Ty Cobb, whose birthday we celebrate this month, once said, “When I began playing the game baseball was as gentlemanly as a kick in the crotch.”
Tiny “Kid” Elberfeld was one of the dirtiest, nastiest, crotch-kickingest players in baseball. He was so hated by opponents that he reportedly took to wearing a shin guard made from whale bone to protect himself on the diamond.
Baseball at the turn of the twentieth century could be a battle of wills. The middle of the infield was the heart of the battleground. In the deadball era where runs were scarce, every foot of the base paths was hard-earned. Runners slid into fielders, and fielders did everything they could to disrupt baserunners. It was in this atmosphere that Kid Elberfeld emerged a pest.
Norman Arthur Elberfeld sounds like a name you’d give to a future senator or prominent member of the community. The type of man you’d name a park after. But, Elberfeld was born into a first generation German immigrant family in Pomeroy, Ohio, situated on the Ohio River southeast of Columbus. His childhood was not an easy one.
“I was tough, and I guess mean too. I only had four years of schooling, and then had to hustle for myself. I was only a little squirt, five-feet-seven-inches tall, and weighed only 135 pounds when I played my best ball.”
Elberfeld loved to retell the story of how he came to be signed by the Phillies. In 1897 the Phils had Napoleon Lajoie at second base and needed a shortstop to play next to the young second baseman. They dispatched a scout to watch a game in New Jersey, specifically to see shortstop Honus Wagner. But that day, Wagner committed two errors, while Elberfeld, playing for Richmond, had a stellar game. The scout sent back a telegram to Philadelphia: “The Dutchman is too clumsy. The fellow you want is the little guy, Elberfeld, who plays for Richmond.” The Phils purchased the Kid’s contract, and Wagner ended up with Louisville.
Elberfeld’s first roommate in the big leagues was Big Ed Delahanty, the hard-drinking, woman-chasing batting champ. The Kid barely registered on Delahanty’s radar: he was a puny runt compared to the muscular outfielder, but in their one season as bunkmates, the Kid soaked up everything he could from his new pal, including how to survive.
“The only way I could prevent those other guys from picking one me was to be tougher than they were,” Elberfeld said. He determined that his best chance to keep a paying job as a ballplayer was to fight for everything he could.
“Elberfeld was as tough, physically, as any player in the history of baseball,” teammate Dave Fultz remembered years later. “He was perhaps the toughest little guy the game has ever seen. Playing against the Kid, well it was an experience you never forgot. When you slid into him, he skinned your shins. Every time, mind you. I always thought he wore metal shin guards, something like graters. When he came to the Yanks, I discovered that he had no shin guards, just the toughest legs any ballplayer ever had. He was cut and bruised all over.”
The Kid was more than a dirty player, he was a skilled athlete. One newspaper called his throwing arm “cyclonic,” and he was fast on his feet with good range up the middle. When Connie Mack was asked to rate the best shortstops at turning the double play in 1906, he picked the Kid as #1 on the pivot. Elberfeld wasn’t afraid to stare down enemy runners.
Elberfeld modeled his game after the raucous Baltimore Orioles of the 1890s, a gang of rascals who invented legal and illegal plays that revolutionized the game. The Orioles would kick, spit, and cheat their way to a win, and Elberfeld took note. His favorite targets were the umpires. On numerous occasions, Kid chased an umpire with a bat, which earned him a suspension or two. Later in his career when he was with the New York Highlanders, Elberfeld battled teammates, the manager, and his owner. His hot head earned him the nickname “The Tabasco Kid.”
“The Kid was as tough as any five-foot-seven, 155-pounder ever has been in the majors, and in New York, he developed into a really great shortstop,” said manager Ed Barrow.
Somewhere in 1911 or 1912, a famous incident occurred at Hilltop Park in a game between the Highlanders and visiting St. Louis Browns. That afternoon, Elberfeld was dancing off second base, trying to agitate the opposing pitcher. His teammate followed with a single to center field, and the Kid scooted around third and down the baseline. When he arrived at home plate, he arrived with a cloud of dirt just as the Browns catcher, a man named Paul Krichell, was receiving the throw. Elberfeld twisted his body to the foul-side of home plate and scraped his cleat across the dish, evidently safe. But home plate umpire Tim Hurst jabbed his thumb in the air. “Outrageous!” Elberfeld screamed, and proceeded to bounce around the umpire, spitting mad. Hurst finally heard enough, and with one grand motion removed the mask from his face, bringing it down on the top of Elberfeld’s head. The Kid fell on the ground, knocked out cold. “I guess that puts an end to the Tabasco Kid,” Hurst barked.
One maneuver that Elberfeld was fond of was to aim his relay throws at the eyeballs of the approaching runner. Kid was also a practitioner of the hidden ball trick (he once nabbed three runners in a doubleheader with the play). If he needed to, Elberfeld would drop his glove and swing haymakers at enemy runners when they tried to slash him with their spikes. He also didn’t mind being hit by pitches if that would help his team. He led the league in hit by pitches twice, and in 1911 when he was 36 years old, the little fella was plunked 25 times.
“Elberfeld would do anything to win,” Washington manager Jimmy McAleer said. “Smart, tricky, ruthless in the field, he [hated the] opposition and he refused to be a loser.”
“I wasn’t the sweetest-tempered guy in the world,” Elberfeld once said. But he was a survivor and possibly had the greatest case of “little man syndrome” in the history of baseball.
It was said that when old ballplayers recalled Kid Elberfeld, they held their jaw, remembering the pain the little infielder inflicted on them.