Roger Craig, teacher of an era-defining pitch, is dead at 93
By Richard Goldstein
Roger Craig, who pitched or managed in five World Series and changed the face of pitching in the 1980s as the guru of the split-fingered fastball, died Sunday. He was 93.
The San Francisco Giants, a team Craig managed for eight seasons, leading them to the National League pennant in 1989, announced his death on its website Sunday. His family said Craig had a short illness, a Giants spokesperson said.
For some, Craig was a figure in baseball trivia: He was the starting pitcher for the Dodgers in their final game before moving from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, and five years later, in 1962, he threw the first pitch in the New York Mets’ history. He was the loser both times. He lost 24 games and then 22 for the dreadful Mets in their first two seasons, including 18 in a row in 1963. But he had his moments when backed by good-hitting lineups.
A lanky 6-foot-4 right-hander who, it was often noted, bore a remarkable resemblance to President Lyndon B. Johnson, Craig pitched in three World Series for the Dodgers in the 1950s and another with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1964. In managing the Giants to the 1989 NL pennant, he implored his players to hustle with the mantra “Humm baby” and taught his pitchers to throw the split-fingered fastball.
Craig spread the gospel of the split, thrown with the same motion as a traditional fastball but able to confound batters because the pitcher gripped the baseball with his index and middle finger spread widely apart, and parallel to the seams instead of across them.
“The split finger is, simply, a fastball that you put an extra spin on so that it drops down in front of the batter so fast that he don’t know where it’s goin’,” Craig explained in a 1988 interview with Playboy. “Every pitcher with brains who wants to stick around wants to learn it.”
As the pitching coach for the Detroit Tigers, Craig taught the delivery to right-hander Jack Morris, who helped propel the team to the 1984 World Series championship and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2018.
After leaving the Tigers when his salary demands were unmet, Craig taught the split-fingered fastball to Houston Astros right-hander Mike Scott, who had sought his advice. Scott went on to win the 1986 NL Cy Young Award. As Scott once put it, “God bless Roger Craig.”
“Everyone was throwing that pitch,” Mike Scioscia, who caught for the Dodgers in the 1980s and later managed the Angels, told The Associated Press in 2011. “It was the pitch of the ’80s just like the pitch of the ’60s was a slider.”
Roger Lee Craig was born Feb. 17, 1930, in Durham, North Carolina, one of 10 children of John and Mamie Craig. His father was a shoe salesman. He was spotted by a part-time scout for the Dodgers while pitching in high school, then signed by the team out of North Carolina State University in 1950. After pitching in the Dodgers’ minor league system and serving in the Army, Craig made his debut with Brooklyn in July 1955.
He had a 5-3 record over 21 games, 10 of them starts, then beat the New York Yankees in Game 5 of what became the only World Series a Brooklyn team would win. He pitched for the Dodgers again in the 1956 World Series, taking the loss in Game 3 of the seven-game series win for the Yankees.
A fastball pitcher early in his career, Craig developed arm problems that he attributed to throwing in cold and damp weather as the starter on Sept. 29, 1957, at the Philadelphia Phillies’ Connie Mack Stadium, in the final game the Dodgers played before moving to Los Angeles.
Craig was back in the minors for much of 1958 and for part of the 1959 season while rehabilitating from his injury. He never regained the speed on his fastball but when he returned to the Dodgers for good in 1959 he concentrated on getting ahead of batters in the count. That year, he revived his career as a control pitcher and had his best major league season, posting an 11-5 record while leading the NL in shutouts, with four, as the Dodgers won their first pennant in Los Angeles. He started twice in the World Series against the Chicago White Sox, with one loss and one no-decision in a game won by the Dodgers, who took the Series in six games.
Craig pitched mostly in relief before he was chosen by the Mets as their No. 3 selection in the October 1961 expansion draft, after catcher Hobie Landrith and infielder Elio Chacon. He was the sixth pick overall since the Mets alternated with Houston, the other new team, in the draft order.
The Mets traded Craig to the Cardinals before the 1964 season, and he won Game 4 of the World Series in relief as St. Louis beat the Yankees in seven games. He later pitched for the Cincinnati Reds and the Phillies and finished his career with a 74-98 record.
Craig began teaching the split-fingered fastball, a variation on a lower-velocity delivery called the forkball, when he managed the San Diego Padres in 1978 and ’79. Future Hall of Fame reliever Bruce Sutter had been using the pitch for several years with the Chicago Cubs, having learned it from their roving instructor, Fred Martin, when he was in the minors. While Craig did not “discover” the split finger, he proved especially adept at teaching it.
After five years as a Tigers coach, Craig became the Giants’ manager with 18 games left in the 1985 season and remained with the team for seven more years. The highlight of his tenure came in 1989, when the Giants won an NL pennant for the first time since 1962, although they were swept by the Oakland Athletics in an earthquake-delayed World Series. He retired after the 1992 season and had spent time on his Southern California ranch in Borrego Springs in his later years.
The split-fingered fastball remained a part of pitchers’ arsenals in the years that followed Craig’s retirement, but it gradually declined in popularity over concerns that it can put undue stress on a pitcher’s arm.
“We have lost a legendary member of our Giants family,” Larry Baer, the Giants’ CEO, said in a statement. “Roger was beloved by players, coaches, front office staff and fans. He was a father figure to many and his optimism and wisdom resulted in some of the most memorable seasons in our history.”
He is survived by his wife, Carolyn; three daughters, Sherri Paschelke, Teresa Hanvey and Vikki Dancan; a son, Roger Jr.; seven grandchildren; and 14 great-grandchildren, the Giants said.
In looking back on his career, Craig shared wry memories of pitching for Casey Stengel’s Mets.
As he related it to CBS Sports in 2013, Stengel would tell him more or less the following: “Mr. Craig, I know you pitched nine innings today and won’t pitch again for four days, but don’t throw between starts just in case we’re ahead. I may need you to pitch an inning or two.”