Part 3 of a multi-part series on George Crowe, the last living New York (Harlem) Rens player.
The New York Renaissance – an all-black professional basketball team based in Harlem — won the inaugural World Professional Basketball Tournament in 1939 during the same week that George Crowe’s Franklin High School Grizzly Cubs lost to Frankfort High in the Indiana state high school championship final.
Yet George Crowe, Franklin’s biggest star, knew nothing of it at the time. He had never heard of the Renaissance. “They weren’t talking about the Rens, not in Indiana,” Crowe recalls. “I never did see them play.”
This might say something about the intensity of Hoosier basketball at the interscholastic level.
Also, people simply didn’t have the same expansive worldview and exposure that is available today.
And Crowe, like most Indiana residents, was loyal to the state. “My mother and father and oldest sister came from Kentucky,” he says, “but we were all Hoosiers after that.”
These factors begin to explain why Crowe, a major star who could have attended college almost anywhere, elected to stay in Indiana while many of the state’s top players went away. For example, that season, the University of Southern California’s entire starting five were former Hoosier schoolboys.
Indiana Central College basketball star star George Crowe.
So, in the fall of 1939, Crowe enrolled at Indiana Central College in Indianapolis (now Indianapolis University), a school about 20 miles away.
It was an easy choice. For one thing, Crowe’s older brother Ray had attended I.C.C., graduating the year before.
For another, Indiana Central had an outstanding basketball program. The Greyhounds had been winning since 1928. That’s when head coach Dr. Harry Good began there. Good was a skilled leader whose reputation was renowned. By the time he retired in 1943 – the year George Crowe graduated – his record would be 194-53. This included a ten-year stretch – from 1932 to 1942 – when his Greyhounds went an astonishing 147-28 (.804).
Before Crowe’s arrival at Indiana Central, he was already considered to be one of the greatest interscholastic players the state had ever produced. Few qualified to “rank alongside such great pivotmen of Indiana high school basketball as Dave DeJernett of Washington, Jack Mann of Muncie Central and George Crowe of Franklin,” wrote the Hammond Times in 1944.
DeJernett, a pioneering African American player, had also attended Indiana Central, where he and Ray Crowe were teammates on the Greyhounds in 1935 under Coach Good. For George Crowe, enrolling at I.C.C. was as natural as Indiana corn.
Playing center for the Greyhounds, Crowe immediately picked up where he had left off at Franklin High – as a great scorer, rebounder, and defender. He averaged about 12 points a game in during 1940-41, good enough to be among the top 10 scorers for Indiana Collegiate Conference that included Ball State, Evansville, Indiana State, Butler, Valparaiso, and Depauw.
Toward the end of his sophomore season, Crowe found time to join an all-black Amateur Athletic Union basketball team based back home in Franklin. The squad had been formed to compete in the annual Indiana-Kentucky A.A.U. state championship tournament, with hopes of a bid to represent Indiana in the national A.A.U. basketball championship.
“This team, known as the Short’s Café Five, is really a Crowe family outfit for it is composed of Crowe brothers and their cousins,” wrote the Kokomo Tribune, noting that the team, led by “Negro ace” George Crowe, would be “a feature of the tournament.”
The Café Five didn’t make it past the first round, but it would not be the last time the Crowe brothers played basketball together.
Back at Indiana Central, Crowe led the Greyhounds to a record of 10-0 in their conference and 17-1 overall for 1940-41.
With Crowe as their star, I.C.C. went on to win 30 consecutive games spanning three seasons. This included the 1941-42 season, when the Greyhounds went 16-0 and achieved a national ranking. Crowe was selected to the All Conference team that year.
George Crowe with his Indiana Central College Greyhounds basketball team, 1941.
When not playing basketball, Crowe also competed on the college’s track and baseball teams.
In track he threw the javelin, discus, and shot. The superbly athletic collegian also cleared the high jump, ran the 220-yard dash, and just “did whatever they wanted me to do that day.”
It was while at I.C.C. that Crowe’s natural but as yet raw baseball talents began to show. His previous development in the sport had been limited because Franklin High didn’t field a baseball team, opting instead for varsity boys’ softball.
Crowe made his high school’s softball team and then, during summers, played hardball at the Boys Club, in city recreational leagues, and on sandlots with his brothers. “The local merchants each had a baseball team,” he recalls.
How did Crowe, who would eventually play in the Major Leagues, become so good on the diamond? “Well, you just get in the system,” he offers, “and keep working your way up.”
Crowe eventually earned 12 varsity letters in three sports at Indiana Central, and might have earned more, except that, he says, “they didn’t have football when I was in high school, or college.”
With one month to go before his graduation from Indiana Central in May 1943, Crowe was drafted into the Army. “Uncle Sam got his hands on everybody, and took everybody with him — freshman, sophomores, juniors, and seniors,” he remembers. Fortunately, on the timely advice of his coach, Crowe had joined the Enlisted Reserve Corps. Anyone who signed up, he says, “got to finish whatever semester they were in, and I just happened to be in my last one.”
