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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #81 Kid Elberfeld

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When your nickname's "The Tabasco Kid," you are definitely worth remembering. (And hey, this series is back!)

1909 Ramly Cigarettes card (T204)
1909 Ramly Cigarettes card (T204)
Library of Congress

Editor's Note: Well, it's been quite some time since I worked on this series--over ten and a half months to be exact. That whole 2014 season thing happened. But I'm going to dust this off and see how many I can work through before Yankees news starts to get crazy again. Thank you very much to those who have e-mailed asking about the series, both for your interest and for your extreme patience.

Name: Norman "Kid" Elberfeld
Position: Shortstop
Born: April 13, 1875 (Pomeroy, OH)
Died: January 13, 1944 (Chattanooga, TN)
Yankee Years: 1903-09
Primary number: N/A
Yankee statistics: 667 G, .268/.340/.333, 89 2B, 28 3B, 4 HR, 117 SB, 106 wRC+, 18.8 rWAR, 16.8 fWAR

Biography

Like Al Orth, the previous player on the Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees list, this Yankee played so long ago and in such an unmemorable era that is quite forgotten over a century later. Kid Elberfeld was the very first trade acquisition in franchise history, and the then-Highlanders were lucky enough to get a rowdy but popular and productive player from the deal.

Tenth kid is best kid

Born to German immigrants Philip and Katherine Elberfeld (née Eiselstein) in Pomeroy, Ohio along the Ohio River border with West Virginia, Norman Elberfeld was the true kid of his family. He was the tenth child of eleven, and since the last one died before he turned four, Elberfeld was basically always the youngest. Thus, the name "Kid" was born, even as he grew up. His family moved to Cincinnati when he was three, but his shoe merchant father couldn't afford to put him through school for very long. Elberfeld played both hockey and baseball in his youth despite an early departure from education.

Elberfeld became well-regarded for his captaincy of baseball teams around Cincinnati and when he was turned 20, he signed up with an independent minor league team in Clarksville, Tenneessee. It was the beginning of a three-year trek in the minors that lasted until a big league team finally noticed him: the Philadelphia Phillies. In 1898, after an embarrassing spring training bathtub injury (if I had a nickel for every time I heard that), he made his MLB debut for the Phillies in a May 30th doubleheader against the Louisville Colonels. It was an exciting game, to say the least, as Elberfeld flashed his potential with a pair of doubles but also made a pair of errors at third base. In hindsight, his .420 on-base percentage in 14 games was nice, but back then, his .237 batting average wasn't winning any favors. So the Phillies sold him to a team called the Detroit Tigers in a relatively new minor league, the Western League.

The next year, Elberfeld got his second shot at the majors after hitting .308 with 23 steals for the Tigers. Detroit sold him to the NL's Cincinnati Reds. The results were okay but nothing overwhelming--a .261/.378/.319 triple slash with a 100 wRC+ in 41 games. Again, he returned to the Tigers the next year, and the Western League president Ban Johnson changed its name to the American League. Another season later, Johnson declared that his new league was a major league, and the AL was officially born. Of the eight teams in the 1900 minor league AL, only half remained in the new major league, and by 1902, the only survivors from the minor league were the Tigers, White Sox, and Indians.

So after fighting tooth and nail to reach the majors, Elberfeld's own minor league team had done the job for him. He seized the opportunity this team and hit .308/.397/.428 in 1901 with 11 triples and a 127 wRC+. Elberfeld's performance slipped somewhat in '02, but New York Giants manager John McGraw still admired him. He found a kindred spirit in Elberfeld, who like McGraw, was a short fellow who had a very contentious relationship with umpires and a hard-nosed playing style that stood out even in a generation of players like that. (Elberfeld even had a knack for finding ways to get hit by a pitch like McGraw often did as a player for the 1890s Orioles.) Late in his first season managing the Giants, McGraw agreed to terms with Elberfeld to jump his team and go to the Polo Grounds.

