Former skipper Del Crandall dies at 91

May 6th, 2021

MILWAUKEE -- Former catcher and manager Del Crandall -- who was the last living Boston Braves player and an 11-time National League All-Star after that franchise moved to Milwaukee, and who as Milwaukee Brewers manager in 1974 installed an 18-year-old Robin Yount at shortstop on Opening Day -- has died. He was 91.

Crandall played parts of 16 seasons with the Braves, Giants, Pirates and Indians from 1949-66, with a two-year absence in the early 1950s, when Crandall served in the U.S. Army. He hit at least 15 home runs in eight seasons, won four Gold Glove Awards, and developed a reputation as one of the most savvy catchers in the game before continuing his career as a manager in the Minor Leagues and later in the Majors with the Brewers (1972-75) and Mariners (1983-84).

“With Del, you used the word ‘teacher,’” Yount said upon hearing the news. “He was at his best with young players. He enjoyed helping young players progress in our careers.”

Crandall passed away at home in Southern California on Wednesday afternoon after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease, heart disease and a series of strokes, his son, Jeff, wrote on Facebook.

“He was an amazing husband, father and leader,” Jeff Crandall said.

“Dad was in hospice for about a week and a half, and he was such a strong man, a tough man, that he took just took his time,” said another son, Bill Crandall. “Then all of a sudden, he was done. The whole family was around him when he passed, and it really was a beautiful experience. We’ll have our moments, but dad gave us a lot of tools to deal with stuff like this.”

In 1949, Crandall was called up to Boston in mid-June soon after his 19th birthday, and he became the youngest starting catcher in Major League history, hitting .300 over his first 15 games to cement his spot. He went on to finish second to Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe in the NL Rookie of the Year Award balloting. When the franchise abruptly moved to Milwaukee in 1953, Crandall, back from army service, went along, and hit .272 with 15 homers and 51 RBIs to make his first All-Star team. At the time, there were multiple All-Star Games, and Crandall made the team 11 times in eight different seasons over a 10-year span.

He caught more than 2,400 innings of Hall of Famer Warren Spahn over the years, including most of 1957, when Spahn won his only NL Cy Young Award and the Braves won Milwaukee's first -- and only, to date -- World Series championship. Crandall went 2-for-4 with a home run and caught all nine innings in the Braves’ 5-0 win over the Yankees in Game 7 to clinch the ’57 title.

“He was a hard-nosed, dedicated professional,” Bill Crandall said. “He worked hard at his craft. They say Roy Campanella was better defensively, but I’ve read articles from people who would dispute that and say dad was the best defensive catcher to play the game. He certainly was up there. He’s borderline Hall of Fame if he would have hit better, but what he did is he made his pitchers better. Lew Burdette attributed to dad that his career was better because of him.”

Del Crandall with his son, Bill, in Bradenton Fla. in 1961

Royals manager Mike Matheny on Del Crandall: “Yeah, what a gift. I had no idea at the time, drafted by Milwaukee, I had just left the care of [University of Michigan coach] Bill Freehan, another incredible catcher and incredible teacher and mentor, then get put into the care of Del Crandall. This guy was as good of a relational teacher from the catcher perspective as I’ve ever been around. Obviously a lot of experience as a manager, but a long catching career.

"He had the gift of being current, and he understood, even though there was a large age difference, he was able to understand where we were in life. He could relate with younger players. He was relentless in his work. He beat us down, but then he would always build us up. It was a gift to have him, as a very young player just coming into the Minor Leagues, what it looked like to be a professional catcher. Stuff on the field, stuff off the field, how I worked and prepared. He’s got a lifelong imprint on my life.”

After his playing career, Crandall became a manager in Milwaukee’s Minor League chain in 1971, and was promoted to the Majors midway through the ’72 season to skipper a team that finished in last place. By virtue of that, the Brewers had the No. 1 overall pick in the following year’s MLB Draft, and they picked a wiry shortstop from Woodland Hills, Calif., named Yount, who played 64 games in the Minor Leagues that summer.

The following Spring Training, in ’74, the Brewers were widely expected to go into the season with Tim Johnson at shortstop. Crandall had another idea.

“He said, ‘Buddy, we’re going to start the kid at shortstop,’” said then-Brewers owner Bud Selig. “I thought he was talking about Tim Johnson. I’ll never forget it. About 20 minutes later, he says, ‘I mean Yount.’”

“He’s going to be a great player someday,” Crandall told Selig.

Crandall was right. Yount played 20 seasons in a Brewers uniform, amassed 3,142 hits, won a pair of American League Most Valuable Player Awards and was inducted into Cooperstown.

"In those days, there were very few managers that would have given an 18-year-old kid the opportunity to play in the big leagues,” Yount said. “With the pressure that managers feel to win -- not necessarily that the Brewers were expected to win any kind of championship at that stage of their early days, but let’s face it, anybody that manages a team, you feel the pressure to win some games. I just know that I was in the right place at the right time.

"I had someone who wasn’t afraid to throw an 18-year-old out there and see what would happen, you know? Even if it made him look bad, he was willing to take that chance. He did that for me and I was the beneficiary of his attitude that maybe a kid can do this.

"In that respect, without Del Crandall in that position, there’s a good chance I would not have got that opportunity so soon.”

Crandall appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot four times, topping out at 3.9 percent of the vote in his first year of eligibility in 1976. He is honored at American Family Field as a member of the Milwaukee Braves Wall of Honor.

He is the second member of the Braves’ 1957 World Series championship team to pass away in 2021 after Hall of Famer Hank Aaron died in January.

Crandall is survived by six children, 11 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, with another on the way. Memorial services are pending, Bill Crandall said.