The Man the Ballot Stuffers Forgot

No All-Star break ever seems to pass without at least one mention (including mine) of the 1957 ballot box stuffing scandal, the one that cost the fans the All-Star starting lineup vote until 1970. Everyone remembers the seven Cincinnati Reds voted to the starting lineup. Everyone thus also remembers that, somehow, Stan Musial sort of snuck through the stuffing to make the starting lineup. And, that commissioner Ford Frick removed Gus Bell and Wally Post from the starting lineup in favour of Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.

Forgotten often enough, however, is the Red who didn’t make the stuffing cut. Four Reds finished the season with twenty or more home runs; George Crowe, the big, bespectacled first baseman who stepped in after Ted Kluszewski was injured, led the team with 31. Four Reds finished with OPSes .800 or higher; Crowe finished at .818, behind (ascending order) catcher Ed Bailey (.840), third baseman Don Hoak (.863), and left fielder Frank Robinson (.905).

Try though they did, the infamous Cincinnati ballot-box stuffers couldn't stuff George Crowe past Stan Musial . . .

The ballot-box stuffing campaign included the Cincinnati Enquirer publishing pre-printed All-Star ballots with the names of every Reds starter—Crowe, Bailey, Hoak, Robinson, Bell (center field), Post (right field) shortstop Roy McMillan, and second baseman Johnny Temple. Stories abounded in due course that the campaign was so fierce Cincinnati tavern owners were believed to have refused patrons drinks until or unless they submitted the ballots.

Of the two Reds Frick removed from the starting lineup, only Bell got into the game at all. In fact, he got close enough to tying the game when the National League mounted a bold but ultimately failed bottom-of-the-ninth comeback. Bell was aboard with a walk, after Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Hank Foiles singled and Cleveland Indians relief ace Don Mossi relieved Chicago White Sox righthander Billy Pierce, who’d walked Musial and surrendered a triple to Mays before wild-pitching Mays home with Foiles at the plate.

After Mossi struck out Eddie Mathews (Milwaukee Braves), Ernie Banks singled home Foiles with Bell trying for third on the play. White Sox outfield star Minnie Minoso fired a perfect strike to Boston Red Sox third baseman Frank Malzone to bag Bell, with Banks taking second on the throw. But pinch-hitter Gil Hodges (for his Brooklyn Dodgers teammate Clem Labine) hit one to left center on which Minoso made a grand running catch for the game, 6-5 American League.

How George Crowe missed the ballot-box stuffing cut remains something of a mystery, considering that nobody accused St. Louis fans of doing anything of the sort for Musial, who hardly needed ballot-box stuffing. Come to think of it, Crowe didn’t seem to be remembered much by baseball fans when he died in January at 89.

He was remembered a little more by basketball followers, having forged a somewhat larger basketball legend. He was Indiana’s first scholastic basketball player to earn the accolade (and formal honour) of Mr. Basketball and, at his death, he was the final survivor among men who had played for the New York Renaissance, once known as the Harlem Rens or, simply, the Rens.

Formed as the Spartan Braves in 1923, the name changed to the New York Renaissance when creator/owner Bob Douglas struck a bargain with the owner of Harlem’s new Renaissance Ballroom & Casino—they’d change their name in exchange for being allowed to use the ballroom as their home court. Thus was born the first all-black professional basketball team in the United States, whose lineups included such legends as Fats Jenkins and Pappy Ricks.

The team not only thrived against other all-black teams but barnstormed, took on, and often defeated white league teams. They also ran off an 88-game winning streak in 1932-33, and won the first known professional basketball championship. By 1948, the Rens moved to Dayton, Ohio and were invited to join the National Basketball League, an integrated league that merged (after the ’48-49 season) with the Basketball Association of America to form the NBA. The Rens, however, disbanded after that very season. Douglas would be enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame in due course, as would be two more Rens players, Tarzan Cooper and Pop Gates; the club itself would be inducted as a collective in 1963.

George Crowe as a Harlem Ren . . .

Crowe played for the Rens during the 1940s, after distinguishing himself as a basketballer at Indiana Central University (long since the University of Indianapolis, the 1941 team was ninth in the nation; Crowe was an accomplished shooter and rebounder) and, before that, Franklin High School, where he was the first player to earn Indiana “Mr. Basketball” honours. Which may itself have defied odds, considering Indiana was thought a particular Ku Klux Klan stronghold in those years. He also spent one season after World War II playing for the Los Angeles Red Devils, where his teammates included Jackie Robinson.

A three-sport ICU star including baseball, Crowe played in the Negro National League with the New York Black Yankees (earlier Ren Jenkins had been a Black Yankees fixture a decade earlier), in their final season of 1948. The Boston Braves signed Crowe in 1949, calling him up in 1952, when he was 31, after three-and-a-half solid minor league seasons.

Crowe played three modest seasons for the Braves—he found it difficult to crack the starting lineup with Earl Torgeson established as the regular first baseman, though dugout politics may have played more of a role (Torgeson was a favourite of his roommate-turned-manager, Tommy Holmes)—and was farmed out for 1954, where he hit so torridly for the Toledo Mud Hens he played his way onto the parent club for 1955. But at the beginning of 1956, the Braves swapped Crowe to the Reds for Bob Hazle and Corky Valentine.  After a modest beginning in 1956, Crowe enjoyed his breakout 1957—and ducked the All-Star ballot-box stuffing.