However, an agreement between the leagues to cut down on the jumping led to that idea getting nixed. Tragedy also struck when Elberfeld's teammate, pitcher Win Mercer, who was set to become Tigers manager in 1903, committed suicide at age 28 during an off-season barnstorming tour. The team was thrown into disarray, and Elberfeld clashed with the man who replaced Mercer, future Yankees GM Ed Barrow. With trade rumors swirling around him and a suspension handed down by Barrow due to "loaferish conduct," as despite a .341/.412/.424 triple slash, he seemed to be openly angling for a spot on the St. Louis Browns during a series against them. Barrow had enough, and on June 10th, Elberfeld was dealt to the AL's newest team, the Highlanders ,for infielders Ernie Courtney and Herman Long. Neither infielder would do much for Barrow, but Elberfeld certainly found his niche in New York.

New York's newest star

At the time of the trade, the rookie Highlanders club had been trudging along near the bottom of the standings, as many teams do in their inaugural campaigns. They had an 18-23 record under pitcher/manager Clark Griffith and while there were some intriguing players like future Hall of Famers Willie Keeler and Jack Chesbro, they just weren't that talented a ballclub. Bringing Elberfeld aboard was a shot in the arm to the Highlanders club. Although Elberfeld didn't hit quite as hotly as he did in Detroit, his .287/.346/.367 batting line in 90 games offered more than what they had been getting out of the Long/Courtney tandem at shortstop. The Highlanders caught fire and played 54-39 ball the rest of the way, second-best in the AL behind only the champion Boston Americans. Sportswriter Sam Crane called Elberfeld the "Tabasco Kid" for the way he played in a fiery manner and ignited the team.

The following season, a showdown was set as New York and Boston marked the first chapter in what would be a historic rivalry. The Americans, who had won the inaugural World Series over the Pirates after winning the pennant, sought to repeat as champions and took first place immediately. The Highlanders hung tight with them thanks in great part to the spitballing Chesbro's phenomenal AL record 41-win (and 10.2 WAR) season, and though it took several months, they finally passed Boston on August 19th. From that point on, the two teams wrestled back and forth for control of the AL, neither staying in front for more than a week at a time. While Griffith and Chesbro were the leaders of the team, well-known journalist Joe Vila noted that Elberfeld's batting, baserunning, and fielding were "the talk of the town." Although the HIghlanders fell just a game short of the pennant, Elberfeld maintained his high caliber of play with a 105 wRC+ and a 5.4 WAR campaign.

Despite the excitement generated by New York's newest ballclub that year, the team at Hilltop Park were unable to continue contending for most of their first two decades. The 1905 campaign was a disappointment, as the team fell back under .500 and the season came to a close in an ugly collision between Elberfeld and center fielder Dave Fultz. Both men were out cold, and while Elberfeld recovered to depart with just an ugly gash over his eye that needed stitches, Fultz didn't return to consciousness until he was at Washington Heights Hospital. Fultz regained his health, but the Columbia Law School graduate decided that his playing career was over. The injury was symbolic of just a miserable season for the Highlanders.

The next season brought the last moments of excitement that Highlanders fans would see from their team for the next dozen years. Still under Griffith's command, the ballclub rallied to regain their '04 form, and while injuries limited Elberfeld to 99 games, he had his most productive year with the bat: .306/.378/.384 with 19 steals and a 130 wRC+. (A late-season brawl with umpire Silk O'Laughlin also forced him to miss a week of time.) With Boston completely out of the picture and in the middle of a horrendous 105-loss season, the Highlanders this time competed against the White Sox, a very talented team with tremendous pitching despite being nicknamed the "Hitless Wonders" for their inferior offense.

One ugly stretch saw the Highlanders fall seven games out of the race on August 23rd, a sign that would have been the death knell for most teams. However, they rallied and won an incredible 15 games in a row from August 29th through September 8th, sweeping a remarkable five doubleheaders in the process, The streak was snapped by lowly Boston of all teams, but by the end, they were a game and a half in front of the White Sox. Alas, it wasn't meant to be. A bizarre 23-game stretch on the road by the schedule-makers didn't help matters; neither did a late sweep in Detroit at the hands of Elberfeld's old Tigers club, now led by another talented and fiery youngster: Ty Cobb. After that winning streak, they merely played .500 ball the rest of the way, and the White Sox passed them.

