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Judging by the photo above, the perfect choice to play "Cannonball" Crane in a film biography — if it were made in the 1940s, anyway — would have been actor Keenan Wynn, who, in his younger days, was a dead ringer for the man in the photograph.

But you're asking, "Why would anyone make a movie about a baseball player named 'Cannonball' Crane?" Because he was an interesting character who briefly made it big in the city that never sleeps, adding proof to the argument that making it in New York City isn't so significant, after all. His story affords a good look at the times in which he lived.

Newspapers in the 1880s usually referred to Edward Nicholas Crane as Ed. with a period after the d., as if letting readers know this was an abbreviation for his real first name. "Cannonball" was often inserted between Ed. and Crane, though styles varied in the spelling of his nickname, which was sometimes two words (Cannon Ball) or hyphenated (Cannon-ball). Crane's eventual, but short-lived New York City fame resulted from his pitching success, but his name first appeared in newspapers because of his participation in a silly baseball-related event that was popular in the late 1800s — baseball throwing contests. Crane could throw a baseball about as far as anyone. I believe that's the original reason he was known as "Cannonball."

"Cannonball" also was commonly used to describe the speed and power of his throws, and this adjective was used on the fastballs of other pitchers of his time, Charlie "Silver" King and Amos Rusie, among others.

[NOTE: To dispose of another matter, one pitcher who was not called "Cannonball" was Ledell Titcomb, briefly a teammate of Crane on the New York Giants. If Titcomb had a nickname, it was the old, reliable "Lefty." One New York sportswriter in the 1920s, remembered him as "Southpaw" Titcomb, another referred to him as "some pitcher named Titcomb." However, when Titcomb died in 1950, a wire service reporter called him "Cannonball," and it has circulated ever since. Even Bill James, a self-proclaimed expert on baseball history who popularized arcane statistics, mistakenly identified Titcomb as "Cannonball" in his wonderful book, "The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract."]

BACK TO "Cannonball" Crane: Newspapers eventually dropped the period after Ed, and some stories even called him Eddie Crane, though they seemed to do it tongue-in-cheek. That's a challenge in reading old newspapers, deciding whether the writer is joking, sarcastic, or simply condescending.

But I digress (as Max Shulman used to say). The 1891 edition of The Yankee Clipper Annual, in a section on baseball-throwing contests, said John Hatfield, an outfielder for the New York Mutuals of the National Association, threw a baseball 133 yards, 1 foot, 7-1/2 inches in 1872. That would remain the world's record for many years. The publication went on, "Ed. N. Crane, of Boston, Mass., claimed the credit of throwing 139 yards in July, 1881, but failed to produce any witnesses of his alleged feat."

The publication also mentioned two incidents in 1884 when Crane, then 22 years old, was a member of the Boston team — the Reds — in the Union Association.

"Crane also claimed to have thrown a ball 135 yards, 1 foot, one-half inch, in Cincinnati, Ohio, Oct. 12, 1884, and 134 yards, 5 inches, in St. Louis, Mo., Oct. 19, 1884. In the alleged throws by Crane at Cincinnati and St. Louis, the measurements were not accurately taken, and were incapable of subsequent verification."

We're dealing with Guinness Book of Record stuff here, but, in any event, Ed Crane's first claim to fame was that he may have thrown a baseball further than anyone else. (He also claimed the world's record for distance in throwing a cricket ball.)

However, baseball teams were more interested in how well he could play the game. In that respect, Crane was like the little girl with a little curl in the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem. When Ed Crane was good, he was very, very good, but when he was bad, he was horrid.

THING IS, Crane began as a catcher, then played the outfield, so his pitching career was rather short, and there was only one major league season in which he won more games than he lost. There also were seasons in which he hit well, others in which he failed to hit his weight, which fluctuated from 190 pounds to 220-plus, finally approaching 250 toward the end of his career.

He could be personable and funny, or he could be a pain in the ass. After 1890, he was the latter more times than the former, because he'd become a problem drinker, which shortened his career. Let's step through that career, one season at a time.

