At the time, George Crowe didn’t think too much about. After all, the award was new, and he had other things on his mind.
Arguably the finest athlete in Johnson County history, Crowe had just led Franklin High School to the cusp of a state basketball championship.
Moreover, he was preparing to continue his remarkable athletics career in college.
As a result, he doesn’t remember how or when he learned that he had been selected Indiana’s first-ever Mr. Basketball.
The year was 1939.
Only later, much later, would Crowe fully appreciate the significance of being the first recipient of the state’s highest individual basketball award.
“It’s still an honor for me,” said Crowe, 89, who at the time was more thrilled about playing in the state finals than being named Mr. Basketball. “The runner-up (finish in) the state championship was an honor for all of us.”
Seventy-one years after winning the Mr. Basketball award, Crowe still thinks of it in team terms as opposed to an individual accomplishment.
Then again, he’s never been comfortable talking about his athletic achievements, of which there are many.
In fact, getting Crowe – who now lives in Rancho Cordova, Calif., near Sacramento – to talk about his successes, which include distinguished careers in the black professional basketball leagues and Major League Baseball, is nearly impossible.
His nephew, Brad Crowe of New Castle, sums it up best.
“Like pulling teeth,” said Brad Crowe, who slowly but steadily over the decades has gotten his humble uncle to share his remarkable stories.
Many were happy; some were not.
A contemporary and personal friend of the late Jackie Robinson, George Crowe enjoyed his greatest success as an athlete in Major League Baseball in the 1950s.
For Crowe, one of the first players after Robinson to cross the MLB color barrier, playing in the majors fulfilled a long-time dream.
At the same time, it exposed him to the bigotry and social injustices of the segregated times that often made the experience a nightmare.
“It was kind of a frustrating time for Uncle George,” Brad Crowe said. “For all the Negro athletes at the time, it was a great frustration that they felt. He and all those guys excelled, then they kind of played pigeon-hole spots when they went to the majors, so it was kind of frustrating.
“They made more money and obviously got more publicity, but the reality was that their talents weren’t really utilized.”
Talent, courage and perseverance were qualities Crowe possessed in abundance.
Just the beginning
One of 10 siblings, including eight brothers, Crowe was born in Whiteland on March 22, 1921. He grew up on a rural Franklin farm and, like all of his brothers, including future Crispus Attucks coach Ray Crowe, was a gifted athlete who excelled in multiple sports.
At Franklin High School, George Crowe played basketball and baseball and was, as evidenced by the Mr. Basketball award, the state’s top player.
Crowe won the award despite the racial biases of the times and despite the fact Franklin lost to traditional state power Frankfort 36-22 in the 1939 state championship final.
Crowe, who played for coach Robert P. “Fuzzy” Vandivier of “Wonder Five” fame, scored 13 of the Cubs’ total in the final.
Greenwood resident Herb Schwomeyer, 91, author of the book “Hoosier Hysteria,” saw the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Crowe play and insists the Mr. Basketball honor was well-deserved.
“Fine ball player and a good man,” Schwomeyer said. “They should have won that tournament.”
Crowe has fond memories of those times.
“All that stuff was nice,” he said. “Going to the state finals … playing for Fuzzy was nice.”
After Franklin, Crowe played basketball and baseball at Indiana Central College. He graduated in 1943 and then served in China, Burma and India in the U.S. Army during World War II.
Upon his return, he and his wife, Yvonne, moved to New York, where he played baseball for the Negro National League’s Black Yankees and, during the offseason, played for the Harlem Renaissance, or “Rens,” of the black professional basketball league.
It was during his time in the black baseball leagues that he struck up a friendship with Robinson, who, despite annual admonitions from the team manager, habitually reported to training camp a bit overweight.
To help his friend avoid the manager’s wrath, Crowe persuaded Robinson to play in the black basketball league to get in shape for camp.
Crowe laughs when he recalls coaxing Robinson to play basketball.
“Jackie was a hard man to control,” Crowe said. “So that’s what had to be done, so we did it. That was the crux of it, because Jackie had a hard time following the rules.”
