January 17, 2021

Kid Elberfeld’s Trip From Washington T0 Montgomery–Through Milwaukee

August 4, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

I have not read a lot about Norman “Kid” Elberfeld, but between the very informative books “Clark Griffith: The Old Fox of Washington Baseball” by Ted Leavengood, and Jim Riesler’s “Before They Were the Bombers”, plus the splendid Terry Simpkins biography on Elberfeld at the SABR Biography Project, I have a working knowledge of him. What brought him closer to my attention was a Milwaukee connection, and I was surprised to find he was part of the Milwaukee Brewers in 1912—well, sort of.

The source probably most readily available to baseball fans is the SABR biography, where Terry Simpkins wrote the Washington Nationals were determined to go with younger players prior to the 1912 season, so Elberfeld was sold to Montgomery of the Southern Association.

However, between Washington D.C. and Montgomery, Alabama, the “Tabasco Kid” had an interesting trip.

Elberfeld had played with the New York Highlanders/Yankees under manger Clark Griffith from 1903 to June 1908, when Griffith quit or was forced out of the Yankee job (depending on the source). Kid ElberfeldAccording to Leavengood’s biography, with the Yankees out of contention in 1907, Elberfeld had started to take a leadership role on the field, which included confronting umpires and getting himself ejected more. (Thus the nickname: Tabasco Kid.) This “leadership” was perhaps to show everyone he was not happy with Griffith’s managing style. Leavengood also tells us that others saw it as irrational behavior from an aging player whose skills were diminishing. Three years later the Washington Herald told its readers: “Elberfeld was the field captain for Griff and he was a hustling lieutenant. However, the cares of state appeared to burden both with a bad temper, and they fought like cats and dogs for a long time”.

Elberfeld was named Griffith’s successor in New York in June 1908. Elberfeld only managed the remainder of 1908, being replaced by George Stallings before the 1909 season. The Kid played 1909 with New York, but on December 14, 1909, the Yankees sold the veteran to the Washington Nationals for $5,000. Elberfeld played two seasons with Washington under Jimmy McAleer, but trouble started when Clark Griffith bought into the Washington club and became its manager on October 30, 1911.

It was immediately seen in the Washington press there was to be a problem. Elberfeld was a very popular player in Washington. On the other hand, even before the official announcement came that Griffith was to manage the Nationals, Bob Thayer wrote in his Washington Times Sporting Gossip column that if Griffith would be named manager there would be a howl from fans. Thayer wrote the local fans “simply decline to stomach his appointment”, and a number were loud in their disapproval. Griffith had failed in New York and was done in Cincinnati, so what could be expected in Washington.

Clark Griffith made no secret he had little use for several of the players on the Nationals’ roster and was going to make changes. It was apparent he was going to go with a youth movement. Eventually he would release or trade veterans Dolly Gray, Jack Lelivelt, Wid Conroy, Gabby Street, Doc Gessler, and Bill Smith.

On November 2 the Washington Times thought Elberfeld would not be one of the players to go. But the very next day the newspaper changed its thinking. A source close to management informed the newspaper that Griffith and Elberfeld had not been on good terms since their New York days, and that Elberfeld would be traded for either an outfielder or a pitcher. The Times reporter wrote: “The exact difficulties between the player and manager are not known, but if Griffith wants the Kid gone there will be no serious opposition from the directors.”

How bad of terms the two were on is hard to say. The Washington Herald put a different light on the situation of the two men, when in November it wrote this:

It was generally supposed by the baseball fraternity at large that Griffith and
Kid Elberfeld were mortal enemies, yet such does not appear to be the case.
The Kid wants his release from Washington so that he can open negotiations
for the managerial berth of a minor league club. Griff said “I would be the last
man in the world to stand in Eberfeld’s way and will do all in my power to
make it possible for him to land with a minor league club. It would hardly be
good policy to release him outright—I mean good business policy—as he
cost the Washington club considerable money, but I have no doubt that if he
obtains a good offer from some club, I can come to an arrangement with the
management for a player or two. At any rate I will do all in my power to help
out Elberfeld.

Before we get into what happened next, this might be a good time to take a contemporary look at Elberfeld. He is remembered as a tough, hard-nosed ball player. This article from the Washington Times of November 3, 1911, might help smooth out his image:

Although having quite a reputation as a fighter on the field, Elberfeld is a
most quiet and unassuming individual once he sheds his baseball togs. He
has been known for years around the circuit as the player who is first to bed
in the night and first up in the morning, and so insistent is he in this respect
that some of the other players hated to be assigned to the same room
because they feared Elberfeld rousing them about daybreak and getting
them to take his daily ante-breakfast stroll of several miles. Off the field
Elberfeld spends practically all of his time with his family, and in this respect
is considered an ideal ball player.

