If Babe Ruth owns the number 60 and Barry Bond has a lock on 73, the number 254 just as surely belongs to Bob Crues. Unfortunately, not many know it.
In 1948, Crues went on a rampage through the dusty and windswept ballparks of the Southwest, driving in 254 runs in just 140 games, dwarfing the major league record of 191 RBI set by Hack Wilson with the Cubs in 1930. Playing for the Amarillo Gold Sox of the class C West Texas-New Mexico League, Crues drove in almost two runs per game that summer. Two! The closest anyone ever came to his total was former teammate Joe Bauman who drove in 224 one season. Tony Lazzeri, who set the old record with 222, had to play in 197 games in 1925 to reach that mark at Salt Lake City in the Pacific Coast League. As the 21st century dawned, it seemed possible that Crues' RBI record will be one of the rare ones never to be broken.
But even when he was setting it, Bob's RBI record was being overshadowed by his home runs. Besides driving in runs at a record pace, scoring 185 runs and hitting .404 that summer, he also was hotly pursuing Joe Hauser's all-time home run record of 69 set with the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association in 1933. It was Crues' assault on that record that attracted fan and media interest and prompted fans to call him "Round Trip."
In fact, there is evidence that Crues was the first ever to hit 70 homers in a season. But one of them didn't count because an umpire may have ruled incorrectly at a game in Abilene, Texas.
On June 30, Amarillo played the Blue Sox in Abilene. Crues smashed a towering hit toward the scoreboard that bounced back on the field. Umpire Frank Secory, who three years earlier was playing in a World Series with the Cubs, ruled that the ball hit the fence and held Crues at third. After the game, the Abilene outfielders, scoreboard operator, and official scorer said the ball hit the scoreboard, not the fence, and should have been a home run.
Bill Chick, official scorer and league statistician, worried prophetically about the call. In a letter published by the Amarillo News-Globe, he said:
"Won't it be awful if he fails to get [number 70] when I'll always believe he should have had that one here in our park . . . and Frank Secory ruled that it hit the fence, when several Blue Sox players who should have been able to see the ball said it hit the scoreboard? I, too, thought it hit the scoreboard and should have been an automatic homer. I've been afraid ever since that that homer might play a bit part in breaking or not breaking that record."
It's little wonder that Chick and the Blue Sox players would do their best to help Bob. A Lubbock newspaper remarked, "It is safe to say that there isn't another player in the league with as many friends and admirers around the circuit as Crues owns. Wherever they go, because each game they cluster, young and old, around the big amiable home run king during all his idle moments near the dugout.
"Robert's prodigious feats of the 1948 season are, by the way, attracting national attention. Sporting News, the great baseball weekly, asked a few days ago for a picture of and a story about him that will appear in next Monday's issue. Latest report on his home run standing is to be wired additionally to the St. Louis publication Thursday morning. (Crues doesn't know about this yet.)"
Even with the setback in Abilene, the balding Bob tied Hauser's record of 69 with two games left in the season. His try for the 70th drew a record crowd of 4,851 for a season-ending Labor Day doubleheader with Lubbock. Ironically, Secory, the umpire who might have cost him a home run in Abilene, was working behind the plate.
In his first time at bat, Crues almost obliged the crowd with a drive that hit the top of the fence. But none went out that day. Bob and the Amarillo sportswriter both said a strong wind blowing in kept balls in the park.
There is little question but that the sports world thought Crues's potential record was important. Near the end, Billie Crues remembers the crowds, the flash of cameras and interest of the city built pressure that affected her husband as he batted. Look magazine was among the media on hand, waiting to photograph the record-breaker. "Wheaties was there," Billie recalls. "If he had hit that homer we'd have been eating Wheaties the rest of our lives," she said.
"He wanted that homer bad, real bad," she said. Bob agreed. Hitting homer number 69 was his greatest thrill. Failing to get number 70 was his biggest disappointment, he told a newspaper reporter.
The Lubbock team probably did not make an overt effort to give him the record. Six years after Bob's last effort at the mark, Royce Mills, a Lubbock pitcher in 1948, was quoted in the Artesia, New Mexico, Advocate as saying the Hubbers deliberately let a ground ball roll to the fence so Bob could have an inside-the-park homer. According to that account, Bob sensed what was happening and refused to advance beyond first base. But Billie Crues doesn't remember that, and there is no mention of it in sports page accounts at the time.
Harry Gilstrap, sports editor of the Amarillo News-Globe, may have planted the seed that led to the story. As Crues neared the mark, one of Gilstrap's columns quoted Harry Brown, a member of the 1925 Sacramento Solons, as saying his team had given Tony Lazzeri an inside-the-park homer in the final game of the season so Lazzeri could become the first professional to hit 60 in a season.
What made Bob so productive in 1948? He had size at 6'2" and 185 pounds. Billie believes personal contentment had something to do with it. The family was well-settled that season in Amarillo, a city they liked. And between his salary and the money fans poked through the backstop for him after four-base hits, their financial situation was good.