Of all his uncle’s stories, the Robinson conditioning program is one of Brad Crowe’s favorites.
“Jackie Robinson used to report to training camp every spring just a little heavier that he was expected to,” Brad Crowe said. “So finally Uncle George said, ‘You need to go with us,’ and all the other guys would go and play in the Negro basketball league in the offseason.
“Now, that’s pretty phenomenal. They’re saying, ‘Hey, Jackie, we’ve got a workout plan for you, buddy.'”
In 1947, Robinson broke the MLB color barrier. Five years later, in 1952, George Crowe did the same.
Late but sterling career
Crowe was a 31-year-old rookie when he made his major-league debut in 1952 with the Boston Braves – the first of nine big league seasons.
He would play until age 40, with stints with the Milwaukee Braves, Cincinnati Reds and, finally, the St. Louis Cardinals.
A first baseman, Crowe played four seasons with the Cardinals, retiring in 1961.
A career .270 hitter, he belted 81 home runs and drove in 299 runs during nine seasons that included the thrills of success and the indignities of racial bias.
Black players frequently were denied the same basic courtesies as whites; were subjected to name-calling by fans and, occasionally, by coaches and teammates; and suffered all the injustices of segregation, such as not being served in certain restaurants and hotels.
And those were just some of the injustices for black players.
“Once they began to approach records, they would be benched,” Brad Crowe said. “I got more of that information from others than I did from George.
“He said, ‘I went to work every day, and I did my job.’ He really is an incredible person.”
When Crowe retired, he owned the major-league record for most career pinch-hit home runs with 14. His best season was in 1957 with Cincinnati, when he hit .271 with 31 home runs and 92 RBIs and was named an All-Star.
For the most part, Crowe enjoyed his career but admits doing so wasn’t always easy.
“There was a lot of prejudice, but it was still enjoyable,” Crowe said. “I don’t know exactly what made it enjoyable, but it was.”
Crowe persevered by having fun with the game while doing his best not to focus on the racial obstacles in his way.
“It was hard,” he said. “Even though you wanted to put it aside, you couldn’t. It couldn’t be put aside. Putting it aside was doing your best to ignore it, and that wasn’t easy, either.
“That’s what you had to do. You had to play through it.”
Life after baseball
Following a brief teaching career, Crowe, who had since divorced, retired to the solitude of outdoor life in upstate New York.
For decades, he hunted and fished in the mountains and streams near Long Eddy, N.Y. But in 2002, though still active, he moved to the Sacramento suburb of Gold River, Calif., to live with one of his two daughters, Adrienne Crowe.
He lived with Adrienne until July of 2008, when he suffered two strokes within a week that required a move to an assisted living facility a few miles from his daughter’s home.
Crowe, who celebrated his 89th birthday Monday, also suffers from heart disease and walks with the aid of a walker.
But before the strokes, he drove a car and swam three times a week for an hour at a local gym.
“He was very independent until he had the two strokes,” said Adrienne, whose sister, Pamela Fortune, lives in nearby Palo Alto.
Their mother, George’s former wife Yvonne Riddick, also lives nearby. George and Yvonne have remained close friends despite being divorced for decades.
When George Crowe moved to California, it afforded the entire family, including his two grandsons, opportunities to visit frequently and vacation together – something they did regularly until George’s health problems.
“We had lots of fun, just taking different trips,” Adrienne said. “The years that he was in California before the stroke, those were great years.
“We did a lot of fun things together.”
Adrienne visits her father regularly and is enamored of him today as she was growing up.
“He was so fortunate to have so many wonderful accomplishments in his life,” she said. “I think being able to play baseball was really high on his list. That was his main profession.
“His ability to play sports was something that made him so happy. And then outside of sports, his family is really important to him.”
Looking back 71 years, the state’s first Mr. Basketball is proud to have won the award but doesn’t dwell much on it today.
He never really did, if for no other reason than he had no idea the award would eventually become a hallowed honor in Indiana.
“You never think about that,” Crowe said. “You go out there and play your game.”
(Photo courtesy of the Franklin Daily Journal.)