Saturday, September 6, 2014

Is there a doctor in the dugout? The baseball prowess of Doc Cramer.

Drive Route 72 through Manahawkin, and you're likely to ask the same question Ivan and I did: who's Doc Cramer? His name appears on directional signs, and if you wander off the highway a touch, you'll find Doc Cramer Fields, a municipal sports complex.

The first time we noticed the sign, it was dusk and we were on our way to the Road to Nowhere to find owls. Our imaginations went to the days when Ocean County was sparsely populated and, perhaps, home to a kindly general practitioner who might have been popular enough to warrant having a street named for him. You know: ol' Doc Cramer, who delivered most of the kids in town and tended to Mrs. Smith's lumbago. My mind transformed him into Burt Lancaster playing Dr. Archibald "Moonlight" Graham in Field of Dreams: a man who gave up dreams of baseball stardom to go to medical school and care for an entire small town.

Sometimes those odd mental linkages have merit. When we got back to Hidden New Jersey headquarters, I discovered that Doc Cramer was, in fact, a baseball player, and quite a good one, too. Born in Beach Haven in July 1905, Roger Cramer was never a doctor or a medical student, despite earning excellent grades in high school. Rather, he kind of did the Moonlight Graham routine in reverse. As a boy, he often accompanied local doctor Joshua Hilliard on house calls around Manahawkin, picking up his lifelong nickname along the way.

Though he'd been playing ball since the age of eight and starred on his high school team, Cramer's entry into professional ball was late by most standards. He was 24 and playing on a local semi-pro team when Philadelphia Athletics backup catcher Cy Perkins saw him. At Perkins' suggestion, Cramer tried out for the A's the next day and was sent to their D-league minors team.

After some seasoning, Cramer joined the A's as a utility outfielder in 1930, getting even more playing time in the following years and playing in the 1931 World Series. He became known for his prowess at the plate, going six for six in a nine-inning game and setting a franchise record that still stands today for season hits by a left-hander. Despite his solid hitting, his contract was sold to the Boston Red Sox as A's team owner Connie Mack faced Depression-era financial woes.

Cramer's success continued during his six year stint in Boston, as he hit over .300 every season from 1937 to 1940, tying the league lead in hits in that final year. He played one season on the Washington Senators and spent another seven years in Detroit before concluding his 19 year career. In total, he played on three All-Star teams, appeared in two World Series and retired with a .296 batting average, among his other achievements.

While Cramer's statistics could arguably put him into the Hall of Fame, he's yet to be enshrined in Cooperstown. Some say that his case is weakened by the fact he played during World War II, when Major League rosters were depleted of their talent. Ironically, as a coach for the Chicago White Sox, he was instrumental in developing future Hall of Famer Nellie Fox, whose career numbers are remarkably like Cramer's own.

Cramer played long before athletes were paid large salaries -- most if not all had to keep off-season jobs to make a decent living. Workman's tools replaced the bat and glove in the fall and winter months as he built houses as a union carpenter. According to the Society for American Baseball Research, he made more money swinging a hammer than he ever did on the ballfield.

Staying true to the Jersey Shore, Cramer lived in Manahawkin for much of his life and returned to the house he built there when he retired from baseball for good in 1953. According to family and friends, he still responded to fan mail from admirers and often hosted his old baseball teammates, even getting to Philadelphia from time to time for a Phillies game.

Cramer died in 1990 after a brief battle with cancer. He's buried at Greenwood Cemetery in Cedar Run, and honored, of course, by the street and ballpark that carry his name.




1 comment:

  1. Hey, I just found your site. I'm a lifelong nj resident (except while attending the U. of Penn) and I love random road trips throughout NJ, taking photos, and writing. There is so much to discover! I love the legends and old towns. Please keep up the good work. I'm always looking to meet other fans of odd NJ roadtrips, so anyone who wants to commiserate should say hello! (My writing's at carenlissner.com and I also started a NJ photo site I never finished.)

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