By HELEN ROSS
You might be surprised to learn that Roger Craig went to N.C. State on a basketball – not a baseball – scholarship.
He certainly had the aptitude for the hardwood. The Durham native stood 6-foot-4 and was talented enough to catch the discerning eye of renowned Wolfpack coach Everett Case, who would later join him in the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.
Craig played on State’s freshman basketball team but by the time the spring rolled around, his heart was elsewhere. When the Brooklyn Dodgers dangled a $6,000 signing bonus at the pitcher, the big right-hander was hooked.
A few years in the minor leagues and military service during the Korean War delayed Craig’s major league debut until he was 25. He was called up from the Montreal Royals in July of 1955 and started his first game for the Dodgers on the 17th of that month, pitching against the Cincinnati Redlegs and going the distance as Brooklyn won 6-2.
“When I first walked in that clubhouse with Jackie, Pee Wee, Duke, Furillo, and all those great Hall of Famers, I said, ‘I don’t belong here. What am I doing here,’” Craig told Nick Duinte in 2019 in a story published on metsmezmerizedonline.com.
“They made me feel welcome. I was lucky enough I pitched the first game of a doubleheader we played and beat Cincinnati with a complete game three-hitter victory.”
Craig appeared in 22 games that year as the Dodgers reached the World Series against the New York Yankees. With the Series tied 2-2, his number was called to start Game 5. Craig only gave up four hits and just two runs, getting credit for Brooklyn’s 5-3 win. The Dodgers went on to win in seven games – Brooklyn’s only World Series crown.
“One thing about after the game was over, we were in the clubhouse and everyone was celebrating and drinking Schaefer and Rheingold beer,” Craig told Duinte. “All of the younger guys, Roebuck, Bessent, Spooner and myself were having a good time. You looked around and all these guys, Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe, Pee Wee Reese and Duke Snider had tears in their eyes.
“I just realized that they had not won in so long, and it was the first time they ever won it. To get to this point and all, they all got very emotional. It was really something to witness. We just quieted down and let them be themselves.”
Craig’s other two World Series appearances for the Dodgers in 1956 and ‘59 weren’t quite as successful as he lost games to the Yankees and Chicago White Sox. But he appeared in two World Series games as a reliever for St. Louis in 1964 and was credited with the win in Game 4 against the Yankees, striking out eight in 4 2/3 innings as the Cardinals rallied from a 3-0 deficit.
Craig, who was known for his split-fingered fastball, moved with the team to Los Angeles in 1958 but ended up back in New York in 1961 when the Mets took the 31-year-old in the expansion draft. He pitched in – and lost -- the first game in Mets’ history, an 11-4 defeat at St. Louis, but ended up with 10 of New York’s meager 40 victories that year.
In two seasons with the struggling expansion team, Craig pitched in 88 games, including 27 complete games. From May 4-August 4 of 1963, he lost 18 straight games – even changing his number from 38 to 13 to try and break the jinx.
The final three seasons of Craig’s 12-year career as a player were spent at St. Louis, Cincinnati and Philadelphia. He pitched in 368 games and 1,536 1/3 innings with 803 strikeouts and a 3.83 ERA. He pitched seven shutouts and 58 complete games. His record was 74-98 with 19 saves.
Craig, who was known for his positivity and the way he nurtured younger players, worked as a pitching coach for San Diego, Houston and Detroit. His 1969 Padres pitching staff even sent him a Mother’s Day card. He kept a diary during the Tigers’ 1984 season that ended with a World Series title that became a book called “Inside Pitch."
Detroit manager Sparky Anderson called Craig “Mr. Upbeat.”
“He’s the most positive and optimistic character I’ve known,” Anderson told Bob Oates of the Los Angeles Times in 1988.
Craig retired – briefly -- after the 1984 season. By the following September, he was back in the game as the manager of the San Francisco Giants, eventually taking them to the 1989 World Series where they were swept by their cross-town rivals, the Oakland A’s. He also managed the Padres in 1978-79.
Craig was inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame in 1985.