Jimmie Crutchfield (NOIRTECH RESEARCH)

Jimmie Crutchfield

This article was written by Bill Johnson


Jimmie Crutchfield (NOIRTECH RESEARCH)The 1935 East-West All-Star Game at Comiskey Park in Chicago, the third consecutive year of the Negro League version of the midsummer classic, ended on a Mule Suttles three-run homer to drive in Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson. Pittsburgh Courier writer Chester L. Washington, in recounting the contest, made special note of a critical defensive play earlier in the game that made the dramatic home run possible: “Next in the parade of stars,” wrote Washington about an earlier inning, “came young Crutchfield, fleet-footed outfielder of the Pittsburgh Crawfords, who made a sensational bare-handed running catch of Bizz [sic] Mackey’s mighty smash into center field. Sox park fans say that it was a greater catch than any big outfielder ever made in the Comiskey ball orchard.”1

Jimmie Crutchfield, the fielding star, would eventually play in four East-West Games, his all-around baseball prowess distinguishing him among his peers despite his relatively small stature at 5-feet-7 and 150 pounds. He was labeled the “black Lloyd Waner,” a white analog who was slightly taller, at 5-feet-9 but won a spot in the National Baseball Hall of Fame on the basis of his well-rounded excellence on the diamond. A left-handed batter and right-handed thrower, Crutchfield was, according to James Riley, a “gusty hustler … a fine all-around ballplayer … a proficient bunter, excellent hit-and-run man, fast base runner, good fielder, and consistent … line drive hitter.”2 He was also, by reputation, one of the true gentlemen of the game. None other than James “Cool Papa” Bell referred to Crutchfield as “the best team player in baseball,” adding, “If he never played in a game he would still have been an important part of any baseball team. You always knew you could count on Jimmie to be on the bright side of everything.”3

John William Crutchfield was born on March 25, 1910, in the vicinity of the tiny community of Ardmore, Missouri, to John H. Crutchfield, a coal miner from Virginia, and his 15-year-old wife, Carrie. The elder John and Carrie would have four daughters as well: Fannie, Agnes, Maggie, and Pauline. By the time the 1930 US Census was taken, Carrie was a coal-mining widow and was listed as “Head of Household,” working as a hotel maid.

The young Crutchfield attended elementary school in Ardmore, but the only eligible high school was in nearby Moberly. “My mother said that, even before I could walk, my father used to sit and roll baseballs to me,” he said. And when the coal miners would come by, they would say, “Hey come in and look at the baseball player.”4 Crutchfield loved baseball from an early age, and graduated from playing on the local sandlots to playing with an organized team managed by former Negro League star pitcher Bill Gatewood. Crutchfield evidently showed Gatewood a glimpse of the possible, and the latter was encouraged the former’s professional ambitions. “He told me I had a good chance, even as small as I was,” said Crutchfield. “With the love I had for baseball and, as small as I was, I thought I could play baseball. I believed I could play any place.”5 His career may have begun as early as 1928, playing on a Moberly team called the Gatewood Browns.6

In 1930, after less than two years of college at Lincoln University, at the time a historically black institution 66 miles south, in Jefferson City, Crutchfield packed up his dreams and a few meager possessions and left home to try out with the Birmingham Black Barons, a tryout that was arranged through Gatewood’s connections with league officials. “When my friends among the people around my hometown … heard that I was leaving, they said, ‘Hey Crutch, you got your bus fare back?’ and things like that,” Crutchfield said. “Because the rumors were about 100-1 that I couldn’t make it. But they didn’t know the love I had for baseball.”7 After spring training at Fort Benning, Georgia, the Black Barons named Crutchfield their starting center fielder for the season. Playing for a $90-a-month salary, he batted .288 with nine triples. “It wasn’t the money, because the money wasn’t there,” he said. “It was just the recognition that came with being a regular baseball player on a big-time colored baseball team. Just to walk down the street and know you had made it.”8

After spending 1931 with the Indianapolis ABCs, teaming with his future Chicago manager Candy Jim Taylor, Crutchfield joined Gus Greenlee’s Pittsburgh Crawfords. The team, until 1932 more of a semipro team, had almost overnight become a juggernaut in professional baseball, and the young outfielder now played with teammates like Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Judy Johnson, Satchel Paige, Jud Wilson, Smokey Joe Williams, and manager-first baseman Oscar Charleston. It took Crutchfield some time to worm into Charleston’s good graces, but he finally did. In one particular game, “The bases were full and two outs, and I was playing this particular hitter to hit to right-center,” Crutchfield remembered. “Charleston came out in front of the whole crowd and moved me over to left-center. And the guy hit a long line drive where he had just moved me from. I was young then and I caught the ball running away from home plate to retire the side. Everybody rushed off the field and into the clubhouse. Charleston came in the dressing room and he didn’t even look at me. He just looked straight ahead and said, ‘Crutch, you are a fielding ass,’ From that time on I had it made. From then on I played outfield for the Crawfords.”9

