August 20, 2014

Ty Cobb and the St. Louis Browns

December 2, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

After the 1926 season, both Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker were involved in a gambling scandal – alleged by Dutch Leonard that they, along with Joe Wood, bet on and fixed the Sept. 25, 1919 game between the Tigers and Indians.

After a hearing by Commissioner Landis, who also was dealing with another gambling scandal involving Black Sox shortstop Swede Risberg, who told of more gambling fixes than just the 1919 World Series, he declared Cobb and Speaker not guilty of any wrongdoing and placed both players back on their respective rosters (they had been released by the Tigers and Indians), although put on the reserve list.

Further, Landis stated that Cobb and Speaker were free to sign with any other American League club and their current clubs, the Tigers and Indians, would allow the players to leave without any compensation. They weren’t true free agents, as they were property of their clubs technically, although this seemed to matter very little.

Landis’ decision came on Jan. 27, 1927. On Jan. 31, Speaker announced he would sign with the Senators.

Cobb’s case was a little more complicated. The Browns wanted him badly and immediately the speculation was that’s where Cobb would end up.

The Browns acted quickly. On Jan. 28, just one day after Landis’ ruling, team president Phil Ball sent Cobb a telegram asking the star outfielder if he was interested in playing for the Browns.

New manager Dan Howley, who was hired in the offseason to replace George Sisler, was to head to Florida to check out the Browns’ spring training site, but he put that on hold to turn his attention to Cobb.

Howley coached with the Tigers in 1919 and from 1921-22 and claimed that Cobb was one of his best friends. The Sporting News described the pair as “Siamese twins.”

“Cobb has done more for me in baseball than any one man in the game,” Howley told the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. “He is one of the best friends I have and I believe the Browns will sign him to a contract, if suitable arrangements are made.”

Howley managed Toronto of the International League from 1923-26 and kept in contact with Cobb by having his Maple Leafs play Cobb’s Tigers in exhibition games. It was expected that because of this friendship, Cobb would indeed be a Brown.

“I think Cobb would come with me if we get an even break for his services,” said Howley, “and I do not believe he would hold the club up for an enormous salary. I certainly would like to see him with the Browns.”

The Globe-Democrat then reported in its Feb. 1 edition that, according to a source, the Tigers had asked waivers on Cobb. This was good news in St. Louis. It was also quite unexpected.

Landis’ decision had made it so only American League teams could bid for Cobb’s services. But if Cobb was waived, and all teams passed on him, he would then be free to sign with any club, including those in the National League.

But there was no way Cobb would clear waivers. American League teams had first claims. The Red Sox finished in last place in 1926 and thus would have the first chance to claim Cobb. However, team president Bob Quinn had already stated they weren’t interested, saying that signing a 40-year-old outfielder wasn’t in their plans for rebuilding a franchise which had finished last in every season since 1922 – except 1924, when the Red Sox were seventh.

The next claim belonged to the team which finished seventh in 1926 – the Browns. And they were ready to pounce on that claim.

However, as it turns out, things were a bit murky in this waiver claim regard. Even Cobb would be perplexed, as this went against the ruling handed down by Landis. As it turned out, the report was either erroneous or waivers just outright ignored. Cobb could make his own deal – even, as it seems, receiving offers from National League teams.

Howley departed for Cobb’s home in Augusta, Ga., but Cobb wasn’t home, instead on a hunting expedition in Ridgeland, S.C. Howley headed there on Feb. 4 to talk with Cobb. He again sent a wire to the Globe-Democrat: “Five clubs dickering with Cobb. Do not expect a decision for a few days.”

With only eight teams in the American League and two – Detroit and Cleveland – definitely not bidding for his services, another in Washington also out, having signed Speaker, and the Yankees saying they weren’t interested, it was plainly obvious that National League teams were trying to negotiate with Cobb (and it turns out, they were; the Giants and Robins for certain making him offers, as did Baltimore of the International League).

Howley then followed Cobb to New York, where Cobb was being feted by sportswriters.

On Feb. 7, Howley sent a telegram to the Globe-Democrat indicating he offered Cobb $50,000 to play for the Browns, the same salary Cobb earned as player/manager for the Tigers in 1926 (actually $40,000 + $10,000 season-end bonus; St. Louis’ offer supposedly was $30,000 + $20,000 signing bonus), and that Cobb would give his decision tomorrow. Charles Alexander’s biography on Cobb has the offer being a salary of $30,000 + gate receipts (according to Cobb).

The gate receipts clause certainly seems plausible. Besides Howley’s friendship with Cobb, the Browns were after him as a gate attraction. The Browns finished last in the American League in attendance in 1926, losing more than 178,000 customers than the previous season and drawing roughly 400,000 less fans than their co-habitants of Sportsman’s Park, the St. Louis Cardinals, who won that year’s World Series.

With this news of Howley’s offer, speculation from sportswriters around the country was still that Cobb was expected to sign with the Browns.

However, Howley wasn’t the only one who had Cobb’s ear. A’s owner Connie Mack also visited Cobb down south and in New York.

Eventually – much like today – friendship went so far and Cobb ended up signing with the highest bidder, agreeing to a deal on Feb. 8 with the A’s.

Contemporary reports at first had the deal being for $60,000 and then a later report claimed the salary being around $70,000-$75,000. According to Alexander’s book, Cobb claimed the salary was $70,000 plus a portion of gate receipts while Mack said it was for $80,000.

Cobb certainly didn’t need the money – he had been getting nice salaries from the Tigers and also invested his money quite well. Alexander offers a theory that Cobb wanted to play for a winner (the A’s were better positioned), he respected Mack, and, perhaps most importantly, the salary fed his ego of being the highest-paid player in the game and vindicated him after the gambling accusations.

With Cobb, certainly the Browns wouldn’t have won a pennant. St. Louis would win just 59 games and finished in last place in 1927 (they might have done a little better, as the plan was to trade Ken Williams for a front-line starter if Cobb was signed).

However, Cobb likely would have helped at the gate. He certainly wasn’t the player he once was [Cobb hit 343/419/460 in 229 games with the A's], but would have been a nice draw for a team which was struggling and had to share a field with the 1926 world champs. As it was, the Browns’ attendance was down another 36,000 fans in 1927.

Ironically, the A’s would win three straight pennants after Cobb’s retirement following the 1928 season.

But for Cobb being allowed to be put on waivers – or perhaps the Browns ponying up more money – the Georgia Peach would have ended his illustrious career in St. Louis. But, as usual, the Browns ended up on the short end of the stick.

Comments

One Response to “Ty Cobb and the St. Louis Browns”
  1. Dennis Pajot says:

    I have enjoyed reading your articles on the St. Louis Browns. This week I hope to clear the time to read your book on the 1944 Browns. Can you recommend a good book on the history of the Browns, especially from 1902 to about 1930? The only book I could find in the local library, doing a simple search, was “The Spirit of St. Louis: a History of the St. Louis Cardinals and Browns” by Peter Golenbock. Does he do a good job on the Brown’s first 30 years?

    Thanks again for the informative articles.

    Dennis Pajot

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