The Washington Nationals placed the 36-year old Elberfeld on waivers in December. At first two American League clubs—Detroit and Chicago—refused to waive him. However, both clubs soon withdrew their claim. Immediately Providence of the Eastern League claimed the veteran infielder, but just as quickly withdrew when informed The Kid did not care to play there.

Chattanooga of the Southern Association and Baltimore of the Eastern League were both also after Elberfeld. Jack Dunn of Baltimore offered The Kid “flattering terms.” Elberfeld told Dunn his legs were ailing him and advised the manager not to take a chance on him. Some thought Elberfeld’s legs were O.K. and that he just wanted to play closer to home.

Home for Elberfeld was a farm just 14 miles out of Chattanooga that he had recently purchased. This, of course, gave Chattanooga the upper hand. Clark Griffith, true to his word, said Elberfeld was free to join any minor league team he wished to.

Billy Smith, manager of Chattanooga, was offering the Nationals any player off his roster after the 1912 season, in addition to the waiver price, for Elberfeld. Griffith agreed. However, the Lookouts were having a terrible time trying to come to terms with Elberfeld. The infielder wanted the same salary from Chattanooga–$4,500–that he collected from Washington in 1911. Smith said he could not afford this, as it was more than any two players made in the Southern Association. Chattanooga asked for an extension on its option of Elberfeld, but Griffith said no.

Griffith had had enough. He told the Washington Herald on December 28, 1911: “I have tried to please Elberfeld in every way, but he has stood in his own light, and now I am going to put him on the market. The first club that is willing to pay the price will secure his release.”

There was interest in Elberfeld. It was reported Indianapolis and Kansas City, both of the American Association, were interested, as were Buffalo and Providence of the Eastern League. Of course, Chattanooga was still very interested in gaining The Kid’s services. Indianapolis dropped out of this pool in January, when manager Jimmy Burke advised club owner William Watkins not to purchase Elberfeld.

There was no doubt Elberfeld wanted out of Washington, and he appeared to have no interest in playing on any northern club. Chattanooga’s manager, Billy Smith, had an idea why: “I think he could manage to play ball for several more seasons in this warm country, but he won’t be able to last through 1912 if he is sent to some American Association or International League town. Up there the cold weather would quickly shorten his career. Down here he might play good baseball again and I know he’d be the sensation of the circuit, for they don’t make gamer or brainier players than Elberfeld.”

In early January 1912 the Washington Nationals sent Elberfeld a contract, calling for a salary of $3,000, which he did not return. Now Elberfeld played his cards. He told the Washington Times his physical condition was so bad his physician gave him no hope of playing again. Elberfeld said his hip and ankle were hurt most of the 1911 season and then he injured his spine sliding later in the season. The Kid felt that Washington should give him his unconditional release so he could obtain a berth managing some minor league team.

The Nationals attempted to sell Elberfeld to Memphis, but the deal fell through when the Southern Association club declined to pay the asking price.

On February 7 Elberfeld was notified he had been sold to the Chattanooga Club of the Southern Association. Elberfeld soon announced he had retired as a player. The Kid now reported his doctor said he could not use his injured hip for at least one year, “and I think this is a good time for me to retire gracefully.” He said he would scout for an American League team. Chattanooga was taken by surprise, as they had been counting on Elberfeld to plug up the hole at third base The Lookouts continued negotiations, but failing to sign the veteran, returned him to Washington in early April.

The Nationals sent Elberfeld another contract, this time for only $2,400. He signed and returned it. The Kid was then notified he would be placed on the salary roll as soon as he was in condition to play. Elberfeld requested some advance money. In response the Washington club wired him on April 14 that he had been released to the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association and instructed him to report to that club immediately. Telegrams showed the Brewers paid Washington $1,000 for the veteran infielder.

Hugh Duffy, manager of the Brewers, offered Elberfeld a salary of $400 a month, if he was in condition. Elberfeld telegrammed the Brewer manager as follows:

Chattanooga, Tenn., April 15, 1912—Hugh Duffy, Mrg. Milwaukee B.B. Club,
Southern Hotel, Columbus, Ohio—Had offer of six hundred per month in
Eastern League. Told Manager who was always a good fellow, that on
account of conditions of my hip and ankle he was stung if he bought me.
Same applies to you. Besides I can get more right here at home than you
offer me and I would never be satisfied to work for you. Of course, if you insist
on taking me knowing these conditions, I shall have to come, but it will not be
willingly. Am in as good condition as it is possible to get with this injury to my
hip and ankle I received last season. NORMAN ELBERFELD.

However, Duffy thought there was more to it. He told the Milwaukee Sentinel that Elberfeld was in shape and his reason for not reporting was that he would not play with any other club if his release would be profitable to Clark Griffith. As the Brewers had paid $1,000, Elberfeld felt that by not reporting he would kill the deal and cost Griffith the purchase price, Duffy thought.

