On the brick wall beyond the left centerfield fences at Comerica Park, the last names of several Tiger Hall of Famers are listed in white lettering.
It’s a safe bet that a lot folks at the stadium see in the name “Crawford” and have absolutely no idea who “Crawford” might be. After all, fans in 1999 left the legendary slugger Harry Heilmann and this guy “Crawford” off the All-Time Tiger team.
Well “Wahoo” Sam Crawford from Wahoo, Nebraska was one of the greatest sluggers in the Dead Ball Era. He still holds the career record for the most triples (309) and for most inside the park home runs in a season with 12. One can only guess what he would have done with a livelier baseball.
After starting his major league career with the Cincinnati Reds in 1899 where he played through the 1902 season, Crawford arrived in Detroit and starred here from 1903 until he retired in 1917. After Ty Cobb’s arrival as an 18 year old rookie in 1905, Crawford and the Georgia Peach terrorized the American League and led the Bengals to three consecutive pennants from 1907 to 1909. Regrettably, they never won a World Series.
Despite the fact the two despised together, they were able to communicate well enough in the outfield and on the base paths.
In 1911, Crawford hit a career-high .378 with 115 runs batted in and 57 extra base hits. He led the American League in triples fives times including a record 26 in 1914.
When Harry Heilmann arrived on the scene, Crawford’s days were numbered as the future .400 hitter ended up replacing Wahoo Sam in right field. When Crawford retired after the 1917 season he had a career batting average of .309. In 1957 he was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
In 1939 at Briggs Stadium, Yankee Tommy Henrich remembered seeing Crawford, then just a few weeks short of turning 59 years old, taking batting practice in his civvies during a visit to the Motor City. It was just one day before Lou Gehrig ended his consecutive games played streak not yet knowing that his sudden poor performance was due to the disease that would bear his name.
Crawford could still hit.
“Now Crawford wasn’t hitting line drives but he was making nice contact,” Henrich told a reporter years later. Gehrig was standing at the cage. “I often wonder if Sam Crawford’s performance at his age convinced Lou that something was wrong.”
When author Lawrence Ritter traveled the United States in the 1960s tracking down old ballplayers for “The Glory of Their Times,” a book that broadcaster Red Barber called “the single best baseball book of all time,” Ritter’s discovery of Crawford was you might say just a little bit lucky.
Ritter found Crawford’s home in Hollywood, California but Sam’s wife Mary said he liked his privacy and had not been around for some time. She refused to tell Ritter where Sam was staying but hinted that he was in a small town 200 miles up the coast of California. She wouldn’t say the name. Frustrated in not finding Crawford, he ended up in Baywood Park, California. One day Ritter took his clothes to the Laundromat.
What happened is something that a Hollywood screenwriter could not have dreamed up. Ritter wrote:
“Seated next to me was a tall, elderly gentleman reading a frayed paperback. Idly I asked if he had ever heard of Sam Crawford, the old ballplayer. ‘Well, I should certainly hope so,’ he said, ‘bein’ as I’m him.’”
Ritter then went back to Crawford’s house and taped a long interview with the old man that turned into one of the greatest chapters of “The Glory of Their Times.” Ten years ago Ritter produced a cassettes and CDs of many of his interviews including the one with Wahoo Sam.
I highly recommend this marvelous book (and the tapes if you can still get them) and then you’ll learn even more about that “Crawford” guy.