Trash talking in professional sports is something that seems to have its genesis in the most recent of generations. However, that is simply not true, as athletes, including major league baseball players have enjoyed sniping at each other over the years. An early example of this was catcher Lou Criger, who came out swinging in the press more than a century ago about his major disdain for legendary outfielder Ty Cobb.
Criger was a gritty glove-first backstop whose leadership and ability behind the plate earned him a 16-year (1896-1912) big league career with five different teams despite hitting just a combined .221 with 11 home runs in 1,012 games. He was particularly proficient at nabbing base runners, catching 48% for his career and leading the league three separate times. He was also known for his feistiness, as Louie Heilbroner, one of his managers, once said of him, “Criger would fight any six men on earth in those days, and if someone didn’t pull them apart, Lou would lick all six by sheer perseverance.”
Cobb was a brash and flashy star, hitting an all-time best .366 for his career and earning a reputation for the ruthless and breakneck way he played the game. He piled up base hits like cord wood, stole the bases he wanted and often went into fielders with spikes to make sure they knew who they were dealing with. Needless to say, that did not always play well with others.
In 1909, Criger was 37, playing with the St. Louis Browns and winding down his career. At the beginning of the season, the veteran was asked about his 22-year-old adversary, who has just won the last two American League batting titles. He did not hold back:
“Ty Cobb is nothing more nor less than a ‘bonehead.’ I’ve got his goat and I’ve got the rest of the bunch as well. Cobb tried to block me last year and I’ve been after him ever since. I used to say to him ‘Look out, Ty, this fellow is wild and likely to drill your noodle.’ And then I’d signal for one straight at his dome. Bing, down he’d drop as though shot , and after that he’d have no more fight in him than a sick rabbit—he couldn’t hot a balloon that was anchored with a three-foot string.”
“We made that Tiger bunch look like a lot of nanny goats last fall when we beat them three straight, didn’t we? I pestered that mob so that they begged for me to let up. They tried to tell me that they had everything at stake where we didn’t have anything to lose. But I never let up for a minute.”
“It’s no trick at all to catch Cobb when he tries to steal. He only got away with it a couple of times with me and one of those steals I had him by 20 feet but the second baseman didn’t come over to the bag. He’s a ‘bonehead’ and the rest are suckers.”
Well then… Criger really didn’t like Cobb. In 1908 Criger was playing with the Boston Red Sox, when they came to Detroit to play a three game series. The Sox were struggling to finish above .500 while the Tigers were a half game behind the league-leading Cleveland Indians. When Boston made the sweep, it widened the deficit to 2.5 games with just 14 games left. However, they finished 11-2-1 down the stretch and took the pennant by a half game before losing to the Chicago Cubs in the World Series.
Winning a pennant meant big money for players during the time, often allowing them to practically double their earnings for the year (In 1908 players on the winning side of the Series cleared an extra $1,317.58, while winners made due with $870). Although it sounds boastful for Criger to claim that he was asked to let up, it’s very possible that happened given what was at stake. If you want to refresh yourself on what some key items cost back in 1908, here’s a primer for you.
Naturally, the war of words continued and Criger’s volley, with both parties remembering having the upper hand. The truth is that both were fiercely proud ballplayers, who both got in their licks, as detailed by author Charles Alexander. Nevertheless, their rivalry represents an interesting chapter during the earlier portion of baseball history.
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