GORDON WHITE: For One Day: 'Amateurs' Experienced Major League Baseball
Tyrus Raymond Cobb may have been the best player in major league baseball history. The Georgia Peach may also have been the nastiest, meanest, feistiest player in MLB history.
His short fuse and loss of self control resulted in the first walkout by major league players and undoubtedly the most bizarre MLB game ever played, which was staged in Shibe Park, Philadelphia, exactly 96 years ago today.
During an era when sharpened spikes were often used as weapons to achieve stolen bases and prevent double plays, Ty Cobb was a master of the high spike slide. He also used his fists on the field, in the stands and under them to make a point that he felt he failed to make in the course of play.
Starting in 1905, this superb hitter, base stealer and outfielder, terrorized opposing MLB pitchers for 24 seasons -- 22 years with the Detroit Tigers and his last two with the Philadelphia Athletics. He batted over .400 three times -- .420 in 1911, .410 in 1912 and .401 in 1922.
Unfortunately, Cobb, who was anything but a "Peach" of a man at times, could terrorize fans as well as opposing players.
Early in the 1912 season Cobb really lost it during a game in New York against the Highlanders.
Back then, the Highlanders played at Hilltop Park on the upper west side of Manhattan, the neighborhood known as Washington Heights. The Highlanders were renamed the Yankees the next year, 1913, when they moved to the Polo Grounds as rent-paying tenants of the National League's New York Giants.
Cobb, the Tigers' center fielder, had been loudly heckled by New York spectators in the Hilltop Park outfield bleachers during the game of Tuesday, May 14, 1912. They continued their loud and derisive taunting of Cobb during the next day's game.
Midway through that game of Wednesday, May 15, 1912, Cobb had heard enough from those fans and went berserk. After the Tigers got the Highlanders out in the bottom of the fourth inning Cobb charged up into the center field seats where he attacked one of his loudest tormentors, Claude Lucker, who was a handicapped person. Lucker lost one hand and three fingers on the other hand in an accident years earlier.
Lucker claimed Cobb "struck me with his fists and knocked me down and jumped on me and spiked me in the left leg."
Umpires ejected Cobb from the game and the American League president, Ban Johnson, suspended the Georgia Peach indefinitely.
That suspension of the world's best baseball player is what caused Cobb's Tiger teammates to walk off the field. They refused to play their game against the Philadelphia Athletics, Saturday, May 18, 1912, and said they would not return to play until Cobb was reinstated.
Near panic set in with Detroit Tigers management, including Frank Navin, owner and president of the club. If the Tigers did not field a team for a scheduled game the team would be fined $1,000 (considerable money in those days). But even worse, the American League could revoke the team's franchise. Navin was fit to be tied while the players were adamant.
Hughey Jennings, the Detroit manager, saved the day with the help of one coach and one Tigers personnel scout in attendance. They rustled up 12 players from the stands who were among 50 or more who volunteered to replace the striking Tigers. These "amateur" Tigers were taken to the Detroit locker room where they were dressed in Tiger uniforms. They took the field and the game proceeded against manager/owner Connie Mack's Philadelphia A's, who had won the last two World Series (1910 and 1911).
Many of the striking Tigers were on the team managed by Jennings that won the American League pennant for three straight years (1907, 1908, 1909) but lost each of those World Series.
The "amateur" replacements were paid $50 each, according to some newspaper reports of that day in 1912. But there is some question about the remuneration.
On the 50th anniversary of that game, May 18, 1962, the Rev. Aloysius Stanislaus Travers, SJ, recalled the day of the striking Tigers vividly during an interview with a New York Times reporter. It was Al (Steve) Travers, a 20-year-old student at St. Joseph's College in Philadelphia who was sitting in the Shibe Park stands when Jennings recruited him to pitch for the Tigers that fateful afternoon in 1912.
Travers said the 11 other players were paid $10 each while he was paid $25 for pitching. In 1962 the 70-year-old, Travers was a professor of religion at St. Joseph's Prep School in Philadelphia.
Whatever was the true salary, these "amateurs" were paid something for their troubles -- and you can be sure it was troubles.
The Athletics tried to hold back a bit as they bunted 18 times in the game. But still the Athletics beat the pickup Tigers, 24-2. Travers pitched all eight innings that the A's batted. After all, Jennings had nobody else to pitch. Travers gave up 24 runs, 25 hits, and seven walks. He also hit four batters -- one in the head.
Jennings understood Travers was a star pitcher for the St. Joseph's College baseball team when he told that volunteer in Shibe Park to pitch for the makeshift Tiger team. Travers never contradicted Jennings that day in 1912 but admitted years later that he was only the St. Joseph's College baseball team manager and did not pitch for the Hawks.
Travers pitched to some formidable MLB players that day, including future Hall of Fame members such as Frank (Home Run) Baker, the A's third baseman, and Eddie Collins, the A's second baseman. Herb Pennock, also a future Hall of Fame member, was the third of three pitchers Connie Mack used against those helpless but thrilled "amateurs," who played at being major leaguers for one glorious day in their lives.
Cobb persuaded his teammates to go back to work for the Tigers and they did play two days later on Monday, May 20, 1912. There was no game Sunday, May 19, in Philadelphia because of a Pennsylvania blue law in those days that prohibited the playing of any professional sports on Sunday.
Ban Johnson reinstated Cobb five days after the walkout and the Georgia Peach continued on his way to his sixth of nine consecutive American League batting championships. Cobb got many more base hits that season and, fortunately for the Tigers and MLB, not one more hit on a defenseless fan.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His e-mail is email@example.com.
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