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Detroit Tigers history: The 1903 Tigers

The return of our Tigers history series.

Detroit Tigers 1903 Sporting Life

Back in the early days of 2020 we started a series that spotlighted the Tigers through the years, aiming to do an entry for every team starting from 1901 onwards. We got through two years (I take full responsibility). The series is back now, and we’re kicking things off with 1903, but if you want to see where it all started, here’s 1901, and here’s 1902. We’ll be continuing with that same format, so buckle in and get ready for over 100 years of Tigers history.

1903 in History

Technological progress continues to flow early in the century as the first west to east radio broadcast heads from the US to England in January. In a more somber note historically that continues to impact US history, February saw Cuba lease Guantanamo Bay to the US “in perpetuity.”

June saw the foundation of the Ford Motor Company, in a little bit of Detroit-based note. Fun fact, the first president of Ford was not Henry Ford, but John Gray, who died in 1906, when Ford took the company over completely. In August a new Pope was announced in Pope Pius X. Maggie L. Walker became the first Black woman to charter a bank in November of the year.

Also late in the year, after the US struggled with Colombia to ratify a treaty that would allow them to open the Panama canal, Panama proclaimed itself independent of Colombia. Two weeks after Panama declares independence, a treaty is signed to give US exclusive rights to the Panama Canal Zone. In December, Orville Wright took the Kitty Hawk for the first manned flight of a heavier-than-air powered aircraft, aka: the birth of modern flight.

If you’re a sports fan who watches UK football, congrats, 1903 was the year that the Aberdeen FC was founded. This was also the year of the first Tour de France.

For baseball, 1903 was the first “modern” World Series and was an eight game match between the Boston Americans (who won) and the Pittsburgh Pirates.

1903 Tigers

Detroit Tigers 1903 Sporting Life

The 1903 season was not great but not terrible. The team ended the year with a 65-71-1 record (it’s so weird to see tie scores counted in these past seasons). They finished fifth among eight teams, and the manager for the whole season was Ed Barrow.

Bearing in mind we were still in the dead ball era, the team leader for home runs had a whopping four, and that was outfielder Sam Crawford, whose line for the year was .335/.366/.489. Other standout players of the years were Jimmy Barrett (.315/.407/.391) and Charlie Carr (.281/.296/.374). In spite of their record and lacklustre finish to the season, the Tigers actually outscored their opponents 567 to 539.

In terms of pitching the results were wild by modern standards. The primary four starters of the season all had sub-3.00 ERAs. George Mullin (2.25); Bill Donovan (2.29); Frank Kitson (2.58); and Rube Kisinger (2.96). Kisinger was the only one of the four with an ERA+ under 100, at 98.

Spotlight on: Kid Elberfeld

Norman Arthur Elberfeld was born on April 13, 1875 in Pomeroy, OH.

1903 marked the final year of Kid Elberfeld’s major league stint with the Tigers, though he was actually previously with the team in 1898 when they were technically a minor league club. He would continue to play in the majors until 1914. Later in the 1903 season Elberfeld was traded to the New York Highlanders, and it wasn’t because he wasn’t playing well, but rather because Ed Barrow genuinely believed Kid was intentionally throwing games out of spite, in hopes of getting himself traded.

See, Elberfeld had earned himself the zippy nickname of “The Tabasco Kid” because he was, well, a little hot-headed. His bad attitude often found its outlet against umpires. According to record, Elberfeld once stuffed dirt in a minor league umpire’s mouth; and got into such a scuffle with umpire Silk O’Loughlin that the police needed to be used to remove Elberfeld from the game. In a New York World article late in his career it was noted, “To this day Elberfeld is just as rabid in his enmity to umpires as when he fought them in the big leagues. He got into several difficulties last year.”

In that same article, Giants manager John McGraw suggested things might be easier for Kid if he laid off the umpires, to which Kid replied, “I intend to fight ‘em as long as I live.”

Elberfeld continued to play into his late 30s, and while he might have been most famous for his temper, he was also considered one of the best shortstops of his generation. Over 14 seasons he had a career line of .271/.355/.339 and while considered a great shortstop had a whopping 458 errors over his career. Yow.

Kid passed away at the age of 68 on January 13, 1944.

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