Part I of a multi-part series on George Crowe, the last living New York (Harlem) Rens player.
A Stitch In Time?
What happens when one historical era ends and another begins? What’s between them? What holds the two together?
As in bonding together the uneven segments of a beautiful vintage quilt, it takes a common thread, a superior stitch.
In the history of basketball and baseball in America, one could say that that was George Crowe. He was the stitch that both joined- and ran between the era of racial segregation and the era of racial integration. As much as anyone, and maybe more, he was the common thread.
Yet, as the thread is still not the quilt, Crowe was never fully part of either era. “I was always on the outside, looking in,” he says today.
How did he get there? Was it his destiny?
One thing is sure: George Crowe made a career-long habit of being the right person in the right place at the right time. He made each moment count. Always.
As a result, the 88-year-old has nothing but golden memories of bewilderingly rich experiences that seem — now, to those who didn’t live them — to be mythically great, like a sports fantasy.
But Crowe takes it all in stride, almost detached, sharing with me, “anything was great, for a boy from Indiana that wants to play ball.“
One gets the sense that none of what he saw or did, as large as it was, ever went to his head.
A Walk On
Standing at 6 feet and 4 inches tall with a brawny build, Crowe earned the nickname “Big George,” but it wasn’t just because of his physique. People sensed there was something about him. Crowe was a big man and a big thinker. What made him great is that he never knew it. He was just being himself. Or rather, he never added too much baggage to what he already was.
In a 2005 interview with New York Times columnist William C. Rhoden, Crowe revealed that even as a student at Franklin High School (in Franklin, Indiana), he knew he wanted to be a professional athlete one day. “But there were no prospects out there,” he said.
That never stopped Crowe; he didn’t even participate in competitive sports until his junior year at Franklin.
Crowe was born in 1921 in Whiteland, Indiana, the third son in a family of eight boys and two girls. Why try out for a sport when you have a ready-made team right at home? He got his skills the old fashioned way.
“They had a boys club,” says Crowe. “And after we moved to town, every night, the Crowe boys would go there.” They were Ray, Travis, George, Robert, Richard, Russell, Ralph (nicknamed “Pete”), and Billy. “I had two brothers older than I,” he continues. “One went to Indiana Central ahead of me — Ray.”
Who needs a coach when your older brother is Ray Crowe, who eventually coaches Indianapolis’ Crispus Attucks High School to two straight Indiana state high school basketball championships, with a team that features future Basketball Hall of Fame player Oscar Robertson?
“We all paved the way,” Crowe remembers of his brothers. “We all did our part, when the time came.”
Not surprisingly, basketball was his first love. And, with love comes manifestation, which is how Crowe got involved in organized basketball.
He told it to me like this:
Well, I liked basketball, and they had never had a black player in Franklin. I was the first. I was a junior. We got a new coach for the second team. I had gym in his class. He said, ‘Crowe, how come you’re not out for basketball?’ and I told him, ‘They don’t allow no black players to play in Franklin.’ And he said, ‘You could play for me.’ And he started the second team. We practiced at night. And the varsity practiced right after school. And after a couple of weeks of that we played the varsity. And we kicked the sh– out of them. After that I was on the varsity. Oh, I’ll never forget that. Kicked the sh– out of the varsity. And they didn’t wanna play with me, some of the guys. And the captain told ‘em, ‘Listen, Crowe can play more basketball then all you guys put together.’
And that was how George Crowe’s sports career began.
Franklin High School
Franklin’s varsity basketball coach just so happened to be future Hall of Fame member Robert P. “Fuzzy” Vandivier.
Vandivier had been a star player at Franklin in the 1920s, when the school won an unprecedented three straight Indiana state high school basketball championships, earning the nickname, the “Franklin Wonder Five.” He was the team’s captain, and won All State honors in 1920, ’21, and ’22, before practically repeating the same performance on a national level at nearby Franklin College, with the same teammates.
Whatever considerable skills Crowe already had before walking onto the varsity would soon be getting even better.
In fact, the following season – in the spring of 1939 – Crowe led the Franklin Grizzly Cubs to the Indiana state finals.
Among the four finalists in that year’s Hoosier tournament, Frankfort High was the prohibitive favorite, and Franklin had the longest odds of winning, said the “smart money,” according to the Kokomo Tribune.
But despite the odds against them, the Tribune recognized that Franklin also had Crowe:
FRANKLIN FIVE HITS IN PINCH
George Crowe, Big Negro Center, Leads Club When Going Gets Tough
In baseball every manager likes to have lots of players who hit in the pinches. Down here at Franklin they have a high school basketball team that’s been coming through with field goals in the pinches for three straight week-ends and they have no intention of doing the basketball equivalent of striking out next Saturday.
Of course, Pinch Hitter No. 1 is George Crowe, the six-foot, one-inch Negro center. He’s the one that delivered against Masonic Home, North Vernon and Aurora but you can bet your last dollar that he other four boys on the floor at the time had a hand in it, feeding that ball in to Crowe so he could try his specialty – a one-handed push shot.
Could the Kokomo Tribune, have known that two decades later Crowe would hold the major league baseball record for most career pinch-hit home runs?
