This article was written by Norm King
If you had to guess, you would say that Warren Cromartie’s lucky number was 3. After all, he played baseball, a game that has three strikes, three outs, and three bases. And he played in three countries (the United States, Canada, and Japan) where the people speak three languages (English, French, and Japanese).
Warren Livingston Cromartie was born on September 29, 1953, in Miami, Florida, to Leroy and Marjorie Cromartie. Leroy was an all-around athlete who played second base for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues and barnstorming fame. Leroy also played quarterback at Florida A&M College (which became Florida A&M University in 1953). After graduating, he worked for the City of Miami for 25 years as a baseball, basketball, and tennis coach in the city’s parks.
Cromartie played baseball for Miami Jackson Senior High School and was considered a good-enough prospect to be drafted in five consecutive drafts, the last three in the first round. He spurned offers by the Chicago White Sox (seventh round, June 1971 draft); Minnesota Twins (third round, January 1972); San Diego Padres (first round, June 1972); and Oakland Athletics (first round, January 1973). He didn’t sign with any of those clubs because he wanted to play ball at Miami Dade North Junior College, a high-caliber baseball factory that produced the likes of Mickey Rivers, Steve Carlton, and Bucky Dent.
“I wanted to go to junior college because that way I could sign after a year,” Cromartie said. “If I went to a four-year school, I would have had to wait until I was 24 or a junior to sign. By the time I was 24 or 25, I wanted to be in the big leagues.”ii
Finally, after the third – there’s that lucky number again! – consecutive draft in which Cromartie was chosen in the first round, Mel Didier, the Montreal Expos’ director of player development, got Cromartie to sign with the team.
Cromartie began his professional career in 1974 with the Quebec Carnavales of the Double-A Eastern League. The team included future Expos Larry Parrish and Ellis Valentine, but Cromartie wanted to play in Montreal, and when he saw the city for the first time, he was smitten.
“My first impression was I couldn’t wait to get here,” Cromartie said. “We could see the outskirts of the city going towards the States (for games); I always said to myself, ‘Man, that city sure looks bright. … I can’t wait to get over there.’ ”iii
The wait wasn‘t very long, as the 20-year-old Cromartie was a September call-up on the strength of a .336 batting average, 13 home runs, 61 RBIs, and 30 stolen bases. The first big-league pitcher he faced was the Pirates’ Dock Ellis, on September 6, 1974; he went 0-for-3 that night. Overall he had three hits, all singles, in 17 at-bats, for a .176 average during his brief stint.
Cromartie wasn’t ready to handle major-league pitching, and the Expos sent him to Triple-A Memphis of the International League where his numbers tailed off in 1975 (.268, three home runs, 38 RBIs, only five stolen bases). But he bounced back the following year, when the Expos moved their Triple-A affiliate to Denver. The 1976 Denver Bears were a juggernaut, compiling an 86-50 record and winning the American Association championship. Cromartie contributed with a .337 batting average, eight homers, 60 RBIs, and 27 stolen bases. Those numbers earned him a one-way ticket to “The Show” in August. He played in 33 games and got 17 hits in 81 at-bats. The bright lights of Montreal were his.
The 1976 Denver Bears would probably have swept a seven-game series from that year’s Expos squad. This Canadian club was so bad (55-107) that team owner Charles Bronfman would have been driven to drink Canadian Club if he weren’t also the owner of the company that made Seagram’s Crown Royal. Bronfman’s liver could take a break in 1977, as that year marked the beginning of a new era for the Expos. They moved from tiny Jarry Park to massive Olympic Stadium, and Cromartie was part of a wave of exciting young players who made the Expos a tough team to face over the next few years. Besides Cromartie, the nucleus of young players included future Hall of Famers Gary Carter and Andre Dawson, among others.
Cromartie was still considered a rookie in 1977, and he had an excellent freshman campaign as the Expos’ left fielder. He hit .282 with five home runs, 50 RBIs, and 10 stolen bases, and was tenth in the league in hits with 175. His play certainly impressed his National League peers as he came in second behind Dawson for The Sporting News Rookie of the Year, which was voted on by the players. As well, other teams noticed that despite all three being 23 years old, Cromartie, Dawson, and the howitzer-armed Ellis Valentine made up an outfield that had to be respected. The Sporting News even featured the trio on the cover of its August 20, 1977, edition.
As promising as all three were, Expos manager Dick Williams was not overly pleased with Cromartie’s defensive skills and often replaced him for defensive purposes in the late innings during his rookie year.iv Cromartie worked hard to improve that aspect of his game in 1978 and ended up leading National League outfielders in assists with 24. He also hit a team-leading .297, which is better than it looks because he began the season 0-for-17.
