Jimmie Crutchfield: A Class Act and a terrific Center and Right Fielder

First reinforcements of San Juan in 1938-39. In front, John Johnson and Hiram Bithorn; standing, Jimmy Crutchfield and Clarence Palm.

Everywhere Jimmie Crutchfield played, he was well liked. Cool Papa Bell once observed: “Jimmie Crutchfield was the best TEAM player in baseball. If he [Crutchfield] never played a game, he would still have been an important part of any baseball team. He cheered you up when things weren’t going too good [or] whether you had troubles on or off the field.” https://aaregistry.org/story/jimmie-crutchfield-was-the-little-big-man-of-black-baseball/ Crutchfield was born in Ardmore, Missouri, March 25, 1910.

Crutchfield’s fine SABR bio by Bill Johnson is at https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/jimmie-crutchfield/ Johnson included several Crutchfield quotes made to Van Hyning, in New York City, during a special event honoring Negro Leaguers, early 1990s. This blog will mainly focus on Crutchfield’s 1938-39 Puerto Rico Winter League season with the San Juan Senators. It will also provide some background information on the 1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords—when Crutchfield played RF for them—and Crutchfield’s six weeks of barnstorming in Puerto Rico, 1936.

1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords: Outstanding is an Understatement

Larry Lester, an authority on Negro Leagues history, opined—“Talent-wise, the 1935 Crawfords were one of the best teams (in the), 1920-to-1948 era.” Lester added: “Crutch was one of my favorite interviews.” Here are some key players, by position, with 1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords, a Major League team, due to Commissioner Rob Manfred’s December 16, 2020 announcement to classify Negro Leagues stats from 1920-to-1948 seasons as major league.”

  • C—Josh Gibson
  • 1B/MGR—Oscar Charleston
  • 2B—Pat Patterson
  • 3B—Judy Johnson
  • SS—Chester Williams
  • LF—Sam Bankhead
  • CF—Cool Papa Bell
  • RF—Jimmie Crutchfield
  • C/UT—Bill “Thou Shalt Not Steal” Perkins
  • UT—Curtis Harris
  • P—Leroy Matlock
  • P—Roosevelt Davis
  • P—Bertrum Hunter
  • P—Bill Harvey
  • P—Sam Streeter
  • P—Spoon Carter

Johnson’s SABR bio cited Crutchfield’s bare-handed catch of a long fly ball hit to deep center field by Biz Mackey in the 1935 East-West All-Star Game at Comiskey Park. “White Sox park fans say that it was a greater catch than any big [league] outfielder ever made in the Comiskey ball orchard.”

Bill Thompson, in his September 12, 2019 blog, wrote this was “the greatest team that ever was.”

https://wordsabovereplacement.com/the-greatest-team-there-ever-was/ They were “superior to the 1935 Detroit Tigers,” who defeated the Chicago Cubs in the 1935 World Series. Conversely, the Crawfords bested the New York Cubans, four games-to-three, in the 1935 Negro National League (NNL) II Playoff Championship Series, held September 13-23. Crutchfield, who infrequently pitched, won Game Six, 7-6, in relief, at Philadelphia, September 22. Martín Dihigo was the losing pitcher, also in relief. Per John Holway, Cubans business manager Frank Forbes “went into the clubhouse to begin counting out the winners’ share when Dihigo yanked a surprised Johnny Taylor and put himself into pitch.” Charleston’s three-run HR tied it, 6-6. Judy Johnson won it with a bases-loaded walk-off hit. The Crawfords captured the series the next day.

Puerto Rico 1936 Barnstorming Trip and 1938-39 Season with San Juan Senators

The 5’7,” 150-pound Crutchfield recalled his first foray into Puerto Rico, a six-week 1936 barnstorming trip. “I first came down to Puerto Rico in 1936,” said Crutchfield. “At that time, we played six weeks with [Satchel] Paige and [Josh] Gibson. It was a success and they [Puerto Rico] decided to start a league, and in 1938 I was the first center fielder to play for San Juan.”

Six teams played a 40-game winter season, divided into two halves, from November 13, 1938 through a best-of-five final series concluding April 23, 1939. Teams were allowed three Imports apiece. Imports were usually Stateside Negro Leaguers such as Bertrum Hunter, with the 1938-39 Ponce Kofresí Pirates, but also included Cubans, e.g., Alejandro Oms, who played for the New York Cubans some seasons, and with the 1938-39 Guayama Witches; Venezuelan P-OF Vidal López of the 1938-39 Caguas Criollos; among others. San Juan was a disappointing 8-11, for fourth-place, in the first-half, but rebounded to finish 12-8 in the second-half. Games were played on Sunday double-headers, a morning game, followed by an afternoon contest.

