Baseball’s Strongest Man – Cannonball Crane
By Bill Russo
Copyright 2016 by Bill Russo
Published by CCA Media at Shakespir
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Chapter One: Rochester, New York
Chapter Two: Boston, Mass.
Chapter Three: Frustration in Providence and Buffalo
Chapter Four: The Washington Nationals
Chapter Five: North to Toronto
Chapter Six: On to New York
Chapter Seven: The World Championship
Chapter Eight: The Spiral Down
Chapter Nine: The Last Hurrah
In the late 1800s, He was the biggest man in America’s developing passion for baseball. The strongest also, setting the record for the longest throw; heaving a baseball from home plate more than 400 feet to the furthest reaches of the outfield.
From Boston to Washington, New York City, and Toronto; to a life deciding moment in a shabby Rochester hotel – Few have ever soared so high or fallen so low. This is the story of Ed “Cannonball” Crane.
Draining the last swallow of his cheap ‘Beechwood’ whiskey, Ed Crane propped himself up on the lumpy mattress and hurled the spent ‘two bit’ bottle like a spiraling football. The explosion of the rocketed glass and the shower of the splaying shards temporarily halted the pounding on the door and the threats about the overdue bill.
Soon, it started again – the dunning of Ed “Cannonball” Crane by the manager of the Congress Hall Hotel in Rochester, New York.
“Get the money up Crane or get out! If you can’t pay by tomorrow morning, you’re out.”
Big Ed reached for another quart of ‘Beechwood’ from the array scattered on the floor. Finding that all the bottles were empty, he took another pill instead.
For a moment it dimmed the noise of the manager drumming on the solid door and the banging in his spongy brain. Two weeks? Was it really only two weeks ago that he had been fired from the Eastern League and told he could never play baseball again?
Maybe less: “It must have been eight days ago I checked in,” he said, slowly working out the figure by counting the seven empties on the floor plus the remains of the one that he had thrown. Congratulating himself for his deduction, he swallowed still another pill.
He had signed on with the Springfield Indians – his last hope to resurrect his career. But after only two weeks, Pat Powers, the Eastern League President fired him for ‘incompetence and heavy drinking’.
He took the train from Massachusetts to Rochester hoping to at least be able to pick up a few umpiring jobs. His first day in town produced not even a remote chance of any baseball work. The reason for this was that the entire baseball world had put a ‘no hire’ tag on him. Word spread from club to club and league to league so fast that somehow the unwritten agreement ‘to forever ban’ Cannonball Crane from baseball, even beat the speedy “Empire Builder” train that hauled him from Western Massachusetts to New York State.
Ed “Cannonball” Crane who had thrown a baseball like no one before him: who had once been the toast of Boston, New York City, and Toronto – was all done. Ed knew it and the whole baseball world knew it. With the last of his money he bought eight quarts of ‘two-bit’ booze and holed up in a third floor room of the run-down hotel.
As he thought about his hopeless situation, he took still another pill.
Big Ed Crane was born in the ‘New York’ section of Boston – a comfortable neighborhood of three to five story homes lining a half-dozen roadways in the South End of Beantown.
All the streets had names like Albany, Rochester, and Troy. An association with the Boston and Albany Railroad which had a depot in the heart of the area may have given rise to the ‘Empire State’ themed labels.
He was always called ‘Big’ Ed, despite being the last of the ten children of Irish immigrants James and Anna Crane.
When Eddie was eight, he was already bigger than three of his sisters born before him, and nearly as large as his big brother Frankie, who was nine years his senior.
A typical dinner at the Crane house would see Mama Anna leaving her kitchen, transporting an enormous platter mounded high with ham or steaks, surrounded by baked potatoes and steaming vegetables.
Normally she handed the food to her husband first. If she mistakenly started the platter with her youngest child, Eddie, he would empty most of the family’s entire dinner into his plate!
“That’s too much Eddie!” she scolded. It was the same every night, if he got anywhere near the serving platter before the rest of the family, there would be little left for anyone else. “That’s too much Eddie!” was the constant cry from Mama, Dad, and all nine of the other children.
His response at a family gathering, best illustrates Eddie Crane’s attitude about food. His aunt had prepared roasts of turkey and ham for a holiday celebration. Carrying a huge tray with slabs of meat layered higher than a ruler she served each child.
“How much would you like Eddie?” She asked when she got to the youngest Crane.
“I want too much!” Eddie replied in a most serious tone.
That enormous appetite fueled the growth that gave “Big Ed” his nickname. By the time he reached 14 he was already a muscular 180 pounds at a time when most full grown men were less than 150. His typical breakfast at the Genesee Street diner, where he worked part time, was 12 soft-boiled eggs, six slices of toast, and two dozen clams.
His good looks and strong frame made him the most popular boy in school. He was also the best dressed for two reasons. The first was that he enjoyed dressing well. The second reason was that the tailor shop started by his father was one of the most successful businesses in Boston and young Ed could have just about anything he wanted.
His older sisters had joined the family business and when their father died, the Crane ladies took over the enterprise. The girls doted on their handsome ‘little’ brother, helping their mother raise Eddie, who was just eight when his father passed away.