He also had the benefit of playing in a small park with home plate in the southwest corner. That meant the prevailing winds -- and in the Texas Panhandle winds do prevail -- almost always were behind him, blowing the ball toward the fence. Tom Jordan, veteran minor and major league player, manager, and scout who lives in eastern New Mexico, calls the Amarillo park one of the true home run havens.
The low minors also had a shortage of quality pitching, giving hitters a distinct advantage, Jordan said. Then there was experience. Crues was 30 years old in 1948, playing in a league that included many youngsters fresh from high school with little or no professional experience. Bob already had demonstrated he could hit those pitchers. A year earlier he had 52 home runs.
Bobby Layne, a 15-year NFL quarterback and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, also was a pitcher at the University of Texas. After graduating, he pitched until August 1 for his home town of Lubbock and was one of the few pitchers in the West Texas-New Mexico League who did not surrender a homer to Crues. He believed Bob was the best bad ball hitter in the league. The Amarillo star could hit a ball outside the strike zone better than one thrown down the middle, Layne concluded. And in a league where pitchers who could consistently throw strikes were sometimes rare, Crues' ability to hit bad pitches gave him more opportunities than other batters.
The Crues family tree is almost impossible to trace. His father and uncle as small children were the first two boys admitted to the Buckner Orphan Home in Dallas. There his dad was given the name "Crues" and his uncle labeled "Cruse." Thus two branches of the family had the same last name but with different spellings. And neither knew their birth name.
Robert Fulton Crues was born the last day of 1918 at Frisco, Texas, north of Dallas. The family soon moved to the Texas Panhandle, where he spent most of his life. When he was just three, young Crues climbed a windmill, stuck his right hand into the pumping mechanism and lost part of it as a result.
It was also as a boy that he had his first brush with fame or at least famous people. Walking along the railroad tracks, he stopped to give directions to a man and woman who appeared to be lost. Unwittingly, he helped outlaw legends Bonnie and Clyde find the road that led to their next adventure.
Late in the 1939 season he was signed by Lamesa, Texas, of the West Texas-New Mexico League, then rated class D. (It was class C when he later played at Amarillo.) But he had time to play in only two games and to go hitless in two times at bat.
In 1940 he started the season with Lamesa then moved to Borger, Texas, in the same league. That year he won 20 games while losing only five as part of what Borger manager Gordon Nell called the best pitching staff he ever saw in the league. And Nell knew pitching, at least from a hitter's point of view. In a 12-year professional career he averaged more than one run batted in per game and had a lifetime batting average of .337. Like Joe Bauman he hit 40 or more home runs in five different seasons. Nell also literally wrote the WT-NM record book.
Based on his success in Borger, Bob's contract was purchased by the Boston Red Sox, who posted him to the Class A Eastern League at Scranton, Pennsylvania, a remarkable one-season leap. But it also turned out to be a move toward pitching disaster.
After pitching five innings of an exhibition game in Greenville, South Carolina, Crues was in the dugout when a stray pitch hit him in the soft part of the right shoulder near his neck. The injury refused to heal even though Boston sent him to physicians around the country.
Pain or not, Bob did pitch again. Later in 1941 and 1942 he was with three Class C and D teams -- Canton, Ohio, of the Middle Atlantic League; Borger again; then Oneonta, New York, of the Canadian-American League. But he was not successful at any of these stops.
With World War II under way, Bob went to work in the Pantex Ordnance Works at Amarillo, helping to make ammunition. He also found love there, meeting and marrying co-worker Billie Lane. That union lasted the rest of his life and produced four sons -- Ronnie, Mark (who was born the night the Amarillo fans honored his dad at Bob Crues Night), Larry and Lynn.
Before the 1943 season, like most other men his age, the 24-year-old Crues went into the Army. Bob contracted pneumonia and was hospitalized before seeing a day of duty. After the illness he was sent to Texas to play baseball, keeping him in the United States. But he was playing in the outfield, not on the mound.
War's end brought him back to what he hoped would be a continuing baseball career. In Lamesa he tried out with his old team, the Lobos, but was released. A later Amarillo Globe story said Crues always hit well in Lamesa -- except when he tried to play there. Out of baseball, he went to work in a poultry processing plant, the paper said.
It was Suitcase Bob Seeds who rescued him from poultry plucking. Seeds was the leading figure in Amarillo baseball. He started his playing career in 1926 and came to Amarillo in 1928 when it was in the Western League. Later he spent nine seasons as an outfielder-first baseman for the Indians, White Sox, Red Sox, and Giants, batting a combined .277. By 1946 he was operating a hardware and sporting goods store in Amarillo and had taken over the Gold Sox. He also played his final season in organized baseball, hitting .302 in 32 games as a 39-year-old outfielder.
When Seeds found Crues out of baseball, he signed him for the Gold Sox. The march toward Crues' home run and runs batted in records was under way, and the Suitcase had made one of his best investments.
