Bob Crane, R.I.P.- Politician, master showman

The Boston Red Sox lost one of their most devoted long-time followers last week when former state treasurer Bob Crane died at the age of 91. Beginning in the 1930s, during the time of Moe Berg, the catcher/scholar of whom it was said, “Moe could strike out in seven different languages,” right through the times of Teddy Ballgame, Yaz, Big Papi and beyond, Bob’s devotion to and passion for the Olde Towne Team never wavered.
Even as his body was wearing out and he could no longer get to Fenway Park, the previous night’s game and the prospects for the next night held his interest.

Robert Quentin Crane was far more than just a Red Sox fan. He was the most underrated public figure
of his age. There were a couple of reasons for that: first, while most politicians spend their time trying to show that they’re smartest person in the room, Bob disguised the fact that he was, in fact, the smartest person in the room. Second, in 34 years of elective office he never once, to my knowledge, gave a campaign speech. Instead, he sang a song, told a funny story, and asked people how he could help them.

It was a formula that worked; he was the longest serving state treasurer in Massachusetts history and he never lost an election.

He was also a consummate showman (his father had worked in vaudeville as a property manager). He organized some treasury employees into a group known as The Treasury Notes and together they would travel the state on their off time, singing, telling stories, doing imitations – putting on entire first-class variety shows for civic groups and charitable organizations. Bob was the group’s emcee and lead singer, a damn good one, too.

His compelling Irish charm, his smile, his sense of mischief, were enthralling. He absolutely loved it, as did those he entertained. And it paid enormous dividends at the ballot box.

All the fun and laughter he created tended to obscure the fact that he was an extremely capable state treasurer. The treasury, under his leadership, was a highly professional operation and the state’s money was in good hands. When the lottery was established in 1971 he became its first chairman and remained so for 19 years, building it into the most successful lottery in the nation.

After he retired from public office he didn’t retire from public life. He kept The Treasury Notes together and they continued to entertain for many years, bringing joy to all while raising untold thousands of dollars for charitable causes. He charged no fee for appearances and paid the other performers and musicians from his own pocket.

Critics ranted that he sometimes gave jobs to friends or friends of friends, or that some state money ended up in banks whose directors he knew, but his attitude was that just because somebody knew him shouldn’t be a disqualifying factor. He never tried to hide what he did, was always open about it, and willingly took the slings and arrows from the critics, even when they, to no avail, investigated him. As a result he earned the undying loyalty of more people than any other politician of my lifetime.

Two years ago, there was a State House event at which the conference room in the treasurer’s office was dedicated in his name. Bob was there in a wheel chair, and a lot of famous pols from the old days were on hand as well, such as former Gov. Mike Dukakis and former Senate president Bill Bulger. In addition, there were lots of just plain people whom he had helped along the way.

Standing among them was a man almost as famous for his aversion to crowds as he is for his heroics on the field, but Carl Yastrzemski, whose daughter had worked for Crane in the treasurer’s office, wanted to be there for his old friend.

Bob Crane came to prominence in the 1960s, the decade that saw the rise of other giants of Massachusetts politics – Ted Kennedy, Ed Brooke, Frank Sargent, Kevin White. He might have been the best politician of them all. None of them, if they were around today, would dispute that.

While Bob never did give a campaign speech, he excelled at another type of address – the eulogy. He had so many friends, and he always delivered. One of his last public appearances was in 2012 to say goodby to his great friend Kevin White, the four-term mayor of Boston.

Bob’s legs were already betraying him and he had to be assisted up the altar stairs of Saint Cecelia’s Church to the pulpit, but once there he showed he hadn’t lost a step as far as captivating an audience is concerned. He told touching stories about his old pal that had the congregation alternately laughing and weeping. It was a tour de force performance. I still remember his closing words that day:” “God bless you, Kevin, the song is ended but the melody lingers on.”

With that the entire congregation in the jam-packed church rose to its feet in a thunderous ovation. I’d never been a part of, or witnessed, a standing ovation in church before. As I stood there applauding with the rest I couldn’t help but think to myself, “By God, he’s just like his old idol, Ted Williams. He hit a home run in his last at bat on the big stage.”

One of his favorite songs, and one he sang at every performance of the Treasury Notes was “What a Wonderful World.” Its lyrics say in part:
“I see friends shaking hands, saying how do you do,
They’re really saying, ‘ I love you.”
And we love you, Bob.