(On Hank Aaron) "He was skinny and quiet, but he could really play. "
On January 22, America was shocked by of the death of Hank Aaron.
While Baseball fans remembered Aaron’s accomplishments and recognized how he transcended the sport, BallNine went back to examine the beginning of his Big League career to see how it all started.
That was where we came across a fellow by the name of Ray Crone, who has an incredible story of his own.
The sharp 89-year-old Crone joins us for this week’s Spitballin’.
Hank Aaron debuted with Atlanta on April 13, 1954. The Braves were facing the Redlegs at Crosley Field in Cincinnati that day and Aaron was just 20 years old. He was batting fifth and playing left field.
The Braves opened a 5-1 lead going into the bottom of the fourth, but starter Bob Buhl and reliever Chet Nichols squandered that by allowing nine runs over 5.1 innings.
Braves manager Charlie Grimm turned to Crone, a rookie right-hander, to stop the bleeding. Crone got out of the jam and was officially welcomed into the Major Leagues. Like Aaron, Crone was also making his Major League debut that day.
Crone had been teammates with Aaron in Jacksonville the previous year and while Aaron was putting up incredible stats in his only full minor league season, Crone was the team’s ace, going 19-11 with a 2.62 ERA.
On Opening Day in 1954 when Crone and Aaron debuted in the Majors together, the teams combined for 17 runs, 26 hits and five errors while using 27 different players. With Aaron’s passing, the only player left alive from that game is now Ray Crone.
Rookie pitcher, Ray Crone, and manager, Charlie Grimm, in dugout during spring training. (Photo by Leonard Mccombe/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)
“I didn’t want to think, ‘Oh wow, I’m pitching to Stan Musial!’ I didn’t want to put these guys on a pedestal, I wanted to get them out.”
The native of Memphis, Tennessee would pitch five Big League seasons, amassing an even 30-30 record with a solid 3.87 ERA. He was traded midway through 1957 with Bobby Thomson to the Giants for Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst.
Crone finished the 1957 season with the Giants, pitching in the Polo Grounds and then packed his bags for Candlestick Park as the Giants and Dodgers headed west. He pitched 14 games for the Giants in 1958 with his final Major League appearance coming in relief of Giants starter Al Worthington, who was roughed up by Crone’s old team, the Braves.
The tall righty pitched 1.2 innings that day before leaving a Major League field for the last time. As baseball often seems to do, there was one fascinating bit of serendipity in Crone’s final appearance.
The last batter he struck out in the Major Leagues was his friend Hank Aaron.
Ray Crone and players of his time are treasures in the baseball world. There are less than 100 former Major League players who are over the age of 88 and the people they have experience with is, at times, mind blowing.
Crone crossed paths with the likes of Tris Speaker and Rogers Hornsby, who were coaching while he was playing, and his pitching coach with the Braves was Charlie Root, the pitcher who gave up Babe Ruth’s alleged called shot.
My goodness do we have a lot of ground to cover and immortals to discuss, so pull up a chair and listen attentively as we go Spitballin’ with Ray Crone.
Thank you so much for joining us, Mr. Crone. It’s an incredible honor to talk to someone with your history in the game. It’s remarkable to talk to a player from your era. Let’s start by going back even further though. How did you get your start playing baseball?
I grew up in Memphis and my dad played in an over-thirty league every Sunday morning and I went with him. We didn’t hunt or fish, I’ve never done that in my life, we were just a baseball family.
We went to church and then to the game. Then we went home, and my mother would cook dinner and then we’d go out and watch the semi-pro doubleheader. Semi-pro teams were big back then. Every town had a team. Then at night, we’d watch fastpitch softball games. That was our ritual. I was brought up on baseball.
This is all happening in the 1930s, which is amazing. Did you have a favorite team or player growing up in that era?
Back then, the Big League teams had the same players year after year, so it was easy to get attached to a team and the guys. We were St. Louis Cardinals fans because they were the closest team back then. Marty Marion was my favorite player.
I read that you were a great pitcher in high school and played varsity as a freshman. But I also read that Hall of Famer Bill Terry was your freshman baseball coach. Is that right?
