In 1954, Marsha Luther was a typical Wisconsin teenager gripped in the excitement of having a Major League baseball team in her home state.
A year earlier, the Braves organization had relocated the team from Boston to Milwaukee, and in the process, created a Midwest fan base that set attendance records.
“It was just so exciting. If I could get a ride to Milwaukee, I went to the game. If I couldn’t get a ride, I listened to the game on the radio,” said Luther, as she recalled growing up on her parents’ small farm near Richland Center, Wisconsin.
“I didn’t have much money, I had to work the fields and we didn’t get an allowance back then,” she said. “So I didn’t buy souvenirs. If I had a dime, I did buy a program.”
Pulling out a box, Luther spread several game day programs out on the table from the 1954 season. As she leafed through the pages, she held up the program to show where she had cut out photos of the players.
“I cut out the photos and put them up on the wall in my bedroom,” she said, her voice lilted as she spoke with the enthusiasm she still felt for her team.
Picking up another program from the ’54 season, she read the short write-up on a promising young right-handed pitcher. Even though Ray Crone wasn’t expected to make the Braves roster that year, Crone was featured as a rising Brave of the future.
“But he made the team,” Luther said. “I would sit in the cheap seats in the outfield, which had a good view of the bullpen. All those young men were so handsome. Ray was a good pitcher with a great curveball. I loved to watch him pitch.”
Leafing through the pages of the programs that had yellowed with age, she pointed out several of the autographs she was able to obtain.
But there was one she didn’t have.
During a special meeting on Friday, Luther received her autograph from Ray Crone.
“I’m so excited, I feel like a school girl all over again,” she said as she shook Crone’s hand. “Can you believe I saved all these programs for 60 years? And then, I have the chance after 60 years to get your autograph in Waxahachie, Texas where we both live?”
For nearly two hours the two shared baseball stories — as well as the remarkable journey that brought both to North Texas as their lives unfolded in separate directions.
Following high school, Luther met and married her husband John. His career in the insurance industry led to a transfer to Texas. While visiting the Gingerbread Trails Tour of Homes in 1987, she fell in love with the city and told John “we have to move here.”
After retiring as a player, Crone became a scout with the Orioles organization. In the mid-1970s, he was assigned to the Texas-Louisiana territory.
“I didn’t want to live in a big city. I wanted to live in a small town, but close to Dallas,” Crone explained. “I didn’t know Paul Richards, but I knew of Paul Richards. He was a legend in baseball and I knew he was from Waxahachie. When we were looking for a place to live, I thought, well, we couldn’t go wrong living in the town where Paul Richards grew up. We move here in 1977 and I’ve lived in the same house ever since.”
Though they lived in the same small town for nearly 30 years — one street away from each other — it took a chance encounter last year at the Waxahachie Civic Center during a community event for the two to meet.
“I’m not exactly sure how it happened,” Luther said. “We bumped into each other, I remember that.”
“I think it was your accent,” Crone said. “I asked if you were from Wisconsin and we started talking.”
“People say I have an accent, but I don’t think I do,” Luther said in a Wisconsin accent so thick you could still slice it with a cheese knife after 30 years of living in North Texas.
They both laughed.
“When he told me he used to pitch for the Milwaukee Braves and who he was I nearly fainted,” Luther recalled. “It was a very short visit, but I was excited to have finally met him.”
A few weeks ago Luther was going through boxes of memorabilia in her garage and came across the box with all of her Braves programs. As she looked through the booklets, she decided to give Crone a call and ask him if he would give her an autograph.
“Do you still get a lot of requests for autographs?” she asked as he signed her book.
“Occasionally,” he said, handing the booklet back to her as he watched her admire the signature on the page.
Pulling out a box of his own, Crone began pulling out old photos and sharing the story, each one a chapter of baseball’s rich history in America.
“Do you know who that man is,” he asked, handing off an 8X10 black-and-white photo of a young man in white baseball uniform standing next to Babe Ruth in a business suit.
The photo was taken in the summer of 1948 when Crone was playing American Legion baseball in Memphis, Tennessee. Ford Motor Company was the major sponsor of American Legion baseball, and the company had hired Babe Ruth, the game’s most iconic figure, as its spokesperson. Ruth was making a publicity tour through the South.
“The coach told me to get over to the airport to have my picture taken, so I did,” Crone recalled. “(Ruth) didn’t say much. He was eaten up with throat cancer and he could barely talk. We posed for the photo and he took off. He died about a month later. For all I know that’s one of the last photos taken of him.”