After graduating high school, with no interest in becoming part of the clothing business Eddie took a job as a machinist. The shop was within walking distance of the five-story, red brick Victorian house on Seneca Street, where he lived with his family.
His oldest sister Mary and her family lived on the first floor. Mary, senior to Eddie by almost 20 years, was in charge of the Tailoring business and also ruled the Seneca Street house. All of the remaining floors were occupied by the families of the other Crane children, James Jr., Tommy, Frankie, Anna, Maggie, Emma, and Rosalee.
Though employed in the machine shop, Big Ed’s chief interest was baseball. He played on the company team, he was on the squads of a number of semi-pro and amateur teams – and he could never pass a sandlot game without joining in.
He also watched many of the Boston Beaneaters’ games at the South End Grounds. (The team is now known as the Boston/Atlanta Braves)
In 1883 he was at the ballpark a few dozen times and saw the team win the National League Championship. Burning with a passion to play for his hometown team, he knew that his skills were not yet equal to the level required for the major leagues.
Then, a funny thing happened on the way to the Oswego Street Grille where he was to meet a few of his pals. He ran into retired baseball champ Tim Murnane of the Boston Beaneaters. I mean he literally ran into him. Tim was rushing around the corner at Albany Street and crashed headlong into Big Ed.
Good sized for the era at five nine and 172 pounds, Tim was a powerhouse for the World Champs of baseball – but when he crashed into Big Ed, he thought he had hit a brick wall. After Tim fell backwards quicker than a tree knocked down by Paul Bunyan, Ed extended a meaty paw and helped him up.
Tim, a first baseman who once placed fifth in the American Association batting race with a .359 batting average, had retired from ball in 1878 in favor of sports writing for the world famous newspaper, The Boston Globe. He was rushing around that day because something new had aroused his interest.
“I’ll be thanking you for the hand up, if not for the knock down,” said Tim, as he was effortlessly yanked to his feet by the large youth he had run into.
“Hey, aren’t you Tim Murnane? I saw some of your games at the South End Grounds. I’m Ed Crane, Jimmy’s brother.”
“Sure as the old emerald isle, ‘tis me,” said Tim in the brogue that he had acquired from his Irish immigrant father. “Aye, but you can’t be Jimmy Crane’s brother, why the last time I saw you, you were only 10 years old and about 130 pounds – you must be about double both those numbers by now! Your older brother and I played sandlot ball together. I hope you turned out to be a better player than he was.”
Just how good a player he was, Tim was soon to find out. As the pair talked old times, Murnane revealed why he was in such a hurry. George Wright who had started the first baseball team in Boston, The Red Stockings, was spearheading a group forming a Boston team for a new baseball league.
“The Union Association league will have eight clubs with teams in all the big cities like Chicago, Baltimore, Washington, and St. Louis. I’ve taken the job of player/manager for the Boston team and I have to get things together in just three weeks,” Tim explained.
The two men raced to the Dartmouth Street ball field where the team would play and Ed was to have a tryout.
Big Ed, 22 years old at the time, was probably far stronger than any player in either of the two major leagues. His massive size, strength, and ability to throw hard guided him towards three specialties, pitching, catching and right field.
Murnane went to the pitcher’s box to throw a few tosses to test Ed’s batting skills.
“Just a minute Tim, watch this,” requested the younger man. Stooping down, Big Ed picked up a ball from a dozen or so that were on the ground and heaved it mightily towards the outfield. The white sphere soared so high into the sky that Tim lost it in the sun and only spied it again when it landed on Dartmouth Street – more than four hundred feet from home plate! Unoffcially, it was the longest toss of a baseball in history.
“Ed Crane! I have never seen anything like that toss. It looked like it was shot from a cannon. You’re on the team kid – but not as ‘Big Ed’. From now on, you are “Cannonball Crane”.
So it was that Big Ed became “Cannonball” and signed with the Boston Reds for the 1884 season, joining other local boys like Kid Butler, Dupee Shaw, Tommy McCarthy, Charley Reilly, and a Murphy or two.
On opening day, Tim was at first base, Cannonball Crane played right field and the battery was Lew Brown catching with “The Wizard” Dupee Shaw, doing the twirling.
And twirl he did. Dupee is credited with being the man who invented the pitching ‘wind-up’. Decades later when Tim Murnane was the chief sports editor for the Boston Globe, he would say this of the ‘magician’s’ wind up…”After considerable swinging and scratching around with his feet, during which he would deliver a lengthy speech to the batter, to the effect that he was the best pitcher on earth and the batter a dub, he would stretch both arms at full length over his head. Then after gazing fixedly at the first baseman for a moment, he would wheel half around and both arms would fly apart like magic… He would wind his left arm around again and let the ball fly, running at the same time all the way from the box towards the home plate.”
On July 19, “The Wizard” took the box against league powerhouse St. Louis. (by the 1900s, a mound would replace the pitching box) The Maroons won their first 20 games before tasting defeat. When they went up against Dupee with his dancing and twirling, and his E.R.A of 1.77 – a total of 18 Maroons went down swinging. The Tricky left hander won 21 games that season. That high-water mark was his best season in a career that never saw much success after Boston. Still, for that one enchanted year, he was one of the elite pitchers of what was becoming America’s favorite sport.
