Saturday, November 11, 2017

235. Bob Crues: Chamberlined


No matter how you look at it, being second to achieve something just doesn’t hold the same weight as being the very first. After all, who remembers Clarence Chamberlin, right? Ol’ Clancy had the misfortune of being just a bit late on the draw when it came time to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean – Charles Lindbergh had done it two weeks earlier. Chamberlin’s flight was no less outstanding than Lucky Lindy’s; it’s just that it was done before. Lost in the record of Chamberlin’s not-so-epic flight is the fact that he had a passenger aboard, thus making him the first pilot to carry a passenger across the Atlantic. Sure, that was something, but when compared to being the first to ever fly solo across the pond, it just doesn’t hold the same weight.

If there were a Hall of Seconds, Clarence Chamberlin would surely have a plaque hanging in its gallery of heroes. Somewhere nearby would be another plaque, with the name “Robert Fulton Crues” engraved on it, along with the text explaining his home run record.


For Bob Crues, his shot at having his own place in history came down to one night in Amarillo back in 1948. For 138 games, “Home Run Bob” had ripped apart West Texas-New Mexico League pitching. He was batting just north of the magic .400 mark and he had broken professional baseball’s single-season RBI record months before. With one last game to play, Crues’ home run tally stood at 69. One more and he would break the record set by Joe Hauser in 1933.

Almost 5,000 fans packed Gold Sox Park to see what they hoped would be a new record being made. All the major news outlets had correspondents in the press box and photographers ringed the field. Look magazine was present, their team ready to pull the trigger on the first feature photo article on baseball’s new home run king. A rep from Wheaties stood in the wings, a fresh breakfast cereal endorsement contract with Bob Crues’ name on it waiting to be signed as soon as number 70 left the ballpark. That night, Bob Crues was just one swing away from fame.

Just two years earlier, the married father with one infant son returned home from the army hoping to reclaim some semblance of the baseball career he had before the war. The former Red Sox farmhand was now 27 years old and competing against not only all the returning GI’s, but also the new crop of hungry teenagers. For Crues, this would be the third time he would have to re-start his baseball life.

Life was never easy for Robert Fulton Crues. He was born in Frisco, Texas, just north of Dallas, but grew up in the state’s panhandle region. According to Toby Smith in Bush League Boys: The Postwar Legendsof Baseball in the American Southwest, Crues was an orphan. Most likely due to the negative light to which orphans were held back during the Depression, Crues kept this a secret throughout most of his life. Before he entered grade school, young Bob lost the tip of the index finger on his right hand when his curiosity got the best of him while exploring the water pumping mechanism of a windmill. Just like almost every young boy at the time, Bob learned to play baseball. Instead of his finger being a hindrance to his playing the game, the missing digit actually gave any ball he threw an unnatural break to it. To capitalize on this, Crues taught himself to throw a devastating knuckleball and curveball. The finger also made Crues adapt a unique batting style, holding the bat loosely in his grip. He later said that growing up, Babe Ruth was his idol. It was the perfect choice for like his hero, Crues would also go from a promising pitcher to a home run champion.

By the time he was in his late teens, Crues looked every inch like a man of the Panhandle: 6 foot tall and dark complexioned, strong and lean just like a cowboy from central casting. At the tail end of the 1939 season, the Lamesa Lobos of the West Texas-New Mexico League signed the 20 year-old. The loop was then a Class D league, meaning it was the very bottom of professional baseball. He got into just two games, going hitless in both. The next year Crues was signed by the league’s Borger Gassers. One of the Gassers’ pitchers was old-timer Wilcy Moore, 19 game winner on the 1927 Yankees. Moore took Crues under his wing and taught him how to pitch instead of just throwing the ball. That summer his knuckle and curve had the West Texas-New Mexico League’s hitters dumbfounded and he went 20 and 5 for the year. The Boston Red Sox snapped up the young ace and assigned him to their Scranton farm team for 1941. The Red Sox scouts must have thought very highly of Crues’ arm, because Scranton was in the Class A Eastern League, quite a large jump from Class D. It was while playing in an exhibition game in Greenville, South Carolina, that the first part of Bob Crues’ baseball career came to an abrupt end.

