April 25, 2018

Notes From the Shadows of Cooperstown: Notes From Home and Away

May 1, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

This issue has been put together between and after a couple of road trips. Most of the notes from “home” arrive via the internet these days, but I still frequent my local library, too. In any case, this has been a fun issue to write, and that usually means it will be a fun read, too.

Maybe the most fun I had was with the totally unexpected item below, Eighteen Men Out, on the Ty Cobb “strike” game. It has no B-Sox connection, except that Billy Maharg played in it and maybe Sleepy Bill Burns cheered him on. But it’s a fascinating event about ballplayers going on strike, without actually bothering to organize a union first. Read some of the details, then imagine what a feeding frenzy the media today would have with the story.


After writing the above, I got curious about that 1912 game, and visited ProQuest. There I found at least fifty articles, enough for a small book, one I have no intention of writing. Here are some of the highlights of my findings.

The crisis was partly the result of timing. Cobb had assaulted a fan in New York, giving Claude Lucker (or Lueker) his fifteen minutes of fame. Claude, as it happened, was a “cripple” — anatomically challenged? — having lost one hand and three fingers of the other “while engaged as a pressman” a few years before this incident. I’m not sure if that meant he operated some kind of pressing (or newspaper) machine, or was a reporter; I’d guess the former. Mr Lucker was also an assistant in “Big Tom” Foley’s law office, Foley being a former Sheriff of NY County and Tammany leader of the Second Assembly District.

Of course, a lawsuit was threatened. Lucker was under a doctor’s care. Among his injuries were spike wounds, which today would be worth a lot on e-bay. Ty Cobb spike wounds, y’know?

Naturally, there are different accounts of who provoked the attack by Cobb — the Peach, or Lucker. Cobb argued that this was not the first time that this particular NY fan had taunted him, using X-rated language, which — for Cobb — must have been vulgar indeed. In Lucker’s account, half a dozen Tiger players, all armed with bats, were following Cobb when he vaulted over the fence and attacked Lucker, who was three rows back.

The timing problem was that when Cobb was suspended by ban Johnson, he appealed at once; Johnson had not heard his side of the matter. His teammates sent the Czar a letter, threatening to strike — not just in sympathy, but in protest of the league’s lack of protection from fan abuse. The Tigers tried to get other teams to go on strike at the same time, but did not gain any more support. Their manager, Hughie Jennings, took the side of his team, but did not strike with them. But communications being what they were, Johnson heard about the letter from the press, before it ever reached him. He was traveling, and he also had not heard anything from the Detroit manager yet. When Johnson finally issued a statement, from Cincinnati, it was this: “I have nothing to say. Let them walk out if they want to. I am interested in the Cincinnati-New York game now. That’s all.”

After the Cincy game, and probably a few beers, Johnson had more to say. He was amazed at “the attitude of Player Cobb” (he knew how to put the Peach in his place) and his team mates. He was defensive about their accusations that the AL had not been providing adequate protection from fans. He said any players bothered need only to ask for help from the umpires or the local police.

Cobb fired back, saying Johnson considered himself infallible. “He suspends a man first and investigates afterward. It should be the reverse.” Pete Rose learned the same lesson later, when you make authority the issue, you lose. Cobb’s stature and popularity just made it worse — no one was above the game. Ban Johnson was in charge here, just as Judge Landis was in charge when he suspended Babe Ruth. No one’s bigger than baseball, and by that, I mean the guy at the top!

It wasn’t quite as simple as Cobb put it. Ban Johnson said that he had been present at the game in New York when the incident took place, and “witnessed the affair.” Johnson had curbed “rowdyism” and made the AL, then all MLB ballparks, much more fan-friendly places. Cobb had attacked not just a fan, but Johnson’s ideal image of what baseball should be.

The press sensationalized the story at once, making it not just a case of players asking for better working conditions, but a question of their right to ask for any concessions from MLB. If Johnson granted them anything, who knows where it might lead? The Brotherhood League revolt of 1890 was splashed into the news. So was a feeble attempt to unionize in 1910. Was this event the catalyst that might bring a Marvin Miller to the game?

Editors waxed as eloquently as they could. This was juicy stuff. “Cobb punches fan” was as good as “man bites dog.” If men under contract could stop in protest of their working conditions, was anybody safe? What if bankers or soldiers followed suit? This was a threat to the order of society, to discipline everywhere. And this was Ty Cobb, not just any player, beating up on a cripple, not just Joe the Fan. Editors lectured players on their responsibility to fulfill their binding contracts. No one doubted that Cobb had been provoked, but … no one doubted that Johnson had the authority to suspend him, but still … this event today would light up the blogosphere and dominate talk radio & TV. Thankfully, it happened in 1912.