“Cannonball Crane” also drew a fair amount of attention for his efforts. He hit .285, the highest on the ball club and tenth in the Union Association. He slugged 12 home runs, just one behind the league leader. His slugging percentage of .451 was good for fourth in the UA. His 193 total bases also were fourth in the Association. He banged out 41 extra base hits – fifth in the league. He was also in the top ten in runs scored and in total hits.
The team did fairly well, placing fifth with a record of 58 and 51. They drew about 500 fans a game.
The deck was stacked against it however, and the Union Association never really had a chance to succeed. It was designed to be a showplace for the St. Louis Maroons who were owned by Henry Lucas who also started the league. He stocked his own ball club with the finest available talent. His team went 94 and 19. When the league folded after the season, Lucas was able to slide his club right into the well established National League.
An interesting little back story to the 1884 season stems from Lucas’ willingness to wave money around like it was water so that he could get the top players for his club.
One of the men to yield to the summons of Lucas, the caller with the dollar, was Charlie Sweeney. He was one of the two ‘Ace’ pitchers of the National League powerhouse, the Providence Grays.
Sweeney jumped ship in mid season after winning 17 games for the Grays. He went on to win 24 more for the Maroons – a total of 41 victories on the season.
When Sweeney abandoned the Grays, Charlie ‘Old Hoss’ Radbourne went to management and offered to pitch all the remaining games in exchange for a small raise and an exemption from the reserve clause. He had already won 24 games at that point. From July 24 to the end of the season, he pitched 40 of the team’s 43 games and won 36 of them for a total of 60 wins on the season!
The Grays won the National League Pennant and went to the World Series against the American Association Champs – the New York Mets (Metropolitans). The Grays won the 1884 World Series three games to none. Old Hoss started and won all three games – giving up a total of (you guessed it!) three runs.
When the Union Association folded in the off season, Tim Murnane went back to the Boston Globe where he was an award winning writer and editor for over three decades.
As for Cannonball Crane, his fame had spread around baseball due to his long distance throws as well as his batting skills. In October he entered a throwing competition in Cincinnati. His remarkable heave was measured at 405 feet and seven inches – officially beating the previous distance record that was set in the 1870s.
Four teams from the Union Association showed up for the winter meetings in January of 1885 and one of them was St. Louis which was headed for the National League. The UA was disbanded and many of the players went back to whatever they were doing before their baseball careers. In most cases that meant back to factory work or employment in retail establishments.
The top stars of the UA were offered tryouts by teams in the other two major leagues, the American Association and the National League. Many of these ‘better’ players did not perform well against the much more skilled athletes in the established leagues.
Such was the case with Cannonball Crane. The Providence Grays gave him a shot and were not impressed. He played only one game for the champs in early May and was released.
Pitcher Dupee Shaw was kept. ‘The Wizard’ teamed up with Old Hoss Radbourne to form the Grays one-two pitching punch. Radbourne went 28 and 21. Dupee, however had lost some of his magic. He won 23 games but lost 26 and was dealt to the Washington Nationals at the end of the ‘85 season.
Dejected at being cut, Cannonball hooked on with another NL team, the hapless Buffalo Bisons. Playing in 13 games, he had 14 hits in 51 at bats for a 275 batting average. The ailing Bisons finished 38 and 74, and went extinct at season’s end.
When his old pal from the Reds, Tommy McCarthy contacted him near the end of August, Cannonball jumped ship and joined Brockton of the new ‘outlaw’ association, the New England League. McCarthy had been on the roster of the Boston Beaneaters who released him when he couldn’t get his batting average above 182.
McCarthy’s batting and fielding skills improved dramatically. When he went back to Boston two years later he was teamed with Hugh Duffy. Together they were know as, “The Heavenly Twins”. During their glory years, the Boston Beaneaters (later known as the Braves) won the National League Championship five times between 1890 and 1898.
More than a hundred years after hitting an astronomical .440 for the 1894 Beaneaters, Hugh Duffy’s record still stands as the highest batting average ever.
Tommy McCarthy never hit 400 but usually reached the 340s and 350s, which was pretty good for any era and was more than enough to get him chosen for baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
Cannonball’s luck was nowhere as good as his pal’s. Though he had played for Brockton, he was still the property of Buffalo. In the process of folding its team, Buffalo assigned Crane’s contract to the National League.
Cannonball Crane on a baseball card issued by Goodwin and Company, makers of Old Judge and Gypsy Queen. Starting in 1887 the trading cards were issued and packed as premiums in packages of the firm’s cigarettes.
Cannonball’s stay with the National League’s expansion team, the Washington Nationals started out bad and then got a lot worse. As a batter, he hit only .171 with just 50 hits in 292 at bats. He hit zero homeruns and only 11 doubles and three triples.
As a pitcher he was even worse. He made eight starts for the Nationals and had a 1 and 7 record. He gave up an average of more than seven runs a game. In 70 innings pitched, he allowed 90 hits, 53 walks and had only 39 strikeouts.
