Being a Southerner, sports was always important. But in the land of football, baseball was my first love. My dad’s job kept us moving when I was young. Though I never even played Little League, I dreamed of being a major league baseball player. Above all I wanted to pitch. It never came to pass because I got derailed at age 15.

The Genesis

My biggest baseball influence was my grandfather, Kenneth, aka Papaw. I never knew him to be interested in other sports, such as football, but he was a huge baseball fan. His indisputable favorite team was the St. Louis Cardinals. He loved the Cardinal heroes such as Stan Musial and Dizzy Dean, the latter of which is buried here in Stone County, Mississippi. Later he talked much about his favorite pitching and catching combinations, such as Tim McCarver and Steve Carlton. He also liked catcher, Joe Torre, and pitcher, Bob Gibson. The mid-late 60’s was an exciting time for the Cardinals, and a period in which I spent a good bit of time with my grandfather.

Bob Gibson teaches John Cripps how to pitchAs a youngster, I never got to play T-ball or anything remotely close. My grandfather used to “throw the ball with me,” and that was it. As I got older, and more controlled, he began to teach me how to pitch. Eventually, he bought a little book by Cardinal pitcher, Bob Gibson, illustrating pitching techniques. Papaw was concerned about my stance and wanted me to know how to throw more than just fastballs. Gibson taught me how to throw a nice curve ball, and he tried to teach me how to throw a killer slider. I was better at the curves.

We moved to California in 1968. Without my grandfather all I could do is throw the ball a bit with my brother, Rick. However, I soon found a new catcher. There was a large park near our home, complete with outdoor racquetball courts. I would mark me a “strike zone” spot on the wall, stand back a suitable distance, and pitch to my mark – my invisible catcher. With every throw, the ball returned to me. It was great because I didn’t need anyone else. I began to work on my accuracy more than anything else.

Every Good Boy Deserves Favor

In August 1969, we were on vacation visiting my grandparents in Biloxi, Mississippi. While there, Hurricane Camille hit and removed the city from the map, for the first of two times. My dad had been working for Bechtel Corporation and they had a construction project in nearby Pascagoula. The hurricane left the office in a terrible mess. Office Manager, Jack Patton (of the Virginia Patton’s) asked if my dad could stay on and help sort through the mess. We were soon packing up and leaving L.A. for the “Baseball Capital of the United States” – Pascagoula, Mississippi.

My dad bought a house on New York Avenue and we settled in for a two-year stay. Being use to attending a different school every year, this was a whole new world for me. I had time to make lasting friends and get involved in sports. Across the street lived a young man my age named Tom Burridge. Tom loved baseball and The Beatles, so we became instant friends. We spent a lot of time in his backyard throwing the ball and playing pickle with Harold Speights.

The importance of pickle cannot be overstated. In baseball, a pickle or hotbox occurs when a base-runner is caught between two bases, with one of the base fielders holding a live ball. To avoid being tagged out, you have to make fast moves, hope for a throwing error, or somehow outsmart one of the fielders. The time spent in the backyard version became quite useful in future live settings.

See the conflict early - Yaz & Beatles on doors

See the conflict early: Yaz on one side – The Beatles on the other!

When the 1970 baseball season rolled around, Tom and I went to the try-outs for Pony League (13-14 year olds). I didn’t do bad, but at the end of the day Tom was picked by Ingalls Credit Union, and I was left without a team. Man that hurt! Me with dreams of the big leagues, and I can’t even get picked in the last round of Pony Leaguers. Tom couldn’t believe it. He told his coach I needed to be chosen for the team, but Luther wouldn’t listen. I came to a couple practices with Tom, and tossed the ball a bit with him, but I could never get the coaches attention.

The night of the pre-season game, I rode along with Tom and warmed up on the sidelines with him. They had lost a player and he was still working to get his coach to enlist me. There I sat in the bleachers until the last inning. Suddenly Tom ran over and said the coach wanted to see me. Luther told me to head out to left field. As fate would have it, a batter hit a high fly ball to my turf. I mean this ball was so high I lost it in the lights. I had never played “league” baseball before. I had never played outfield before. Worse than these, I had never played under lights before. When the ball was hit I moved initially, then froze as I lost sight. The ball finally emerged from the lights just above my head. I quickly jumped up and snagged it.

