Even as a college kid in the 1970s, Jim Crane was adamant about finishing the job. This is how Crane’s teammates in the Central Missouri baseball program remember him. This is how Robbie Ruth, a former Mules outfielder, begins a story about his long-time friend.
Crane was the most competitive player in the program, Ruth says, the kind of young pitcher who wanted the baseball and demanded to go nine innings, the kind of athlete who would dazzle in fraternity intramurals, no matter the sport. So on a spring day in 1974, it was Crane who took the mound in the opening game of the Division II College World Series in Springfield, Ill. It was Central Missouri’s first trip to the national tournament, and the team was playing some school from Ohio, and Ruth will never forget what happened next.
Armed with a shaggy head of hair and a lively fastball, Crane, a sophomore from St. Louis, struck out the first 11 batters of the game and finished with an NCAA-record 18 strikeouts in a 2-0 victory.
The performance was so dominating, Ruth says, that teammates began joking about letting Crane and the catcher take the field by themselves. But that, in a nutshell, was Jim Crane.
“It speaks an awful lot to his heart,” Ruth says. “Because he did not want to come out of a game. He was much like a (Justin) Verlander.”
The comparison is intentional, of course, because 43 years after Central Missouri first appeared in the College World Series, Ruth’s old friend is now the owner of the Houston Astros, a franchise just four victories from another first: A World Series championship.
Six years after Crane bought the club for nearly $700 million, the former Central Missouri star had overseen the reconstruction of an organization and helped guide the club back to prominence. His fingerprints are all over the transformation.
With the organization in ruins, Crane hired general manager Jeff Luhnow from the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011. He invested millions in the minor-league system. He remained patient while the club lost more than 100 games for three straight seasons.
And then there was that day in late August, when Crane agreed to take on the salary of Verlander, an available ace who was acquired in a 12th-hour trade with the Detroit Tigers. It was, in some ways, the kind of move that would help finish the job.
“Everybody has been pulling together and it is kind of a dream come true for this city to make it this far and have a chance to win the World Series,” Crane said this week.
The World Series opened on Tuesday night, the Dodgers playing host to the Astros at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. Yet the genesis of this baseball story begins in Warrensburg, where Crane’s old teammates remember his days as a two-term president of the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity and the summer his life changed in an instant.
“One word would be, ‘Intense,’” says Steve Luebbert, a former teammate who settled in St. Louis. “He was pretty intense.”
None of his old teammates expected Crane to become a billionaire and own a Major League Baseball team. But then again, who expects that from anyone? Crane was, by his own admission, only a decent student. He used baseball as an outlet. And in the months after his freshman season ended, he nearly dropped out of school.
His father, Bob, had died unexpectedly of a heart attack. His family was devastated. So Crane took a union job at a warehouse back home in Dellwood, Mo., and contemplated quitting baseball.
In the end, Central Missouri baseball coach Robert Tompkins had to drive from Warrensburg to St. Louis to convince Crane to return to school. The story has stayed with Crane and his teammates for the rest of their lives.
“(Tompkins) was really ahead of his time,” Luebbert said. “This was the 1970s, kind of a different time. But he made sure to treat us with respect and get to know us as people.”
In four seasons, Crane would become one of the best pitchers in program history. He still holds school records with 23 complete games and seven shutouts. His strikeout record from the College World Series still stands, too. But as the decades passed, and Crane built a self-made fortune in the air freight logistics business, he remained tethered to his past. The school had shaped him. He sought to give back.
In the last 25 years, Crane has donated more than $3 million for renovations at the Central Missouri, where the baseball stadium is named for him and the field is dedicated to Tompkins. He also started a Division II baseball tournament that takes place at the Astros’ Minute Maid Park each spring. The Mules are, of course, a mainstay.
“He’s the type of guy who’ll sit down and drink a beer and talk baseball with you,” Central Missouri athletic director Jerry Hughes said. “He really cares about Mules baseball. That’s where he got his start.”
And then there are the old Mules, the teammates, the men who have also become regulars in Houston, Ruth says. They still convene each season at spring training and takes trips to see the Astros. In a suite at Minute Maid Park, they’ll reminisce about the old days and talk baseball and life.
Some of the guys, like former teammate Kevin Kinsella, settled in the Kansas City area. Others have landed in St. Louis. Another teammate, Mike Ludwig, lives here and works for one of Crane’s businesses. He’s the catcher who caught all 18 of those strikeouts.
“He’s just never has forgotten where he came from,” Ruth said. “He remembers those people who were in his life back then.”