Influenced by our good friend William Tasker’s excellent “Debating Jackie Robinson Day“, I thought that today would be a good time to look back at the career of George Crowe. Cardinals fans under the age of 50 might not even know the name, but his presence was felt on opening day, as a group of Hall of Famers rode around Busch Stadium. If not for Mr. Crowe, that procession might have been less impressive.
By all accounts, Crowe was a gifted athlete. A graduate of Indiana Central College (now the University of Indianapolis), the big man excelled at both baseball and basketball. Crowe holds a very special place in Indiana sports history, being named the very first “Mr. Basketball” in 1939.
After college, he would first play professional basketball, most notably with the legendary New York Renaissance. The Rens have a fascinating history that somewhat parallels what would eventually happen to the Negro Leagues in baseball.
Crowe would also play for an integrated professional basketball team in Los Angeles, the Red Devils. It is there he would cross paths with Jackie Robinson, shortly before Robinson would break the color barrier in baseball.
As the fledgling National Basketball Association got under way, at the expense of teams like the Rens, the New York Black Yankees of the Negro Leagues came scouting for players, and managed to sign Crowe. Crowe was an all star in the league, and some day I hope that we can look over the statistics from that era so that we can fully appreciate how good players like Crowe were. Until then, we can marvel over some of his Major League numbers, and there’s plenty there to like.
In four seasons in the Boston Braves minor league organization (1949-1952), the big first baseman never hit below .339, and had a slugging average that would never fall below .541. Today, those numbers would make baseball fans hyperventilate in anticipation of his certain callup. Back then, other factors kept him buried in the minor leagues.
Crowe would make his major league debut on April 16, 1952, ironically against Jackie Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers. Over the next two seasons, Crowe would be used infrequently, pinch hitting or playing when a starter needed a day off. Like many players, the lack of regular playing time hurt his performance, and it would eventually get him sent back down to the minors. Once again getting regular playing time with Toledo in 1954, Crowe dominated the American Association by hitting .334 with 34 home runs and 128 RBIs.
As the 1956 season was about to get under way, the now Milwaukee Braves sent Crowe to the Cincinnati Redlegs. This was not a player dump – far from it. Crowe had wrestled the every day first base job away from Joe Adcock. The Braves were becoming a force in the National League and were a player or two away from winning it all. Crowe’s emergence provided them what they thought was one of those players, Bob Hazle. For Crowe, the trade had to be a big disappointment. The Reds history with integration was less than stellar, and this might have devastated a lesser person, but Crowe went about his business.
The baseball world was about to learn how good a player Crowe was.
But it still took a tragedy for that to happen. When the Reds star first baseman, Ted Kluszewski, went down to an injury early in the 1957 season, Crowe took his spot. It was a big spot to fill. Kluz had been a fan favorite, a four time All Star, three consecutive seasons of 40 or more home runs, four with over 100 RBIs. But Crowe was up to the task, and then some. Filling in for Kluszewski, Crowe would hit .271 with 31 home runs and 92 RBIs. He was about to become a part of baseball history, albeit a rather dubious piece.
In 1957, fans of the Cincinnati Reds went crazy in voting for the players in the All Star Game. Their ballot box stuffing activity would be successful in getting seven Reds voted in as starters. The only player that didn’t get in, ironically, was Crowe. He was beaten out by a future teammate, Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals. Commissioner Ford Frick intervened and replaced several of the Reds with players who were more deserving of the invitation. He also took away fan balloting to prevent a similar problem from happening in the future. Fans would not be allowed to vote for All Stars until 1969, when the league solved the problem by giving each team the same number of ballots.
After a red hot start to the 1958 season, the now 37 year old Crowe would finally be recognized for his outstanding performance with an invitation to play in the 1958 All Star Game. At the same time, we were all reminded that baseball still had a long way to go before all players were treated equally. Crowe would sit on the bench for all nine innings, as Stan Musial would play the entire game at first base. Maybe the Gods of Baseball had a little bit to say as the American League defeated the National, 4-3. The NL squad might have benefited from a Crowe pinch hit.
That takes us to his time in St. Louis. Crowe would spend his last three professionals seasons, playing part time with the Cardinals. The record books will remember him as an exceptional pinch hitter. When he retired at the end of the 1961 season, Crowe held the major league record for pinch hit home runs – 14.
What the record books will not tell you is the impact the veteran player had on some of the younger Cardinals players. The rage that fueled some of the young black players of the era was understandable, given some of the terrible things they endured while playing in the minor leagues, in some cases continuing in the big leagues. For some players, that was working against them, hurting their baseball careers. In St. Louis, Crowe was almost like having another coach on the team, mentoring younger players such as Bob Gibson, Curt Flood and Bill White. He helped channel that emotion into something more effective – focus and excellence on the field. Combined with a management change later in St. Louis, that core of young players helped turn the Cardinals into one of the most successful teams pf the 1960s. George Crowe would no longer be with the team when that happened, but his fingerprints were all over it. In his most recent book, 60ft 6in, Bob Gibson credits Crowe for a lot of his success.
Crowe’s personal life after baseball was a lot like it was during his two sport professional career, filled with quiet dignity. Sadly, that would come to an end last January as the former Cardinal passed away at age 89.
If the NBA had welcomed the New York Rens, Crowe might have gone on to be a legend of the early years. Had baseball integrated earlier, and he was able to play the game in his prime instead of at the very end, Crowe might have been a legend of that sport too. As it is, he is one of a handful of players that excelled in two professional sports, and an even smaller group that was invited to play in both the Negro League and Major League All Star Game.
His name is rarely mentioned when talking about the great Cardinals of the past. But as Bob Gibson approached home plate on opening day, I can’t help but think just a little bit about a gentle giant that once wore the Birds on the Bat. Fortunately, a new generation will learn the name of George Crowe, thanks to the University of Indiana. They just recently named one of their residence halls in honor of the former Mr. Basketball.