When the inning was over the coach asked me why I just stood there, then made this huge jump. When I told him I lost the ball in the lights and only caught sight of it at the last second, he said it was one of the oddest catches he had ever seen. Anyway, he told me to be present at the next practice. I had finally made the team!

Put Me In Coach I’m Ready To Play…Today!

Even though I desperately wanted to play third base, or shortstop, I was placed in the outfield. The coach was impressed with my ability to throw the ball from the outfield to home plate. I often wished I had never demonstrated the ability. After a few practices, I began to be alternated at pitching. When I started my first game as pitcher, I felt I had finally arrived. I was good at striking out batters and my coach used me as much as possible on the mound.

I can’t remember his name, but there was a major league pitcher who always impressed me with his sidearm throwing. Over the years, I had worked this style into my repertoire. One pitch in particular, Luther referred to as the “Cripps psychedelic pitch.” It was an odd combination of sidearm throwing, and a Bob Gibson curve ball. No one could hit it. I didn’t use it often because it was not as easy to control as other pitches, but I did like to sprinkle it in. The assistant coach used to always caution me about throwing too many curve balls at my age. He said it would hurt me in the long run. If he had his way, I would not have been allowed to throw any at all. But Luther didn’t care, he just wanted to win.

John Cripps baseball gloveMy first year finished well. I had played every game, either as pitcher or outfielder. I had learned to bat very well. I finished the year a little bit below a .300 batting average, but I had a slow start. I received a golden glove accolade because I had no fielding errors and was well respected for my fielding abilities. Looking back, it’s funny how I never accepted another glove outside of my original one. I had owned an old Regent Double V for quite some time. I had used it so much, there wasn’t much padding left. I even remember my dad having to re-string it. After the first year, my dad bought me a much nicer red MacGregor glove, but I didn’t use it. I continued to use my Double V, and I still have it to this day. Anyway, I was really looking forward to the next season. I just knew I was headed to the big leagues.

Season two rolled around and I was prepared. I had expected to be starting pitcher for the opening game. After all, I had done a lot of pitching in pre-season practice and I was the best pitcher we had…no brag, just fact. To my surprise, I didn’t start the first game, or the second, or the third. In fact, I never threw a single pitch the entire season. Politics are not merely for bureaucrats in Jackson or Washington. There are politics in our own backyards…and baseball mounds. A kid named Lamar Hartman joined the team and became a starting pitcher. He wasn’t very good and I don’t believe he ever won a single game. My father heard rumors that Hartman’s dad had paid Luther to give his son my pitching slot. Whether it was true or not, the all-star game revealed much.

My dad got transferred to Greenville, Mississippi right at the end of the season. Knowing how important baseball was to me, he agreed to let me stay with my best friend Steve Wixon to finish the last game of the season, and play the all-star game. Not only was I picked to play in the all-star game, but Luther was picked as one of the coaches. Lamar Hartman didn’t have a chance.

I thought I would be sent to the outfield, but to my surprise I was told I would be starting as pitcher. Why? How could I be an all-star pitcher if I hadn’t pitched all year. Truth is stranger than fiction. I was later told Luther had said I was the best pitcher of them all. Really? They say revenge is bittersweet, but all I could taste that night was pure sugar! I had a no-hitter going into the last inning, when I was hit in the ear with a wild pitch while at bat. I went to first base, but was removed and a pinch runner put in my place. The coaches wanted to make sure I was OK. The problem is the pinch runner took me out of the game, and I didn’t get to pitch the final inning. Would I have retired the batters in the final inning and ended with a no-hitter? I have to accept destiny, but what with irony? I didn’t get to pitch in the regular season, but almost have a no-hitter in the all-star game!

There’s More To The Game Than Pitching

The second year saw me rise to being one of the best batters in the league. My average ended up over the .400 mark. I have the assistant coach to thank for that. I was a power hitter and had that classic “lean back” stance. I once hit a change-up so hard that it seemed to fly up to the clouds and when it came down it hit the deep center-field fence. It hung so long I was almost to second base before it pounded the fence. Afterward, the coach had a one-on-one with me about batting stance. He told me, with the amount of strength I had, I could be a dangerous base-hitter if I would lean into the ball rather than lean back. He told if I would go for the line drive rather than the home run, I would be on base more often. He was correct, and my batting average showed it.

