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History's Headlines: J. Birney Crum: The man and the stadium

Driving down Allentown’s Linden Street beyond 17th offers a sweeping view to the left of Cedar Beach Park and lake. But if you are new to the Lehigh Valley, you might wonder why the large stadium to the right bears the unfamiliar name- in large, 1930s style Art Deco letters- J. Birney Crum. Who was this person that he deserved such an honor?

Perhaps the person who could tell you the most about him today is Evan Burian, who is the author of a biography of Crum and his legendary status. For 25 years, Crum was head coach at Allentown High School (now Willian Allen High School) of football, basketball and baseball. He also had relatives who played on his teams.

“When it came to sports in Allentown and the Lehigh Valley, Birney- everybody called him Birney- was the boss,” Burian says. “For three decades in the 1930s to 1959, Allentown High School (AHS) was one of the largest high schools in Pennsylvania with an annual enrollment of 3,000 to 4,000 students and was renowned for its quality in education and athletics. In the 1940s AHS was nationally recognized with articles in both Time and Life magazines because it was considered one of the best comprehensive high schools in the United States and because of its championship football and basketball teams.”

It was to be Crum who put the school on the map athletically. Crum was born in St. Louis on March 28, 1899. He grew up on the other side of the Mississippi River in Alton, Illinois, then an industrial town with a southern flavor. In high school he played football, basketball and baseball and excelled at each. He began his college career in James Milliken University in Decatur, Illinois. Eventually Crum came East and enrolled at Muhlenberg College. From 1921 to 1923 he was captain of the football, basketball and baseball teams. Although approached by major league baseball  teams, he turned them all down, saying he would rather coach and teach.

After several coaching jobs in New Jersey and western Pennsylvania, he received two offers: one was to take over the football program for the McKeesport High School Tigers. The other came from Allentown High School. Although Allentown’s offer was $500 less, Crum decided to take it. According to Burian, his reasons had more to do with Crum’s “comfort zone” than anything else. After his time at Muhlenberg he had come to regard Allentown as “home.” Allentown High, although already known for its academic distinction, had hardly been a sports powerhouse. Easton Area High School, going back to the 1890s, had dominated that role. At Allentown, Crum, who had taught math along with his coaching duties at other schools, was supervisor of the athletic programs as well as football, basketball and baseball coach.

Crum was 26 when he came to Allentown. His early years were marked with tragedy when a player, A. Jack Coffield, was injured making a tackle during practice and died in the hospital. Newspaper accounts of the time report that Crum wept openly hearing of the young man’s death. A year or so later the school district built a football bleacher stadium behind the school and named it for Coffield. It was expanded twice to 15,000 seats. It was here that the Allentown High School had some of his biggest victories under Crum.

One of the things that made Crum so adept at football was the summer school for coaches he attended at Notre Dame conducted by the legendary football coach Knute Rockne, who died in a plane crash in 1931. Interviewed by Allentown’s Evening Chronicle newspaper in the 1930s, Hurtley “Hunk” Anderson, Rockne’s successor at Notre Dame, praised Crum:

“There’s a fellow who knows football for all its worth,” Anderson said. “Do you know out in the summer school for coaches, 'Rock' used to give Birney full charge of the execution of plays that he was trying to bring home to the other coaches? He always picked Crum as his quarterback to direct these plays. I know it to be a fact that ‘Rock’ called Crum into his office half a dozen times to go over plays. I walked in there one afternoon and they were in the middle of a hot argument as to whether the tackle could block the opposing guard sufficiently to allow a play thorough that side. And then later I saw the two of them out there working on that same play on the field.”

Anderson also expressed surprise about Crum’s seeming lack of interest to going into college coaching. “He’s a big-timer,” said Anderson. “And when he does it, if he ever does, go into college coaching he’s going to be a big success because he has the stuff to put it across…. but whether he is coaching schoolboys or coaching college he is a real coach.”

Of course, Crum never did decide to “put it across.” Why was speculated on a lot. Many have suggested that he really liked the freedom to be his own man at Allentown High whereas coaching college would put him under the pressure of college presidents, alumni etc. These were not there, at least not to the same extent, at the high school level.

Burian notes the many successes that Crum had at AHS. “From 1925 to 1950 Crum’s football teams won 190 games and his basketball teams won 490 games for a combined total 680 victories. Over a six year period from 1941 to 1946 his Canary football teams went 60-3-3, outscoring the opposition 1,801 points to only 239. Forty of the sixty wins were shutouts. From 1945 to 1947 his basketball teams won three straight state championships, including a Pennsylvania record of sixty state championships.”

In its February 10, 1947 issue, Time magazine, under the heading “Champs by Crum,”  hailed him for creating such fabulous basketball teams. Crum gave credit to his system of scouting players in grade school and on city basketball courts. “Any time I come across a promising string bean,” he told Time, “I just naturally bring him along.”  Among the players mentioned in the article was Elmo Jackson, an African-American player that the magazine called ,“a lightning fast forward.”

All of Crum’s  games were always sold out. Which brought up the question of the need for a larger space, a real football stadium. With the end of World War II, such a thing seemed possible. Work began and by the second week of September 1948, the 22,500 seat Allentown High School Stadium was dedicated. Each night ceremonies and entertainment were held, including a series of circus acts and a large fireworks display. They began with a religious ceremony led by the city’s pastors and the combination of church choirs, attended by roughly 8,000. The next night that crowd swelled to over 10,000 when local officialdom was on hand. Several speakers mentioned the concept that the stadium was in its way a memorial to the local men who had died in World War II. Crum spoke briefly but his remarks were not recorded by the press. Miss Nancy Ann Kutz was crowned AHS Stadium Queen and in a football game that followed, Allentown High won.

In 1950 J. Birney Crum retired from Allentown High School. Throughout the years that followed Crum was remembered not just for his role in local sports but also for the acts of kindness he showed to the many players who participated in his sports programs over the years. A year after his death in 1981 what was then called the Allentown School District Stadium became J. Birney Crum.

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