Crutchfield, age 28, was the first player tin Puerto Rico Professional Baseball history to hit for the cycle. It happened December 4, 1938 against Caguas. (Buster Clarkson, with the Mayagüez Indios, was the second player to accomplish this, in Puerto Rico, December 22, 1940.) Crutchfield usually batted lead-off for San Juan. Catcher Clarence Palm batted third or fourth in the line-up. The best Native hitter was 1B José “Pepe” Santana. Raymond “Jabao” Brown (7-0) strengthened San Juan’s pitching staff in the second-half.  Coincidentally, Brown was a 1931 teammate of Crutchfield with the Indianapolis ABCs, managed by Candy Jim Taylor. “Ray did it all—pitch effectively, hit, play defense…” stated Crutchfield (to the author). “Ray Brown and I were teammates with the Indianapolis ABCs, so I knew him really well by the time we played with San Juan. He was a winner.” Brown also played the OF for San Juan when he was not pitching.

Crutchfield was one of 18 players representing the Imports in the League All-Star Game, on January 6, 1939, Three Kings Day, a special holiday (12th day of Christmas). The Imports played the squad comprising Native All-Stars.

San Juan qualified for the league finals after besting the Humacao Oriental Grays—featuring Dick Seay and Ed Stone—two games-to-none, in a best-of-three mini-series, after both teams tied with 12-8 records in the second-half. The Senators overall record was 22-19 (0-4 under Billo Torruellas; 17-14 with Hiram Bithorn at the helm; and, 5-1 under pitcher Concepción “Chechón” Vega) going into the best-of-five finals versus Guayama, featuring shortstop Perucho Cepeda—league batting champ (.465 AVG)—OF Juan Esteban “Tetelo” Vargas and Bill Perkins. Guayama’s overall mark was 27-12: 16-3, first-half; and, 11-9, second-half. (Bithorn had to leave Puerto Rico, to report for spring training in the States.)

Guayama signed Bertrum Hunter, for the post-season, to replace the departed Oms. Guayama thought they had an agreement with Martín Dihigo to replace Oms, but Dihigo—who disliked flying—would not catch a flight from Havana, Cuba, to San Juan, Puerto Rico. Dihigo had a chance to travel by passenger ship, but was a no-show. So, Guayama signed Bertrum Hunter after the deadline to make roster changes, and despite the objection of team officials from other league franchises.

Guayama won the title, three-games-to-two, behind Bertrum Hunter’s three wins. Raymond Brown (1-2), Santiago “Chago” de Jesús (1-0) and Gerardo Rodríguez (0-1) did their best for San Juan. The festivities began Sunday, April 16, 1939, at Guayama’s Ina Calimano Park. Raymond Brown outpitched Rafaelito Ortiz in the morning, for a 4-2 win. Guayama returned the favor with a 13-9 victory that afternoon, behind Hunter.

Games Three-Four-Five were held at Sixto Escobar Stadium, Saturday, April 22, followed by a Sunday twin-bill (April 23). Hunter bested Brown, 4-2, on Saturday. Then, Chago de Jesús, who was 7-4 in the regular season, won Game Four—Sunday’s a.m. contest—by a 9-4 score. That afternoon, Hunter won his third game of the series, a 2-1 cliffhanger, over Brown, to give Guayama the title.

Crutchfield opined that “three of the league’s best players were Tetelo, Perucho and [Pancho] Coímbre. They were fine people and great players.” (Coímbre starred for Ponce.) Crutchfield had great rapport with Hiram Bithorn, one of San Juan’s three managers, as well as with Billo Torruellas and player/manager Concepción “Chechón” Vega. “Bithorn was a nice guy who spoke good English,” noted Crutchfield, whose positive demeanor on-and-off the field made him a fan favorite at local restaurants, walking down the street, interacting with families who invited him to their homes for a visit or a meal, and so on. “If you were nice to the nice people, the sun would sine in your face all the time. It [1938-39] was a fun time.”

Cefo Conde (7-4) was one of Guayama’s  best regular season pitchers, along with Rafaelito Ortiz (11-3). Conde  had a positive demeanor and disposition, much like Crutchfield’s. “I enjoyed interacting with Stateside players who were my [Guayama] teammates, like Satchel Paige [1939-40, 1940-41], along with players on other teams. Crutchfield was really down-to-earth…I could relate to him, because both of us were small in stature, but had big hearts.”

“Crutch’s” last trip  to Puerto Rico was in 1979, for an Old-Timers game between ex-San  Juan Senators and Santurce Crabbers players. It was held at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, named for “Crutch’s” former 1938-39 San Juan skipper. “Crutch” was re-united with Buster Clarkson, Leon Day, Monte Irvin, among other ex-players who graced Puerto Rico Winter League diamonds. “Crutch” died, at age 83, in Chicago, Illinois, March 31, 1993.

With special thanks and appreciation to Jimmie Crutchfield, for his time and goodwill. Thanks to Cefo Conde, John Holway, Larry Lester, and to Jorge Colón Delgado, Official Historian, Puerto Rico Professional Baseball League.

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