Sitting in the dugout, a wild pitch smashed into the shoulder of his pitching arm. The impact left him in extreme pain whenever he tried to throw his famed knuckle and curve. As proof of how much the team thought of their young prospect, the Red Sox sent Crues to different specialists around the country, yet no matter what doctors did to treat him, every pitch he threw was met with excrutating pain. Throughout 1941 and 1942, Crues took a tour of Boston's farm clubs, from the top down, trying in vain to pitch his arm back to health. Late 1942 found him back in the Class D West Texas-New Mexico league where he started.

The thing that saved Crues from being just another washed up sore-armed pitcher was the war. With the majority of able-bodied men channeled into the service, minor leagues throughout the country folded, including the West Texas-New Mexico League. Crues, now 24, found work at the Pantex Ordinance Works where he met and fell in love with his assembly line co-worker Billie Lane. The two married and began raising a family. Then, Bob’s draft notice came.

That Crues was drafted doesn’t come as a shock, it was 1943 and the Allies were gearing up for the invasion of Europe and every warm body counted. The odd thing is that the army still took him with the top of his trigger finger missing! As it worked out, Crues never got close to a battlefield. Before he finished training he was stricken with severe pneumonia and spent several months in the hospital. When he recovered, the Army shipped him to a base back in Texas. It was there that Bob Crues re-started his baseball career for the second time.

With no chance to serve overseas and nothing much to do, Crues found himself playing for the base’s baseball team. While his injured arm kept him from pitching, Crues discovered that batting cause no pain in his shoulder. The pitcher taught himself how to play the outfield and worked on his hitting skills. By the time the war ended, Crues had perfected his swing and was ready to give pro ball a second try. Problem was, so were thousands of other men recently cut loose from the service.

Now 27 years old with a well-documented injured arm and no experience beyond the low minors, Bob Crues was the last guy a big league team would think of signing. Fortunately for Crues, the old West Texas-New Mexico League opened up shop again. He signed with the Lamesa Lobos and played second base and outfield as well as a few painful tries on the mound. A contract dispute earned him an unconditional release, but fortunately there was another team in the league who wanted to give him a shot.

The Amarillo Gold Sox were owned by former major leaguer “Suitcase Bob” Seeds. As you can gather from his moniker, Seeds had a rambling career, playing for four teams during his nine-year career in the bigs. By 1946 Seeds had returned to Amarillo where his career began, and owned a sporting goods store as well as the town’s franchise in the West Texas-New Mexico League. When Seeds found out Bob Crues had been cut loose by the Lobos, the old ballplayer put him in a Gold Sox uniform. Thus saved from baseball oblivion, Bob Crues restarted his career for the third and final time.

The post-war West Texas-New Mexico League has become known for being a hitter’s paradise. The ballparks were small compared to the larger cities in the north, and most were configured to take advantage of the region’s southerly winds. Because pitchers are always in high demand, a league as low as West Texas-New Mexico only received the most inexperienced or ineffective ones. That isn’t to say the league’s pitchers were tossing softballs in the years following World War II; inexperienced and ineffective also means that many hurlers lacked control over their pitches, making it hard for a batter to get ahold of a ball good enough to hit for distance. That’s one of the circumstances that played to Bob Crues’ advantage. Because he wasn’t formally coached as a hitter and he had played two years of service ball hitting against inexperienced pitchers, Crues had developed into a “bad ball hitter.” That meant that not only was Crues used to facing pitchers who threw the ball all over the place, but where other batters would lay off a bad pitch, Crues hunted them down and sent them flying. As Eddie Carnett, former major league pitcher and Borger's manager in 1948 exclaimed: "he hits everything from his shoe-tops to his cap-bill!"

That first summer in Amarillo Bob Crues hit .341 and sent 29 balls into the stands, including three in one brutal payback game against Lamesa. As stated earlier, the West Texas-New Mexico League was a hitter’s loop, so Crues’ 29 paled in comparison with Gold Sox teammate Joe Bauman’s 48 home runs. The next season Crues came into his own, slugging 52 home runs with a .380 average. In that hitter’s league, it still wasn’t tops – future Chicago Cub Bill Serena hit 57 – but it did earn Crues a promotion to the Little Rock Travelers of the Southern Association. After doing well in spring training, Crues abruptly left the Travelers before the 1948 season began.

