Saturday, November 28, 2009

1959 Topps George Crowe-A Tribute!

If I had to pick my favorite set of all time my quick response would be 1959 Topps. I just love the set, the design, the players, and Bob Gibson’s (#514) rookie card! There were 572 cards in the set, the most ever by far (at this point), which meant more players were being included. I had finished this set many years ago, but that is LONG gone. Now, I have 5 or 6 cards from this year, all of them are former Negro League players and all are treasured. Today’s card of the day will focus on George Crowe. Crowe only played two seasons in the Negro Leagues in baseball; he was also a fine basketball player and probably could have gone pro in either sport. He picked baseball. After his service in the army he joined the New York Black Yankees and later the New York Cubans in the late 1940’s. He never made it to the Negro League World Series or the East-West All Star game, but his play at first and his athleticism was enough for the Boston Braves to take notice. In 1949 Boston signed the 28 year old first baseman to a contract and assigned him to play with the Pawtucket Slaters of the Class B New England League. He batted .354 with 12 triples and 11 homers for the Slaters and moved up the minor league ladder. He hit above .300 in all of his stops and after a stellar year at AAA in 1951 with the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association where he batted .339 with 24 homers, he got the call to join the big club. His rookie year was 1952 with the second division Boston Braves. He backed up Earl Torgeson at first base and played in 73 games, often as a pinch hitter-he hit .258 as a rookie. In 1953 the Braves moved to Milwaukee and had resurgence, improving their record to 92-62, good for second in the NL. Once again Crowe found himself in a back-up role, this time to the slugging Joe Adcock. Crowe managed only 42 at-bats that season. He hit .286 with 2 home runs. After spending the entire 1953 campaign on the bench Crowe spent the 1954 season playing every day, but not for the Milwaukee Braves-he returned for another year in AAA with the Toledo Mud Hens of the American Association. He tore up the Association-he started every single game at first base and batted .334 with 34 homers and 38 doubles. He couldn’t grow anymore in AAA and in ’55 he was with the Braves again. In 1955 the Braves finished in 2nd place, but this time Crowe and Adcock split time at first and the 2 combined to hit 30 homers and drive in 100 runs at the position. The Braves were a powerful team with Eddie Mathews (41 homers) at third, Del Crandall (26 homers) behind the plate and Hank Aaron (27 homers) in right field. During the winter Crowe was playing ball in Puerto Rico and was a member of the legendary Santurce Crabbers teams of the mid-50s which also featured Roberto Clemente and Bob Thurman. Before the ’56 season began Crowe was traded to Cincinnati for reserve outfielder Bob “Hurricane” Hazle. Crowe was once again a part of a powerful team with sluggers like Ted Kluszewski, Wally Post and Frank Robinson, but playing the same position as big Klu, he spent most of his time on the bench and pinch hitting. He managed just 144 at-bats in 1956, but did hit 10 home runs. Ted Kluszewski had been one of the top sluggers in all of baseball and had hit an average of 43 homers a year in the past 4 seasons, but he was getting worn out and would never hit like that again. In 1957 Big Klu hit just 6 homeruns in limited action and Birdie Tebbets named George Crowe his starting first baseman. Crowe responded and paced the 4th place Red Legs in homeruns with 31 and runs batted in with 92. He was in the top-ten statistically in homers, RBIs and slugging percentage and at 34 years old he enjoyed his best season in the big leagues. It would be the only year in his career that he would top 400 at-bats. At the end of the season in 1957, Crowe had badly injured his right knee; he was considering retirement and knew he would not be able to repeat his year in ’57. In 1958 Crowe was named to the National League All Star team as a reserve, primarily based on his stellar season the year before. Crowe was the Reds main 1st baseman, but his own injuries were taking their toll and his play suffered. His final line in 1958 was .275/7/61 and he was traded to the Cardinals after the ’58 season. As a member of St. Louis his playing time would be minimal as the Cards had an All Star first baseman named Stan Musial. Crowe worked mainly as a pinch hitter and excelled in that capacity. In 103 at-bats he hit .301 with 8 homers and 29 RBI. In August of 1959 he hit 3 pinch hit homers, including a grand slam, to give him 10 pinch hit homeruns for his career which tied the record at the time. He would remain with the Cardinals for the 1960 and 1961 seasons as well, but he was approaching 40 years and his bad knees and back diminished his play. He did swat 4 homers for the Cards in 1960-all as a pinch hitter, to establish a new big league record with 14 in his career. Of course Willie McCovey passed him with 16 and Cliff Johnson hit his 20th pinch hit homer in 1986 with the Blue Jays to set the new standard, but at the time Crowe was the King. He retired in 1961 and took a job as a scout for the Cardinals. He retired with a .270 batting average at the big-league level. This post started as a focus on Crowe’s card in the 1959 set which is number 337 and shows an extreme close-up of the be speckled infielder in his Cardinals cap. The back of the card makes me laugh. It starts “Another slugger who can play first base and the outfield”-Now Crowe never played a single inning in the outfield in his entire career. It further says “His speed helps him grab extra bases”-this is funny because his knees were shot at that time. He never had much speed to begin with-he only had 3 steals over his entire career. The back of the card also mentions that he was a graduate of Indiana Central College, which is now the University of Indianapolis. He was a basketball standout in Indiana and he was the state’s first Mr. Basketball in 1939. He played semi pro basketball with the New York Rens before focusing on baseball. He was inducted into the State of Indiana’s Baseball Hall of Fame in 2004, joining All Stars and MLB HoFers like Oscar Charleston, Don Larson, Gil Hodges, Mordecai Brown, Edd Roush, Bob Friend, Chuck Klein, Judge Landis, Dizzy Trout, Tommy John and Don Mattingly. This year, among others, pitcher Andy Benes was elected to the State’s Hall. George Crowe’s rookie card remains on my wish list, it is from the 1952 Topps set, but I am happy to have his final 4 cards in my personal collection. As a player, he was top-notch, but he served as a mentor and a trailblazer to younger players as well. Mr. Crowe is alive and well and living in California now, he is 88 years young. As with most of my posts, it started with a single card and ended with a lengthy tribute to one of the game’s greats. Thanks for an amazing career George Crowe! I love this hobby! Don’t forget to enter my contest for the most iconic baseball rookie card of the 1980’s! You can enter here. Go Rays! Troll out.

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