“He worked overtime on improving his defence,” Williams said after he decided to let the left fielder play. He works hard at every aspect of the game.”v
Cromartie got off to a hot start in 1979, parlaying an 18-game hitting streak into a .369 average for April. (The streak ended at 19 on May 1.) He tied for second with Dave Winfield for National League Player of the Month behind the Reds’ George Foster. The hitting streak was one of three team records he set that year; he also established new club highs with 46 doubles and 19 intentional walks. Overall Cromartie hit .275, due in part to playing with a sore back, but he led all senior-circuit left fielders in assists (16) and putouts (344).
Those fine defensive stats didn’t prevent the Expos from making changes that affected where Cromartie played. Before the 1980 season they traded left-handed pitcher Dan Schatzeder to the Detroit Tigers for speedy left fielder Ron LeFlore. Cromartie moved to first base, but the defensive skills he had acquired in left field did not. He led National League first basemen in errors with 14, but he compensated by hitting .288 and setting career highs with 14 home runs and 70 RBIs. The LeFlore era in Montreal lasted only one year, for though he stole 97 bases in 1980, Manager Dick Williams found him uncontrollable, and did not want the Expos to re-sign him.vi
Oddly enough, Leflore’s departure did not lead to a return to left field for Cromartie in the strike-shortened 1981 season. Instead, he split time between first base and right field while his original position went to rookie Tim Raines, who had played second base in the minors. Cromartie led the team with a career-high .304 average, with six home runs and 42 RBIs, albeit in only 99 games, and had a career-high .370 on-base percentage.
The strike created a split season and a unique playoff format. The team leading each division before the strike played the team leading the division when the season ended. In the National League East, this meant that the Phillies and Expos played each other in what was a precursor to the National League Division Series. In the fifth and final game of the series, the Expos led 3-0 with two out in the bottom of the ninth and Phillies second baseman Manny Trillo at bat. He hit a liner that Cromartie leaped up and caught to send the Expos off to the National League Championship Series against Los Angeles. Cromartie showed his delight at winning the series by borrowing a Canadian flag from a fan and waving it around Veterans Stadium.
“I made the last out of the playoff game,” Cromartie recalled. “I think holding up the Canadian flag after we won is kind of momentous for me.”vii
In the NLCS the Expos lost to the eventual world champion Dodgers. Despite his series-winning catch against the Phillies, Cromartie’s numbers weren’t overly impressive in the playoffs; in 10 playoff games he hit only .200 with no home runs and three RBIs.
Expos fans used to sing the song “The Happy Wanderer” during games in the 1980s. That may have been in honor of Cromartie, who had to wander from position to position during his tenure in Montreal. He moved from left field to first base in 1980, then had to move from first base to right field when the Expos acquired first baseman Al Oliver in 1982. Although his batting average dropped 50 points from the previous season, to .254, Cromartie tied his career high for home runs with 14 and drove in 62 runs. His season was a mixed bag from a defensive standpoint, for although he was fourth in the league among right fielders with 10 assists, he was also second among right fielders in errors, with six.
A personnel move involving Cromartie hindered the Expos’ chances of making it to the postseason in 1982. “Almost everyone says the Expos have the best “paper” talent in the (National League East) division,” wrote Rick Hummel. “But one thing is missing. Clubhouse harmony, not one of the Expos’ staples, wasn’t improved after Warren Cromartie went to the bench after Joel Youngblood was acquired from the New York Mets.”viii
Another indication of Cromartie’s popularity was the Cro bar, a confection along the lines of Reggie Jackson’s Reggie bar that was named sold at Olympic Stadium.
The 1983 season also had some highs and lows for Cromartie. His average rebounded to .278, but he hit only three home runs and drove in only 43 runs. He also scored fewer runs 37, than in any other season of his career. He again committed six errors, but this time it was only good enough for third place among National League right fielders.
Cromartie’s adaptability in playing different positions on the field reflected his willingness to try new things in new places. He needed that flexibility in 1984, for he not only left the Expos as a free agent, but North America as well, when he signed with the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants of the Japan Central League, managed by the legendary Sadaharu Oh.
“I’ve always been the only black on teams; I grew up with … other nationalities,” said Cromartie in explaining his adaptability. “That’s the good thing about baseball. You could have nine players, all different nationalities; baseball has this way of bringing everything together and playing as a team. Part of my success was being able to adapt wherever I went.”ix
Of course, there were practical considerations to his signing with Yomiuri as well. He was about to sign with the San Francisco Giants when the Tokyo team came and offered him $2.5 million for two years plus a bonus to play in the Land of the Rising Sun.