Crone pulled out another black-and-white photo taken at the Polo Grounds in New York when he played for the Giants just before the team moved to San Francisco.
“I loved playing at the Polo Grounds,” he said. “That was my favorite park.”
Crone shared the story of being traded to the Giants, “the day before the trading deadline” in 1957 during the Braves World Series run.
You could hear the lament in his voice as he spoke about leaving the Braves.
“Hey, you can’t feel too bad about being traded for Red Schoendienst,” Luther added. “How many players can say they were traded for a Hall of Famer?”
Crone reached into his box and pulled out an 8X10 color photo taken in 1997 of the reunion celebration held outside what is now the new Miller Park in Milwaukee, honoring the 40th anniversary of the 1957 World Series championship team.
“Even though I was traded before the World Series, they still invited me,” he said, pointing out all of the players in the photo. “I won three games for them before the trade. I’m glad they included me. There’s Hank Aaron.”
When asked about playing with Hank Aaron, Crone smiled.
“We were in AA together in the (South Atlantic League) together the year before,” he said. Both Aaron and Crone made their Major League debut in 1954. “He was a good hitter. He worked hard. He was skinny as a rail and no one thought he would go on to hit more homeruns than Babe Ruth.”
Photo after photo and story after story, Crone shared his experiences of having an on-the-field view to golden moments in America’s favorite pastime as Luther and her husband clung to every word.
“It’s a lot different today,” Crone said. “Back then, there were 16 Major League teams and 15 Minor League divisions. Today its just the opposite with 30 Major League teams and eight Minor League divisions.
“When I was playing, almost everyone was on a one-year contract and the league minimum salary was $6,000 a year — which the general manager tried to keep you as close to as possible. Every year you were always on edge to make the team because you didn’t know from one year to the next if you were going to make the roster or be sent back down to the Minors.”
Because there was so much talent, and so few jobs in the Majors, Crone said the clubs took a lot of time developing young players.
“That’s not the case today,” he said. “A lot of kids get rushed to the Majors before they are ready, before they have the experience and maturity to handle it.”
And the salaries have changed, as well.
“I can’t say I blame the players,” he said. “If I would have had the chance to make that kind of money, I would have taken it, too. But in my day, we didn’t have agents and the league didn’t have the big television revenue they have today. We were just glad to have a chance to play.”
Following his playing days, Crone became a major league scout.
When asked about the 2012 motion picture “Trouble with the Curve” starring Clint Eastwood, Crone laughed.
“Yeah, I saw it,” he said. “My daughter called me up and said, ‘They made a movie about a Major League scout whose going blind, you have to see it!’ She took me to see the movie. There was some Hollywood stuff in there, but it was the most accurate portrayal about scouting that I’ve ever seen. They really did their homework, I’ll say that. That high school baseball park in the movie, well, that’s where we spend most of our time.”
He also shared the story of how he signed a prospect from Waxahachie.
“It was after the draft and the organization is always looking for good players to fill gaps in their rosters,” he said. “I had seen Wess Winn play and called up the organization to let them know I had a right-hand pitcher they should take a look at.”
Winn went on to play three years in the Orioles Minor League system before becoming a Waxahachie Police Officer.
“I’ve had a good career,” said Crone, now 83. While he still remains active in baseball, he tries to get to the golf course as often as he can when not spending time with his grandchildren.
“I can’t believe after all this time I not only get to meet you and get your autograph, but I’ve gotten to hear all of these wonderful stories,” Luther said. “Thank you so much. This has been such a wonderful, wonderful day.”
Luther and her husband said they plan on staying in touch with Crone — and keeping the memories alive of those “magical” days of the Milwaukee Braves.
In 1965, the Braves moved to Atlanta.
In 1970, the expansion Seattle Pilots relocated to Milwaukee and became the Milwaukee Brewers. While the Luthers continue to follow the Brewers (and attend games when they visit Wisconsin), they have since become Ranger fans and attend as many games as possible each season.
“We love the Rangers,” Luther said. “But there will always be a special place in my heart for the Milwaukee Braves. They really captivated the entire Midwest region when they moved from Boston. I remember getting caught by the principal when I was going to cut class to go to a game. I thought he was going to tell me I couldn’t go. Instead, he asked me if I was on my way to see the Braves. Being honest, I told him I was. He just looked at me and said, ‘I wish I could go with you.’ That’s the impact this team had. We just loved them.
“Thank you Ray, for all those wonderful memories,” she said, reaching across the table and giving his hand a squeeze. “And thank you for today. I can’t believe it’s been 60 years. How did the time go by so fast?”