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By Charles Ambrose
It was 1974, in the opening round of Division II Baseball Championship. Jim Crane took the mound for Central Missouri, stepping onto the highest point on the field with the most pressure. Crane calmly struck out the first 11 batters, and UCM went on to beat Ohio Northern behind Crane’s DII championship-record 18 strikeouts. Crane was at the pinnacle of his collegiate athletics career.
Major League scouts called night and day, offering him $50,000 in signing bonuses to quit school and enter the draft. His mother made him go back to school. But in his senior year, he blew out his shoulder and the scouts stopped calling.
Crane now looks down now from his boardroom at the Houston Astros taking batting practice in Minute Maid Park. He is owner of the Major League ball club, completing a dream. Crane jokingly remarks that things worked out all right for him.
Crane is among 49 former Division II student-athletes being honored this year as part of a tribute team that celebrates the 40th anniversary of Division II. The tribute team highlights one male and one female student-athlete from each of Division II’s 23 current conferences, plus two at-large nominees. A pair of identical twins pushes the total to 49 honorees. Crane, who played baseball for the Mules from 1973-76 and was subsequently inducted into the school’s athletics hall of fame, as well as the Mid-American Intercollegiate Athletics Association’s Hall of Fame, was selected as a representative of the MIAA along with Truman State volleyball player Teri Clemens (1974-78).
It’s been a long journey for Crane, from graduating at UCM to starting a multi-billion dollar freight company and owning a Major League baseball team. He drove from his home in St. Louis to Houston and started a successful freight company from the ground up with a loan from his sister. Crane founded Eagle/USA Airfreight in March 1984 and served as its CEO through August 2007. The company grew exponentially and went public in 1995, trading on the NASDAQ. By 2000, Crane’s company was renamed Eagle Global Logistics to reflect its operations in more than 100 countries. It was bought by Apollo Management in 2007 and left the NASDAQ, eventually becoming part of CEVA Logistics.
Crane credits much of his business success to the attributes he picked up playing Division II athletics.
“The biggest thing I learned is if you just work a little harder and focus more, you are going to beat most guys to the punch,” he said.
Crane applied this mentality when fulfilling his dream of owning a Major League Baseball team. After three unsuccessful attempts at acquiring a team, Crane’s determination finally paid off when he bought the Astros in 2011.
“It is hard to buy a baseball team, and I kept trying and trying and didn’t give up,” Crane said. “Determination and hard work will usually pay off.”
His success on and off the field might never have been were it not for Crane’s baseball coach at Central Missouri. Between his freshmen and sophomore year, Crane unexpectedly lost his father, and Crane didn’t see much of a future in baseball. He was content in dropping out of school and working full time.
But UCM head coach Robert Tompkins wouldn’t allow it. He drove to the Cranes’ house and made sure that Jim was coming back to school for his sophomore year. Tompkins took a personal interest in Crane’s life outside of baseball and made sure he stayed in school.
Crane is thankful to this day.
“It was a tough year and I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he said. “If he had not made that trip, I may not be sitting here. Who knows?
“He was a steady, smart guy who took a personal interest with everyone. He knew what made everyone tick. After my dad died, I was just going to keep working because I wasn’t that great my freshmen year, and I didn’t think I had much of a career in baseball and I didn’t like class. But coach Tompkins took an interest in my life and certainly had an impact in me finishing school and doing as well as I did. The next year I made a significant improvement in my pitching. My stats really improved.”
From his personal experience playing Division II baseball, Crane has kept the value of college athletics and Division II close to his heart.
“College athletics is a good base for any student-athlete,” he said. “I can’t tell you one guy on that team who hasn’t been successful afterward. Playing baseball gave them a positive way to move forward in various ways.”
Crane has given back generously to the sport and the school that changed his life. He donated most of the $1.2 million needed to transform Central Missouri’s baseball facilities, and the complex was renamed Jim Crane Stadium/Robert N. Tompkins field. Last year, Crane hosted a premier Division II baseball tournament at Minute Maid Park.
Crane even looks for an athletics background when seeking employees.
“We recruited a lot of athletes in the freight business,” he said. “If I saw on a resume that someone played college sports, that immediately tells me they have a certain level of discipline. That converts well to business.”
Under Crane’s leadership, the Astros recently unveiled the Community Leaders program, investing $18 million in a five-year plan to improve city-owned public youth softball and baseball fields in the Houston area.
“There are always a lot of defining moments in a career, and you get a lot of breaks along the way,” he said. “The harder you work, the luckier you get. You create some of your own breaks, and I was not afraid to work hard. No one was going to outwork me, and if I had the opportunity to get better, I always would, whether it was in business or baseball.”