1884:

This was the year of opportunity for aspiring baseball players. The American Association, considered a major league, put 13 teams on the field, five more than the year before, and a new league, the Union Association, was formed, and before its chaotic season ended, would feature 12 teams. The National League had eight teams, so there were 33 "major league" teams that needed to fill their rosters.

The 22-year-old Ed Crane found a spot with the hometown Boston Reds of the Union Association. Remember, this was three years after he first attracted attention for how far he could throw a baseball. With the Reds, Crane usually played the outfield (57 games) or was the catcher (42 games). He pitched in only four games. He had no wins, two losses. Crane seemed destined to remain in the outfield. He led his team in hitting (.285), and his 12 home runs were second in the league to Fred Dunlap of St. Louis, who hit 13. (As for the level of baseball in the Union Association, consider this: Dunlap batted .412, in 101 games, and scored 160 runs. A year later, in the National League, he batted .270, hit two home runs and scored 70 runs in 106 games.)

The Union Association began with eight teams, including one in Altoona, Pennsylvania, apparently because no other cities were interested. This team — sometimes called Altoona Mountain City, sometimes the Browns, sometimes the Unions — folded after 25 games. Other teams — the Wilmington Quicksteps, St. Paul White Caps and Milwaukee Brewers — apparently joined the league in progress, but played relatively few games. (St. Paul had only nine games, all in September, all on the road.)

Only five teams played more than 100 games; the St. Louis Maroons won 94 of 113 games, to finish in first place. The Union Association clearly was a mess, and went belly up.

When Bill James tore the league to shreds in his "Baseball Abstract," he mentioned its best players, concluding none of them was very good, given their mediocre performances in the other major leagues. Ed Crane wasn't even worth a mention.

1885:

The Union Association was dead, and the American Association reduced to an eight-team line-up. There were just 16 major league teams this season. One result: There was no demand for the services of Ed Crane. He had played well for a hometown team, but not well enough to impress Boston's legitimate outfit, the National League Beaneaters. However . . .

Crane talked his way into a trial with the Providence Greys, defending champions of the National League, but was released after one game in which he was hitless in two at bats, and made an outfield error.

He then signed with the Buffalo Bisons, also of the National League, and played 13 games in the outfield, batting .275, with two home runs, and nine runs batted in, an impressive performance for someone who had just 51 at bats. But he made six outfield errors, and wasn't much missed when he skipped out on the team, and spent the summer closer to his Boston home, playing for a semi-pro team in Brockton, Massachusetts.

 

1886:

Ed Crane, described in the press as "the long-distance thrower", landed a spot with the Washington Nationals, who would finish last in the National League, appropriate for a team with a home field known as Swampoodle Grounds. Crane remained primarily an outfielder, but caught four games and made 10 pitching appearances, eight as a starter. He won his first major league game, but lost all seven of his other starts. His 1-7 won-lost record was not surprising on a team that was 28-92.

In a review of the season, the publication Yankee Clipper, in its March 5, 1887, edition, said, "Ed Crane of the Washingtons interested the spectators during any necessary delays in games by giving exhibitions of his skill in long-distance throwing."

For an outfielder, Crane hit more like a pitcher — with a .171 average, only 50 hits in 292 at bats. Crane's statistics would be far different the next season, but so would his team, his league, and some important rules that altered statistics for all players.

 

1887:

Crane signed with the Toronto Canucks of the newly formed International Association, and had the season of his life, though you'll be hard-pressed to find information or official statistics. While he continued to play other positions, usually in the outfield, Crane emerged as Toronto's main pitcher, winning 33 games, leading the team to the league pennant.

Crane also may have been the league's leading hitter, batting .425. Bob Pettit, who played with two International Association teams that season (Wilkes-Barre and Waterbury) batted .437, but may not have had enough at bats to qualify as league batting champion, because he also played for Chicago of the National League that summer. Among baseball historians, there seems to be little interest in this league, which is surprising, since it was integrated ... to a limited extent.

The problem with every league in 1887 was the rule that bases on balls be counted as hits, which inflated batting averages. Another rule that year gave batters four opporunities to swing and miss. This allowed Crane to do something unique. And here the word "unique" is properly used, which, these days, also is unique. Though Crane's control was often a problem, he found himself in the groove during a game against Jersey City, and in one inning threw 12 straight strikes, striking out all three batters who faced him. Many pitchers have had what baseball nuts term "a perfect inning" — nine consecutive strikes for three strike outs — but only Ed Crane had a perfect inning while the four-strike rule was in effect. That rule and the base-on-balls-is-a-hit were revoked at the end of the season.

