November 27, 2021

The Last Living Boston Braves Player and an Unexpected Find

August 30, 2021 by · Leave a Comment 

When Del Crandall died on May 5, 2021, an era died with him. According to his obituary in the Boston Globe, he was the last living Boston Braves player.

Del Crandall MittCrandall broke in with the Boston Braves as a fresh-faced 19-year-old in 1949 but had his best seasons after the team moved to Milwaukee in 1953. Crandall was an 11-time All-Star and played in two World Series with the team. During 16 seasons in the big leagues, Crandall hit 179 home runs and had a .254 career batting average. An outstanding defensive catcher, he won four Gold Gloves and led the National League in assists six times and catchers in fielding percentage four times.

After he retired as a player, Crandall coached for several teams and managed the Milwaukee Brewers (1972–75) and Seattle Mariners (1983-84). He traded the dugout for the broadcast booth in 1985 and was a radio announcer for the White Sox and then the Brewers. He finished his career in 1997 after managing the Class A San Bernardino Stampede in the Angels organization.

When I read that Crandall had passed away at age 91, I felt a sudden rush of sadness and loss. While I never met him, Crandall was a major player in a chance discovery that helped bring my father and I a little closer.

This discovery also taught me that you never know what you might find when you’re not looking for anything. It started routinely enough in 1996 when my mother-in-law asked me to drop off some used clothes that she was donating for her church bazaar. As I laid the box of clothes on a table in the church gym, something caught my eye – an old catcher’s mitt. I picked it up and felt the soft, supple cowhide, worn smooth over the years.

This mitt was old-school. It didn’t have a flex hinge, which was introduced by Chicago Cubs backstop Randy Hundley in 1966 and popularized by Johnny Bench in 1968 to allow them to catch one-handed. Before the flex hinge, catchers needed two hands to handle a pitch and an orthopedist to handle their broken fingers and gnarled hands.

I examined the glove and could barely make out the lettering. When I looked more closely, I saw an imprint and discovered that the mitt was a Del Crandall model.

I asked the women running the church bazaar how much she wanted for it. She took a quick look at it and sold it to me for only $1. For a baseball-lover – especially a Braves fan like me – this old mitt was a treasure, and the price was certainly right.

Why was I so excited about finding this particular mitt? I already owned plenty of baseball gloves. But I didn’t want it for me; I wanted it for my father. Indulge me as I give you some background on my dad.

He was 13 when the Braves moved from Boston to Milwaukee, where he grew up. That’s a great age for a big-league team to move to your city. He instantly became a rabid fan and followed the exploits of Braves stars Henry Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Warren Spahn, Lew Burdette and, of course, Del Crandall.

When the Braves beat the hated and highly favored Yankees to win the 1957 World Series, my 18-year-old father and 400,000 of his closest friends celebrated wildly during a ticker-tape parade down Wisconsin Avenue. Milwaukee was not only a big-league town, now it was a championship city.

Given my father’s love for the Milwaukee Braves, I knew he would appreciate the Del Crandall mitt. But something was missing. I needed something more to complete the gift. I needed something from Del Crandall.

I knew he was still alive and had worked for the Brewers, so I called the team’s front office and asked for his address. Understandably, the guy I talked to wouldn’t give it to me, but he did say he would mail a letter to Crandall if I sent it to the Brewers first and provided a safe-addressed, stamped envelope. He made no promises that Crandall would answer me, but he assured me he was a good guy and very generous with his fans.

Del CrandallI wrote a letter to Crandall and told him he was one of my father’s favorite players on a team that meant a lot to him. I explained how I found the Del Crandall model mitt and I asked if he would autograph a photo and write a note to my father for his birthday.

I mailed the letter to the Brewers and put it aside in my mind. My father’s birthday was months away and I wasn’t even sure if Crandall would get my letter, much less honor my request. A couple of months passed before I got an envelope from the Brewers. I quickly opened it and there it was – a color postcard with a picture of Crandall from 1957 – his baseball prime and the year the Braves won the World Series. Crandall is kneeling and holding a bat. He wrote this on the postcard:

Happy birthday, Tom.

Del Crandall, 1996

It was only a three-word note – but it was perfect. Paired with the old catcher’s mitt, it would make a great gift for a Milwaukee Braves fan who had fond memories of going to games at County Stadium.

I wrapped it in a box and waited – like a kid anticipating Christmas Day. When my father’s birthday rolled out around, I was ready. My wife and sons drove to my parent’s house where the entire family was gathered for a celebration.

Del Crandall MittWhen my father opened the box, he was stunned. He ran his fingers over the old glove and read the postcard. “Now this is a surprise! Where did you find this old mitt and how did you get in touch with Del Crandall?” he asked.

I told him the story and he smiled, said thank you and hugged me. He placed the mitt and the card on a shelf next to his books about Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers – a true place of honor in his home office.

Once, when we were watching a Braves game at his house, he said to me, “That mitt and card is one of the best gifts I’ve ever gotten. Thank you.”

I’ll always treasure that moment.

After my father died in 2010, I was helping my mother go through some of his belongings when she suddenly stopped. She picked up the mitt and said, “Your father would want you to have this. It meant a lot to him because of how you got it.”

Today, I display the mitt and postcard in a prominent spot in my home office. My Dad and Del Crandall are no longer with us, but I keep a piece of both in my heart.

And to think, it all started after I found something when I wasn’t looking for anything.

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