Strike! The Shortest Baseball Walkout in History
There have been five strikes by Major League Baseball players and three lockouts by team owners since the American League formed in 1901 and joined with the 25-year-old National League to create the current MLB organization.
The first of these eight work stoppages was a 13-day players’ strike in 1972 caused by a squabble over pensions.
Such is the history of MLB labor disputes as recorded in various chronicles of American professional sports.
But actually, there have been six strikes or walkouts by players since the start of the 20th century.
The very first strike occurred 100 years ago last week when the Detroit Tigers walked off the field at Shibe Park in Philadelphia, refusing to play their game against the Philadelphia Athletics, Saturday, May 18, 1912. They did so because Ban Johnson, president of the American League, suspended the Tigers’ feisty center fielder, Ty Cobb, indefinitely after he attacked a spectator during a game in New York City three days earlier.
The Tigers not only refused to play May 18, but said they would not play again until Cobb was reinstated.
To counter this move by his players, the 1912 Tigers’ manager, Hughie Jennings, on orders from his team owner, Frank Navin, rounded up an ersatz team of college kids, sandlot amateurs and old-time major leaguers to replace the real Tigers.
This initial MLB walkout, which lasted only one day, differed in many ways from the more recent strikes and lockouts. For one thing, it only involved the players of the one team instead of all MLB players who were involved in each of the other labor disputes. The Tigers’ 1912 walkout was not caused by money, pension or working condition disagreements, which were usually the root causes for the other MLB work stoppages.
It was caused by teammates who felt Cobb was not given a fair deal by Johnson, who refused to even let Cobb give his side of the story at a hearing.
Thus the make-believe Tigers took the field at Shibe Park and, of course, were clobbered by manager/owner Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics, 24-2, while the real Detroit Tigers sat in the stands watching their temps being trounced.
‘The Georgia Peach’
The whole, nasty affair started in Hilltop Park at 168th Street and Broadway, where the New York Highlanders played their games in that neighborhood of upper Manhattan known as Washington Heights. The Highlanders moved their home games to the Polo Grounds in 1913 when they changed their name to the Yankees. The first Yankee Stadium was not opened until 1923.
Tyrus Raymond Cobb, still considered by many as the greatest MLB player in history, was also the most disliked player in MLB history. He was just as disliked by many of his own teammates as he was by opposing players and fans.
Known as “The Georgia Peach,” Cobb played 22 of his 24 years in MLB with the Detroit Tigers. He retired after the 1928 season with what still stands as the MLB record career batting average of .366. He stole 897 bases and batted over .400 three times, including that 1912 season, when he batted .409.
But his superb batting, running and fielding was often overshadowed by his terrible temper and numerous fights with fans, opponents, umpires and even teammates. He was a virulent racist who attacked black men more than once — and even a black woman who was the wife of a groundskeeper.
In what became his most infamous brawl, Ty Cobb went into the stands of Hilltop Park, Wednesday, May 15, 1912, and brutally attacked a handicapped fan, Claude Lueker, who had been loudly heckling Cobb for three innings. Lueker had lost his left hand and three fingers on his right hand in a machine press accident a year before he was attacked by Cobb.
Lueker had often taunted Cobb with horrible language from the stands in previous seasons during Tigers-Highlanders games at Hilltop Park.
Cobb showed no mercy. Before he could be pulled off Lueker by players, other fans and police, Cobb had knocked down and beaten his tormentor rather severely by punching and kicking him.
There was no commissioner of baseball until 1921. Punishments such as suspensions in 1912 were administered by Ban Johnson, the American League president, or Thomas J. Lynch, the National League president.
The day after the fight in New York was a day off for the Tigers, who traveled on to Philadelphia, where they received word that Johnson had suspended Cobb indefinitely. Johnson also fined Cobb $100.
Then, on Friday, May 17, the Tigers beat the Athletics, 6-3, without Cobb.
That is when the Tigers realized Johnson meant business with his suspension directive. As a result, these players proclaimed that they would not play another game until Cobb was reinstated.
Johnson countered that threat by saying he would suspend all players who refused to play and that he would fine Frank Navin, the Tigers’ owner, $5,000 for each game the Tigers did not play. Johnson also said the Tigers must forfeit all games they did not play.
This caused a near panic on Navin’s part. He had no idea if his players would actually carry out their threat to walk out. But he feared losing the team, since he could not afford such a severe fine if a walkout lasted any length of time.
Thus Navin took immediate steps to find at least a one-day replacement in case the Tigers did strike, Saturday.
The extremely contumacious Ty Cobb appeared at Shibe Park, Saturday, with his teammates. But the umpires told Cobb to leave immediately and that there would be no game until he did so.
Cobb did as the umpires ordered and left the field. He was immediately joined by all of his teammates in the first strike or walkout in MLB history.
There are various accounts of just what happened next, as most reports indicate manager Hughie Jennings went up into the stands and corralled a team of likely players to substitute for his Tigers. It is much more likely that Jennings had his subs already picked out and sitting in the Shibe Park stands just in case.
The Detroit manager is reported to have paid any position player $10, and the pitcher got $50.
Jennings got help from a Philadelphia Bulletin baseball reporter, John Nolan, who knew of possible players in the area. Jennings and Nolan apparently did their work Friday night in preparation for the possible walkout the next day.
That is how a future priest, Allan Travers, became the starting and only pitcher for the losing Tigers that day. Nolan knew of Travers, a 20-year-old student at Philadelphia’s St. Joseph’s College in 1912, who was the Hawks’ baseball team manager. He was willing to give it a try, and he got some other students to join him as fill-in Tigers.
Then Jennings put two of his coaches in the lineup — the 48-year-old Deacon McGuire as catcher and the 41-year-old Joe Sugden as first baseman. Nolan found some sandlot players to fill out the team.
Al Travers, who had never pitched a baseball game before in his life, had to face the likes of Eddie Collins and Frank (“Home Run”) Baker, both of whom are in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Travers went all eight innings against the home team A’s, giving up 24 runs and 26 hits.
Father Travers often spoke of that day during his priesthood, always claiming, “It was a wonder we ever got them out.”
The Tigers had the next two days off before playing the Washington Senators in the nation’s capital, Tuesday, May 21, 1912.
By then things had calmed down a bit as Ban Johnson realized the Tiger players meant to carry out their strike threat until Cobb was reinstated. Therefore, the AL president cut the suspension time to just 10 games.
This seemed to mollify the Detroit Tigers, who returned to duty for that Tuesday game in Washington, D.C., ending the first and shortest walkout in MLB history.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
More like this story