 & then was named the San Diego Padres manager, serving two seasons (1978-1979). He then went to the Detroit Tigers as the team’s pitching coach from 1980–1984, with his staff winning the 1984 World Series.
In 1985 he left to coach the San Francisco Giants & with only 15 games left in the 1985 season, Craig replaced Jim Davenport as manager. That year he took the Giants to the NLCS where they lost to the Cardinals in seven games.
From 1986-1990 the Giants never had a losing record under Craig.
In 1989 they won the N.L. pennant, getting to the World Series facing their cross Bay rivals, the mighty Oakland A’s. His favorite expression which would become the teams rally cry was “hum baby”.
The Bay area World Series will forever be remembered for the devastating earthquake which rocked the Bay area. The Athletics beat the Giants in four straight games when the Series resumed. Crag remained manager through the 1992 season & after posting a losing record he stepped down as manager.