During this period, Crutchfield enjoyed opportunities to play against Dizzy Dean’s All Stars, toured Puerto Rico with another all-star squad, and played in three consecutive East-West All Star games (1934-1936). While the baseball was often outstanding, the conditions were always challenging. The team often stayed in poor accommodations and traveled via seemingly endless bus and car rides. The few months in which winter weather made baseball impossible found Crutchfield working at whatever jobs he could find. As he recalled, he was a “hotel bellhop, shoe-shine boy in a barber shop — that was about it. We just took whatever we could find. You had to take something because you came home every winter with very little, and even though you knew that the results would be the same, you couldn’t wait for March to start again. I love the game so much I would have paid to play.”10

Crutchfield left the Crawfords after the 1936 season and moved to Abe and Effa Manley’s Newark Eagles for the 1937 and 1938 campaigns. Once again teamed with some of the game’s immortals — including Leon Day, Ray Dandridge, Mule Suttles, Willie Wells, and, later, Monte Irvin — the speedy outfielder helped the Eagles to finish in second place behind the Homestead Grays in 1937. After a disappointing 1938 season, Crutchfield played for San Juan in the Puerto Rican League’s inaugural season. He remembered, “I first came down to Puerto in 1936. At that time, we played six weeks with Paige and Gibson. It was a success, and [Puerto Rico] decided to start a league, and in 1938 I was the first center fielder to play for San Juan.”11 Crutchfield loved the island and returned there for an old-timers game in 1979. He said of his time in Puerto Rico, “If you were nice to the nice people, the sun would shine in your face all the time. It was a fun time.”12

For the moment, Crutchfield returned to the Crawfords, now based in Toledo, Ohio, for 1939. The next season, Crutchfield, for reasons that remain unclear but that historian James Riley termed “personal,”13 played very briefly for Indianapolis, and then nowhere else. The 1940 US Census recorded that Crutchfield listed his employer as the Merchants Hotel, and his residence as Moberly, Missouri.

Crutchfield made an abrupt return to the diamond in 1941. At the behest of Candy Jim Taylor, a former teammate of mentor Bill Gatewood and an outstanding manager in his own right, Crutchfield signed with the Chicago American Giants. There, teamed with popular players like Pepper Bassett and Alex Radcliffe, and with a position from which to mentor a young Art Pennington, Crutchfield played well enough to earn his fourth selection to the East-West All Star game. Although the East defeated Crutchfield and the West team, the outfielder managed a hit, his only one in 10 East-West Game at-bats. The outfielder returned to Chicago for the 1942 season, but his performance declined precipitously.

On November 30, 1942, Crutchfield enlisted in the US Army, and he served nearly a year before being discharged on October 20, 1943. “I had a chance to beat the army rap if I wanted to, but I just felt I had to serve,” he said. “And when two [draft board] people asked when I wanted to go, I said, ‘Well, in the next batch.’”14 After being discharged with the rank of staff sergeant, Crutchfield returned to the American Giants in 1944, and then ended the year in a Cleveland Buckeyes uniform. He closed out his playing career in 1945, returning to his new home in Chicago to once again play for Taylor and the American Giants.

Crutchfield knew when it was time to hang ’em up and retire. He observed, “I was 35 years of age and I was worn out from the traveling, and all the worst of conditions. … I had made a name for myself.”15 Once he was out of baseball, Crutchfield worked for the Post Office. In 1947 he wed, marrying Julia R. Day, a Chicago elementary-school teacher eight years Crutchfield’s senior.16 While they had no children of their own, they remained happily married until his death in 1993. They split their golden years between their Southside Chicago apartment, a seventh-floor unit in an area called Lake Meadows,17 which is less than a mile from Comiskey Park, and their vacation home in South Haven, Michigan.18