One editor in the NY Times used an interesting Biblical image that I had to look up. He suggested that the eighteen Detroiter strikers “were sulking in the cave of Adullam” while the game was played. This was a fancy way of saying that they were like bandits in a hideout, political dissidents, outsiders plotting a comeback. So now, if you read somewhere that the Repulicans have changed their name to Adullamites, you’ll get it.

Detroit owner Frank Navin, caught in the middle, between his disgruntled employees and the AL Prez (whom he tended to support with genuine loyalty), intervened. He coaxed the players to “go back to work” after that one-day sitdown. It appears that the players did not want to see Navin “suffer for their action.”

The team would be fined $5,000 for any game forfeited. That may not seem like much today, but in 1912, $5,000 would cover the annual income for two or three players; so if the team owner that he’d offset the fine by trimming the payroll — well, you can see why the players hustled back to work after a session with Navin. They would return to the field (their next game was in Washington) but “continue to fight for their principle.” Navin pledged to do all he could, not just to have Cobb reinstated, but to better protect players from fans. A special meeting of AL owners was held; Cobb was a big box office draw, and that was no doubt a factor in determining the length of his suspension. Navin also pledged to pay any fines imposed on the striking players, and when Johnson docked them all $100, it cost Navin $1,800.

“The Strike Game,” played May 18, 1912, in Philadelphia, was a 24-2 rout. Connie Mack used three pitchers but just two substitutes, both outfielders, in an A’s lineup that included Eddie Collins (5 for 6, 4 SB), Home Run Baker (2 for 5 with a triple, no HR), and Amos Strunk (4 for 5). The A’s got 26 hits, the fill-ins four singles. Midway thru the game, it was just 6-2, but an 8-run fifth inning put it out of reach; four more runs in both the sixth and seventh made it a laugher. Despite all the scoring, the game took just 105 minutes.

Billy Maharg, according to the box score, started the game at third base, handling two chances without making an error, and going 0-for-1 at bat, before turning over the hot corner and to either a fellow named Irwin (who also did some catching that day) or Smith, it’s not clear. One account has the A’s beating out a lot of bunts that day; maybe that did Maharg in.

Do we know anything about the others in that lineup? The names are McGarr 2b; McGarvey lf; Linhauser cf; Sugden 1b; McGuire c; Meaney ss; and Ward rf. A poor lad named Al Travers pitched the entire game, yielding 26 hits (although both box scores I found said 25), and giving him what turned out to be a lifetime ERA of 15.75; he walked seven and fanned one. Oh well, at least he could point to the CG and that one K.

Manager Hughie Jennings took a swing that day, too, in the ninth inning, hoping to rally his men, I guess. His 0-for-1 was the only plate appearance he made that season. The Washington Post account said the team “masquerading under the name of the Detroits” was given a “classic beating. Few of those in the lineup could play, and those that could were too frightened to do anything.”

The Chicago Daily Tribune said that 20,000 fans showed up for the farce, but they may have expected to see Cobb and Company. Johnson’s refusal of the players’ request for Cobb’s reinstatement did not reach Jennings until his players had taken the field for practice. When it arrived, he removed the team to the locker room, where they handed over their uniforms to the gang that Jennings had recruited, just in case. Some, the Trib noted, were amateur players; some were members of the nearby St Joseph’s college team. James Thomas “Deacon” McGuire, one of the catchers for Jennings, ended a 26-season career that day, with a 1-for-2; not bad, for a 48-year-old guy. Joe Sugden had not played in the bigs since 1905, having put in twelve years in MLB as a catcher; his 1-for-4 must have delighted Sugden, who would turn 42 soon. Al Travers, the pitcher, was just 20. Both McGuire and Sugden were Detroit scouts in 1912.

We do not know how Hughie Jennings found Billy Maharg. Maybe he was running bets to the track that day. Sleepy Bill Burns pitched his last games for the Detroit team in 1912. I don’t know if he was in Philly that day. But I like to think he was, and when Billy Maharg left the game, I like to think he was greeted in the locker room by the retiring pitcher. “Burnsy, this could be the start of a beautiful friendship.”

The above is an excerpt from Issue #485 of Gene’s Notes From the Shadows of Cooperstown. To read the rest of the issue (or past issues), click here.

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