Along with being handed down his father’s nickname, Crowe was a father figure to thousands of area youngsters while making Boys Clubs and ballparks their home away from home.
Crowe, who died Tuesday at the age of 75, was an institution in area sports.
He is the 4-year-old batboy smiling in a Johnson City Soldiers team picture taken at the long-gone Mountain Home ballpark in 1943. And some 24 hours before suffering a heart attack that ultimately proved fatal a couple of weeks ago, Crowe — with his perfect hair and folksy swagger — was all smiles at an umpires’ meeting.
Crowe began umpiring a year after being an all-conference basketball player for Sidney Smallwood at Science Hill in 1957. He was calling with Searle Robbins when Tim McCarver and Memphis Christian Brothers were in Johnson City for the state tournament in 1959.
Don Lady has umpired 54 years, including games when Joe Shipley’s East Tennessee State played on the Veterans Administration field at Mountain Home, and chuckles at the thought of being Crowe’s understudy.
“Yeah, I didn’t start until 1960,” Lady said.
Lady was at the umpires’ meeting with Crowe the day before his heart attack, and said Crowe was his usual easygoing self while giving Lady a hard time.
“Pappy hollered ‘Dandy Don’ and asked me if I’s gonna do anything,” Lady said. “And the next day he had the heart attack. … It shocked me.”
Lady can still see Crowe making a call at first base with his trademark twist of flamboyance.
“He’d kick that left leg up in the air and holler, ‘You got him,’” Lady said. “He wouldn’t say, ‘You’re out.’ It was, ‘You got him.’ … Pappy would always say, ‘There he comes, Dandy Don — a dancing dandy.’ He just meant the world to me.”
That sentiment is shared by many. Crowe spent three decades working at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Johnson City and Elizabethton. He also coached everything from Stratton Elementary and North Junior High football to Elizabethton baseball and Cocke County basketball and baseball. In 2006-07, he coached the Kevin Connell-led Gray middle school team to 62 straight wins.
Winning was standard for Crowe. He was the Big Seven coach of the year in 1968 after his first Elizabethton baseball team went 24-6 and tied Dobyns-Bennett and Science Hill for a share of the Cyclones’ first Big Seven Conference title. Pitcher Eddie Stanley (11-1) and first baseman Eddie Randolph (12 home runs, 34 RBIs) were key contributors.
Crowe recalled instructing Randolph to look for a first-pitch fastball that year in a tournament at Oak Ridge, which Elizabethton won. Randolph got the fastball, and 38 years later, Crowe described Randolph’s ensuing blast as if he could still see the ball rocketing above the Atomic City.
“He hit it over the light poles,” Crowe said. “I mean he put it in orbit.”
He enjoyed discussing long home runs, including a few hit when Tary Scott played travel-ball for him. Scott, a David Crockett alum, went on to play in the Boston Red Sox farm system.
Crowe was 48-17 in two seasons with the Cyclones, but left for Newport in 1969. He coached Cocke County’s boys basketball for six years and also coached the girls five of those years. He had a 161-37 record with the boys and won three district titles in six seasons with players as Herman Pruitt and Mike Hannon, who played at East Tennessee State. Cocke County hadn’t won a district since 1949-50, according to the Newport Plain Talk.
Crowe went 87-35 with the girls teams. He also coached the Cocke County baseball team five seasons. The Fighting Cocks had a 23-game win streak in 1974, and compiled a 110-27 record and two district titles in five years under Crowe.
“There’s no secret to coaching,” Crowe said during an interview in 2006. “Good players make good coaches.”
It wasn’t quite that simple, says Texas Rangers pitching coordinator Danny Clark, who played and coached for Crowe and worked for him at the Boys Club.
“He knew the game and everybody enjoyed playing for Pappy,” Clark said. “He never chewed us out per se. He never cussed us. He never belittled us. He always made sure that we left the ballpark with a positive.
“I’ve never met a player who played — or even people who didn’t get to play — who had a bad word to say about Pappy. That’s hard to do.”
But Crowe’s eye for talent, fundamentals and his natural rapport with players was essentially trumped by a distaste for red tape. Seeing things in black and white reassures sticklers, but many lives must be touched in the gray area.
Consequently, Crowe coached the vast majority of his exceptionally talented players during five decades of travel baseball in Connie Mack, Dizzy Dean and Babe Ruth classifications.