Crutchfield retired from the Post Office in 1970, but he worked for the Continental Illinois Bank for three more years, retiring for good in 1973.19 The relative explosion of interest in the history of the Negro baseball leagues and teams finally afforded Crutchfield some national recognition, albeit late in his life. The governor of Kentucky named him an honorary Kentucky Colonel.20 The designation is conferred in “recognition of … noteworthy accomplishments and outstanding service to our community, state, and nation.”21 It was a lifetime honor, and from that point on, Crutchfield almost always signed autographs as “Col. Jimmie Crutchfield.” In February 1992 President George H.W. Bush invited Crutchfield and some other former players to participate in a celebration of Black History Month at the White House, and two years later Crutchfield was among the players honored on a poster created by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.22

That last acknowledgment came just a year too late. On March 31, 1993, Crutchfield died of cancer. He was survived for three more years by his wife, Julia, and is buried at the Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois.23 His grave went unmarked until 2003, when members of the Society for American Baseball Research corrected that with a formal marker commemorating Crutchfield’s life and final resting place.24

John William “Jimmie” Crutchfield was widely acknowledged as a terrific, All-Star-level outfielder, and an even better human being. His gentility and class suffused and influenced much of his thinking. As with so many of the players of his era, those talented athletes who preceded Jackie Robinson’s assault on baseball’s racial barrier in 1947, and who could be forgiven a degree of bitterness or resentment at the world-as-it-was, he was often asked if he regretted not having had the opportunity to play in an integrated, major league. Lawrence Hogan recounted Crutchfield’s thoughts on the subject:

I have no ill feeling about never having had the opportunity to play in the big leagues. There have been times — you know, they used to call me the black Lloyd Waner. I used to think about that a lot. He was on the other side of town in Pittsburgh, making $12,000 a year and I didn’t have enough money to go home. I had to borrow bus fare to come home.

It seemed like there was something wrong there. But that was yesterday. There’s no use in me having bitterness in my heart this late in life about what’s gone by. That’s just the way I feel about it. Once in a while I get a kick out of thinking that my name was mentioned as one of the stars of the East-West game and little things like that. I don’t know whether I’d feel better if I had a million dollars.

I can say I contributed something.25

 

Notes

1 Chester Washington, “Hes’ Sez,” Pittsburgh Courier, August 17, 1935: 14.

2 James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues (New York: Carroll & Graf, 1994), 201.

3 Tony McClean, “The Negro Leagues: Gone but Not Forgotten: Remembering Jimmie Crutchfield,” 2005. blackathlete.net/2005/03/the-negro-leagues-gone-but-not-forgottenremembering-jimmie-crutchfield/, accessed January 11, 2019.

4 James A. Riley, Of Monarchs and Black Barons: Essays on Baseball’s Negro Leagues (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2012), 120.

5 Riley, 121.

6 This information comes from the Center For Negro League Baseball Research (cnlbr.org) and was specifically located online: cnlbr.org/Portals/0/Players%20Register/C-E%202018-04.pdf Accessed March 21, 2019.

7 Riley, Of Monarchs and Black Barons, 120.

8 Riley, Of Monarchs and Black Barons, 122.

9 Riley, Of Monarchs and Black Barons, 123.

10 J.G. Keenan and S. Cohen, “Jimmie Crutchfield’s Baseball Life,” Loyola Magazine 22(1), 199: 28-34.

11 Thomas E. Van Hyning, Puerto Rico’s Winter League: A History of Major League Baseball’s Launching Pad (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1995), 83.

12 Van Hyning, 83.

13 Riley, Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, 202.

14 Keenan and Cohen, 6.

15 Riley, Crutchfield essay.

16 Julia Crutchfield obituary, Chicago Tribune, December 9, 1996: 143.

17 William Brashler, Josh Gibson: A Life in the Negro Leagues (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee Publishing, 1978), 166-170.

18 Keenan and Cohen, 8.

19 Keenan and Cohen, 8.

20 Leslie Heaphy, ed., Black Baseball and Chicago (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Co., 2006), 62.

21 For the general criteria regarding selection for this honor, see kycolonels.org/, accessed January 2, 2019.

22 McLean.

23 findagrave.com/memorial/9517611/jimmie-crutchfield, accessed January 4, 2019.

24 Joe Paladino, “In Death, Baseball Pioneer Receives His Due,” larrylester42.com/uploads/1/9/5/4/19545937/sol_white_by_joe_palladino.pdf, accessed January 9, 2019.

25 Lawrence Hogan, Shades of Glory: The Negro Leagues and the Story of African-American Baseball (Washington: National Geographic, 2006), 377.

Full Name

John William Crutchfield

Born

March 25, 1910 at Ardmore, MO (US)

Died

March 31, 1993 at Chicago, IL (US)

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