The line drive singles had another benefit. I was also the best base stealer we had. If I got to first, I was going to second and third for sure. And I stole home more than a couple of times. This is where the aforementioned pickle comes in. I don’t recall ever being in a pickle between first and second, or second and third. However, I was known to put myself in a pickle between third and home, much to the chagrin of Luther. I used to tease the catcher and third baseman, and I only remember being tagged out on one occasion.

One day on the way to a practice, I had a minor motorcycle accident that took a chunk out of my knee. My mom got it all patched up, and I tried to hide it from the coach. It didn’t work and I wasn’t allowed to start the game. Later in the game, we were behind with a runner on first. Being desperate to score, Luther put me in as pinch runner. Again, truth is stranger than fiction. I had not played the game because of a bum knee, and he puts me in to steal bases…go figure. Well, I did and I got to finish the game.

New City, New League

John Cripps pitching for Walker FarmsIn 1971, we had made the move to Greenville and I made a new set of friends. My new pitching partner was Tracy Mason. Tracy could throw the ball harder than anyone I had ever met. He had a problem controlling it though, and threw a lot of wild pitches. We went out together and ended up on Walker Farms, the underdog team. It was the only team without a coach, so Tracy and I talked my dad into coaching the team. My dad turned out to be a good coach but to avoid all accusations of favoritism, I always had to sit out an inning or two, unless I was pitching. This didn’t sit well with me at all, but I knew better than to cross my dad.

My dad also refused to make me a starting infielder. He did let me play second base a couple of times, but mostly I was in the outfield, if not on the mound. Both my brother and I had outfielders for favorite players. Mine was Carl Yastrzemski, left-fielder for the Boston Red Sox and Rick’s was Willie Mays, center-fielder for the San Francisco Giants. One day I saw Mays make a catch that totally blew my mind. From that day forward I was determined to never let a ball pass me in the outfield. Since I was the most experienced outfielder on the Walker Farms team, my dad sort of put me in charge of the outfield crew. I instructed them never to let a ball pass, even if you have to dive. From there came my oft-repeated phrase, “Shouldda dove.” I would throw myself into a dreadful dive if that’s what it took. It was sometimes a painful endeavor, but I wasn’t going to let the ball pass me. I once threw my glove at a ball and stopped it. It was obviously beginner’s luck and I never could have repeated it. Then again, I got in trouble and never got the chance.

I had a good season, pitching and batting. I don’t recall my final batting average. I do have one newspaper clipping that survived the years. I pitched a three-hitter and led the team with two hits, though it appears I didn’t score any of our five runs.

While in Greenville I started playing drums, and formed my first garage band. My love of music started advancing beyond The Beatles and various radio hits. I began listening to a lot of Grand Funk, as well as British bands like Led Zeppelin and Yes. My interests were changing. I spent less and less time throwing a baseball and more time listening to rock and roll.

White Men Can’t Jump and Yankees Can’t Play Baseball

In 1972 we made another move. This time it was to a foreign country: Illinois. No one on my block played baseball, but I did manage to find out when tryouts were being held. I drove there and was appalled at how sorry the players were. I was put at bat and nearly put the first pitch over the fence. I was later put at shortstop and fielded all the hits without any errors. At the end of the day…once more…I was not chosen for a team. No one knew me, and politics were still alive and well. Rather than go through the routine all over again, I just walked away. I tried to convince myself it wasn’t worth it because the players were so lame. The truth is: the piper was calling me to join him. While it was more likely Deep Purple and Pink Floyd that ended my baseball career in 1972, Led Zeppelin sounds better in the title…and they were a contributing factor.

Carl Yastrzemski

My mom clipped this from a newspaper and saved it for me way back in the day

Credits:
Top Photo by Robert Lewis Dabney Cripps – 11.15.14
Strike Zone by Bob Gibson © 1976 Grow Ahead Books (my edition was actually an earlier one)
July 1970 Photo from Aunt Mary Mapes album
Glove photo by John Cripps – 11.15.14
Walker Farms clipping from Greenville Democrat newspaper – unknown date
Carl Yastrzemski clipping from unknown newspaper and date
Gallery Photos batting left-handed by unknown – November 1969
Gallery photos in uniform by my parents – June and July 1970
Gallery photos during game by my parents – 1971?
Gallery photos in Indonesia by unknown – Summer 1977
Dizzy Dean grave photos by John Cripps – Dec 2014