 
When he reappeared in Amarillo, Crues told reporters that he was homesick for his Texas home. Truth be told, his wife Billie had convinced her husband that dragging young children around the lower rungs of organized baseball was no way to raise a family. That, and Crues’ “advanced” age of 30 made it more than a long shot that he’d ever rise above AA level ball. So, Bob Crues suited up again for the Amarillo Gold Sox.

Right from the start, Crues was on fire. He sent ball after ball over the outfield wall. As Crues averaged a homer every other game, the fans were whipped up in a home run frenzy. As was the custom in the low minors and semi-pro baseball, fans would poke money through the chicken wire fence to show their gratitude after a home run, and that summer Bob Crues made a nice bundle from happy customers. His bank balance got a boost in August when he given an extra $200 after being voted the team’s most popular player.

On Friday, August 28, it was “Bob Crues Night” at Gold Sox Park. The slugger had just hit his 60th home run, tying the great Babe Ruth’s 1927 mark. Plus, the night before had seen the birth of the Crues’ second child, a son. Before the game, fans and local businesses showered the popular slugger with piles of gifts and cash. Even his Gold Sox teammates dipped into their own meager salaries and passed Crues a wad of cash. For his special night, the Amarillo News-Globe newspaper offered Crues a special bounty for hits during the game: $25 for a single, $50 for a double, $75 for a triple and $100 for a homer.

That evening Crues hit number 61, which along with a single earned him $125 from the Globe-News bounty. The slugger then rushed from the ballpark to the hospital where he spent time with Billie and his newborn son.

Lost in the long ball excitement was the tremendous number of RBIs Crues was wracking up during the 1948 season. The old pro-baseball record was 222 set by Tony Lazzeri in 1925. Lazzeri’s home ballpark in Salt Lake City was a notorious hitter’s paradise and the Pacific Coast League’s 200 game season played a part in the bloated RBI tally. On the other hand, while playing in cozy-sized parks with inexperienced pitching, the West Texas-New Mexico League played a modest 140 game schedule, a full 60 games less than Lazzeri had. Of course, a home run record is more respected than an RBI record. However, it is those runs batted in that win ball games, and it speaks highly of Crues’ hitting when it counted that made his performance in 1948 even more impressive. By the time Crues suited up for the final day of the season, he had completely obliterated Lazzeri’s record by more than 30 runs.

On Thursday, September 5, Crues hit home runs 68 and 69 off George Payte of the Pampa Sockers to tie Joe Hauser’s 1933 mark. That left only two games left to play, a Labor Day double header against the Lubbock Hubbers at home. Before the game, many thought that the record should already be recorded as being broken. Back in June, while on the road in Abilene, Crues smashed a ball that careened off the scoreboard mounted above the outfield wall and bounced back onto the field. Everyone, including the Abilene fans and players, saw that the ball had hit the scoreboard, which meant it was a home run. Everyone that is, except umpire Frank Secory who insisted it hit the wall below the scoreboard and ruled it a ground rule double. Since this was back in June when the home run record was still a distant dream, it is odd that the Abilene outfielders and the official scorer went out of their way after the game to convince Secory to change the ruling, which he did refused to do. Maybe it was just their sense of fair play that made the Abilene players try to give a home run to an opposing player, but in eerie hindsight, the ruling would have a huge effect on events that occurred more than two months later.

Atmospheric conditions in Amarillo were not ideal for Crues on the night of September 6. The local newspaper reported that a strong wind off the Texas prairie came from a northerly direction, blowing directly towards home plate. For his part, Bob Crues was confident in his chances that night. After an injury to his side slowed him down for three weeks after reaching number 61, he was on fire of late, especially after hammering two homers in the previous day’s game. So, with two games left in the season and fame just a swing away, Bob Crues was ready.

In his first time at the plate, he almost did it, the ball carrying all the way to the far corner of left field, only to hit the top of the fence and fall back in for a single. He then walked and hit another single in the 3-2 Gold Sox win. Crues was still in good shape, he had the nightcap left to hit one out of the park. As was common back then, the second game of the double header would be only seven innings. Going into the bottom of the 6th, Crues had managed nothing more than a single and several long balls that landed foul. With Lubbock up 3-1, the Hubbers decided to give Crues a final chance at the plate. Pitcher Red Ramsey walked a pair of Gold Sox before retiring the side. This made sure Crues would get a chance to bat in the final frame. In the bottom of the 7th, Crues was due up second. Lubbock put Don Moore on the mound and he walked the first batter. Now with Crues in the box, Moore had trouble getting the ball anywhere near the strike zone, and his control issues were even too much for a bad ball hitter like Crues. When he was finally able to get a handle on one, all it produced was a single. None-the-less, the single sparked a Gold Sox rally and Amarillo plated three runs to win 4-3.