Though he was a clean living young man, his appetite was becoming a problem. At just 23, his inability to keep his weight in control was beginning to show, in unflattering ways.
Even before the start of the season he was criticized in print when The St. Louis Globe-Democrat commented, “Ed Crane weighs over 200 pounds and will have to sweat off about fifteen pounds before he goes to Washington.”
The lowest point of the dismal season was in September when he took the pitching box against Chicago. He gave up 11 hits, 14 walks, threw five wild pitches and made one error. His team lost the game 15-2. The Nationals let him go shortly afterwards. It looked like baseball was all done with Cannonball Crane.
In November, he sought redemption by signing on with a group of barnstormers headed for Cuba. Led by the manager of the Philadelphia team of the American Association, they left for the island on the fifth day of the month. The plan was to play two games a week during November and December. The tour collapsed in financial disarray after playing only a few games. The unhappy ballplayers returned to the States on November 22.
After his miserable performance in 1886 and perhaps due to his ever expanding waistline, Cannonball found no Major League offers for the following season. In what would become a familiar pattern for American athletes of the day with a need to prove themselves, he journeyed north of the border, landing in Toronto, Canada.
The 1887 ‘Canucks’ (aka, the Toronto Maple Leafs) baseball club of the International league paid him the top salary in the minors and gave him a chance, for the first time, to have a regular spot in the pitching rotation.
The results were spectacular: as a pitcher he won 33 of the team’s 65 victories – hurling them to their first International League championship.
In addition to being the co-leader in pitching victories, he won the batting title with a 428 average! Today, after the passage of almost 150 years, he record still stands as the highest batting average ever recorded by a pitcher.
On days that he was not pitching, Cannonball played the outfield or sometimes second base.
Near the end of the season with first place on the line the Maple Leafs hosted a Saturday double header with Newark. The Little Giants had moved to the International League after winning the Eastern League Pennant in 1886. Newark was a powerhouse that season in the three year old International League. Near the top of the standings all year long, they finished just five games back of the Maple Leafs, winning 59 against 39 losses.
The squads were neck and neck in the stretch so the day’s doubleheader was very important and drew a record crowd that filled the stands to capacity. There were 2000 people seated and perhaps five times that many with ‘standing room only’ tickets. Admission to the game was twenty five cents for the standing crowd and another dime for those who wished seats.
The ball park, the new ‘Sunlight Stadium’, had been named for the nearby Sunlight Soap Company. The team’s owner, a wealthy stockbroker named E. S. Cox, was stationed near the scoreboard, where later in the day he would post a message for the entire city.
Cannonball Crane pitched the first game, giving up five runs in his nine innings, getting the win easily because the Leafs scored 15 times!
In game two, the overflow crowd was puzzled when Norm Baker, the scheduled pitcher failed to appear in the pitching box. He had been seen on the field warming up but when the official gave his call to “Play Ball”, it was Cannonball Crane who took the box, even though he had already hurled, and won, the opener!
The action was recorded by a reporter from the Toronto Globe, who wrote: “As soon as it was made clear that Crane was to pitch the second game, hundreds leaped to their feet and cheered frantically, a mighty whirl of enthusiasm took everybody within its embrace and an astounding volume of sound shook the stands and swept down toward the city and out over the grounds like the march of a tornado.”
Enthusiasm faded quickly when the falling Leafs were down by three runs early. They stayed on the short end of the score for most of the game; their bats seemingly empty after the first game barrage.
The eighth inning started well for the Maple Leafs. The first batter reached safely with a scratch single. Batters two and three also hit safely, loading the bases for the strongest man in all of baseball – Cannonball Crane.
He stepped up to the plate and promptly hammered the ball deep into the outfield. Three runners scored on Crane’s sharply hit double. The game was tied and headed for extra innings.
Cannonball stayed on the mound and ‘twirled’ a scoreless tenth inning. The leafs failed to make any noise in their half of the first overtime frame.
On to the eleventh stanza went the contest. The massive arm of Ed Crane held up its end of the bargain again – no runs and no hits were made by the Little Giants. The ‘Cannonball’ had now pitched 20 innings of hardball in a single day.
The weary leafs faltered again in the last of the eleventh. There were two outs and things looked grim – Cannonball was due up at the plate with another chance to save the day.
It took less than a minute. Baseball’s mightiest slugger launched a rocket to the furthest reaches of Sunlight Field and circled the sacks for a game winning home run.
“The jubilant audience arose and cheered and stamped and whistled and smashed hats… the frantic fans dashed on to the field and carried Crane aloft as his foot touched home.” (Toronto Globe)
On the scoreboard, team owner E.S. Cox, wrote a message read by the entire ball park – “CITIZENS, ARE YOU CONTENT? TORONTO LEADS THE LEAGUE.”
Cannonball had pitched and won both games of the double header. The Canucks/Maple Leafs took the league lead and never lost another game during the rest of the season: finishing with 16 straight victories.
Cannonball Crane had become a legend in Eastern Canada, but he still yearned for success in the Major leagues. He chose to take advantage of the game’s new found interest in him; and decided not to resign with Toronto for the 1888 season.
