A History of Detroit Tigers Shortstops

By Brad Smith 1/27/99

When I started to do this little series, I mentioned that one inspiration was remembering the 1969 fan vote sponsored by Major League Baseball to name all-time all-star teams for each major league club. The Tigers at that time had a real weakness at shortstop; Ray Oyler, after hitting .135 in 1968, had been let go to Seattle in the expansion draft. Nobody had any real confidence that Dick Tracewski or Tommy Matchick could do the job. Mickey Stanley, an outfielder who had played the position in the 1968 Series, was the heir apparent. There was a general sense then that the Tigers had always been weak at shortstop, and the fan voting seemed to emphasize this: the two main rivals were Harvey Kueen and Billy Rogell, good players, but not exactly on par with Mickey Cochrane, Hank Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer, Ty Cobb, and Harry Heilman, the leaders at other positions.

In fact, the Tigers have had a number of excellent shortstops over the years, and, indeed, had had the AL's starting All-Star shortstop just three years previous to the 1969 vote, in Dick McAuliffe. Since that 1969 vote, the Tigers have been graced with three more shortstops of at least some note: Alan Trammell, a potential Hall of Famer; Gold Glove winner Eddie Brinkman; and Travis Fryman, a two-time All-Star at shortstop who was eventually, and unwisely, IMHO, moved over to third base. Today, many think that the Tigers' young Deivi Cruz is the best fielding shortstop in baseball.

In fact, the very first real star of the Tigers was a shortstop: Kid Elberfeld. Back at the turn of the century, the nickname "Kid" usually went to a small, scrappy player. If the nickname were still used, for example, in recent years we might have had Kid Dykstra or Kid Stankewicz. Norman Arthur Elberfeld, or "The Tabasco Kid," as he was also called, personified the name. He stood 5'5" and weighed 135 pounds, and was generally consideded the most aggressive baserunner of the day. At the plate he was known for trying to get hit by pitches. In the field, he would hip check opposing players as they passed by second base. But he was liked and respected off the field, and later in his career was one of the few veterans who would go out of his way to help a young player (in those competitive days, young players were usually viewed as little more than threats to job security by most older ballplayers).

Elberfeld had played a few games for Philadelphia and Cincinnati in 1898-99, but spent 1900 in the minors. 1901, at age 26, was his first year as a regular. He turned in the best year of his career, leading the team in batting (.310); slugging (.429, very good for the times); OBP (.397), and RBI (76). He also stole 24 bases. The stats show him to have been a good defensive player, leading the league in putouts, double plays, and total chances per game (the last category being the best indicator of range available for most of these early ballplayers), although his fielding percentages were just average (Elberfeld would lead the league in chances per game again in 1903). Unfortunately, though Elberfeld may have been the Tigers' first "star", he was not destined to become the team's first great player. His performance at the plate fell off sharply in 1902 (.260/.335/.326). However, he got off to a fast start in 1903, hitting .341with an OBP over .400 through 35 games, when the Tigers rather inexplicably traded him to New York. I say inexplicably, because the players the Tigers got in return were Ernie Courtney, a journeyman outfielder, and Herman Long, a fine shortstop in his day but 37 years old and in rapid decline by 1903. Long hit .222 as the Tigers shortstop over the rest of the year, Courtney played in just 23 games, and both were released at the end of the season. I don't know if there were other, i.e. personal or salary, reasons for trading Elberfeld, one of the best and most popular players on the team. In any case, you can chalk it up as perhaps the first really bad trade in Tigers history. Elberfeld played another nine years, seven as a regular, with the Yankees and Senators.

Charley O'Leary took over the shortstop job in 1904. O'Leary's fielding stats, such as are available to us, are OK, but not great. He did lead the league in putouts and total chances per game (and errors) in 1906, and in put-outs in 1907. I assume that he was a solid defensive player, because he couldn't hit a lick. For his career he hit .226, with an OBP of .263 and a slugging average of .273. But he was able to hold the shortstop job for nearly 5 years, into 1908 (when injury or inability caused him to lose playing time to Red Downs: Downs played second in 82 games, with the regular 2B, the colorful Germany Schaefer, moving over to short; O'Leary started all five World Series games, hitting .158), and he remained a frequently used utility player through the 1911 season. Released by the Tigers during 1912, he would be the St. Louis Browns' starting SS in 1913.