At least six African-Americans played that season in the International Association. Newark had an all-black battery, George Stovey pitching to Fleetwood Walker. (Walker and his brother, Welday, had briefly been in the American Association three seasons earlier, and are recalled as the first African-Americans to play major league baseball.)

Stovey got Newark off to a great start, but when Crane caught fire during the last few weeks of the season. Toronto came charging out of fourth place to capture the pennant. Crane pitched Toronto to three wins over Newark in a 28-hour period. In October it was reported Crane had been the league's highest-paid player, at $2,100. That winter he joined the Philadelphia Quakers of the National League on a barnstorming tour to the West Coast.

Re: George Stovey. Regarded as one of the best pitchers of the era, he was prevented from pitching in the major leagues because of his race. Some sources say he won 35 games that season; other sources say 33. The difference can be explained by the departure of the team from Oswego, New York, after it had lost 23 of 26 games. These games were wiped off league books, costing Newark five victories. I'm guessing two of those victories belonged to Stovey.

1888:

Toronto wanted Crane, but he had a better offer from the National League New York Giants. For most of the season, Crane was low man on the Giants' pitching staff. At the top were two future Hall of Famers, Tim Keefe, who won 35 games that season, and Mickey Welch, who win 26 games. Number three was lefty Ledell Titcomb, who won 14 games. That's 75 of the team's 83 victories. Crane started only 11 games, and managed to have a losing record (5-6) for a first place team. Interestingly, his batting average came down to earth with a thud — .162.

However, Crane closed out the season in style. On September 27, he pitched a no-hitter against last place Washington, in a game called after seven innings because of darkness. Two days later, he pitched again, against Detroit, and lost the game on a passed ball. On October 4, Chicago came to town. The Giants were in first place by eight games over their second place visitors. A win would wrap up the pennant, and fans (called "cranks" in those days) expected Keefe would pitch the game. Instead, it was Crane, who pitched a no-hitter for eight innings before giving up a single to open the ninth. The Giants won, 1-0, and the pennant was theirs.

Crane's fine performance in the last three weeks of the season was probably why he started two games in what was the World Series of its time — a best-of-eleven series pitting the National League champions against the American Association pennant winner, the St. Louis Browns. The Giants won the series in 10 games. Crane won once, lost once, but Tim Keefe proved he was the team's ace by winning four games.

Albert G. Spalding, owner of the Chicago team, invited Crane to join several other players to be opponents for his White Stockings on an around-the-world tour that winter. It may have been during this long trip that Crane developed the drinking problem that would be his undoing. He must have been drunk when he purchased a tiny monkey that was his companion during much of the trip, and guaranteed Crane would get a lot of press when the ballplayers returned.

 

1889:

Crane thoroughly enjoyed his around-the-world trip, which introduced baseball to people in several countries. He replaced Titcomb as the Giants' third starter, and had his only winning season in the major leagues — 14 wins, 11 losses — as New York won the pennant again. Tim Keefe was still the team's top pitcher, winning 28 games, Welch won 27.

Following last year's script, Crane did his best work in the fall, starting five games in the World Series against the American Association champions, the Brooklyn Bridegrooms. Crane won four of those games, and the Giants repeated as baseball's champions, six games to three. It was the 1889 World Series that briefly made Ed Crane a hero in New York City.

At 27, he seemed poised for greatness, but he was eating too much, drinking too much, and the baseball world was in turmoil, thanks to a players' uprising.

 

1890:

Rather than remain with the National League Giants, Crane joined pitchers Tim Keefe, Hank O'Day, catcher Buck Ewing, first baseman Roger Connor, and a few other teammates to form the New York entry in the Players League, which, as the name implies, was organized by a players' union known as The Brotherhood. (O'Day later became a long-time National League umpire.)

