“One-man wrecking crew” is one of those slang terms that echo endlessly in the imitative caverns of sportswriting. The Pro Football Hall of Fame website uses it to describe no fewer than four different players.1
But who was the original one-man wrecking crew, the athlete or hero or demolition expert who inspired it all? The answer remains lost—for now—in the debris of history. But clues abound in the easier-to-trace ancestry of the general multi-person term “wrecking crew.”
“One-man wrecking crew” is a term for someone who single-handedly destroys obstacles or opponents, real or imagined. Ironically, the term is based on people who cleaned up wrecks rather than creating them.
“Wrecking crew” was invented in American slang by the late 1800s to refer to salvage teams that cleaned up shipwrecks or train crashes. (The British chose to call train salvagers “breakdown gangs.”2) The first known use, according to the “Oxford English Dictionary,” is from 1878 in a Bret Harte story, where it is used metaphorically to refer to a group of seabirds.3 The metaphorical use means that the term already was well-known earlier than Harte’s story. The general use of “wrecking” to mean salvaging a wreck is dated by the “OED” to 1804.
Railroad wrecking crews in particular must have been the big slang influence, because they were a popular topic of public curiosity for the first half of the 20th century, frequently written about in newspapers and magazines.4 Cleaning up the massive debris and mangled corpses of train wrecks was a major job. Wrecking crews had their own specialized trains that included a car loaded with tools and ropes as well as a train-mounted crane.5 They were on call all the time, like firefighters. A wrecking crew typically had eight to 12 men. So a one-man wrecking crew would be impressive indeed.
“Wrecking crew” quickly entered slang as a term for perceived troublemakers or tough guys. This metaphorical use first appeared in baseball sportswriting. Paul Dickson, author of “The Dickson Baseball Dictionary,” may have tracked it down to its moment of birth: an Aug. 17, 1912 report by famed sportswriter Irving Vaughan in the Chicago Record Herald.6 In the article, Vaughan wrote that the Chicago Cubs “‘wrecking crew’ was called forth repeatedly in an effort to turn the tide…” He used “wrecking crew” to refer to the team’s stable of top hitters. His placing of the term in quotes suggests it was an early usage of a novel term, and it bears more of the salvaging flavor—saving a game, in this case—than later usages. In any case, it is the earliest known use of “wrecking crew” in its group-of-tough-guys sense.
Sportswriters continued referring to various groups of star players on a team as a “wrecking crew.” The term spread into common parlance, often used negatively. By the 1950s, former President Harry Truman was using it prominently to criticize Republicans.7 The term has persisted in sports and broadened into other games, such as the term “Big Blue Wrecking Crew” applied to the Los Angeles Dodgers of the 1980s and the New York Giants football team of today.8
We can assume that the solo variation “one-man wrecking crew” arose sometime after August 1912. But exactly when or where is a mystery. Dickson was unable to give me any immediate insights.9 The pro baseball and football halls of fame researchers did not respond to questions.
The earliest definite use of the term that I could find does not appear to be original or influential. In a 1928 Catholic organization magazine, a writer reminisced about a school team basketball player as “our one-man wrecking crew.”10 The term is not in quotes, as is usual for a new word, and it is doubtful that many people ever read the article.
The earliest mainstream usage I could find was in a 1933 Associated Press news story about the opening of baseball season.11 It referred to Hall of Famer Al Simmons as a “one-man wrecking crew” for the Chicago White Sox. It may be worth noting that Simmons previously played for the Philadelphia Athletics under manager Connie Mack. I found Mack’s Athletics teams frequently referred to as “wrecking crews” in newspaper coverage from the early 1900s.12
There is a tantalizing possibility that legendary football coach Pop Warner used the term “one-man wrecking crew” to refer to equally legendary athlete Jim Thorpe in 1911—even earlier than the currently first known use of the general “wrecking crew” term.