By the time the game ended, Gold Sox Park had long emptied out. The Look Magazine crew packed up their equipment and the Wheaties man folded the unsigned contract and headed for the parking lot. Sure, 69 homers were something special, but Joe Hauser had already hit that number fifteen years earlier. Then there was the new RBI total, but RBIs are, well, RBIs, not home runs.

Bob Crues was Clarence Chamberlined.

There was, of course, the West Texas-New Mexico League Playoffs. Lost in the home run frenzy was the fact that the Gold Sox had finished first in the loop. In the ensuing four team “Shaughnessy” playoffs, Crues hit three more home runs, bringing his 1948 total to 73. But the playoffs were not regular season.

The headlines generated by Crues’ chase of the home run record led to his being drafted by the Jackson Senators, a Boston Braves farm team in the Southeastern League. However, the $250 a month being offered was unacceptable as Crues had a family to take care of. When the Braves didn’t didn’t improve their offer, he accepted a contract to play semi-pro ball for the Armour Chicken Processing Plant in Elk City, Oklahoma. When Armour didn’t honor their promised terms, Crues accepted a $500 contract to be player-manager of the Roswell Rockets of the Longhorn League. In his last solid season, the 30 year-old hit for a .365 average with 28 home runs. Crues’ playing skills deteriorated rapidly and he spent the next four summers bouncing from San Angelo to Lubbock, back to Amarillo and finally Borger, where he had his first good season in 1940.

By now the Crues family had grown to four boys. The old slugger did everything he could to bring home the best salary, jumping around from one promising job to another, mostly in the oil industry. For a time he and old Gold Sox teammate Joe Bauman owned competing gas stations in Roswell, and the friendly competitors sometimes played catch together on the street. Then, just as before, something better came along and the Crues family moved on. This nomadic life chasing the best opportunity lasted until 1965 when Bob Crues suffered a stroke. He was only 47.
 
The stroke left the old ballplayer needing to use a cane to get around. His son Ronnie told Toby Smith in Bush League Boys: The Postwar Legendsof Baseball in the American Southwest that his father fell apart after the stroke. He withdrew into his shell and considered himself a has-been. With his mobility cut down, Crues drank and smoked more heavily. The idle time on his hands pushed Crues into depression, troubled by his orphan heritage and convinced he hadn’t lived up to the potential he showed as a Red Sox prospect back before the war. In the years since 1948, the home run record he once shared with Joe Hauser had been not just equaled but eclipsed. No one remembered the RBI record.

Crues was rescued from the clutches of melancholy in 1975 when he was elected to the Panhandle Sports Hall of Fame. The old slugger was touched by being honored by the region in which he spent almost his entire life, and brought some renewed interest in his 1948 season.
 
Bob Crues retired in 1977 and returned to Amarillo, living out his final years in the town where he almost made history. He and Billie were watching TV on the night of December 26, 1986 when the 67 year-old ballplayer silently slumped forward in his easy chair and passed away.
 
Go ahead, take a minute and look it up. When you page past all the home run records you come to the Runs Batted In section. There, at the top of the list you can still find “Bob Crues, 254, Amarillo, 1948.”
For the record, this was one heck of a tough illustration to do! Even though Bob Crues made the record books back in '48, being second sure didn't ensure there would be any photographs for posterity. I was able to locate only one decent and clear photo, a shot basically one step better than a mugshot. If you look up the name "Bob Crues" on the internet, it will pop up multiple times. Being one whom always tries to be a bit different, I didn't want to just use that same over used photo. Going through 1946-1950 Texas sports pages, I was able to find a pair of semi-useable action shots that not only helped me get an idea of what Crues' batting stance and follow through looked like, but also aid me with the uniform details. In the photos I found it became obvious that the common mugshot photo made Crues look like he had a long, flat face. In the shots I found he actually had a well-shaped jaw and chin which you can't see in the usual headshot. Anyway, check back late next week and I'll bring out the final story of this Home Run Triptych.




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