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Willie Crawford's Melancholy Career
2004-09-15 10:39
by Jon Weisman

Here's some more interesting background on the late Willie Crawford, courtesy of Bruce Markusen:

In 1964, the 17-year-old Willie Crawford drew the interest of almost every one of the 20 major league teams in existence. With his combination of power, speed, and throwing arm, clubs like the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees, and Kansas City A’s envisioned him as a centerpiece in their outfield futures. Dodgers executive Al Campanis filed a scouting report that said Crawford “hits with the power of Roberto Clemente and Tommy Davis at a similar age.” Kansas City A’s owner Charlie Finley lifted the level of praise even further, calling Crawford “a Willie Mays with the speed of Willie Davis.”

Finley liked Crawford so much that he gave the youngster a large, framed, signed portrait of himself, which eventually hung in the Crawford living room. Even more pertinently, Finley offered Crawford a bonus of $200,000 to play center field for his A’s — more than any previous bonus given to an African-American player. Crawford seemed genuinely intrigued by the advances of Finley, referring to him as “one of the nicest millionaires I know.”

Yet, Crawford turned down the millionaire’s offer, instead signing a $100,000 bonus contract with the Dodgers. As a native and resident of the Watts section of Los Angeles, Crawford simply didn’t feel comfortable about moving away from the California coast. He also found himself swayed by Dodgers scout (and future Hall of Fame manager) Tom Lasorda, who had taken the time to attend the funeral of Crawford’s grandfather.

The Dodgers, like the A’s and Yankees, expected Crawford to become a superstar. It didn’t happen. Crawford’s outfield play, crude and untrained, left much to be desired. Crawford also struggled to hit left-handed pitching, so much so that the Dodgers cast him in the role of a platoon player. Frustrated by a lack of consistent playing time, Crawford struggled with his weight—and with alcohol. Allowing his problems to fester, Crawford didn’t tackle the latter obstacle until 1981, when he received treatment at The Meadows, an acclaimed center for alcoholic rehabilitation.

By the mid-1970s, Crawford had firmly established his status as a major league journeyman. He bounced from the Dodgers to the St. Louis Cardinals to the Houston Astros. Then, in the middle of the 1977 season, Crawford found himself traded again. This time he landed with the Oakland A’s, who had since moved from Kansas City but were still owned by Charlie Finley. ...

The move to the A’s left both the owner and the player dissatisfied. The most memorable moment of Crawford’s tenure in Oakland was probably his decision to wear No. 99 on the back of his jersey. Other than that, not much of note happened. Nearing the end of his career, Crawford hit a measly .184 in a half-season, looking little like the talent that Finley had once compared to Willie Mays. Crawford didn’t like playing for the A’s, either. “It was depressing,” Crawford told The Sporting News. “They went with the kids. I was just a spectator up there.” As for his relationship with Finley, the man he had once called the “friendliest millionaire” he ever met, Crawford was able to offer little insight. “I didn’t have any communication with the man,” Crawford said bluntly—and perhaps with a bit of sadness. Perhaps Finley would have talked to him more if only Crawford had started his career with Kansas City in his prime, rather than end it in Oakland as an obscurity.

Remarks on Crawford are being collected at my original post on his passing. If you haven't read some of the appreciations recently, they're quite something.

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