Thursday, April 19, 2012

Sam Crawford

Yesterday was Sam Crawford’s birthday. He played for two of my favorite teams, the Reds and the Tigers, and was known as Wahoo Sam. He was called that based on where he was born, Wahoo, Nebraska. Be careful where you are born.

All lefty and a high school star in football, he started out on a traveling (by lumber cart) ball team who challenged towns they visited and were paid by passing the hat to cover expenses. He also challenged people to foot races because of his great speed. In 1898 he was offered a contract of $65 per month plus room and board to play for the Chatham Reds of the Canadian League, then went to the Grand Rapids Prodigals of the Western League. From there he got a contract with the Cincinnati Reds in 1899 at 19 years of age, and began a Hall of Fame major league career spanning 19 seasons with the Reds and the Tigers.

He was considered one of the best hitters of the dead ball era. In almost every year he played he led the league in several categories. In 1900, at 20 years old, he led the National League in triples and home runs. The next year he led the league again in home runs, triples and had a batting average at .330. Most interesting that year he also hit 12 inside park home runs. A feat not duplicated since. In those formative years of the MLB, Wahoo Sam played with some pretty impressive names: Jake Beckley, Bid McFee (last man to play without a glove) and Ty Cobb.

In 1903, Sam Crawford signed two contracts. One with the Reds and one with the Tigers after a bidding war broke out, as both leagues were trying to sign players from the other league. Crawford went to the Tigers with $3000 compensation to the Reds after a court ruling and played with the Tigers until the end of his major league career in 1917. Crawford was forced-out by the Tigers for future HOF member Harry Heilmann, who eventually won four batting titles. Wahoo Sam, (who decided he wasn’t yet finished playing and to show the Tigers up) then went to the Los Angeles Angels, who were then part of the Pacific Coast League, where he posted record numbers in triples and a BA of .360. After 1921, he managed minor league ball.

Ty Cobb came to the Tigers in 1905 to join Crawford as the best hitting players in the American League. The Tigers won three straight pennants in 1907, 08, and 09, sadly losing the World Series each year. Ty Cobb was a rookie in ’05 and Crawford took Ty under his wing and showed him how to run down hits and then throw the runner out. He also showed him how to steal bases. They eventually became the best double steal combination in baseball. As Ty Cobb became known, he over shadowed Crawford who did not like the perks (reporting late and private rooms) afforded Cobb. The on field competition was intense and Cobb would leave the field red-faced when Crawford bested his performance at the plate. Eventually this jealously created an animus that never dissipated in their lifetimes. It was actually Ty Cobb’s undisclosed intervention with the baseball writers that got Wahoo Sam elected to the HOF in 1957. Sam found this out long after Cobb’s death. Wahoo died in 1968.

Wahoo Sam Crawford played at the beginning of major league baseball, as we know it. He led the league in many hitting and fielding categories from 1905 to 1915; such as RBI, slugging percentage, total bases and extra base hits. He still holds the all time record of 309 triples with a matching career BA of .309. It is players like this who created the records and mythology of the game for the rest of us. Happy Birthday, Wahoo Sam.

1 comment:

Will Braund said...

Great post John. Perhaps I will do a study of players like Crawford who were sadly overshadowed by outstanding and famous teammates. Obviously Lou Gehrig was overshadowed, not once but twice - first by Ruth, then by Dimaggio. There have been some pitchers who have suffered the same fate.
Question. Who would have wanted to room with Cobb anyway?