(By Marcos Breton for the Sacramento Bee Online / Published: Sunday, Jan. 23, 2011 – 12:00 am)

George Crowe

George Crowe was voted the best prep player in the basketball hotbed of Indiana in 1939, and later became a star baseball player. (Johnson County Museum, Franklin, Ind.)

George Crowe, an elite athlete who broke racial barriers in basketball and baseball, died quietly in Rancho Cordova last week after living a remarkable life as a mid-20th century pioneer.

He was 89 and by all accounts a gentle spirit who kept love in his heart despite the pervasive hate of his generation.

Crowe spent his frail twilight years in Sacramento to be near family, but, oh, what times he had.

This was a contemporary of Jackie Robinson, a teammate of Hank Aaron, a National League All-Star and Negro League standout.

From Whiteland, Ind., Crowe was selected as the first “Mr. Basketball,” a prestigious award given annually to the best high school basketball player in the state that inspired the film “Hoosiers.”

Crowe’s real life was more cinematic than the fictional movie. He was “Mr. Basketball” in 1939, of particular significance given that Crowe was African American and Indiana was a Ku Klux Klan stronghold during his youth.

Crowe might have become a star in a brand-new NBA of the late 1940s. But his all-black team – the New York Renaissance – was denied admission to a forerunner league of the NBA.

With Crowe’s death, the last member of the New York “Rens” is gone. “The Rens were the first black-owned, all-black professional basketball team,” said Claude Johnson, a former NBA and Nike executive whose blog, www.blackfives.com, pays homage to early African American basketball stars.

The Rens were rivals with the Harlem Globetrotters. But when the NBA came into being in 1949, racial politics prompted the Globetrotters to change their business model to entertainment while the Rens simply disbanded.

On an integrated team called the Los Angeles Red Devils, Crowe briefly played basketball with Jackie Robinson, just before Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier.

Crowe also switched to baseball, and played with the New York Black Yankees of the Negro Leagues. Five years after Robinson joined the Dodgers, Crowe broke into the big leagues in 1952 with the Boston Braves. He was 31.

Listed at 6-foot-2 and 212 pounds by the Baseball Almanac, Crowe was a muscular first baseman and a striking man with high cheekbones, round spectacles and piercing eyes. With the Cincinnati Reds in 1957, Crowe hit 31 home runs and 92 RBIs.

He represented the National League in the 1958 All-Star game. Sadly, Crowe never got in the game because National League manager Fred Haney played Stan Musial, a Hall of Fame immortal, for all nine innings at first base.

Crowe quit baseball in 1961 and settled into a quiet life, raising two daughters, both of whom graduated from UC Berkeley with advanced degrees.

“When I think of my dad, I don’t think of him as a sports figure,” said daughter Adrienne, a former Bank of America executive in Sacramento who is now on the board of the California Endowment. “He was always there for us. He had a great, dry sense of humor. He loved to garden. He loved nature. My dad was my hero.”

Said Crowe’s daughter Pam: “Our dad paid for his young brothers to go to college. He really wanted us to stay in school, to go to graduate school. He was a doer.”

Crowe had been in failing health since suffering a stroke three years ago. His death was noted in several Indiana newspapers and by those who chronicle sports history.

“He represents an era that’s almost gone,” said Ron Thomas, director of the Journalism and Sports Program at Morehouse College in Atlanta.

Gone but not forgotten. Sacramento was the final stop on George Crowe’s journey, but not the end. He belongs to history now – that of his family and his country.

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