Wahoo Sam was one of greatest stars in early days of Navin Field

Sam Crawford's was the first in the line of Hall of Fame right fielders who starred for the Detroit Tigers.

An opposing player, Fielder Jones of the White Sox, once said of Sam Crawford: “He stands up at the plate like a brick house and he hits all the pitchers, without playing favorites.”

Indeed, Crawford rarely met a pitcher he didn’t like to hit against, and in his 19-year big league career – 15 spent with the Detroit Tigers – Sam hit the ball all over the park, usually a very long distance.

In an era when home runs were about as as rare as an eclipse, Crawford was one of the preeminent power hitters in the game. He still holds the record for most career triples – the Deadball Era equivalent of a home run – a mark of 309 that will probably never be surpassed. At 15 triples per season for two decades a batter would still be nine shy of Crawford!

Crawford was born in Wahoo, Nebraska, on April 18 in 1880. Back in those days, Nebraska may as well have been Alaska. The far midwest was a frontier still largely un-mapped and teaming with Cowboys and Indians. And not the fellas from Dallas and Cleveland. But Crawford’s athletic ability was too good to be kept in remote Nebraska. At the age of 13 he was already the best player on his school’s baseball and football teams. He was known for his speed, beating all local boys in foot races. By the time he was 18, in 1898, he had filled out to 6-feet tall with broad shoulders and long arms. He played ball for the Wahoo traveling team, and it was with them that Sam was first noticed and earned his first pro contract – with a Canadian team. In 1899 he jumped that team and took a higher paying salary with Grand Rapids in the Western League, a top circuit in the midwest. Crawford hit close to .390 that season and in September he was purchased by Cincinnati and made his major league debut with the Reds. Though he was just 19 years old, Crawford batted over .300 in his four weeks with the Reds, earning a starting job the next year at right field.

“Wahoo Sam” played three full years in the Queen City, leading the National League in homers in 1901 and in triples and total bases in 1902. As was the practice in the day, Crawford was always looking out for a bigger paycheck, and following the ’02 season he bolted to Detroit for a $500 bonus and a better monthly salary. The Tigers were a younger and less talented team and Crawford immediately stepped in as a star. Until the emergence of fellow outfielder Ty Cobb later in the decade, Crawford was the marquee player in the Tiger team.

Crawford and Cobb spent 13 seasons as teammates, most of them playing next to each other in right and center field. Though they also batted back-to-back in the Detroit lineup most of the time (Sam hit cleanup and Ty hit third), the pair were hardly friends. They shared few words with each other after the 1909 season, when Cobb insulted Crawford and his wife at a team dinner party. Crawford also resented Cobb’s stardom and salary over the years.

But though they were estranged as teammates, the Crawford and Cobb still managed to be a devastating duo on the field. They perfected hit-and-run plays, double steals, and other daring running plays. The hard-hitting pair barely muttered a word to each other, but they knew precisely what the other man would do in certain situations.

“We had the most daring bunch of ballplayers that league ever saw,” Cobb said.

“I didn’t need to know if he [Cobb] was running,” Crawford told Lawrence Ritter years later, “I would hit the ball behind him or over the [their] heads.”

Crawford hit a lot of baseballs over the head of the opposing team. Not only did he hit those 309 triples, but he also belted 97 homers, 51 of them of the inside-the-park variety. In one season, Sam hit 12 inside-the-park homers in addition to more than 20 triples. There were few players more capable of “burning” the opposing outfield than Wahoo Sam. At Navin Field in Detroit he often hit balls into roped-off sections inf ront of the outfield walls, where overflow crowds were watching the action.

Batting directly behind leadoff man Donie Bush and Cobb for mush of his career, Crawford was a run producer. He led the AL in RBI three times, the last time in 1915. He hot .300 ten times, with a career-best .378 in 1911. But as often was the case, Crawford was overshadowed by Cobb, who hit over .400 that year and won 10 batting titles with Sam in the same lineup.

By 1917, Sam’s aging legs and frequent salary showdowns with Frank Navin started to take their toll. His days in Detroit were numbered. He spent more time at first base in his last days as a Tiger, resting those legs and making room for young Harry Heilmann in right field. He struggled with an injury in 1917, appearing in just 61 games and hitting a woeful .173 and failing to hit even one of his famous triples. He appeared as a pinch-hitter on September 16 in Detroit against the Indians and grounded out to first base. After the game he packed his things and went home to Nebraska, choosing no to travel with the team on their season-ending 12-game road trip. He would never play for the Tigers again. With a career .309 average and just 39 hits away from 3,000 hits, Crawford chose to stay out west.

But Crawford still had some baseball left in him. He signed to play and manage in the Pacific Coast League with the Los Angeles Angels. For four seasons in LA, Wahoo Sam proved that he was still a star, batting .330 and averaging more than 210 hits, 40 doubles, 14 triples, and nine homers per season. He was the biggest baseball star the city had ever seen, and he earned a fat paycheck too. After the 1921 season, the 41-year old Crawford finally retired, even though he had hit .318 with 199 hits and 44 doubles that summer.

Sam had earned respect and adulation in LA and after he hung up his spikes he stayed in California, making his home in Hollywood. He took the job as head coach of USC’s baseball team in 1924, a post he held for six seasons. In the 1930s he returned to the Pacific Coast League as an umpire, serving in that capacity for four years. In the role as umpire he officiated games that starred young prospects like Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams.

He spent his remaining years privately in southern California, only popping up in the papers when, in the 1940s, Cobb groused about his poor treatment at the hands of Crawford when he was a young player. Sam shot back in retaliation, claiming that Cobb was a “terrible fielder” who blamed his defensive woes on him. The two reportedly made amends somewhat in 1957 when Crawford was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Secretly, Cobb had campaigned for Crawford’s election to the Hall for years.

Crawford died in Hollywood in 1968, seven years after Cobb.

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