Yes, that was my freshman year. Bill Terry would come out to the team. I don’t remember much about it, but he would be wearing a suit and I think he did that because his kid was playing.
That’s unbelievable to be that young and to be around someone like that. Was there ever a time you thought you could be a Major League pitcher growing up?
I don’t know that I ever thought much about that. My senior year we noticed scouts coming around, so that became something on my mind. There was no draft back then and the scouts had areas to look for players. The man that got me was from Alabama and he had all the southeastern states. They didn’t have time to do much, so they picked a few guys and honed in on them.
There were four or five teams that I might have signed with, but this guy Bill Maughn was very aggressive, and he gave me the idea that I could be successful in the Majors. I had no chance to go to college and college baseball wasn’t anything back then. I was on OK student, but I didn’t have anything I wanted to do, so I signed with the Braves.
You made your way through the Braves system steadily and then in 1953 you ended up in Jacksonville where you were teammates with Hank Aaron for the first time. Do you remember meeting him for the first time?
I don’t remember the first time, but it was probably a handshake and a quick hello. They had already been through Spring Training in Jacksonville and I was in the Major League camp. I joined them two or three days before Opening Day.
I knew he was the second baseman and I never thought he was that bad of a second baseman. Sometimes they say he couldn’t play there, but I thought he was just fine. He was skinny and quiet, but he could really play.
Did you think he had the chance to become the type of player he became?
I didn’t realize he was gonna be the Home Run King back then, I don’t think anyone did. The thing I liked best about Henry was that he was so consistent. He always gave you a good game. He was always quiet, but he let his ability speak for itself. I admire a guy who goes out everyday and does his job without fanfare.
He was a great hitter, but he didn’t hit long bombs. He hit these hard line drives. But he kept at it and I think in the back of his mind, he just wanted to excel and go day by day. He didn’t have the media like Willie Mays did, so it probably helped him stay quiet in Milwaukee.
This was just a few years after Jackie Robinson and only about half the Majors was integrated at the time. How was Hank Aaron treated in 1953?
We had three black players on our team and Savannah had two. Those were the only black players in that league, which was in the Deep South. When we went on the road, we had to have the bus let them off in the black neighborhood. The Braves had already arranged with certain places they could stay.
I played ball with a lot of black players, especially that year and on different levels. I never saw anything negative from teammates or the organizations. Nobody ever complained if a black player beat out a white guy for a spot or the other way around.
As far as I’m concerned, inside baseball and on their teams, they were treated fair. What they faced outside, I don’t know about, but everybody embraced them as teammates. In the locker room, they were just one of the guys. In Brooklyn, that might have been a different situation, but I can only talk about what I saw on my teams. We were all just there to play baseball.
You also played with Hank Aaron in Winter Ball in Puerto Rico for the Caguas. What was that experience like?
I had gone home after the 1953 season and in November, somebody called me and asked if I wanted to go to Puerto Rico. I guess they were having trouble with their pitching and they wanted to beef it up. I felt like I had to prove myself because if not, they would find another guy and send me back.
We won the pennant down there and that was when Henry was moved to right field. Mickey Owen had someone to play second base, so that’s when they moved him to outfield. He took to that very well. He was fast and had a good arm and all that stuff. Henry did very well right away.
You debuted in 1954 on Opening Day. What was it like to finally pitch in the Majors?
I was in Spring Training in 1953 with the Braves, so moving up the next year was natural. I pitched to Big League hitters before, so I was confident that I could do the job. I didn’t want to think, “Oh wow, I’m pitching to Stan Musial!” I didn’t want to put these guys on a pedestal, I wanted to get them out.
I just want to list some of the players you pitched against before this question. Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Ernie Banks, Duke Snider. Kiner, Mays, Aaron and Musial. That’s just in the National League. What can you say about the era in which you played?
I think it’s going to go down in history that the 1950s is the era with the best players. It was after the War, so all the players were coming back to their teams and the black players were now in the league and making their names. It was an era that I thought was great, really the best.