Claiming Elberfeld was injured, Duffy asked Clark Griffith to call off the deal. Griffith wired the Brewer manager: “Hold you to Elberfeld deal. Have ordered him to report to you. Will not take your money unless he reports”.

The Washington Nationals advised Elberfeld that the deal was on and he was to report to the Brewers. Duffy continued trying to sign Elberfeld, writing him a letter in May, hoping to get the veteran to come to Milwaukee. But the Milwaukee Journal commented the Tabasco Kid “is an obstinate cuss and Duffy hardly expects his billet-doux to bear fruit.” Elberfeld claimed he telegrammed the Milwaukee club, but received no reply. He also claimed he sent communications to Washington on this, and got no reply from Griffith either.

Norman Elberfeld appealed his case to the National Baseball Commission, claiming that Washington had deprived him of a chance to earn a livelihood at his profession. Elberfeld believed the Nationals should have forwarded him transportation money so he could have reported, and been given an opportunity to show his fitness and play and arrange a salary. On May 25 the National Commission ruled Elberfeld was to report to the Milwaukee Brewers. From his telegram the Commission members felt that it appeared Elberfeld was looking to block any deal the Washington club made for his release. Griffith was willing to part with Elberfeld, but was justly insisting that his club receive a fair consideration for the player. It appeared Elberfeld’s appeal was filed “with the underlying double purpose of benefiting himself and getting even with Griffith for purely personal grievances.” The Brewers would not have to pay for Elberfeld’s release until he reported in condition, but the Commission advised the club should protect its title to his services by suspending him for failure to report.

On May 28 Hugh Duffy received a telegram from Kid Elberfeld reading: “The National Commission says I belong to Milwaukee. Where shall I report?” Duffy’s answer was to Kansas City, where the team was scheduled to play. Elberfeld reported on May 31, but was in no condition to play due to his bad hip. The veteran infielder was sent to the famous Doctor John “Bonesetter” Reese in Youngstown, Ohio, with the hope that he would be in shape in a short time. Elberfeld rejoined the Brewers on June 3, with the news he would be unable to play. He requested Duffy send him home, which the Brewer manager did.

The continuing saga of Kid Elberfeld played out in the Milwaukee newspapers. The Milwaukee Journal wrote on June 5: “What has become of Kid Elberfeld? After the kid had made his report on what the bonesetter said he beat it without saying goodbye and today Duffy received a wire from his wife asking his whereabouts”.

Elberfeld signed with the Montgomery Rebels of the Southern Association around June 13. Exactly how this happened is not clear. Sporting Life wrote “it is to assume [Montgomery] bought Milwaukee’s title to the player”. On July 12 the American League issued a bulletin that Elberfeld was released by Washington to Montgomery. Elberfeld replaced Pryor “Humpty” McElveen in the infield, who had been traded to the Atlanta Crackers for three players and $1,000 shortly before. The Kid would play 78 games with Montgomery, hitting .260.

One more incident with The Kid probably brought some delight to Milwaukee baseball fans. On July 4 Elberfeld, “who was too ill a man to play here and left without so much as good bye”, was arrested–together with manager Johnny Dobbs and three other players– for an assault on Humpty McElveen outside a hotel in Atlanta. Both Elberfeld and Dobbs were fined for the incident–Dobbs, $50.50 and Elberfeld $25.75.

On August 27, 1912, Kid Elberfeld signed to manage and play for the Chattanooga Lookouts in 1913. The Chattanooga management wanted Elberfeld to join the team immediately, but as Montgomery was in a first division fight, they would not let him go. Elberfeld would play 30 games with the Brooklyn Robins in 1914, having signed as a free agent in February of that year. He then continued back with Chattanooga through 1917, and played 1918 in Little Rock. From 1918 until 1924 Elberfeld managed in Little Rock, and the next two years in Mobile and Chattanooga. His last managerial position was with Fulton of the Kentucky-Illinois-Tennessee League in 1936, where he even appeared as a pinch hitter in one game, at the age of 61.

SOURCES

Atlanta Constitution June 15, 1912, July 5, 1912 editions

Milwaukee Journal, various editions 1912

Milwaukee Sentinel, various editions 1912

Sporting Life, various editions 1912

Washington (D.C.) Herald various editions 1911-1912

Washington (D. C.) Times, various editions 1911-1912

Baseball-Reference.com

SABR Baseball Encyclopedia

SABR Baseball Biography Project: Kid Elberfeld by Terry Simpkins

“Before The Were the Bombers”; Jim Reisler, McFarland, 2002

“Clark Griffith, The Old Fox of Washington Baseball”; Ted Leavengood, McFarland, 2011

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