CAUGHT STEALING A Journeyman as a Semi-Pro Baseball Player, Bob Cress Was Legendary as a Criminal and Escape Artist

By For, Jim Price | The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA), June 11, 2017 | Go to article overview

CAUGHT STEALING A Journeyman as a Semi-Pro Baseball Player, Bob Cress Was Legendary as a Criminal and Escape Artist


For, Jim Price, The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA)


Whether Bob Cress was behind home plate, on the lam or behind bars, there was always some sort of a catch. As a ballplayer, he couldn't hit. As a fugitive, he didn't plan ahead. As a prisoner, he wasn't inclined to hang around.

Clearly, Cress yearned to be a baseball player, and, for a decade or more he was, a catcher who played a bit with the Spokane Indians, parts of seasons with other professional teams and pursued opportunities, short and long, in the Pacific Northwest's best semipro leagues.

He also spent a third of his adult life in jails and prisons, became a folk hero who pulled off incredible escapes and left some of his descendants torn between dismay and admiration.

When the clock ran out on his baseball ambitions, and the 18th Amendment abolished the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcoholic beverages, Cress turned to the liquor business. By the time a newspaperman shot him full of holes, he had become an importer of sorts, acquiring legal goods in British Columbia and turning them over to a dealer he met at the border. In his case, acquiring meant stealing.

When arrested, he often escaped. Undaunted by years in Western Canada's toughest lockups, he outdid himself by burglarizing the Spokane Armory. Then he graduated to U.S. federal prisons, and they couldn't hold him either.

Cress generated a lot of news. If he had only wanted to see his name in headlines, he could have skipped the baseball.

From a pioneer family that traces to a Revolutionary War hero, Robert Legard Cress was born Nov. 28, 1891, in tiny Chilhowie, Virginia, not far from the Tennessee and North Carolina borders. Fifth among 11 children, his immediate family was dirt poor. Relatives say his father, Ezra, was a drunk. His mother, the former Bettie Overbay, did her best to hold the family together. It was hard work. At least three of her children became criminals.

About 1907, the entire family, except for an older boy, came west and made their home in Opportunity, enveloped today by the city of Spokane Valley.

By then, Bob had an eighth-grade education and was ready to play some ball. Although he resembled his mother, he sure as hell looked like a ballplayer, a rangy, 6-foot right-hander, tall for the time, with straw-colored hair and blue eyes. He had a strong, accurate throwing arm.

Sketchy records say that between 1908 and 1911, Cress played some in the semipro Spokane City League, which developed its share of future pros. In 1911, he also played a bit for Butte, one of Spokane's rivals in the professional Northwestern League. The next spring, he went to camp with Missoula of the Union Association., where the manager, former Washington Senators catcher Cliff Blankenship, seems to have taken Cress under his wing.

Blankenship, mostly remembered for signing Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson on a scouting trip to Idaho, was a fine receiver himself and had the makings of a championship team, so he couldn't keep a relative novice. But he may have paved the way for Cress to join the Ogden franchise. Cress played there a bit through June and finished the summer with the semipro Anaconda Independents.

In 1913, he joined Baker, Oregon, of the Western Tri-State League, where, if nothing else, he gained a reputation as an "o-fer" kind of guy, someone whose box score lines often read 0 for 3 or 0 for 4. After he managed only 18 hits in 98 at-bats - a puny .184 average - the Golddiggers released him in June.

After the season, on Saturday, Sept. 13, Cress and his roommate, pitcher Clayton Coleman, took in the Pendleton Round-Up, camping alongside the Umatilla River. After a night on the town, Coleman awoke to find $200 cash missing from his wallet. When Cress told police a story they didn't believe, they searched him, found Coleman's money and took him into custody.

Coleman, perhaps embarrassed, declined to press charges, so Cress was a given a suspended sentence. Nonetheless, his mug shot began to circulate among Northwest lawmen. …

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