“I didn’t go over there to eat a bunch of sushi,” Cromartie quipped.x
He didn’t go over there to eat “Cro,” either. As a gaijin (non-Japanese player), Cromartie had to adjust to baseball life in Japan, including the shock of finding out that there’s a lot of sister-kissing in Japanese baseball, as ties are part of the game there. He discovered that one time when everybody left the field when the score was tied after nine innings and he was told that a new inning didn’t start after 9:45 because everyone had to take the train home.
“I’m busting my ass out there for nine innings and you’re going to tell me there’s a tie?” he asked rhetorically.xi
Cromartie played in Japan for seven years, but he didn’t get comfortable there until his fourth year.
“I got off to a very slow start, and started to catch on after about six months. I didn’t really get comfortable in Japan until maybe my last four years,” he said.xii
Cromartie’s comfort level reached its peak in 1989, when he not only won the league batting title with a .378 average and was voted the league MVP, but his Giants roared back to win the Japan Series after being down three games to none. Overall during his seven years in Japan, Cromartie hit .321 with 171 home runs, 558 RBIs, and a .369 on-base percentage. On a personal level, his second son and third child, Cody, was born in Japan. Cody was given the middle name Oh as a sign of Warren’s respect for his manager.
After seven years in Japan, Cromartie got the itch to return to North America in 1991. He wanted to play with Bo Jackson on the Kansas City Royals, and while he served as a pinch-hitter and clubhouse presence for the team that season, the chance to play with Jackson never materialized. Jackson had suffered a serious hip injury playing football for the Oakland Raiders that caused the Royals to cut him before the 1991 season.
The 38-year-old Cromartie hung up the spikes after batting .313 for the Royals in 69 games that year. Although his active career was over, he continued his association with baseball in many ways. Some of his endeavors were pretty conventional. For example, he wrote a book about his experiences in Japan titled, Slugging It Out in Japan; started a baseball school in his hometown of Miami; and as of 2012 hosted a sports phone-in show, Call Me Homey, on a Miami radio station.
Cromartie also does and has done things that typify the fun-loving spirit that made him popular with teammates and fans over the years. In 2005 he managed a team of Japanese players in the independent (and now defunct) Golden Baseball League, which had teams in the Southwestern US. In 2007 he took part in a tag-team wrestling match in Japan at the age of 53 for a charity called Hustle Aid; one of his opponents was named Tiger Meet Singh.xiii
Among Cromartie’s undertakings in 2012 was his effort to bring major-league baseball back to Montreal, a project that may not be as quixotic as it seems. He heads the Montreal Baseball Project, which hoped to revive interest in baseball in Montreal. He has a group in place working on the project and said the project has received a lot of encouragement. He organized a reunion of the 1981 Eastern Division champions in June 2012. Seventeen players from the team returned to Montreal and held several activities, including a dinner, a golf tournament, and a baseball clinic for youngsters. The reunion was successful, even though there was a tinge of sadness to it due to the death of Gary Carter the preceding February. All proceeds went to the Cedars Cancer Institute.
“Montreal is the largest city in North America without a professional baseball team – it’s a travesty,” said Cromartie. “(The city) deserves a second chance.“I’m ready for the journey,” he said. “It’s a good journey. I feel very confident about it.”xiv
Cover Photo, “Extraordinary Expos: Young Flyhawks on the Rise,” The Sporting News, August 20, 1977
Mordecai Richler, Dispatches from the Sporting Life, (Guilford, Connecticut: Globe Pequot Press, 2002)
i Warren Cromartie, in-person interview with author, September 8, 2012.
ii Warren Cromartie interview.
iii Warren Cromartie interview.
iv Ian MacDonald, “Expo ‘Cro’ Gives Williams Some Reasons to Chirp,” The Sporting News, June 3, 1978.
v MacDonald, “Expos Have Reason to ‘Cro,’ ” The Sporting News, May 12, 1979.
vi MacDonald, “LeFlore Wore Out His Welcome in Montreal,” The Sporting News, December 20, 1980.
vii Video: Les Expos Nos Amours, Volume 2, Labatt Productions, 1989.
viii Rick Hummel, “Goes on in Four Races,” The Sporting News, August 23, 1982
ix Warren Cromartie interview.
x Warren Cromartie interview.
xi Warren Cromartie interview.
xii Warren Cromartie interview.
xiii “Two-Minute Drill,” SunSentinel.com, June 13, 2007.
xiv Warren Cromartie interview.