In 1946, Bob hit .341 with 29 home runs and 120 RBI. He was even better in 1947, hitting 52 homers, batting in 178 runs and compiling a .380 average. These results earned a promotion. He was sold to Little Rock of the Southern Association, where the Amarillo newspaper said he was hitting well in 1948 spring games. Then, suddenly, he was wearing golden stockings again.
Amarillo embraced him. He explained that he was homesick and that "a homesick ball player is no good to anyone." Billie says she caused his sickness. She was tiring of the demands on minor league players' wives, including frequent moves with small children. If Bob wanted to play in front of his family, it would be in Amarillo, not Arkansas, she told him.
The life he resumed was not easy. The Gold Sox didn't even travel by bus but in station wagons, often driving all night across the broad reaches of the Texas-New Mexico desert. When they arrived, it wasn't to a bed in a luxury hotel. Rather, the entire team often stayed in the same room. All of the league's umpires lived in a single motel room in Amarillo.
But going back to Amarillo was a sound financial decision. Double-A level pay was not impressively higher than Bob was earning in Class C. And the WT-NM fans were famous for their generosity. It was their habit to push money through the backstop to players after home runs, and Bob would wear out their charity with the 48 he hit at home that summer.
Billie cannot remember how much he made in 1948 through the backstops. "But that money sure did help us," she recalls. One fan, a car dealer, even tore a $100 bill in half, giving Crues one piece one night and the second when he hit another out of the park. Even road crowds pressed money on him as he neared the home run record. And he received $200 after Amarillo fans voted him the team's most popular player.
In August, fans honored him with a Bob Crues Night. He received $125 from a newspaper that had offered $100 for a homer, $75 for a triple, $50 per double and $25 for a single. His five-base response may have been shortened. He resisted trying to stretch a single into a double for "the good of the club" when it appeared a play at second base might be close.
In addition to the money, the crowd liberally brought gifts for the second Crues son, who was born during the game. Bob sped from ballpark to bedside and Billie and their new baby boy after the game. "When I came home the entire living room was lined with packages that had been brought to the park for that night," she says.
After the season, Bob was drafted by the Jackson, Mississippi, Senators of the Southeastern League, who offered him $250 a month. A Cuban team wrote, asking him to play in a winter league with several major leaguers. But he declined that offer.
He was slow to respond to Jackson's contract offers. Instead, he went to Elk City, Oklahoma, to work in Armour's chicken processing plant and to join a group of minor league all-stars being recruited to contend for the semipro National Baseball Congress title. But Bob and the Elks' management had a dispute, Crues feeling a verbal agreement was not being honored. Instead of playing there, he got a release from Jackson and went to the Longhorn League at Roswell, New Mexico, to manage and play first base and the outfield. Manager's pay was exempt from team salary caps and often averaged $500 a month, double his offer from Jackson. Former teammate Joe Bauman, who later broke Crues' and Hauser's home run record, took his place on the Elk City roster.
But 1949 would be his last big season. He hit .365, 28 homers and drove in 129 runs. He continued to play at San Angelo in the Longhorn League, then at Lubbock, Amarillo, and Borger in the WT-NM again. But his output declined, and in 1953 he retired at age 34, just 11 games into the season. He was hitting only .195, but four of his eight hits were home runs, and he had batted in 12 runs, an average of more than one a game.
In five full seasons and parts of five others, Crues hit 232 home runs and drove in 905 runs.
Even after retirement he was a competitor. He played softball and sandlot baseball and amassed bowling trophies, working a series of jobs for oil companies, his last as day manager of a neighborhood service station. He was inducted into the Panhandle Sports Hall of Fame and honored as one of the region's finest baseball players.
Bob's final years were difficult. In 1965 he suffered the first in a series of disabling strokes. Therapy restored his ability to speak, but it was still hard for him to articulate thoughts, and many had difficulty understanding him. When he walked, it was with a cane. Much of his time was in a Veterans hospital or with Billie in front of a TV set, watching sports, locked in the prison of a failing body.
On the day after Christmas in 1986, just short of his 68th birthday, he died while awaiting the arrival of a son and his family who were on their way to Amarillo for a delayed holiday. He took with him not only one of the game's most productive home run seasons but a record for runs batted in that probably has been retired.
Unless otherwise attributed, information is based on interviews with Mrs. Billie Crues, January, 1999
Interview, Tom Jordan, May 1994
Amarillo News-Globe and Daily News, April-September, 1948
Amarillo Daily News, April 9, 1945 and April 16, 1964
Artesia Advocate, August, 1954
Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, July 5, 1954
1948 West Texas-New Mexico League Record Book
Memorial Park Funeral Home, Amarillo
Letter, Jackson Senators Baseball Club to Bob Crues, provided by Billie Crues
Letter to the author, Royse Parr, April 13, 2000
The Sporting News, September 1948
Inside Sports, August, 1981
The Minor League Register. First Edition, published by Baseball America
Minor League Baseball Stars (Vol. 1), SABR, 1984, p. 37