Ty Cobb posed a danger on two occasions—in the batter’s box and on the base paths. On May 15, 1912, Cobb, legendary for his nastiness, pummeled on opponent who wore neither a uniform nor a baseball cap signifying membership on a ball club. It happened during a game against the Yankees—also known as the Highlanders—at Hilltop Park. Cobb responded with his fists to a fan who “annoyed him continually since the game began by the use of disgusting language and unspeakable insults,” wrote E. A. Batchelor in the Detroit Free Press.
Claude Lucker—or Luker, in some chronicles—was the recipient of Cobb’s blows; he instigated the slugger, according to some accounts of spectators and reporters. Lucker’s loss of one hand and three fingers on his other hand mattered not to Cobb, whose defenders included the Mayor of Atlanta, quoted in the Free Press: “I glory in the spunk of Ty Cobb in resenting the insults offered him by the spectator in New York. He has lived up to the principles that have always been taught to Southern manhood.”
It was not an isolated instance, either. The New York Times noted that Cobb received taunts during the series from New York fans seated in prime positions to launch verbal attacks on Cobb—behind the Tigers dugout: “What they have been saying to the Georgia Peach has no place in a family newspaper or even one that circulates in barber shops only.”
Umpire Silk O’Loughlin ejected Cobb, Hank Perry replaced him, and American League President Ban Johnson banned him. The Tigers won the game 8-4—giving them a 3-1 record on the road trip to New York. But the drama caused by Cobb’s pugilistic display outweighed the excitement on the diamond.
The Tigers, in solidarity, struck; their telegram to Johnson read:
“Feeling that Mr. Cobb is being done an injustice by your action in suspending him, we, the undersigned, refuse to play in another game after to-day until such action is adjusted to our satisfaction. He was fully justified in his action, as no one could stand such personal abuse from any one. We want him reinstated for to-morrow’s game, May 18, or there will be no game. If the players cannot have protection we must protect ourselves.”
Tigers skipper Hugh Jennings stood with his boys: “I expect Mr. Johnson to reconsider the matter, fine Cobb, or announce definitely the length of his suspension.” Recruits, mostly college players from St. Joseph’s College, filled the positions vacated by Detroit’s baseball sons for the May 18th game against the Philadelphia A’s, who administered a 24-2 drubbing in Shibe Park.
It was a precarious situation, if not an anarchic one. Johnson, in turn, canceled the next Tigers-A’s game, scheduled for May 20th in Philadelphia. Further, he threatened suspension of the striking players.
Tigers owner Frank Navin restored order, somewhat, by persuading his players to halt the strike through a “strong personal appeal,” described Batchelor. “He pointed out that by their action in striking, the members of the club have caused him severe financial loss, which would grow constantly greater, probably resulting eventually in the loss of the Detroit franchise.” Cobb received credit in the Free Press for bridging the schism between the players and Navin, a result, in no small part, of praise—the Tiger icon emphasized that the club owner treated the players “generously and fairly at all times” and noted “there is no use of making Mr. Navin suffer when we cannot get at the man we are fighting.”
A meeting of American League team owners in Philadelphia on May 20th resulted in fining each Tiger $100 for striking; Cobb’s suspension remained indefinite. On May 25th, that status changed—Johnson okayed the reinstatement of Cobb and issued a $50 fine. An investigation led Johnson to state:
- Cobb used “vicious language in replying to a taunting remark of the spectator”
- Cobb’s suspension of 10 days and a $50 fine was a “lesson to the accused and a warning of all players”
- Cobb did not “appeal to the umpire, but took the law into his own hands”
Further, Johnson underscored the league’s policy regarding abuse by fans going forward:
- Issuing “sure and severe punishment” for those players who “assume to act as judge and avenger of real or fancied wrongs while on duty”
- Boosting the number of police officers at ballparks
- Removal of fans who engage in “actions or comments [that] are offensive to players and fellow patrons”
The Tigers compiled a 69-84-1 record, playing the full slate of 154 games; the May 20th game was rescheduled as part of a July 19th doubleheader—one of three doubleheaders in the July series against the fellas from the City of Brotherly Love.
Despite the benching for 10 games, Ty Cobb led the major leagues in 1912 with 226 hits. It was a season typical of Cobb output—the Georgia Peach also led in batting average (.409) and slugging percentage (.584).
Amidst the chaos triggered by Cobb’s incident, a bright spot shone through; 1912 was the year that the Tigers débuted their new stadium—Navin Field.
A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 8, 2017.