Crowe’s players included Mike Martin, Gary “Shorty” Adams, Dale Scott, Jeff Hostetler, Hanes Torbett, Chip Rhea, Todd Anderson, Adam Cross, Boodle Clark, Garth McKinney, Brandon Crowe (not related) and major-leaguers Jimmy Gobble (Crowe said he played briefly), Dewon Brazelton and Seth McClung.
Many of those signed professional contracts, as did Jeremy Owens, Jeremy Blevins, Mike Dockery and Ross Garland.
Danny Clark began playing with Crowe as a 15-year-old.
“I felt like he helped me grow not only as a player, but as a person,” Clark said. “I got to travel to places I’d never been in my life. And I wouldn’t have had anywhere to go if it wasn’t for Pappy. He was a mentor.
“When I played, you had A.R. Rhea, Shorty Adams, David Birchfield, Chuck McClain, Roy McCrary. I know the three years I played, every single person played in college (and/or the minors). And then when I got done playing, I started coaching with him and he kind of helped introduce me to coaching.”
Clark assisted Crowe in the early ’90s when Crowe had excellent teams, though they were still traveling in the same modest Boys Club vans that players from the ’70s fondly remember.
“We played George Steinbrenner’s Bay Side Yankees up in West Virginia,” said Chip Rhea, who played at Kentucky and in the minors after leaving Science Hill. “We pulled up to the field blaring country music as we normally did and saw a custom coach that the Yankees traveled in. Pappy calmly reminded us that they put their uniforms on just like we did and to just play our game. Two hours later we loaded back up in those vans having run-ruled the mighty Yankees.”
Jay Hensley (University High/Radford) and Todd Anderson (Science Hill/ETSU) probably combined for the victory in that one.
“There isn’t anything bad to say about Pappy,” Hensley said in an email. “He treated us like men and coached us like boys. He had our respect, and most important, the respect of our parents. That says the most about him. … I loved to hear him say, ‘OK boys, let’s go get ‘em.’”
In a “Money Ball” era of analytics and science, Clark often remembers similar words from Crowe to help keep his instruction/instructors grounded.
“Every time we’d get in that ol’ van he’d say, ‘Boys, we’re going over the mountain to play a little hardball. You better buckle up and be ready to play,’” Clark said. “I can remember it like he said it today. … You know, things get so complicated and we’re so advanced now, and I always tell myself just go back to playing hardball and try to keep it simple.”
Anderson was part of a win against nationally ranked Auburn when he played at ETSU, but says playing for Pappy was the most fun he had. They finished runner-up to Ocean View, Calif., losing 2-1 in the Palomino World Series in Greensboro, N.C., in 1992.
“Back in the early ’90s travel ball did not exist unless you played for Pappy,” Anderson said. “I remember he would load us up on the Boys Club van and take us all over to play in … Chattanooga, Dalton, Ga., Greensboro, Knoxville, Virginia Beach. You played with the best baseball players in the area.
“The reason it was so fun was he just let us play. Don’t get me wrong, he would coach, but not overcoach. And when he did correct you or talk to you about something, it was always in a calm and cool manner.”
Anderson liked hearing Crowe say, “How you feel today, right-hander?” But oddly enough, he said the biggest impression Crowe made was when he spent more than an hour working with him on basketball one day at the Boys Club. He was generous with his time.
Bart McFadden played for Crowe, though he says he wasn’t very good. But he was drawn to Crowe’s devotion, particularly when McFadden’s parents divorced when he was 16 in 1995.
McFadden is now the Chief Professional Officer with the Boys & Girls Clubs of West Georgia. He got his start, in part, helping Crowe run baseball tournaments.
“I typed more schedules than I care to remember from what Pap gave me written out on a yellow legal pad,” McFadden said in an email. “Every tournament, he would hand-write the entire schedule and tournament rules on a legal pad and have me ‘make it look good.’ I was always especially fond that he always asked teams to turn in their ‘rooster’ at the first game. Spelling was not his strong point.
“In all seriousness, after my parents’ divorce in 1995, Pappy was there with me step by step every day to make sure I was doing well, had what I needed and had opportunities to learn and grow through the Boys & Girls Club. For 7-8 years, I spent nearly every working day with Pappy at the club or on a ball field.”
Crowe never put on airs. It was a surreal moment hearing him do a dugout interview when a Dizzy Dean World Series championship game in 2007 was rebroadcast on CSS, but Crowe was calm, cool and collected.