Franklin couldn’t get past Frankfort in the final – in front of 14,983 fans at the Butler Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. “A huge, smooth-operating and un-excitable Frankfort basketball team won the Indiana high school basketball championship as it was expected to do,” reported the far away Wisconsin State Journal, “over a smaller but ‘people’s choice’ quintet from Franklin.”
However, Crowe still stole the spotlight, with 13 of his team’s 22 points.
From the Logansport Pharos-Tribune:
Crowe, giant Negro star for the Grizzly Cubs, was easily the outstanding man in Saturday’s play. He sparked the Franklin five through all its tourney games and led them to their unexpected victory over Muncie Burris in the first game of the final meet. Then he overshadowed all the Frankfort stars in a futile single handed attempt to bring the Grizzly Cubs home with their fourth state title.
Crowe’s defensive ability marked him as the ace of the tourney from the minute he first started play. He broke up under the basket shots time and again, and ever. Cook and Johnson, the tallest men in the play, failed to break by him with any consistent success.
Not bad for a walk on.
But not everyone agreed.
Since 1915, a prestigious basketball award called the Gimbel Prize — named after businessman Jake Gimbel, who later founded Gimbel’s Department Stores — was given annually to “the player appearing in the state final tourney who is adjudged to display the best sportsmanship and mental ability through the contests.”
One medal winner was selected each year, based on the determination of a special review board in collaboration with the Indiana High School Athletic Association.
When the prize went to an Evansville Bosse player, many white sportswriters felt Crowe had been snubbed.
“As always happens in such a case the spectators and writing brethren did not fully agree with the board,” wrote Herb Steinbach for the Valparaiso Vidette-Messenger.
“I would have plenty of support in saying that Bob Kilby of Burris, or George Crowe, negro center of Franklin were a more popular choice for the award,” suggested William Richter of the Michigan City Paper.
And Tom Stephenson of the Elkhart Truth probably spoke the truth when he said, “The Bosse star who was awarded the Gimbel medal … was an acknowledged leading candidate for the individual honor, but big George Crowe of Franklin played a smooth game both on defense and offense and would have been a popular and deserving selection by the IHSAA Board of Control, which we suspect of drawing the color line against the Negro pivot star.”
John Whitaker, known as “The Speculator” in his regular sports column for The Hammond (Indiana) Times, went beyond any of these commentaries:
The Speculator extends thanks to the many who telephoned congratulations or wrote complimentary notes concerning his comment yesterday on the failure of the IHSAA board of control to select colored George Crowe of Franklin as the Gimbel award winner of 1939 …
In explanation, however, The Speculator would like to add that it doesn’t require any particular courage to write in such a vein … At least not in a district where a vast majority of the population recognizes every individual solely on his accomplishments and not on his ancestry …
Gordon Graham of Lafeyette and several other north central Indiana writers also criticized the board of control and some of the boys are even suggesting that the failure to name Crowe robbed the Gimbel trophy of its symbolic value …
The controversy built up steam and wouldn’t die, thanks to the help of Whitaker, who wrote this a few days later:
Ray Gallivan is one coach who saw the state tournament and didn’t like the way George Crowe, Franklin’s colored center, was overlooked by the Gimbel award committee … Gallivan is also a guy who speaks his mind, pro or con … and lets the chips fall where they may. … Says Gallivan: “The best way to win a Gimbel award is to grin like a Chessy cat, hit a few long shots, slap teammates on the back when they are removed from the game and help every gallen player to his feet … Crowe didn’t win the Gimbel prize because he sawed wood and played better basketball than any other boy in the tournament …”
These criticisms were leveled in the days after the New York Renaissance Five, an all-black basketball team, won the inaugural World Professional Basketball Tournament championship title in Chicago.
But Crowe wasn’t done.
He was named to the All State team as a center.
And, in what many believed to have been a response to the highly publicized Gimbel snub, the Indianapolis Star created a new event – an exhibition game to showcase the best Hoosier high school basketball talent.
The game – to be played at Butler Fieldhouse – would pit an Indiana high school All-Star team against that year’s state champion.
The All-Star squad would be selected by popular vote, and the leading vote getter would be known as Indiana’s “Mr. Basketball.”
In its first year, Crowe won the honor by a landslide, with 48,315 votes – an astonishing total, considering the context and the times.
Not bad for a high school kid with “no prospects.”
Indiana’s “Mr. Basketball” is still around today – recent recipients include N.B.A. star Greg Oden, as well as legends Oscar Robertson, George McGinnis, and Glenn Robinson.
Best of all for Crowe was that the 1939 Indiana All-Star team he led, defeated the state champion Frankfort Hot Dogs, 31-21.
As for Franklin’s “Fuzzy” Vandivier, he called Crowe “the best money player I have ever seen.” Many years later Crowe would be a pallbearer at the funeral of his old coach.
Meanwhile, of course, Crowe still wasn’t done. It was becoming clear that to him, “no prospects” meant go create some prospects.
And it soon would become apparent that George Crowe took “the right place” and “the right time” with him wherever he went.
Part 2 of this series on George Crowe, the last living New York (Harlem) Rens player.
(Crowe photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Star.)