Ed Crane parlayed his success with the Maple Leafs into a fat three thousand dollar salary for the 1888 season with the New York Giants of the National League.
Wealthy John Day who also owned the New York Mets (Metropolitans) of the American Association, had decided to make his Giants the powerhouse of major league baseball. In addition to signing Crane, he moved many of his star players from the Mets to the Giants.
With predictable results, the Giants won the pennant and went on to beat the St. Louis Browns in the post season ‘World Series’. The club played in the original Polo Grounds, north of Central Park.
While Cannon Ball Crane did not have a very good year he did manage one notable feat – the first no hitter in the storied history of the New York Giants.
It was in a seven inning game against the Washington Senators. In the period before baseball was played at night under the lights, the games were supposed to be nine innings – but the umpires could stop the game, if darkness arrived before the scheduled completion. This was one of many reasons why baseball games of yesteryear were much shorter than they are today. The players played at a faster pace to try and get the game completed before nightfall.
One week after his no-hitter Crane set another benchmark – he was the first pitcher ever to strike out four batters in one inning.
For the year, Cannonball’s record was a lackluster five wins against six losses. His ERA of 2.43 was fourth best on the staff and in fact he was the fourth best pitcher on the team.
The Giants won 83 games and lost only 47. The ace, Tim Keefe went 35 and 12. Mickey Welch had 26 victories and 19 defeats. Another Cannonball, ‘Cannonball’ Titcomb had a record of 14 and 8.
As a batter Ed ‘Cannonball’ Crane hit just .162 in 40 plate appearances.
Though he didn’t manage great numbers on the field his three thousand dollar salary kept his food pantry well stocked. In the 1880s if he had stayed in the machine shop, Ed would have made about $500 a year, working 60 hour weeks. Skilled laborers like carpenters and blacksmiths earned close to a thousand dollars per year.
When he bought his groceries, Cannonball had to pay only 12 cents for butter or bread, 20 cents for a half gallon of milk and a quarter for his breakfast of a dozen eggs.
The salary of the President of the United States was $50,000 while today the job pays $400,000. That increase is minor compared to the paychecks being issued to ballplayers in the 2000s.
In early baseball the top salary of any ball player was about $10,000. Today the minimum wage for a major leaguer is over $500,000. The biggest paycheck in baseball for the 2016 season was the 32 million dollars paid to Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Though there was not much money around baseball during the early days, there was plenty of opportunity to eat – especially for a young man with a voracious appetite like Big Ed Crane.
Even the train trips afforded vast quantities of food, if one knew a few tricks. In the ’88 season there were eight clubs in the National League and from Boston or New York City it required 24 hours travel by train to get to the home fields of three of them (Detroit, Indianapolis, and Chicago).
The first road trip of the year for the Giants was 30 games long and lasted from May into early June. The road swing started in the Great Room at Grand Central Terminal of 42nd Street.
From the Great Room and its bustling emporiums and food shops, Cannonball Crane and the other players lumbered out to the tracks to see the big locomotive that would carry them on their journey of more than a thousand miles to Chicago. Their home for the next day and night would be one of the three Pullman sleeping cars on the train. The powerful steam engine pulled eight cars for the New York to Chicago route.
Directly behind the engine was a kind of all purpose car, called the buffet/library/smoking car. Following that was a baggage car followed by a parlor car, then the dining car. Next were the three Pullman cars all in a row, followed by an observation lounge. .
The Pullman car had 14 berths for the 20 players plus the manager and a few other men on the club’s staff. Each berth had an upper and lower bunk, allowing for 28 beds. Since the team hired a private car, the guys could have the use of both the ladies and the men’s room, which gave extra toilet facilities but there was no bathtub so they had to use 6 little wash basins to take care of their grooming needs. There was a men’s room and a ladies’ room at each end of the car.
The first leg of the trip was to Chicago. The 1,017 mile trip took about 23 hours back in the late 19th century – pretty much the same time it takes today. The train departed at 5:00 p.m. on Tuesday, and with about 12 stops, arrived at Union Station in Chicago at 4:00 p.m. on Wednesday. The next game for the players was on Thursday. There were two days off for the travel.
A manager’s son with a reporter’s eye filed the following report of the life of base-ballers on a road trip…“The ballplayers are always hungry. They file into the dining car and make sure they get their four-bits worth. Some of the boys regularly complain that there is a fly in their meal and demand to have another. When the waiter takes the plate, all that remains on it is the fly – and the ballplayers bring the flies with them!!!
“After dinner the men walk back to their Pullman car and splay across the seats smoking cheap cigars that compete with the soft-coal smoke that drifts in through the tiny window screens.
“Three or four card games start. One ballplayer is not allowed in any of the games. He already owes two years pay for his previous losses. He begs everybody to let him play. “Look fellas, How about Four Years or Nothing?” he pleads to no avail.
“Here and there, is a game of Chess or Dominoes. A few guys are writing home to their Moms and Dads – asking for money. One or two are writing to wives or girlfriends.
“A news vendor comes into the car. He is carrying a basket full of items to sell, almost bigger than he is……he is selling everything from bananas to joke books. The bananas sell first and then the boys start throwing the skins under the newsboy’s feet, betting they can trip him up.