Two of the players on that team were Walters State/ETSU star Dylan Pratt and Todd Caldwell, who began at ETSU and was named to the Rawlings NAIA Gold Glove team after his senior season at Milligan in 2010.
Caldwell remembers Crowe footing the bill for that enjoyable trip to Southhaven, Miss., and noted Crowe being especially valuable to older teenagers once travel ball became more common with younger players some 10-15 years ago.
“He gave us the opportunity to play quality competition in the Southeast,” Caldwell said in an email. “He truly loved the kids and touched a lot of young people’s lives. They will never forget that. I know I won't.”
Crowe’s generosity went beyond players that could help him win. Lady umpired summer-league games for years in Crowe’s tournaments, which were fundraisers for Crowe’s teams.
“Pappy set an example for all the kids who played for him and never turned anybody down,” Lady said. “If you forgot your dozen baseballs (as part of a tournament entry fee), he’d just go get a dozen. If teams didn’t show up from out of town, he’d always pay us for forfeits. He treated people the way we all should.”
Crowe’s influence on any area youth, particularly via baseball, is immeasurable.
“We lost a real good one,” TSSAA Hall of Famer Charlie Baxter said. “He did so much for so many young men over the years. I don’t know how he did it all. He was always involved and supportive. It’s a great loss.”
Many special moments in life seem meant to be — even as they’re occurring. Crowe came to eat with some local legends last fall at Carver Rec.
I’d invited him on several occasions, knowing he’d enjoy the nostalgic waxing of guys like his old buddy, Ernie Ferrell Bowman, fellow major-leaguer Joe McClain, former San Antonio Spur Harley “Skeeter” Swift and former College World Series star/Houston Astros coach Billy Joe Bowman.
McClain didn’t make it that day — he was at Crowe’s service Friday in a large turnout that included Clark, Lady, Shorty Adams, Bobby Snyder, Bob May, Ryan Presnell, Mike Rader — but among those that came to Carver were Langston legend Billy Gene Williams, who Crowe had known since the ’40s or ’50s, and Science Hill star Gary Carter.
It was the first time either Crowe or Carter had attended one of the lunches, and they appeared pleasantly surprised to see one another for the first time since who knows when. In fact, after looking around seeing faces from his past such as Crowe, Ferrell Bowman, Johnny Russaw, Herb Greenlee, Al Hamlett, Graham Spurrier, Carl Williams and Gary Scheuerman, Carter was compelled to stand and give a touching “thank you.” He mentioned Crowe spending time with him as a youngster and Ferrell Bowman hitting him ground balls when he was a chubby kid at Kiwanis Park.
Crowe hadn’t seemed like he felt well that day, but smiled when Carter spoke and later left with pep in his step.
Though Carter scored 1,199 points for Don DeVoe at Tennessee and turned heads across the state with his football talent in high school, Crowe always contended that Carter’s best chance at a pro career was in baseball.
“Pappy always talked about Gary Carter — always,” Danny Clark said. “I always would ask him who was the best player he ever coached, and he’d always say, ‘Gary Carter had more talent than anybody. Gary Carter had more power, more contact ability.’ He said he was the best he ever coached, and that’s saying a lot, because Pappy’s probably coached a thousand kids, and a lot of them were talented.”
Ferrell Bowman was all smiles when he saw Crowe and Carter that day at Carver, and we recalled Carter’s impromptu “thank you” at Crowe’s funeral service Friday. Yes, that afternoon at Carver did seem like more than coincidence, especially when seeing people lined up to the door to pay their respects to Crowe a few months later.
Bowman grew up on Elm Street, a strong throw from Langston High School. Crowe grew up two blocks away on Millard Street behind Central Baptist Church. (The Crowes moved to the 200 block of Wilson Avenue in 1954, where Crowe’s father Manuel, a former player-coach with the Johnson City Soldiers, had a big garden and chickens, and the Atlanta Braves on the TV.)
Bowman was three years older than Crowe, but said they frequented the Red Shield Boys Club together.
Bowman went on to play in the 1962 World Series — frustrating the likes of Mickey Mantle with his glove at shortstop — and played with five Hall of Famers, including Willie Mays, during his career with San Francisco.
But, Bowman says, Crowe left more footprints on the diamond.
“Pappy helped more kids,” Bowman said, “regardless of age or race or anything else, than probably anybody in the state of Tennessee.”