The new league went head-to-head for fans in every National League city but Cincinnati. (Instead, the Players League had a team in Buffalo.) On the surface, the new league seemed a success because it attracted more fans, probably because most of the big stars had joined the Brotherhood.

The Boston Reds, managed by Mike "King" Kelly, won the pennant, led by Charles "Old Hoss" Radbourn, enjoying his last good year, with 27 wins. The Giants finished third. Crane pitched more innings than the other Giant starters — O'Day, Keefe, and John Ewing — but was the only one who had a losing record (16-19). He also had the highest earned run average, walked far more batters than he struck out, and had almost as many wild pitches (36) and the other three combined (38). Oddly, he hit much better than he had the previous two seasons, posting a .315 batting average.

No matter. Eddie Talcott, who'd provided much of the financing for the Players League and was vice president of the Giants, blamed Crane for costing the team the pennant. Whether this actually was true didn't matter, but if the league returned in 1891, Talcott announced he would not offer Crane a contract.

That became academic when the Players League collapsed after National League owners finessed Brotherhood players back into the fold. Crane was not among them.

 

1891:

When the season began, Crane was teamed with baseball's biggest prima donna, the aforementioned "King" Kelly, to play in Cincinnati for an American Association team called "Kelly's Killers." Thus Crane joined the fourth major league of his career (though that first league — the Union Association — will forever be considered a farce).

Kelly was a superstar, but aging rapidly; at 33, he looked 10 years older. But not only had he managed the Boston Reds to the Players League pennant, he'd appeared in 90 games, played almost every position, as needed, and batted .325.

It was a stormy year for Crane, Kelly, and the ill-fated Cincinnati team; hell, it was a bad year for everyone in the American Association, which folded when the season ended. Crane won 14 games and lost 14, and posted the lowest earned run average in the league (2.45). At lot of good that did him; he was released before the season was finished because his drinking had become a problem. At least, it had for Kelly, who was a big drinker himself. But the two men did not get along.

On April 26, in Louisville, Kelly and Crane got into a fight outside of a hotel. Kelly prevailed and force-marched the pitcher to his room, where he punched him again. Crane retaliated by not shoing up for a game the next day.

Two months later, in Columbus, Ohio, Kelly fined Crane $100 for showing up at a game intoxicated when he was expected to pitch, and in August, Crane was released from the team after he and Kelly got into another scuffle, this one at the Cincinnati railroad depot.

Weeks later, the entire Cincinnati team was gone, most of its players heading for Milwaukee to play for the Brewers, who replaced Kelly's Killers in the American Association. Kelly joined the Boston Reds long enough to play four games, then returned to the National League Boston Beaneaters, which had been his team for three seasons (1887-89) before he jumped to the Players League.

Crane was signed by the seventh place Cincinnati Reds of the National League, filling a vacancy on the pitching staff created when one of the greats, Charles "Old Hoss" Radbourn was released. It was a comedown for Radbourn, who'd been 11-13 with the Reds before they let him go. At age 36, Radbourn retired, and Crane won four games, losing eight.

In the off-season, it was reported that James Williams, ambitious president of the Western League, who was trying hard to lure players from the National League, announced a list of players his league had rejected in advance. He said his league had no interest in anyone known to be "a drinking man or a disturber in a team." As far as Williams was concerned, Ed Crane was that kind of man, therefore an undesirable. (In 1900, the Western would become the American League, and a year later be recognized as a major league.)

1892:

The New York Giants were interested in Crane, and, on April 2, he was signed to became the team's third pitcher, joining Amos Rusie and Charley King, better known by his nickname, "Silver," given because of his silvery hair, and the fact Silver King was the name of a famous mine out west.

In announcing the acquisition of Crane, Giants manager, Pat Powers, said the pitcher was in fine condition, having trained down from 235 pounds to 180. That would prove to be wishful thinking on the part of Powers.

Once again, Crane had a losing record (16-24) and the highest earned run average of the three pitchers, and his fastball was no longer the fastest, not even on the Giants. That honor belonged to future Hall of Famer Rusie, who won 32 games for the team that finished seventh in a 12-team race.

The big news for Crane was his marriage to Nellie Dolan, a 22-year-old Chicago woman who wed Crane despite the strong objections of her parents, who did not attend the ceremony at St. Bridget's Church in Jersey City. Unfortunately for Ms. Dolan, her marriage would prove to be a case of father knows best.