“But this newsboy is too smart for our ballplayers. He pulls a large envelope from his basket. “Gentlemen,” he says, “I have something very special for MEN only.” He then begins to slowly remove some “snappy” pictures from the envelope.
“All the poker games, chess games and letter writing comes to a quick halt. The players swarm the vendor like wool on an unshorn sheep. The “snappy” photos are ten cents each and ten minutes later the newsboy leaves the Pullman car with an empty envelope.
“The train has been steaming along for four hours now and it is nine p.m. The porter comes in to make up the berths. The two facing seats are folded down to make a comfortable bunk for one player. An upper berth, which is folded up like a luggage compartment, is pulled down for the top bunk.
“There are curtains which can be pulled shut for privacy but the baseballers tell the porter to leave the curtains open. The car looks like a bunkhouse on a ranch. The porter departs and the players begin flipping coins to see who gets the lower berths and who’s stuck in the uppers.
“By ten o’clock the occupants of the car are sleeping and the sounds of the clacking rails are accompanied by the occasional snorts and snores of the 20 ball players.
“Eight hours later, the men begin to file towards the washrooms before heading for the dining car to stock up on ham, eggs, toast, coffee and pastries.
“While the players are eating, the porter will enter the Pullman and set it back to day mode, so that when the men get back the seats will be ready for them and the card games and such can continue until lunch time.
“The long train chugs into Chicago right on time at four p.m. and the ballplayers walk to the nearby hotel to continue the card games and cigar smoking until about 10:00 p.m. when the manager has them turn in to so they will be rested for tomorrow’s game.”
The ball players enjoyed the train travel for several reasons, not the least of which was the chance it gave them for a few days off. The food was often better than they found in their hotels and nearby hash-houses. The cards and other games were pleasant pastimes and helped to develop a sense of unity – an item that was important for a team challenging for a pennant like the 1888 Giants.
Though Cannonball Crane didn’t have an especially good year he was brought back for the ’89 season – but his paycheck was trimmed back to two thousand dollars instead of three.
In one of the closest races in more than 130 years of organized baseball, the New York Giants defeated the Boston Beaneaters for the National League Pennant of 1889 though both teams had an equal number of victories.
Each team had a chance to win the title on the last day of the season. The South End gang from Boston dropped their contest 6-1; but the Polo Grounds crew won their battle 5-3, to capture their second straight pennant.
They headed into the World Series as favorites and beat the Brooklyn Bridegrooms (later the Brooklyn/LA Dodgers six games to three in a best of eleven series. Today this would have been called a subway series, but since the New York City subway system didn’t open until 1904, it was most likely called a ‘cross-town’ series.
But what of Cannonball Crane?
A few things happened – not all on the field. His prodigious eating habits had caused his weight to increase but his rotund condition had not cemented his nickname as ‘Cannonball’. More than one newspaper reporter had commented in print that Crane might be eating himself out of a job. Yet, big as he was he was still shown on the Giants roster as Ed Crane, not Cannonball Crane.
Another pitcher, Ledell Titcomb had laid claim to the nickname and since he had 14 wins in 1888 to just 5 for Crane; Titcomb got to be designated in the program as “Cannonball” Titcomb – though he was only five feet six inches tall and 150 pounds!
Crane, at well over 200 (he was generously listed at 204) much more closely resembled the public’s image of a Cannonball, but at the start of the season was simply called, Ed Crane.
In 1889 however, Titcomb pitched only one win and had an earned run average of almost seven. Ed Crane won 14 games as the third starter and did well enough to win back his moniker and be presented as the only “Cannonball” on the squad.
In truth Cannonball Crane didn’t have much of a chance to pitch in 1889 because he was third on the bench behind future Hall of Famers, Smilin’ Timmy Keefe and Mickey Welch who had spectacular years, winning 28 and 27 respectively. Between them the aces had 86 starts and Crane was able to get just 25.
He made the most of his chances though. Cannonball’s record was 14 and 11; the ninth best win/loss record in the National League. He was in the top ten for strikeouts, strikeouts per nine innings, and in least hits allowed.
All things considered he had a pretty good year – but he saved his best for last – The World Series. The championship games were set to be played alternately at the Polo Grounds at 155th street by the Harlem River in Manhattan and Washington Park, the home of the Brooklyn Bridegrooms, between Fourth and Fifth Avenues in Brooklyn. The Bridegrooms (Dodgers) had set the American Association attendance record by drawing 353,690 fans.
As said previously the Giants won the series six games to three. Cannonball Crane started five times and won four games and lost one. As a hurler, he flung 38 innings, giving up 29 hits. He had a respectable 3.79 ERA.
As a slugger he went 5 for 18, with two singles, a double, a triple, and a home run. He had five runs batted in with a batting average of 278, which was comfortably over his weight.
Here’s part of what the New York World had to say about the hefty pitcher…. “Cannonball Crane, fat and jolly, went into the pitcher’s box for New York… Ed shot them in with terrific speed and brought joy to the New Yorkers, who saw the Bridegrooms succumb, one after another, to his invincible ‘curves’ and ‘shoots’.”
