Ty Cobb’s Outburst Led to Notorious Game in 1912
In May 1912, during Cobb’s first visit of the season to New York’s Hilltop Park with the Detroit Tigers, he incited one of baseball’s most notorious and bizarre episodes. He was suspended and reinstated, his teammates went on the sport’s first strike, and a team of sandlotters and amateurs headed by a seminary student became a part of baseball lore. Cobb blamed everyone but himself — mainly the fans and the American League president, Ban Johnson.
Cobb and the Tigers arrived in New York in a sour mood, with a 10-13 record and ready to beat on the lowly Highlanders (who were renamed the Yankees the next year). Detroit won two of the first three games, with Cobb, the center fielder, going 5 for 12 despite a steady razzing from fans. As soon as Cobb hit the field for the series finale May 15, he became a target, especially for one vocal male spectator sitting close to the Tigers’ dugout on the third-base side.
In his memoirs, Cobb described the man as “a character who had ridden me hard in past New York appearances.” The heckling was nasty and crude, and they traded barbs that were audible to many in the park in Washington Heights. The abuse grew so intense that Cobb did not return to the bench after the second inning, staying in the ballpark’s carriage park area beyond center field.
But as he ducked into the dugout before batting in the fourth, Cobb hurled an insult at the man, according to Cobb’s biographer Charles Alexander. The man, a Tammany Hall page named Claude Lucker (or Lueker, in some accounts), who had lost all but two of his fingers while operating a printing press, continued taunting Cobb.
The Tigers’ Sam Crawford asked Cobb what he intended to do. And with that, Cobb suddenly vaulted into the stands toward Lucker, seated about 12 rows up in the grandstand. Knocking Lucker down, Cobb began kicking and stamping him.
“Cobb,” someone cried, “that man has no hands!”
“I don’t care if he has no feet!” he yelled, continuing the attack with his cleats. Some fans tried to intervene, but several teammates who had followed Cobb into the grandstand held them off with bats. An umpire and a police officer finally pulled Cobb away.
He was ejected from the game, which the Tigers eventually won, 8-4. Johnson, in the midst of touring A.L. parks, witnessed the incident and suspended Cobb indefinitely. Cobb’s teammates rallied to his defense two days later in Philadelphia, sending Johnson a message that they would strike in protest.
“If the players cannot have protection, we must protect ourselves,” the Tigers wrote.
That put Detroit Manager Hughie Jennings in a quandary. The Tigers would incur a $5,000 fine if they forfeited their May 18 game against the Athletics, so the team owner, Frank Navin, ordered Jennings to field a team. With the help of Joe Nolan, a sportswriter for The Philadelphia Bulletin, Jennings quickly cobbled together a roster of semipros and amateurs.
At Nolan’s behest, Allan Travers, a 20-year old seminarian and assistant manager of the St. Joseph’s College baseball team, recruited most of the eight position players from his neighborhood for $25 apiece. Travers found a boxer, Billy Maharg, who later played one game for the 1916 Phillies and was implicated as a bag man in the 1919 Black Sox scandal. He found Ed Irvin, who had toiled in the low minors, and the sandlotter Bill Leinhauser. Travers was set to play right field, but when told that the pitcher would be paid $50, he decided to pitch.
A desperate Jennings pressed two of his coaches into service. Deacon McGuire, who had spent 25 years in the major leagues, played catcher at 48. Joe Sugden, a former major leaguer for a dozen years, played first base at 41. Jennings, 43, pinch-hit. The baseball historian Al Stump called it “the most farcical lineup the majors ever had known.”
Connie Mack’s A’s had won the previous two World Series and included the future Hall of Famers Eddie Collins, Frank Baker and Herb Pennock. They led by 6-0 after three innings and by 14-0 after five.
In an interview decades later, Travers said Jennings had told him not to throw fastballs because “he was afraid I might get killed.” So Travers stuck with a roundhouse curve, which the A’s sent careening about the ballpark. Sometimes, they bunted.
“Trouble was, no one could catch,” Travers said.
After 1 hour 45 minutes and nine errors, the Tigers had lost, 24-2. The game counted in the standings.
Travers gave up 26 hits and 7 walks. 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.”
In center field, a fly ball dropped on Leinhauser’s head, but he stayed in the game. “I played all nine innings and did nothing but chase balls all over the place,” said Leinhauser, who later became a Philadelphia police detective.
For the A’s, Collins had five hits in six at-bats. Jack Coombs, Boardwalk Brown and Pennock combined to strike out 15 Tigers.
For the replacement Tigers, only Irvin seemed to have success, with two triples in three at-bats. McGuire and Sugden each added a hit.
An embarrassed Navin wanted to cancel the games until the strike could be settled. But Cobb urged his teammates to end their walkout.
After they returned to the field, Johnson fined each player $100, except for Cobb, who was assessed a $50 penalty and suspended for 10 days.
By May 26, 11 days after he had charged into the Hilltop Park stands, Cobb was back in center field.
Jim Reisler, who lives in Irvington, N.Y., has written several books about baseball.