It’s incredible the players you faced in your career. You had amazing teammates too. What was it like to be on the same pitching staff of Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette?
I learned a lot from Spahn. He was eager to make records. He wanted to pitch every fourth day no matter what. I realized later on that was a good thing. He was all about strikes. Just keep throwing strikes and eventually the law of averages is gonna be in your favor.
Spahn won over 360 games, but he also lost a lot too. But that was the thing. He’s out there never missing a turn to pitch. For me, I wasn’t in the rotation, but sometimes the manager wouldn’t let Spahn pitch against the Dodgers. They only had one lefty, [Duke] Snider, so they wanted a righty to pitch instead of Spahn and that was me. Spahn didn’t like that too much. The truth is, if you looked at it, Spahn probably did as good or better against righties. He was that good.
I love the old stadiums of that era. Did you have any favorites where you liked to pitch?
When I got to the Big Leagues, I was really impressed with the Polo Grounds in New York. The tradition there is, well, it’s just the way things oughta be.
The Braves pitching coach when you were there was Charlie Root. Did he ever talk about the story of Babe Ruth’s Called Shot?
Once in a while the guys in the clubhouse would kid him about it. He always claimed Babe didn’t point.
You were traded to the Giants and played the last couple of seasons in the Polo Grounds. What did you think of going to play for the Giants?
Well, if you look it up, I was about 25-15 with the Braves and I ended my career 30-30, so I did very poorly with them for some reason, I don’t know what it was. I’m not too proud of my Giants days.
After your playing days, you had an incredibly long career as a scout, retiring only recently in 2017. How did you get into scouting?
I married a girl, and we were living in Hartford where I did part-time scouting. Then Tom Giordano called me who was the Director of Scouting for the Orioles and asked me if I wanted to go down to Texas. That was in 1977 and I stayed with the Orioles for 20 years. Then I went with Kevin Towers to San Diego. I was a scout from 1977 to 2017. Kevin Towers had me scout the Rangers games here in Texas when I was elderly.
It was very satisfying to win a World Series with Baltimore too. Back then they took in the scouts and made us welcome at the World Series with our wives. We got there in 1979 and got beat then got back in 1983 and won it.
What was the big difference you saw from when you played the game to the way it’s played today?
The biggest thing is the way the teams are covered. There’s so much attention; I don’t think I could have played in this era. The guys are just hounded. Another thing that is different is the day of a game. There’s an eight o’clock game and guys are at the field at 1:00 PM. If we had an eight o’clock game, we got there at 5:30. We didn’t lay around the clubhouse. We went out there, did our thing and played the game. Now the guys stay there and eat meals there. In my day, they showered, got dressed and were gone.
We talked about Hank Aaron and Warren Spahn, who were some of your other favorite teammates?
Eddie Mathews. He was out there every day, consistent and great. Andy Pafko was a guy that was there every day. Did his best and was always consistent.
We also talked about Bill Terry and you had Hall of Famer Travis Jackson as a minor league manager. Did you come across many of the old stars who played in the eras before you?
I wish I did that more back then. Now I enjoy reading books about those guys who came before me, the Tris Speakers and Rick Ferrells. I enjoy reading about them because to them, baseball was everything. There was a term called “lobbysitters.” Those were the guys that would just congregate in the lobby of the hotel after a game to talk baseball. That’s them.
But I regret that I didn’t do more. In Spring Training, guys like Tris Speaker were on the field in Cleveland. So was Bob Feller. I never went up to those guys and had conversations and I should have.
Tris Speaker played in 1907. It’s crazy to think that I am sitting here with someone who was on the same field as him. This has been truly incredible, Mr. Crone. If my dad and uncle were alive, they would be the same age as you. I grew up hearing stories about all of these guys you’re talking about. My last question to you would be if you had any final reflections on your career to leave our readers with?
Looking back on it now, I am kind of proud of what I did. I think I could have done a lot better, but I am proud of what I accomplished. It was hard to work your way up through the system because there were so many more guys back then. Plus, there were only 16 teams.
I admire anybody, even players now, who go out there and put their stuff on the line to play baseball.