After this solid season it looked like, expanding waistline or not, the 27 year old Big Ed Crane would certainly be back with the New York Giants for the 1890 season – and he was; kinda-sorta!
He pitched for the New York Giants all right, but they were not the New York Giants of the Polo Grounds, but the name stealing Giants of the short lived, upstart Players League.
A funny/sad thing happened to Big Ed before he jumped ship from the real Giants to the Player League Giants – he took up drinking. It happened after the World Series when he joined former player Al Spaulding’s World Baseball Tour.
Twenty of baseball’s greatest players boarded trains around Boston and New York and headed west to San Francisco. From there they travelled to foreign lands like Hawaii and Australia showing off the new American game of baseball. People accustomed to Cricket had little trouble following and enjoying the game. The tour played with great success through Europe and Asia.
The influential Boston Globe gushed about the tour, lauding it….“ for boldness and scope, it tops anything ever before attempted in the world of sports.”
It was a financial and artistic success for Al Spaulding – so much so that when the tour returned to the States, he bought out two major sporting good rivals and developed his Spaulding Company into one of the largest sporting goods companies in the world.
But what of young Ed Crane? He was always a clean living young man, albeit a prodigious eater. Sadly, when he saw France, he developed a taste for demon rum, wine, beer, and whiskies of all description. He quickly became a drunk of the first order. A noted sportswriter said that until the World Tour…”he never drank, but when the aggregation reached Paris, Crane fell. When he reached America again not only could he drink champagne but he had acquired a taste for less expensive drinks.”
Already in danger of having his skills eroded by his ever blooming weight gains, alcohol seems to have been the pivot point that sent Cannonball Crane into a downward spiral that would soon see him drummed out of baseball forever at the age of 31.
That banishment was still a ways off in April of the 1890 season. Cannonball didn’t have a horrendous season for the Player’s League Giants, but there were troubling signs. Though he led the staff in innings pitched with 330, he also led the league in walks with 210 – the 13th highest in about 140 seasons of Major League baseball.
His 16 wins were the least of the four starters on the staff and his 19 losses were also the highest on the staff. Hall of Famer Hank O’Day went 22 and 13. Hall of Famer Smilin’ Timmy Keefe had a 17 and 11 record. John Ewing went 18 and 12.
The Players League folded at the end of the season. But a funny thing happened to its Giants franchise – the Player’s League Giants merged with the regular New York Giants. This happened when the owner of the upstart Giants bought a large interest in the regular giants and folded much of his team into the established club.
On a staff stocked with several future hall of famers there was no room for a fading Cannonball Crane but he hooked on with a new American Association club managed by King Kelly. A solid hitter and a flamboyant personality, Kelly was one of America’s first nationally known baseball stars. He was a fixture of the Boston Beaneaters team. In 1887 he stole hit 384 and stole 84 bases which inspired a popular song of the day ‘Slide Kelly Slide’.
King Kelly’s Killers of Cincinnati didn’t fare well in their only season. When the team went bust on August 17, 1891, they were mired in sixth place in the nine team league with a record of 43 and 57.
Though his skills were eroding rapidly, Cannonball pulled his act together enough to be the top pitcher on the staff with a record of 14 and 14 and a fine ERA of 2.55.
His stats were good enough so that when the Killers died, he was able to sign with the hapless Cincinnati Reds for the rest of the season. The Reds finished seventh of eight teams in the national league with a record of 56 and 81, more than 30 games behind the perennial Champs, the Boston Beaneaters.
Cannonball neither helped nor hurt the ball club. Used often down the stretch, he pitched in 15 games with a 4 and 8 mark. In 116 innings he had an ERA of 4.09.
Though walks were becoming more of a problem (he gave up a combined total of 203 walks in 366 innings between his two teams) his work was good enough to get him a train ticket back to ‘Bigtown’, New York City.
The 1892 season was the tenth in the storied history of the New York Giants. The club had won consecutive pennants and World Series in 1888 and 89 but had fallen on hard times by the time Cannonball returned. The squad would end the season in eighth place in the National League with a 71 and 80 mark, almost 32 games behind the annual winners, the Boston Beaneaters.
Manager Pat Powers used just three starting pitchers. The top hurler was Amos Rusie who went 32 and 31 with an ERA of 2.84 in 62 starts. He threw 541 innings, giving up 270 walks.
Silver King had 47 starts and earned 22 wins and 24 defeats. His ERA was 3.29.
Cannonball Crane was the third starter. He pitched 364 innings and had an ERA of 3.80 while surrendering 350 hits and allowing 189 bases on balls. His won-loss record was 16 and 24.
While his performance during the season was not horrible, he was losing favor with management. With misgivings management invited him back to the Giants for 1893.
When he reported for the start of the season it was obvious that he had gained even more weight. Worse still was his daily drinking which had resulted in a drastic drop in his pitching skills.
In seven starts, the former strongman gave up almost six runs per game. In 64 innings he surrendered 84 hits and 41 walks. The Brooklyn Bridegrooms (Dodgers) gave Cannonball one final chance after the Giants cut him.
