Doc Cramer Remembers Mickey Cochrane, Hal Newhouser, and Briggs Stadium

Roger “Doc” Cramer had a long, distinguished 20-year American League career (1929-48) that included 2,705 base hits, a .296 lifetime average, and championships with the 1930 Philadelphia A’s and 1945 Detroit Tigers. The jug-eared center fielder definitely was a man who liked to get in his cuts. He rarely walked, led the circuit in at-bats seven times, and spent his off-seasons as a carpenter. When I visited him one April evening many years ago, he lived in a frame house in Beach Haven, New Jersey, which he had built with his own large, calloused hands.

Cramer, an earthy octogenarian, smoked and told stories. He got his nickname when he was a kid hanging around a neighbor who was a physician, he said. He remembered playing with and against one of his closest friends, catcher Mickey Cochrane, who everybody in the game knew as Mike. “He was the best I saw in my time,” he said, ahead of gifted backstops like Bill Dickey and Luke Sewell. Doc appreciated that an outfielder didn’t have to make perfect peg to Cochrane. “He’d get the ball and dive into the runner. He didn’t care if the runner hit him in the mouth.” Doc recalled a game after Cochrane had left the A’s for Detroit. “I was on third and someone hit a fly ball. I tagged and came home. The ball went this way, the glove that way, and his mask was over there. ‘You son of a bitch!’ he said to me. By God, it was like hitting a wall.”

Cramer joined the Tigers in 1942. Briggs Stadium was “one of the best ballparks in the country. The outfield was just like a carpet. You wouldn’t stick in the ground. A lot of these ballparks, the ground gets a little wet and you wind up sticking your shoulder into it.” That’s how he once broke his collarbone in Shibe Park, diving after a Lou Gehrig liner.

Cramer, 42 years old and batting third, led all Detroit batters in the 1945 World Series, hitting .379 against the Chicago Cubs as the Tigers won the climactic seventh game at Wrigley Field. “Goddamn, we were lucky to get nine men to put on the field some times,” he said, recalling the watered-down caliber of play during World War II. “We had guys on the field, to tell you the truth, I couldn’t tell you who they were right now.” Hal Newhouser starred on the mound, though Cramer’s initial impressions of the Tigers’ ace a few years earlier were not exactly favorable. “When I was with Boston I got a hit off of him. I’m standing on first base and I’m watching him swear and stomp around that mound, glaring at me. I said, ‘Who do you think you are? Isn’t anyone ever supposed to get a hit off you?’ He walked over. He was a cocky guy at that time. But he got to be a good boy and a good pitcher.”

Doc flipped the light switch in his trophy room, a converted bedroom. Plaques, bats, and photos popped into view. He showed me a shotgun. The barrel was peeled back, just like in the cartoons. The gun had belonged to Babe Ruth, who during a duck hunting trip with Cramer and Cochrane had used it as an improvised walking stick. When Ruth later pulled the trigger, the barrel, packed with mud, exploded. The Babe came that close to not making it to 714 career home runs, Doc snorted.

It was late. Doc said he was happy for the company. He had outlived most of his friends, his teammates, and his daughter, whom he and his wife, Helen, had nursed as she died a slow death from cancer. Now Helen was gone. He invited me to spend the night in the large and empty house. Perhaps I should have. Before leaving, I took a photograph of him—oddly, the only one I ever felt compelled to take of the many subjects I have interviewed over the years. In it Doc has a cig in one hand and a circa-1930 glove in the other. He’s looking at it with a quizzical expression, as if marveling that he ever snared a ball with that slab of leather—or perhaps, trapped in a sudden and private memory, just wondering where all the years and people had gone.

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