The prevailing wisdom at beginning of the 20th century was that hitting was a “scientific” skill. Most of the top hitters of the day used a finesse game at the plate, commonly employing bunts and well placed singles as a preferred way of getting on base.
Wahoo Sam Crawford was among a small handful of counter-cultural baseball stars of the deadball era who saw hitting differently.
“My idea of batting is a thing that should be done unconsciously,” he once explained. “If you get to studying it too much, to see just what fraction of a second you must swing to meet a curved ball, the chances are you will miss it altogether.”
See the ball, hit the ball hard. It was the way Crawford played in his early days as a member of a barnstorming team that traveled the plains of eastern Nebraska on a horse-drawn lumber wagon. It’s also the way he played with the Detroit Tigers, as part of the greatest outfield in baseball history.
Every good story needs a villain. For Sam Crawford that villain was long-time teammate Ty Cobb. From the time he jumped from the National League in 1902 until 1906, Crawford was the star of the Tigers. Cobb began to emerge as the game’s best player in 1906.
One might expect that a 25-year-old baseball star would have difficulty being eclipsed by a 19-year-old even if the teenage phenom was an amiable fellow. Cobb, of course, was anything but. While it is reported that early on Crawford took Cobb under his wing, Cobb held on to a bitterness that lasted long past his playing days for hazing that he said occurred early in the two stars’ careers as teammates.
Cobb “came up with an antagonistic attitude, which in his mind turned any little razzing into a life-or-death struggle,” Crawford recounted for Lawrence Ritter in The Glory of their Times years later. “He came up from the South, you know, and he was still fighting the Civil War. As far as he was concerned, we were all damn Yankees before he even met us.”
Crawford, for his part, resented the special treatment that Cobb was afforded. Crawford also had difficulty with what he perceived as the “me first” playing style of his cantankerous teammate.
Despite the friction between two of the team’s best players, the Detroit Tigers won three consecutive pennants from 1907-1909. Crawford did his part by putting up a 145 OPS+ and 63.5 rWAR over the course of his 15 seasons in Detroit. Crawford and Cobb are still considered one of the top double-steal duos in baseball history.
Crawford’s productivity as a player ended suddenly in his age 37 season. By the time he played his last big league game in 1917, Crawford’s OPS+ had dropped 80 full points from the previous season. He retired as baseball’s all-time leader in triples with 309 – a mark that still stands.
The end of Crawford’s playing career did not signal the end of his rivalry with Cobb, however. Cobb wrote a letter to the Sporting News accusing Crawford of not helping him in the outfield and fouling balls off intentionally when Cobb was trying to steal bases. Crawford responded by calling Cobb a cheapskate who placed blame for his own defensive deficiencies on his teammates. Cobb replied that Crawford was jealous. And so it went.
Despite the fact that the barbs went back and forth for the decades after their playing careers were over, it was Ty Cobb who lobbied hardest for Sam Crawford’s induction in the Hall of Fame, which ultimately led to Crawford joining Cobb in the Hall in 1957.