That was the end of the Highlanders' only stretch of productive ball. They sagged to 78 losses in '07 and even worse, 103 losses in '08, a franchise record that still stands today. Elberfeld's bat was productive in '07, but injuries robbed him of almost the entire '08 campaign, a big reason for the Highlanders' demise. Owners Bill Devery and Frank Farrell let their inaugural manager Griffith go with the team a dismal 24-32, and they decided to give the club to Elberfeld to run while he was hurt and unable to play anyway. If it was an audition of sorts for Elberfeld to be the future player-manager, he badly failed, as the team only had three more wins under him than Griffith despite playing in 42 more games.

Closing out a career

Elberfeld played one more season in New York, and it would unsurprisingly be not as a manager. (Future "Miracle Braves" manager George Stallings took over in that capacity.) The 34-year-old still maintained a leadership role though, as he mentored a pair of younger players: third baseman Jimmy Austin and shortstop John Knight. Although Elberfeld's time was now split between short and third, he treated these players quite well, and when author Lawrence Ritter interviewed Austin for his book Glory of Their Times, Austin raved about Elberfeld's assistance in helping him mature as a player.

The two sides mutually agreed to part ways after the 1909 campaign, as the Highlanders wanted to get younger at Elberfeld's positions and the veteran still wanted to start somewhere. So in the off-season, they sold him to the Washington Senators for $5,000, and Elberfeld went on to notch two more productive seasons while also becoming a popular youth baseball coach around the nation's capital. He hit .261/.363/.314 with a 104 OPS+ and 5.5 WAR for the Senators, though like in New York, the team around him wasn't very talented, losing at least 85 games both years. Afterward, Elberfeld spent a couple years in the minors, including a stint as player-manager for the Chattanooga Lookouts of the Southern Association in 1913. He was productive enough to get one more shot as a player, a 30-game stint spent mostly on the bench for the 1914 Brooklyn Robins.

The rest of Elberfeld's life continued to be identified by baseball. He returned to Chattanooga for a few more seasons as a player-manager in the late 1910s, then bounced to the rival Little Rock Travelers, with whom he spent seven seasons, finishing out the majority of his professional playing career. He was much more successful than he was in his brief stint as major league manager, helping to churn out talented players like one who would become a famous Yankee manager himself, Casey Stengel. Elberfeld even appeared in one more minor league game at the age of 61, pinch-hitting for the D-League team he was managing, the Fulton Eagles. After his retirement from managing, Elberfeld continued to run youth camps, for both boys and girls who developed athletic skills under his tutelage.

Elberfeld passed away at age 68 in 1944, a man who became more associated with his extensive time and effort raising another generation of athletes than he was with the excitable playing career beforehand. Still, he should be remembered as one of the Yankees' first stars, a shortstop who set the stage for a tradition of excellence to come.

Andrew's rank: 88
Tanya's rank: 70
Community rank: 88.5
WAR rank: 71

Season Stats

Year Age Tm G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+ TB rWAR fWAR
1903 28 NYY 90 385 349 49 100 18 5 0 45 16 22 12 0.287 0.346 0.367 0.713 109 128 2.6 2.2
1904 29 NYY 122 511 445 55 117 13 5 2 46 18 37 20 0.263 0.337 0.328 0.665 106 146 5.4 4.5
1905 30 NYY 111 449 390 48 102 18 2 0 53 18 23 16 0.262 0.329 0.318 0.647 96 124 2.0 1.8
1906 31 NYY 99 393 346 59 106 11 5 2 31 19 30 19 0.306 0.378 0.384 0.763 129 133 3.5 3.5
1907 32 NYY 120 505 447 61 121 17 6 0 51 22 36 7 0.271 0.343 0.336 0.678 109 150 3.1 3.1
1908 33 NYY 19 69 56 11 11 3 0 0 5 1 6 3 0.196 0.328 0.25 0.578 88 14 0.2 0.1
1909 34 NYY 106 431 379 47 90 9 5 0 26 23 28 17 0.237 0.314 0.288 0.601 89 109 2.2 1.7
NYY (7 yrs) 667 2743 2412 330 647 89 28 4 257 117 182 94 0.268 0.34 0.333 0.674 106 804 18.8 16.8

Stats from Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs

References

Appel, Marty. Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.

BR Bullpen

Deadball Era

Reisler, Jim. Before They Were the Bombers: The New York Yankees' Early Years, 1903-1915. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2005. (online)

Ritter, Lawrence. The Glory of Their Times. New York: Collier Books, 1966.

Simpkins, Terry. SABR bio

Other Top 100 Yankees