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Jerry Cram, forgotten Mets hero

Avoiding an epic loss to the Cardinals on September 11, 1974 might have cemented Jerry Cram’s place in team history as a marathon champion.

Bake McBride of St. Louis Cardinals comes in with the winning run in the 25th inning.
Bake McBride of St. Louis Cardinals comes in with the winning run in the 25th inning.
AP Photo

If only the Mets could have kept Bake McBride from touching ‘em all, Jerry Cram might be more than just an obscure footnote in team history.

Now a mentor for young pitchers in the San Francisco Giants’ farm system, Cram was brought in by Manager Yogi Berra to start the 17th inning of a September 1974 game at Shea Stadium against the St. Louis Cardinals that the Mets appeared to have won until Jerry Koosman gave up a two-run homer to Ken Reitz in the top of the ninth, tying it at 3-3 and ultimately sending the game into extra innings.

Cram had no idea at the time, of course, that he would also start the 18th inning, and then the 19th, and the 20th, and still more.

“Actually I didn’t even think about it,” Cram, who celebrated his 69th birthday December 9, said recently by phone.

“You get three outs, you go back in; you get three outs, you go back in.”

Summoned from the minors August 10, Cram gave the Mets eight scoreless innings in the game that began at 8:10 PM on September 11 and concluded at 3:13 AM the next morning after seven hours and four minutes.

The 25-inning affair—only a 1-1 tie in 26 innings between the Boston Braves and Brooklyn Robins on May 1, 1920 was longer – became a 4-3 Mets loss when a pick-off throw by pitcher Hank Webb eluded first baseman John Milner, allowing McBride to circle the bases and score.

Milner figured in the final out as well when he struck out swinging on an inside fastball from Sonny Siebert with the tying run on base, ending the game.

The game included noteworthy performances like Dave Schneck recording 11 at-bats, tying the record for a single game; Wayne Garrett going 0-for-10; and Duffy Dyer catching the first 23 innings.

Ed Sudol, the home plate umpire, was no stranger to such endurance tests—he also was behind the dish on April 15, 1968, when the Mets lost 1-0 to the Houston Astros in 24 innings, and May 31, 1964, when the Mets lost to the Giants in 23 innings in the second game of a doubleheader.

Cram was the third reliever to come in for the Mets, taking over after Bob Apodaca registered three scoreless frames.

He wasn’t surprised by nearly pitching a complete game shutout, with seven hits over eight innings, including two walks and four strikeouts.

“Once I got called up I don’t remember pitching any more than maybe two innings until that night, or that morning I should say,” he recalled. “All of a sudden it’s your turn to get loose and you’re going in in the 17th.”

As each scoreless frame ticked by, Cram does remember that Rube Walker, the Mets’ pitching coach, seemed to get more fidgety.

“The one thing I do remember is Rube Walker kept coming over to me and saying ‘You okay, kid?’ And I said ‘Yeah Rube, I’m fine, I’m fine.’ I don’t know if it was a superstition or what, but he came over just about every inning, especially after about five innings.

“I understood because I hadn’t pitched that many innings, but I knew myself I was fine, it wasn’t a surprise to me to step up and go eight innings.”

It wasn’t easy, as the Cards left two runners on base in the 17th and the bases loaded in the 24th, Cram’s final frame before giving way to Webb to begin the 25th. Before it was over, the Mets left the bases loaded in the 23rd and 24th innings, making for considerable cliff-hanging intrigue.

But it was finally settled in the 25th, after Cram was relieved by Webb. Once the speedy McBride made it to first on an infield dribbler to short that Wayne Garrett couldn’t handle, Webb tried to keep him honest. But his pick-off attempt eluded Milner, and the race was on.

Webb, who pitched parts of five seasons for the Mets, says history has tagged him with a bum rap.

“I had a good move; I threw that ball over to first and I was given an error on it,” he said in an August 2010 interview with Inside Pitch. “That ball went right through the first baseman. A perfect throw to first, and I got an error.”

Catcher Ron Hodges was also at fault, he said.

“Hodges has the ball, turns around to tag him, and he literally drops the ball out of his glove onto home plate,” said Webb.

The Mets failed to score later that inning, and the game—which remains tied for the second longest in MLB history in terms of innings—was in the books.

And Cram, who never won a game in the big leagues despite a solid 2.98 ERA, slid into anonymity.

Signed as an undrafted free agent in 1967 by the Minnesota Twins out of Riverside Community College, Cram overcame long odds to carve out 23 appearances over four seasons in the big leagues. A cerebral hemorrhage suffered during his sophomore year in high school cost him a full year of participating in sports, but it didn’t prevent him from signing a pro contract with Minnesota after attending open tryouts with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

After winning 16 games with 204 strikeouts in his second year in the minors, Cram was scooped up by the Kansas City Royals in the expansion draft. He made his big league debut at the end of 1969, registering a 3.24 ERA in five games.

But he languished at Triple-A Omaha the next three years without a return call to the majors, and was later traded to the Mets in a minor league deal for pitcher Barry Raziano on February 1, 1973.

Following a mediocre showing that year for the Mets’ Triple-A Tidewater club, things came together for Cram in 1974. After posting a 2.92 ERA in 36 games and 71 innings, he was called up to the Mets as an injury replacement for pitcher George Stone, riding a string of four saves and two victories over his last seven appearances.

“Cram was the hottest pitcher down there,” General Manager Bob Scheffing was quoted as saying in the August 11, 1974 edition of The Long Island Press.

He then went unscored on over his first three appearances before surrendering a homer to Cliff Johnson in the 10th inning of a 3-2 loss to the Astros August 28.

Cram believes that his heroic effort in the marathon game vs. the Cardinals raised his stock in the eyes of team brass, and led to his breaking camp with the club to begin the 1975 season.

But despite recording a 1.61 ERA over 22 innings in ’74, Cram was sent back to the minors in May 1975 after just four appearances, his tenure with the Mets over.

He then asked for a trade back to the Royals because of his ties to Nebraska.

“I had already gotten married and had bought a home in Omaha, and so I asked them, if I’m going to have to play in the minor leagues, if they could get me back with Kansas City,” he said.

The Mets accommodated him, dealing Cram back to the Royals in another minor league swap following the season. And aside from a brief cameo with the big club in ’76, he spent the remainder of his career pitching at Omaha, hanging it up for good following the 1981 season.

It was there that he launched his career as a pitching coach and roving instructor, a career that continues today. He eventually shifted to the Colorado Rockies organization, coaching in their system from 1998-2000 before catching on with the Giants, where he’s worked at San Jose in the Class-A Carolina League, Salem-Keizer in the Class-A Northwest League, and Richmond in the Double-A Eastern League.

Since 2015, he’s been with the Augusta GreenJackets, the Giants’ affiliate in the Class-A South Atlantic League.

With the Giants, he’s helped guide the development of Chris Heston, Hunter Strickland, Madison Bumgarner, and Tim Lincecum.

“I was Lincecum’s first professional coach at Salem-Keizer; it was my job just to get him ready to move on and that’s what he did,” said Cram.

While he’s proud of his long career as an instructor, Cram also feels good about his place in baseball history through his connection to one of only two 25-inning games (the White Sox’ 7-6 defeat of the Brewers on May 8, 1984 being the other), even though only the staunchest of Mets fans probably remember.

“It makes me feel great,” he said.

Having pitched in the bigs, albeit briefly, is great too.

“Good enough to get there, not good enough to stay, that’s kind of the way I put it,” he said.