Just a month earlier, the all-black Washington Bears team had won the World Professional Basketball Tournament. This time the world pro champions made an impression. “I heard about the Bears,” Crowe recalls. “But I just didn’t know much about ‘em.” Little did he know then that the Bears would soon cross his path.
After graduation, Crowe reported to the Quartermaster Replacement Training Center (Q.M.R.T.C.) at Camp Lee in Virginia, near Washington, D.C. It was the site of Basic Training for Quartermaster personnel – those specializing in supplying and provisioning troops.
About 35,000 soldiers were stationed at Camp Lee at its peak in 1944. A large percentage of them were African American, because this specialty was a prime area of deployment for black servicemen during a time when all branches of the military were still racially segregated.
When his Basic Training was complete, Crowe was assigned to the Eleventh Colored Quartermaster Training Regiment.
The first thing on his mind was sports. ““I was on every team there was,” he remembers.
Within weeks, Corporal George Crowe was playing first base in the Camp Lee Baseball League.
A few months later, by November of 1943, top brass allowed the formation of a camp basketball team – coached by a lieutenant – whose goal was to represent the base in competition against top collegiate and professional teams in the surrounding vicinity.
The “Camp Lee Five” was composed of nothing but former collegiate and semi-pro stars, of which Crowe was the most prominent and accomplished.
They booked games against some of the best basketball teams in the region, including Virginia State, Virginia Union, Johnson C. Smith, and – in a class by themselves – the Washington Bears.
And they were good. By March the Camp Lee Five had compiled a record of 19-1, and Crowe, the team’s star, had earned the nickname “Big George.”
He was one of the most popular men at one of the most popular military facilities in the country, which had been visited by Joe Louis, Lena Horne, and other African American celebrities.
But it wasn’t mean to be.
“I had a run-in with a colonel,” Crowe explains, regarding a camp-wide assembly to which servicemen had been ordered to hear the post commander speak. “He said somethin’ about ‘a nigger’, at the critique during the day, in the amphitheater, and I got up and walked out.”
That didn’t sit too well with one of his commanding officers. “He came to my camp after hours,” says Crowe. By then, a “contingency” of black soldiers was by his side in support.
“He was trying to stand there and tell us that he was from the South and they always did that, and blah blah blah,” Crowe remembers. “So, I replied to him and said, ‘Well, I’m sure you read the manual on dealing with Negro troops,’’ referring to the War Department’s widely distributed pamphlet, Command of Negro Troops, published to help white officers effectively lead black soldiers. It warned against the use of racial slurs or comments that were “dependent on the traditional ideas of the white man concerning Negro characteristics.”
After that, “he started turning red in the face,” says Crowe, who had a reputation of mild-mannered and cooperative behavior. “And he said, ‘You mean by that you won’t accept my apology?’ I said ‘That’s right.’ And that was the end of that.”
Despite his stature as a star athlete on base, Crowe was expendable. “The next morning,” he recalls, “my orders had already been cut sending me to Texas.” He had been redeployed to Fort Hood.
Fort Hood was known as a place that had already been cleared for deployment overseas, so being sent there was a sure ticket into a combat zone. At Camp Lee, Crowe would have become a trainer and likely would have remained there for the duration of the war.
It was, as he puts it, “a low blow.” Yet, he also rolled with it. “The Army was not put there just for me,” he says today.
In any case, Crowe had graduated from the Quartermaster Training School, whereupon he automatically earned his commission as a Second Lieutenant.
Meanwhile, as the baseball season approached, Crowe’s absence from the Camp Lee nine was conspicuous. “The squad will be playing this season without the services of Big George Crowe, spectacular first baseman,” several Negro newspapers reported.
After several months at Fort Hood, Crowe was shipped overseas into what was called the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations. “I was stationed in Asia for a year and a half,” he says. As was standard procedure, Crowe was assigned to a segregated unit. “It was all black,” Crowe recounts, “except the company commander; he was white, so you imagine what that cost you. Oh, God.”
But even in India, where he was stationed, Crowe maintained his athletic activities.
And, before he had left Texas, Crowe met his future wife, Yvonne, a student at nearby Tillotson College, on a blind date. They fell in love and Crowe proposed, but according to Sam Lacy of the Baltimore Afro-American, she said ‘yes’ refused to accept his engagement ring. “I just didn’t think it wise,” she told Lacy years later, “with a guy going out of the country. It didn’t seem fair to him, or to me. Besides, it gave us both more time to think it over.”
Part 4 of this series on George Crowe, the last living New York (Harlem) Rens player.
(Photographs courtesy of the University of Indianapolis Frederick D. Hill Archives.)