The Sam Crane Redemption
Many people assume that professional baseball players lead charmed lives because of the privilege they experienced of playing a game for a living. Unfortunately that is often far from the truth and many tragedies have been experienced and even caused by the hand of former players. One of the worst cases was Sam “Red” Crane, who committed an atrocious act of violence, served a lengthy prison sentence, but was able to find redemption through repentance, baseball and his former manager, Hall of Famer Connie Mack, who never gave up on him.
Crane was a slender right-handed infielder from Pennsylvania known for a thatch of red hair, who signed with his home-team Philadelphia Athletics in 1914 as a 19-year-old. Over the next few seasons he got into a total of 12 games with Philadelphia, spending the majority of that time in the minors. Although Mack was fond of him, he wasn’t consistent enough to earn a regular spot. He was an excellent fielder at shortstop, but even in the midst of the dead ball era was considered a subpar hitter.
The Syracuse Herald said of Crane, “He is one of the cleverest infielders… and if he was a good clouter he
Mack had a putrid team in Philadelphia in 1916, posting a pathetic 36-117 record, but had a solid middle infield led by Nap Lajoie and Whitey Witt. As a result, Crane was seen as expendable and sold to the Washington Senators. He didn’t stick there either and ended up playing sporadically with them, the Cincinnati Reds and Brooklyn Dodgers, accumulating 174 major league games over the course of seven years. During that time he hit just .208 with no home runs and 30 RBI. Although he last appeared in the majors in 1922, he kept playing in the minors through 1927 before deciding to retire in order to pursue a romantic relationship.
Crane had married Thelma Peterson, but it was a rocky relationship that ended in divorce in 1928, as the when he met someone new. Her name was Della Lyter, and she was a clerk with the Pennsylvania highway department, and also a recent divorcee. The attraction was so strong for Crane that he rejected a contract offer from the Buffalo Bison of the International League in order to pursue Lyter, effectively ending his professional baseball career.
Crane and Lyter’s affair didn’t last, which was something that he couldn’t accept.
On August 3, 1929, Crane, who was extremely drunk, encountered Lyter, who was in the company of John D. Oren, a bricklayer and her new boyfriend, at a bar at the Bria Hotel in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. A confrontation ensued and Crane followed the pair into side room, where he pulled out a gun.
As Oren and Lyter sat at a table, Crane began firing at the helpless pair. He let off five shots, hitting each victim twice. Oren had been playing a ukulele earlier in the evening and tried using it to defend himself, stumbling forward and striking Crane twice before collapsing with two bullets in his abdomen. He died just hours after the shooting, while Lyter lingered for several days before succumbing to her injuries.
Crane fled the hotel after the shooting, bleeding from his head because of the wound from the ukulele. He walked into a police station at 3 a.m. the next morning, telling officers, “I’m told I shot somebody.”He was questioned, arrested and sent to the hospital for treatment and then returned to jail to await trial.
The prosecution sought a first-degree murder verdict and death penalty in the death of Lyter, believing that jurors would be more sympathetic because she was a woman.
At the trial, Crane claimed no memory of the shooting because he was so drunk. His lawyer argued Crane had been drinking almost non-stop in the week leading up to the shooting, because of being so distraught over having broken up with Lyter.
Crane testified he came to the realization that Lyter was with him for money, referring to himself as “a sort of installment plan lover.” He had bought her a diamond ring, furniture, causing him to later lament, “I even mortgaged my mother’s home to buy things for Della.”
On September 25, 1929, Crane was convicted on two counts of second-degree murder and was sentenced to a total of 18-36 years at Graterford Prison in Pennsylvania, approximately 50 miles outside of Philadelphia.
Upon the start of his sentence, he went into a deep depression, upset over his actions and what he faced as a consequence. Mack and other baseball figures visited him, but could do little to cheer his spirits.
Mack was so concerned over Crane’s mental state that he took measures to support his former player and make his condition known to prison officials. He was also a vocal advocate for his parole, telling the parole board in 1935, “I’m afraid that if something is not done soon for this boy, it will be too late. He is on the verge of a mental breakdown.” He reiterated this stance the following year, pleading, “Gentlemen, please give this man his liberty before it is too late. He is at the point where he is losing hope. He is determined to make good. Give him that chance, please, before he is beyond redemption.”In fact, every time Crane came up for parole, Mack was there in support, even promising to act as benefactor if only they would agree to his release.
Eventually, Crane began to accept his situation and decided to make the most of it. He played shortstop and outfield on the prison team, but they banned baseball in 1934 following an inmate riot. He also worked as a clerk and drove the prison fire truck, trying to find as many ways as possible to be positive and productive. During this time he kept applying for a pardon, but was repeatedly turned down. Attorney R.D. Hospers, who opposed a 1941 petition, said of Crane, “Red Crane has a debt to be paid to society. He is paying it admirably, but it has not yet been paid.”
In 1944, the tide started to turn for Crane. The Graterford warden, Elmer Leithiser said, “He has learned his lesson and I honestly believe he could be a useful member of society again if given a chance.”
Crane’s final appeal for a pardon came with significant support, not only from Leithiser, but also the prison’s board of trustees, his trial judge, the Dauphin County District Attorney and of course his old skipper, Connie Mack.
Crane was granted parole on September 5, 1944. Upon his release he told reporters, “Uppermost in my thoughts at this time is to thank everybody who has helped me in this struggle. I’d like to get some new clothes, see my mother in Harrisburg, and go fishing.” After 15 years in prison he emerged a middle-aged man having officially paid a debt to society for his horrible act.
Mack made good on his promise to aid Crane, promptly offering him a job working at Shibe Park as part of the maintenance crew. But with World War II in full swing, Crane was able to find more lucrative work in a war plant and turned down the offer. He lived simply and quietly in the Philadelphia area for the next decade before passing away at the age of 61 on November 12, 1955 after a bout with cancer.
Because of his egregious mistake, Crane paid a big price and nearly lost his way. However, he was able to persevere, in large part because of the support he received from his former manager, who loved him as a person but couldn’t find a spot for him on his team.
Andrew Martin is the founder of “The Baseball Historian” blog where he posts his thoughts about baseball on a regular basis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also reach him on Twitter at @historianandrew.