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Saturday, May 17, 2014

Ty Cobb & the Great Tigers Strike of 1912

In May of 1912, Ty Cobb and his 10-13 Tigers came to Hilltop Park to play the hapless Highlanders. The NY squad (which would be renamed the Yankees the next year finished the season at 50-102. Detroit won the first two games, with Cobb playing well. The NY fans razzed him mercilessly, especially a man near the Tiger's dugout. In his memoirs, Cobb described the man as “a character who had ridden me hard in past New York appearances.”  

Cobb gave it back to the man and it got so bad during the third and final game on May 15 that Cobb didn't even go back to the bench after the second inning, staying out in the horse carriage area beyond center field. Cobb insulted the man as he went to the dugout after the fourth inning and got back even more taunting. Teammate Sam Crawford (a Hall of Fame outfielder) asked Cobb what he was going to do. 

At which point Cobb jumped into the stands, ran up to the twelfth row and knocked down his nemesis, Claude Lucker, and began stomping and kicking him. The man only had two fingers; the result of a printing press accident. 

Pretty darn good casting
Lucker recounted, "He struck me with his fists on the forehead and over the left eye and knocked me down," Lucker said. "Then he jumped on me and spiked me in the left leg, and kicked me in the side, after which he booted me behind the left ear. I was down and Cobb was kicking me when someone in the crowd shouted, 'Don't kick him. He has no hands.' Cobb answered, 'I don't care if he has no feet!'"

Reportedly, some teammates had followed him into the stands with bats and held any would be rescuers at bay. Finally an umpire and a police man pulled Cobb away. Cobb was ejected while the Tigers went on to win 8-4.

This scene was included in the movie, "Cobb" starring Tommy Lee Jones (definitely worth a watch). Jimmy Buffett played the heckler.

Now, keep in mind, there was no footage of this event. It wasn't plastered all over ESPN and youtube. However, American League President Ban Johnson happened to be at the game that day and suspended Cobb indefinitely. 

Two days later in Philadelphia, the Tigers sent a letter to Johnson, saying they would not play if Cobb's suspension was continued. “If the players cannot have protection, we must protect ourselves,” the Tigers wrote. Yes, those handicapped men in the stands were a real threat to life.

The Tigers were going to be fined $5,000 (a lot of money then) if they didn't play the game. So team owner Frank Nevin ordered Hall of Fame manager Hughie Jennings to field a squad to play against the Athletics (yep: the A's started in Philadelphia, moved to Kansas City then finally stopped when they hit the Pacific Ocean in Oakland).

With the help of a local sportswriter, Joe Nolan (not the future Braves catcher), Jennings slapped together a team of amateurs and semipros. Most of the players were recruited by Alan Travers, assistant manager of the St. Joseph's College baseball team, from his neighborhood for $25 apiece. Travers was going to play right field, but when he found out the pitcher was to earn $50, he took to the mound. 
The team included Billy Maharg, a professional boxer who was a bagman in the 1919 Black Sox scandal. 48 year old Tigers coach Deacon McGuire, who had played in almost 1,700 games in his career, caught. 41 year old Joe Sugden, who had played a dozen years in the majors, played first.  The 49 year old Jennings (nicknamed "Ee-yah" for his exuberance) as a .312 career hitting short stop, pinch hit. 

This bunch was to face the two-time defending World Series champs and had three future Hall of Famers.  After 1 hour 45 minutes and nine errors, the Tigers had lost, 24-2. The game counted in the standings.
Travers, who pitched a complete game, gave up 24 runs (14 earned), 26 hits and 7 walks, but does strike out one. At third base, Maharg was hit in the mouth by a ground ball and lost several teeth. “This isn’t baseball,” he said. “This is war.”
An embarrassed Navin wanted to cancel all further games until the suspension was lifted, but Cobb urged his teammates to end the walkout. So, they resumed playing the following day. Ban Johnson fined each Tiger $100, except Cobb, who he fined $50 and suspended for ten days. 
So ended one of the most bizarre incidents in the history of major league baseball.
Cobb was probably the most reviled man to ever play in the majors. He nearly caused a riot when he spiked the A's Hall of Fame third baseman, Floyd 'Home Run' Baker. Cobb filed his metal spikes to razor sharpness and used them as a weapon.

Babe Ruth had the perfect summary of Cobb: "Cobb is a prick. But he sure can hit. God almighty, that man can hit."

Two quotes from Cobb himself sum up the man, who seems to have learned a bit with age:

"I had to fight all my life to survive. They were all against me...but I beat the bastards and left them in the ditch."

"I think if I had my life to live over again, I would do things a little different. I was aggressive, perhaps too aggressive, maybe I went too far. I always had to be right in any argument I was in, and I wanted to be first in anything...I do indeed think I would have done some thing different. And if I had, I would have had more friends."

Yep. Quite the popular fellow, that Cobb