 

1893:

Crane won only three games — two with the Giants, one for the Brooklyn Grooms — and lost six. Crane just couldn't get anyone out — he gave up 103 hits and 81 runs in only 78-1/3 innings for both National League teams. Things were so bad for Crane, that on June 30 he served as batting practice pitcher for Harvard as the Crimson prepared for their big game against Yale. The Harvard batters had no trouble hitting Crane, and asked him to throw harder. Crane said he was throwing as hard as he could.

Crane was cut loose by the Giants and on July 3 pitched one game for Northampton of the Eastern League, losing to Springfield. Four days later, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that Ed Crane, "he of the cannon ball and wicked smile," was joining the Grooms (a brief nickname, shortened from Bridegrooms).

On July 9, Crane made his debut with Brooklyn, aginst Louisville, and got tagged for 21 hits and 19 runs. On July 19, Crane gave up 15 hits and 12 runs in a loss to Baltimore.

Crane went to Springfield of the Eastern League, and on September 6, gave up 18 hits, walked 12 batters and allowed 19 runs in a loss to Troy. One thing was for sure — his major league days were over.

 

On May 11, 1894, the New York World reported: "Ed Crane, who once shone as a New York pitcher, is now twirling for the Haverhill (Mass.) team. Lewistons touched Ed up for sixteen base hits Tuesday."

Haverhill and Lewiston (Maine) were in the New England League. Haverhill soon released Crane.

In 1895, Crane returned to Toronto, but the Canucks were now a member of the Eastern League. He no longer worked any magic, was released by Toronto, and finished the season with the Rochester Browns, also in the Eastern League. He won only nine games, lost 24, but his batting average, incredibly, was a solid .331. Also, incredibly, Crane was one of the players called upon to umpire games when the scheduled umpires didn't show up, or if they showed up drunk.

Crane began the 1896 season with the Providence Clam Diggers of the Eastern League. The team released him in early May, and he umpired some league games. (It was this time newspapers had a tendency to refer to players named "Ed" as "Ned". Why, who knows? The player most affected was Ed Williamson, one of the best third basemen of the era, who is now better recalled as "Ned". Bill James has pointed that out in a mini-crusade to have the man's real first name restored. Anyway, one reporter in 1896 speculated that "Ned" Crane can become a "permanent fixture" among the Eastern League umpires "if he leaves the cup alone."

Obviously he didn't, because league officials soon told Crane he was no longer wanted as an umpir. The player settled in the Rochester area, and started hiring himself in the fashion of "Have cannon, will travel." Except he no longer was firing cannonballs.

On June 13, in exchange for $35, Crane pitched for a team from Mount Morris, about 40 miles south of Rochester. He lasted four innings, giving up 13 runs to a team from Batavia. Mount Morris lost, 22-14. A few days later, he pitched for a team from Seneca Falls against a team from Auburn. Crane pitched well, but lost, 3-2.

Despite being unable to beat town teams, Crane was signed by the Eastern League Springfield (Massachusetts) Maroons. The Syracuse Herald reported that when Crane arrived for his first game, "he appeared in half a Springfield uniform, being so fat that there were no trousers with the team large enough to fit him."

One of his games was against Toronto. He gave up 16 hits, walked nine, and lost, 17-3. He quickly wore out his welcome in Springfield.

Somewhere along the line, Crane's wife left him and returned to her parents in Chicago. With her was at least one child, possibly two. Crane was unable to support a family, spending most of his money on drinks. When released by Springfield, he went to Rochester and checked in at the Congress Hall Hotel, but in mid-September was given his eviction notice for non-payment of rent. On September 20, his body was found in his room, dead of an overdose of chloral hydrate.

It was reported as a suicide, a logical conclusion, supported by various recent teammates who said earlier in the year Crane threatened to throw himself in the Genesee River, above the Genesee Falls in Rochester. However, a coroner's inquest ruled Crane died of an accidental overdose of a medication prescribed to help him sleep. If you want to play amateur psychiatrist, you might say his talk of jumping into the river was merely a cry for help. In any event, "Cannonball" Crane was dead; he was only 34 years old. His body was taken to Massachusetts, and he was buried in a cemetery in Brookline.