Ironically, Crowe was chosen to the 1958 All-Star team by National League manager Fred Haney, mostly because he’d hit .300 in the first half. (He’d finish with a .278 batting average but the second best on-base percentage of his career, .348.) Crowe and righthanded pitcher Bob Purkey were the only Reds on the team; neither Crowe nor Purkey got into the strangely sedate game (all thirteen hits in the game were singles), which the American League won, 4-3. He finished third in the league in fielding in 1958, the only top ten statistical finish he enjoyed that year, after a 1957 that saw him finish third in infield position assists, tenth in slugging, fourth in at-bats per home run, and eighth in runs batted in.

Crowe’s comparatively late major league start, plus his lack of regular playing time, probably took their toll, though it’s not improper to wonder whether lingering unease about baseball integration (outside Brooklyn and Coogan’s Bluff, anyway) played a role in it to any extent.

The Reds traded him to the Cardinals with two other players for former Philadelphia star Del Ennis, future All-Star infielder Eddie Kasko, and marginal relief pitcher Bob Mabe.  Crowe finished 1958 with the highest OPS of his career (.923) and, still, was one of the National League’s somewhat difficult strikeouts. But after two more seasons in which his age began to show, and he was moved mostly to a pinch-hitting role in St. Louis, when he did play (he spent most of 1961 in the minors), he retired at 40. He spent most of his post-baseball life in the Adirondacks, before moving to southern California in the mid-Aughts to be closer to his daughters, and was moved to an assisted-care facility after a 2008 stroke.

According to Jim Brosnan, in his landmark The Long Season, Crowe got thrown out of a 30 May 1959 game against the Los Angeles Dodgers—a game in which Crowe wasn’t playing, for dugout comments he hadn’t even made, after Cardinals pitcher Ernie Broglio spent time enough needling umpire Shag Crawford over calling big, sweeping curve balls.

The big curve is difficult for an umpire to judge. The best umpires admit it. Some astigmatic physicists have declared that there is no such thing as a curve abll. Some umpires waver between science and sanity when it comes time to call a curve ball a strike. From the angle of the dugout it often appears that a reasonably attentive umpire could hardly have missed the pitch.

“Get those bottle caps out of your eyes, Crawford, you homer!” said the Dugout.

Crawford tore off his mask, and ran toward our dugout. Broglio had needled him for an hour, agitated him, and finally caused his ears to twitch. (The dull, phlegmatic umpire simply turns red at the neck. Crawford quivers when the needle jabs home.)

“You! Get outa here!” Crawford yelled. “Crowe! You hear me, get outa here!”

“Who, me?” said Crowe. George had just walked to the water fountain, and hadn’t opened his mouth except to drink. The noise of the final straw falling on Crawford’s patience had come from near the water fountain. Somebody had to go.

“Shag! It wasn’t Crowe, Shag. It was me, Shag!” said half a dozen Cardinals. Crowe jumped out of the dugout and ran after Crawford. “How can you throw me out? I didn’t say a thing! What’s wrong with you, anyway?”

Some umpires have trouble with the big curve ball. I can see why Crawford may have missed a pitch or two. But Crowe is six feet four inches tall and weighs 230 pounds.

Nine days later, Brosnan was traded to Crowe’s former club, the Reds.

Crowe’s long-ball power no longer displayed as consistently as it had in 1957, but it still left him with one indelible mark. He retired as the Show’s all-time pinch home run leader, with fourteen. The man who broke Crowe’s record first would be his former Cincinnati teammate, Jerry Lynch.

2 responses to this post.

  1. This was a nice recognition of Crowe’s career in baseball and basketball, as well as a fun tie-in to that All Star game balloting scandal, which I never knew about until this post. Just a couple of corrections — it was the Los Angeles Red (not Black) Devils, and Jenkins and Ricks are not Hall of Fame members other than as part of the collective 1933 team that was enshrined in 1963 as you pointed out. That’s also a great photograph of Crowe with his Reds baseball cap. For more photos of Crowe in basketball settings, and for more about his basketball career, please visit our website. Thanks.

    Reply

    • Claude—Thank you so much for the clarifying information; I’ve changed the essay accordingly. And what a wonderful Website you and yours have hoisted up! The information is instructive and a delight to read. For my own part, I’ve always thought a great film could be made about the Rens. Just as I think a great film could be made about the Homestead Grays. Thank God we’ve been able to do away with segregated sports leagues for the most part (I’d love to see more African-American hockey players, to name one example, but I suppose that comes now to a matter of sporting preference, I don’t know of many African-Americans who take to playing the sport, at least in terms of thinking professionally, though I hope I’m wrong about that), but the stories of classic Negro Leagues teams and basketball teams such as the Rens should get wider play and recognition even now. (Come to think of it, a great film is probably waiting to be made about perhaps the most entertaining team of the lot, the Indianapolis Clowns.)—Jeff

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: