Dode Criss: Prime Before His Time

Few baseball historians would argue that Ty Cobb, the notorious Detroit Tigers outfielder of the early 20th century, ranks among the greatest baseball players in history. Likewise, few would argue that Cobb, for all his skill on the diamond, also ranks among the most universally-despised athletes of any era. Cobb vocally expressed disinterest in anything except winning in life, and he may well have been the earliest example of an athlete who didn’t realize there was no “I” in “Team.” His reputation as baseball’s most brutally-racist player continues to draw scrutiny; in fact, on May 31 of this year, the New York Post ran an article citing facts it claimed debunked Cobb’s racism as a myth. Whether Ty Cobb was a racist or not is really immaterial. From most perspectives, Cobb hated everyone equally. That is what makes his comments about Dode Criss in a 1952 Life Magazine article all the more notable. Criss, who spent a large portion of his childhood in Lamar County, may be the only person Ty Cobb ever complimented, at least “on the record.”

Dode Criss, born March 12, 1885, to a Sherman, Mississippi, farming family, relocated to Texas as a toddler, first living in Waxahachie. The family soon moved to Lamar County, settling on a farm slightly north of Blossom. Like many of his day, Dode grew up working the fields and eventually matured into a six-foot two-inch, 200 pound muscular young man who could swing an axe or a baseball bat with equal power. By 1900, Criss took up amateur baseball and played in Paris, Clarksville, and other nearby towns. While too young and green to grab a roster spot on Paris’ Texas League franchises, he soon moved to Wichita Falls to play for a semi-pro team sponsored by the Cremo Cigar Company. The semi-pros couldn’t hold him long, however. In early 1906, he signed a contract to pitch for a new Texas League franchise, Doak Roberts’ Cleburne Railroaders. The 1906 Railroaders roster was a virtual Lamar County reunion, with the team managed by Paris resident Ben Shelton, native sons Carl Arobogast and Rick Adams, and Mickey Coyle, who had moved to Paris as a teenager.

Dode Criss’ arrival in the Texas League age 21 was a smashing success. Primarily used as a pitcher, his 19-9 won-loss record led the Railroaders in winning percentage, but he still ranks as only the third best pitcher on the team behind Rick Adams (25-13) and Walt Dickson (24-12). Also playing a handful of games in the field, Criss batted .396 on the year, leading the team but without enough plate appearances to officially qualify for the batting title. Criss’ professional debut included a no-hitter against the Temple Boll Weevils on June 28, feat only topped when Cleburne won the Texas Leagues Championship in its first and only year on the circuit.

Dode Criss’ initial Texas League success drew attention from across the country, and before 1907 Doak Roberts sold his rights to St. Paul of the American Association, just one step down from the major leagues. With St. Paul, Criss’ batting average plummeted to .280, and his winning percentage as a pitcher dropped significantly as he finished the season with an 11-10 record. Regardless, his two years of professional baseball impressed major league scouts enough that the St. Louis Browns signed him in early 1908. Unfortunately, Dode Criss’ minor league success translate to the major leagues, and he only pitched eighteen innings his rookie year. His bat, however, solidified his spot on the Browns’ roster. Although making only 91 plate appearances, most as a pinch hitter, his .341 batting average topped Ty Cobb’s by seventeen percentage points. After a dispute between the Browns, the Tigers, and the league office, Cobb was eventually declared batting champion with his .324 batting average; after all, his plate appearances outpaced Criss’ by a 7:1 margin.

For four seasons, Dode Criss continued to pitch on occasion, but he primarily filled the role of pinch hitter for the Browns, and he excelled at his craft. Baseball historians view Dode Criss as the major league’s first “professional” pinch-hitter, and in four seasons with St. Louis he batted .286 coming off the bench. But, his 3-9 pitching record with the Browns failed to live up to expectations, and St. Louis released him after he committed six errors in just fourteen games as a first baseman. In 1912, Dode attended training camp with the New York Americans, where he failed to make the opening day roster and stepped back down to the American Association with Louisville. After posting a 1-6 won-loss record, Louisville released Criss as well, and he returned to Texas where he joined his old friend Doak Roberts’ Houston franchise.

Nearly six years had passed since Dode’s glorious Texas League debut in Cleburne, but he picked up in Houston as if he’d never left the Texas League. In 1913, his 16-4 won-loss record helped lead the Buffaloes to the championship, and the team shared the pennant the following season, as Criss provided nine wins and a .348 batting average. In 1915, he enjoyed a second resurgence on the mound, posting an 18-9 record while still contributing solidly at the plate. Still, the Buffaloes fell to fifth place, twelve games behind league champion Waco. Waco took the championship again the following season, with Houston well behind the league leaders. Dode Criss’ final hurrah came in 1917 when he won eleven games for the Buffaloes despite another fourth place finish. Overall, in five seasons with Houston, Criss earned 62 wins while batting .296. He also added two no-hitters, bringing his Texas League total to three. With a total of 71 wins, three championships, and a league-leading batting average on three occasions, Dode Criss’ six-year Texas League career earned him induction as an inaugural member of the Texas League Hall of Fame in 2004.

Despite his success in his adopted home state, Dode Criss’ career didn’t play out as scouts expected. His rookie professional season in Cleburne turned out to be his best, and he never achieved success as either a pitcher or everyday player at the major league level. Many blame Criss’ ultimate failure to rise to the top of baseball’s ranks on timing. Dode carried a powerful bat during a period of baseball history known as the Deadball Era, a time when speedy baserunners scratched out infield singles and power hitters watch helplessly as their hard-hit line drives and fly balls fell into outfielders’ mitts. A decade later, the more tightly wound and better constructed baseball gave birth to a new era, and the arrival of Babe Ruth and his record-breaking batting prowess.

Dode Criss’ four uneventful seasons in St. Louis make him little more than a footnote in major league baseball history. But, as late as 1952, at least one early star remembered him well. Ty Cobb, for all the vitriol and disrespect he paid his opponents during his career, commented in a Life Magazine story, “The St. Louis Browns used to have a fellow named Dode Criss who I have often thought was one of the tragedies of baseball, a gold-plated case of a man who was born 20 years before his time. He seldom struck out and nearly always hit a long ball. But, with the old baseball, his drives didn’t make enough difference, and since he wasn’t a very good fielder, he spent most of his time on the bench. With the modern rabbit ball, Criss would have torn the league apart; he would have made today’s so-called sluggers look sick.”

Following his baseball career, Criss slowly made his way back to Mississippi, spending time in south Arkansas and Louisiana in the oil rig construction business. Eventually, he returned to his birthplace of Sherman, Mississippi, where he died in 1955 at age 70. The rest of Dode Criss’ family remained in Texas, but he somehow found his way home and is buried Sherman Cemetery.

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