The reference comes from the book “Pop Warner: Football’s Greatest Teacher: The Epic Autobiography of Major College Football’s Winningest Coach.” The book quotes Warner as saying, following a 1911 football game, “Against Harvard on that memorable day, Jim was a one-man wrecking crew.”13
However, it is unclear whether that is a direct quote, a paraphrase or a pure invention, and it unclear when and where Warner is alleged to have said it. While it is styled as an “autobiography,” the book was actually collected and crafted 40 years after Warner’s death from various bits of his writings and other sources by author Mike Bynum. Bynum told me that he would check his files for the exact origin of the “one-man wrecking crew” quote, but has not yet responded.14
What is known with certainty is that, at the same time that “wrecking crew” became popular in sportswriting, so did slang terms using the form “one-man.”
“One-man show” first appeared in print in 1869, the “OED” tells us. “One-man band” appeared around 1931. It is like that “one-man wrecking crew” is a linguistic marriage between the existing sports term and the “one-man” trend.
For the sake of complete evidence and a shot in the dark, I must mention my discovery of a 1903 use of the variant term “wrecking crew of one.” This use appears to be idiosyncratic and not influential, but one never knows. It appears in the short story “When Peggy Took the Key” by Marjorie Stevens, published in the May 26, 1903 issue of the Boston Daily Globe newspaper. The story is about a railroad telegraph operator who is preoccupied by his recently broken engagement. Full of labored train metaphors, the story describes the hero as having “appointed himself a wrecking crew of one” in metaphorical terms of being determined to clean up the wreck of his engagement.
I suspect that somewhere in the reams of newspaper sportswriting between 1912 and 1928 is the first use of the term “one-man wrecking crew,” just waiting to be salvaged.
2 “The American Language: Supplement One” and “The American Language” (4th ed.) by H.L. Mencken, p. 487.
3 The “OED” citations generally refer to shipwreck salvaging. The earliest use of the railroad-specific “wrecking crew” term I could find was in the court case Wabash, St. Louis and Pacific R. Co. v. Hawk (1887), as published in “The American and English Railroad Cases,” Vol. XXXI, John Houston Merrill, ed., 1888. The court case was based on an 1882 incident.
4 “Minute Men of the Rails,” Popular Science Monthly, Vol. 89, No. 2, Aug. 1916.
5 “The Crane That Saves $2,000 a Minute” by Henry B. Comstock, Popular Science, Vol. 161, No. 4, Oct. 1952.
6 Information provided by Jacob Pomrenke, web content editor/producer at the Society for American Baseball Research, Phoenix, Arizona, personal communication, Nov. 28, 2012.
7 One example can be found in “Demo oratorical guns blast away at Republicans as session opens” by Douglas B. Cornell, Associated Press, in Spartanburg (South Carolina) Herald, Sept. 15, 1953 (report dated Sept. 14).
8 Los Angeles Dodgers: “Big Blue Wrecking Crew” team fan forum at dodgers.yuku.com; New York Giants: “The Big Blue Wrecking Crew Rolls On” by Josh Alper, NBC 4 New York TV news, Jan. 16, 2012, at nbcnewyork.com/news/sports/giants-defeat-packers-137391728.html.
9 Paul Dickson, personal communication, Nov. 28, 2012.
10 “The Catholic Charities Review,” Vol. 12, 1928, p. 58.
11 “Big leagues baseball season opens today in many new surroundings” by Associated Press, Lewiston (Maine) Daily Sun, April 12, 1933.
12 For examples, see: “Joe Jackson pulling away,” Boston Daily Globe, July 21, 1913; “Giants in batting rampage against Philadelphia pitchers,” New York Times, Oct. 5, 1913 (via nytimes.com); and “Matty could bear it, if the West won a pennant” by Christy Mathewson (syndicated column), Boston Daily Globe, Sept. 21, 1916, p. 6.
13 The quote appears on p. 128.
14 Mike Bynum, personal communication, Dec. 9, 2012.
Other significant sources not cited in the text or footnotes include: “Jail ‘wrecking crew’ strikes,” Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Washington), July 22, 1932, p. 3; and “Truman hits hard at Dewey for Taft-Hartley support” by Kermit McFarland, Pittsburgh Press, Oct. 24, 1948, p. 1. All books, newspapers and magazines accessed via Google Books and Google News Archives except for Bynum and Mencken or otherwise noted.