 

About those throwing contests . . .
While throwing baseballs for distance was popular in the late 1800s, several managers prohibited pitchers from entering these contests for fear of injuries. They weren't so fussy about players at other positions, and several wanted to compete because of prizes that were offered.

For many years, the recognized long-distance throwing record was the one set on October 14, 1872 during a contest at the Union Grounds in New York City. The man who set the record was an outfielder named John Hatfield, who played for the New York Mutuals of the National Association, which preceded the formation of the National League.

There were seven contestants that day, the most famous being George Wright, a future Hall of Famer who played shortstop for the Boston Red Stockings, top team in the National Association, and a young A. C. "Cap" Anson, also bound for the Hall of Fame. Neither could match Hatfield's best throw — 400 feet, seven-and-one-half inches.

Nine years later, Ed Crane, not yet a professional ballplayer, claimed he could throw a baseball more than 400 feet, but didn't get a chance to prove it until he won an 1884 contest held in Cincinnati. His longest throw traveled 405 feet, three inches, but was measured with string, not a surveyor's chain, and that did not satisfy those who passed judgment on such records. As a result, there was a dispute over who really was the champion long-thrower, a dispute complicated over the years by other players who claimed they not only had beaten Hatfield's distance, but also Crane's. Among them were an outfielder-pitcher named Larry Twitchell, a catcher named Harry Vaughn, and future Hall of Famer, Honus Wagner.

However, when John Hatfield died in 1909, the official record was still his. Finally, a year later, a minor league outfielder named Sheldon "Larry" Lejeune put the matter to rest in a contest in Cincinnati when he threw a baseball 426 feet, six-and-one-quarter inches, and that throw was properly measured. Lejeune's record stood until 1952.

Along came a pitcher-turned-outfielder named Don Grate, playing with the Chattanooga Lookouts of the Southern Association, and on September 7, 1952, he threw a baseball 434 feet, one inch. Back in Chattanooga the next season, Grate broke his own record by throwing a baseball 443 feet, three-and-a-half inches.

And while setting this record wasn't exactly big news, there was always someone reputed to have a better arm. In 1956, the best arm supposedly belonged to a right fielder named Rocky Colavito, who would soon become a much-loved slugger for the Cleveland Indians. While a member of the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League in 1956, Colavito was convinced by the team's general manager, recently retired slugger Ralph Kiner, to attempt to break Grate's throwing record. Kiner was sure Colavito could throw a ball further than anyone.

Colavito gave it a good try, but couldn't quite match Grate, who was still active, finding himself with the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association during the last half of the 1956 season.

That set up Grate for one more try, not because he was driven to break his own record, but because the Minneapolis team wanted some gimmicks for the annual "Millers Appreciation Day" at brand new Metropolitan Stadium.

Grate was one of three featured acts. Unfortunately, a helicopter needed for one of those acts developed motor trouble; therefore, Millers catcher Vern Rapp would be spared an attempt to catch a baseball thrown at him from 600 feet in the air. Act two was a race between outfielder Gil Coan and a horse borrowed from an area track. It was an 80-yard race, with Coan getting a 20-yard head start. Coan won. Act three also had a happy ending for Millers fans as Grate threw a baseball 445 feet, one inch, a new record.

That record would be broken a year later by Canadian-born outfielder Glen Gorbous, who'd played 115 games in the major leagues, most of them in 1955 with the Cincinnati Reds and Philadelphia Phillies. He was nearing the end of his career and playing for the Omaha Cardinals, an American Association team. Gorbous knew Grate, and was confident he could beat his record — and he did, by nine inches.

The record Gorbous set on August 1, 1957 still stands — 445 feet, 10 inches. Gorbous did it with a six-step running start. I've seen no mention of what restrictions were placed on Crane, Hatfield and others who entered contests back in the late 1800s. As someone who played a lot of baseball as a boy, it boggles my mind to think some people can throw a ball the length of a football field — and I mean from the back of one end zone to the back of the other (120 yards) — while they are merely warming up.

 
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