He couldn’t pull himself together and was even worse in Brooklyn than he had been at the Polo Grounds. With a glaring 13.50 ERA, Big Ed had no wins and two losses in 10 innings pitched. He gave up 19 hits and walked nine. After being released by Brooklyn in 1893, he never played another major league game.
Crane spiraled down into the minor leagues, returning to Toronto where he had been the toast of Canada in 1887. The passage of nine years, the addition of 50 or 60 pounds, as well as a million rounds of guzzled beer and whiskey had changed everything.
Whereas he had won 33 ballgames in pitching the club to the championship in brand new Sunlight Field in his first Toronto stint; the second time around, saw Big Ed win just seven of 26 starts, with 18 losses. He allowed 372 batters to reach base safely in 236 innings – giving up 261 hits and 111 walks.
The next season Cannonball was given a quick look by the Providence Grays, which had become a minor league team following their short reign as World Champions. After the Grays cut him loose, he had a brief stint at the bottom of the baseball ladder – playing for the Eastern League Ponies of Springfield, Massachusetts.
He was listed in the program as 204 pounds – more than 25 pounds heavier than the next biggest player. In the 1880s the average ballplayer was about five-eight and weighed around 150 pounds.
His great bulk was certainly not an asset as he had a 1-2 record in his brief time with the ballclub, allowing 32 hits and 21 walks in just 19 innings.
But it wasn’t his poor play that cost him. The ball club was going nowhere in the standings and would have put up with “Cannonball” for his name alone. But the name of Cannonball Crane by then had become mud to his old friend Pat Powers who was his manager on the 1892 New York Giants.
Powers had become the President of the Eastern League and he made a trip from his office to Springfield Massachusetts.
When Cannonball arrived at the ballpark one afternoon he was met by player/manager Tom Burns who told him, “Pat Powers wants to see you in my office.”
When Big Ed went in, remnants of his latest binge showing on his unshaven face, Powers came quickly to the point.
“You’re finished Ed. I can’t let you play anymore. I’m discharging you from the league for drunkenness and for on-field intoxication.”
“Pat, you can’t do this to me. Baseball is my whole life. Why, I want nothing more………”
“Booze is your life Ed,” Powers cut him off in mid sentence. “You want nothing more than a bottle of gin and a glass. And more often than not you’ll forgo the glass as long as you can have the bottle! Your record the last three years is 18 wins and 48 losses. That alone should keep you out of baseball. But we’ve let you play because you were a world champ. Now you have reached the end of the rope. I can’t have it anymore. You’re out of baseball.”
Despite protests and promises to change his ways, Powers would not change his mind and baseball’s most powerful man was finished at the age of 34.
As he was leaving the field, a sympathetic player told him that an umpiring job was open in Rochester. Shortly afterward, Ed Crane boarded the “Empire State Special” at the Springfield railroad station and headed for upstate New York for his last chance to stay in the baseball life.
He umpired just one game before Rochester officials learned of his banishment, and once again he was terminated. He would never again set foot on a baseball field.
Nearly broke and miserable, Cannonball Crane checked into the shabby Congress Hall Hotel, after spending the last of his cash on eight quarts of cheap ‘Beechwood’ whiskey.
For seven days the despondent man rarely left the dingy hotel room, sustaining himself of little more than water, whiskey, and a prescription sedative called Chloral Hydrate.
On the night of the eighth day when he was told he had to vacate his quarters for non-payment of the bill, Big Ed finished two things – his last bottle of whiskey and his remaining pills.
In the morning when the manager and the authorities came to throw him out; they found that Ed Crane had already checked out – of life.
The newspapers reported that he died from an accidental overdose of prescription medicine.
One of his team mates eulogized him by saying “the true cause of death was that he had ceased being ‘Cannonball’ Crane – and he couldn’t live with that.”
Edward Nicholas Crane (May 27, 1862 – September 20, 1896)
“I want too much” young Ed Crane’s response to his aunt asking how much he wanted as she was serving him from a holiday platter piled high with roasted turkey and ham.
Other books by Bill Russo
The Creature From the Bridgewater Triangle
Bill’s riveting account of meeting a puckwudgie
His story is featured in the films, America’s Bermuda Triangle and The Bridgewater Triangle, as well as on Monsters and Mysteries in America.
Swamp Tales and Jimmy Catfish
Two fictional thrillers set in the Hockomock Swamp (The Place of Evil Spirits) and an eerie Cape Cod Lake
Crossing the Musical Color Line
Stories of iconic singers and musicians known or interviewed by the author during a long career in radio and as a newspaper editor.
The Ghosts of Cape Cod – available as an E-book and in paperback. Also available as an audio book with narration by Scott R. Pollak of National Public Radio
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As America developed a huge appetite for its emerging passion in the late 19th century, one man stood above all other baseball players - Cannonball Crane. He was the biggest, strongest, and the heaviest star the game had. His record heave in the Polo Grounds set a record for a 'long throw' that probably still stands today - as does his 428 batting average for Toronto. That mark is still far and away the high water mark for any pitcher in the nearly 150 years of professional baseball. Few have risen so high, or fallen so low as Big Ed Crane. This is his story.