Cooperstown Confidential: a tribute to Big Daddy Croweby Bruce Markusen
January 28, 2011
Some players are just destined to be overlooked. Consider the case of George Crowe. The former Negro Leagues and National League first baseman died on Jan. 18, at the age of 89, yet there was nary a mention from most Internet baseball sources. I first learned about his passing while reading Bill Madden’s Sunday column in the New York Daily News. A few other newspapers covered the story, including the Los Angeles Times and the San Jose Mercury News, but for the most part the coverage seemed so shallow and incomplete. Though hardly a household name, George Crowe deserved better, even if the lack of attention probably wouldn’t have bothered him in the slightest.
Who exactly was George Crowe, you might ask? A left-handed hitting first baseman with power, he was baseball’s original “Big Daddy,” given the nickname long before Rick Reuschel, Cecil Fielder and (among today’s players) Cardinals star Matt Holliday. Crowe was also known as “Big George.” Either nickname described him well. He was 6-foot-2 l and weighed 215 pounds during his career, dimensions that might not sound overly large today, in the modern era of weight lifting, steroids and HGH, but were certainly well above average for ballplayers in the 1950s and '60s.
As a ballplayer, Crowe was not a star, not a dominant player in either the Negro Leagues or the big leagues, but a solid ballplayer who enjoyed one season of glory with the Reds in the mid-1950s. As an amateur, he was actually a better performer at basketball. In fact, he was such a standout that he was named the first “Mr. Basketball” in Indiana state history.
Crowe eventually turned his hardwood skills into a professional basketball career, but only after a tour of duty with the Army during World War II. Upon his discharge in 1946, Crowe joined an integrated basketball team known as the Los Angeles Red Devils, where he became a teammate of Jackie Robinson. Crowe played so well for the Red Devils that he drew the interest of the famed barnstorming team, the Harlem Renaissance, also known as the Rens. Crowe remained with the Rens for two seasons, with one of his career highlights coming courtesy of a 19-point game in front of a large throng at Madison Square Garden.
Although he was a talented guard who could score, Crowe would find more long-term success in baseball. In 1948, Crowe signed with the New York Black Yankees of the Negro Leagues. Like most African-American standouts of the era, he longed for a shot at the major leagues. That opportunity finally came calling in 1952 with the Boston Braves. The following year, Crowe moved with the franchise to Milwaukee, where he played most of the time as a backup and a powerful pinch-hitting threat.
In 1956, the Braves traded him to the Reds, where he played sparingly before getting his first fulltime playing opportunity the following summer. Replacing the injured Ted Kluszewski at first base, the 36-year-old Crowe emerged as an All-Star, erupting for a career-high 31 home runs and slugging a solid .504. Those were numbers that were close to Big Klu’s level of production in 1956.
His career year in the books, the aging Crowe fell off significantly in 1958, losing his first base job and convincing the Reds to trade him. He finished his career as a backup with the Cardinals, where he added to his impressive pinch-hitting totals and ended up as the career leader in pinch home runs with 14. The record was letter broken by Jerry Lynch, Cliff Johnson, and most recently, Matt Stairs.
I find Crowe fascinating for reasons that go well beyond his rather pedestrian playing career. More significantly than his raw pinch-hitting numbers, Crowe became a quiet pioneer on the civil rights front, both in and out of the game. Shortly after his return from the war, Crowe took his wife to a local movie theater. As they watched the film from the lower level, a theater attendant approached the couple, informing them that they would have to vacate their seats and move to the blacks-only section of the balcony. Quietly but firmly, Crowe refused. He and his wife remained in their seats. One week later, the owners of the theater decided to integrate the building fully.
Crowe also did his best to improve race relations in baseball. Although he was a fading veteran by the time he joined the Cardinals in 1959, he did not hesitate to push the organization on the issue of segregation in spring training. The Cardinals, who trained in St. Petersburg, Fla., traditionally kept their white players and black players in separate hotels. Seeing the injustice in such an arrangement, and how it was angering some of the younger black players on the team, Crowe made a behind-the-scenes effort to change the situation. Crowe lobbied Cardinals management to stop the segregation and find a hotel willing to take all of the players, regardless of their skin color.
The change was especially important to a Cardinals club that would become one of the most racially diverse teams of the 1960s. Some of the team’s younger African-American standouts, like Bill White, Curt Flood and Bob Gibson, began to look to Crowe as a mentor and father figure. He fulfilled those roles into the early stages of the 1961 season, his career coming to an end after seven games as a pinch-hitter. Now 40, Crowe opted for retirement. Although he clearly would have brought value to a team as a coach, he decided to leave baseball entirely.
He also decided to leave mainstream civilization. Dissatisfied with the ways of life in the city, Crowe eventually moved into a small log cabin in the deepest woods of Delaware County, N.Y., not too far from us here in Cooperstown. Crowe lived off the land, while having to make do without artificial heat, electricity, or running water. Crowe enjoyed the solitude for more than 10 years before deciding to move later in his life to be closer to his daughters.
I began to learn about Crowe in 1998. That’s when several employees at the Hall of Fame, including this author, received a memo from Hall public relations director Jeff Idelson that Crowe would be visiting Cooperstown. He would accompany Arlene Howard, the widow of his good friend, Elston Howard, along with sportswriter Ralph Wimbish, who had just authored a biography of the former Yankee catcher. Jeff told us that Crowe, who had rarely been interviewed during or after his playing days, would be available for a question-and-answer session.
I remember meeting Crowe that day in 1998. He was polite and reserved, a true gentleman. I looked forward to interviewing him on camera for the Hall of Fame’s archive. It seemed like a rare opportunity, a chance to talk to a former player about life in the always-intriguing Negro Leagues. Then the interview began. I asked questions, but Crowe gave mostly one-line or one-sentence responses. He didn’t expound on any of the points he made. The interview quickly devolved into a teeth-pulling session, which ranks at about the low point of interviewing success. As much as I tried, I couldn’t extract many interesting answers from Crowe. He was just too reserved, too soft-spoken, and too uncomfortable in front of a microphone and camera.
The interview was a disappointment, but in retrospect, I learned something that day. Being a bad interview subject doesn’t make you a bad guy. Crowe was nice and polite, and meant absolutely no harm or malice. He was just naturally shy, unable to give colorful answers in the manner of a Buck O’Neil, and not one who seemed to enjoy talking about himself. Perhaps he was ill at ease speaking with a perfect stranger. And really, that’s perfectly understandable. Some people are just not comfortable speaking on camera, especially when they’re being peppered with questions from someone they’ve just met. They’re not losers or killjoys; they’re just human beings with different strengths and weaknesses than those who are naturals in front of a live microphone.
Even though the interview provided little tangible value, it didn’t detract from my first impression of Crowe: that he was a good and caring man who had taken some time to spend time with people who shared his affinity for his late friend, Elston Howard.
Perhaps it was Crowe’s inherent shyness that contributed to the lack of media coverage of his death. I still think the media dropped the ball on this one—specifically the baseball media that should be paying better attention to the game’s history. But I have a feeling that the lack of media stories about his death would have suited Crowe just fine. He never liked bringing attention to himself. Crowe, the man known as Big Daddy, just didn’t see the need for people to make a fuss. The man just didn’t have much of an ego.
And that’s just another attribute, along with those unpublicized civil rights efforts on behalf of his fellow citizens and his Cardinals teammates, that made George Crowe a pretty cool guy.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.