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Strike One: How Racism United a Team

Tyrus Raymond Cobb spent the early years of his career shuffling between various semi-pro teams in the Southeast, finishing out the 1904 season batting .237 in 35 games with the Augusta Tourists of the Sally League. In August of 1905, the Tourists’ manager sold Cobb to the Detroit Tigers for $750. On August [...]

Tyrus Raymond Cobb spent the early years of his career shuffling between various semi-pro teams in the Southeast, finishing out the 1904 season batting .237 in 35 games with the Augusta Tourists of the Sally League. In August of 1905, the Tourists’ manager sold Cobb to the Detroit Tigers for $750. On August 8th of that same year, Cobb suffered the death of his father. It was a loss made all the more tragic by the fact that it was Cobb’s own mother, Amanda, who fired the fatal shot. Believing that Amanda was cheating on him, W.H. Cobb told her he was going out of town, only to sneak back later that night in an attempt to catch her with her lover. As he was climbing onto the roof of the house, Amanda saw him through the bedroom window. Mistaking him for a burglar, she picked up a shotgun and fired, killing him. She was arrested on voluntary manslaughter charges, but she was later acquitted.

Already a bristled, angry man with a hair trigger temper, Cobb wouldn’t tolerate any of the rookie hazing that was customary among baseball players of the day. This not only served to alienate him from his teammates, but their repeated attempts at hazing made him all the more violent and temperamental. As a result, by the end of the 1905 season, there was very little respect between Cobb and his fellow Tigers.

Ty Cobb made his debut as the centerfielder for the Tigers on August 30, 1905. In his first major league at-bat, he doubled off New York Highlanders’ pitcher Jack Chesbro. That season he went on to bat an under whelming .241 in 41 games, but he showed enough promise that the Tigers offered him a generous $1,500 contract for the 1906 season. The following season he became the Tigers full-time centerfielder and hit .316 in 98 games. He would never hit below that mark again. While his star was rising on the field, Cobb was quickly building on his violent reputation off of it. During the Tigers’ Spring Training in Augusta, Georgia in 1907, he came to blows with a black groundskeeper over the condition of the field, even going so far as to choke the man’s wife when she tried to intervene. Cobb’s career was marked as much by his violent outburst and drunken rages as it was by his on-field prowess.

Never was his temper as evident as on May 15, 1912. On that day, the Tigers were in New York’s Hilltop Park to take on the New York Highlanders (who would later become the New York Yankees). Throughout the game Cobb was berated from the stands by a Highlanders’ fan that he recognized as a regular heckler. After trading insults with the fan, a man named Claude Lueker, through 2 innings, Cobb went at the beginning of the 3rd to the New York dugout with the intention of asking the owner to have Lueker removed. When he returned to his own bench, he made a derogatory comment to Lueker concerning his sister. Lueker replied by calling Cobb a “half-nigger”. At this, Cobb climbed into the stands and attacked Lueker, knocking him to the ground and stomping him repeatedly. After nearby fans pointed out that Lueker was handicapped (he had lost one of his hands and three fingers on the other in an industrial accident), Cobb replied, “I don’t care if he ain’t got any feet.” Police finally managed to pull Cobb off Lueker and he was ejected from the game. American League President Ban Johnson, who was in attendance that day, listened to Cobb’s side of the story then suspended him indefinitely. For what was most likely the first and only time, the rest of the Tiger players actually stood up for Cobb, saying they would not play until he was reinstated. Why would a team of guys risk their livelihood to stand in defense of a man that all indications were they hated? Simple, they wouldn’t. They didn’t stand up in defense of Cobb. They stood in defense of his actions, saying he was justified, because being called a half-nigger was too great an insult for any white man to ignore.

The team then traveled to Philadelphia, where they were scheduled to play against the Athletics. Cobb suited up with the rest of the team, and when he was informed by an umpire that he wasn’t allowed to play, the rest of the team changed into their street clothes and went into the stands with Cobb to watch the game. The Tigers’ management, in anticipation of this, and wanting to avoid the $5000 fine for not fielding a team, had already lined up some local semi-pro players to play in their stead. The Tiger scabs lost the game 24-2. After the game, Ban Johnson fined each striking Tiger player $100 and encouraged them to return for the next game. He then fined Cobb $50 and suspended him for ten games, thus ending major league baseball’s first strike.

To discuss.


Posted originally: 2006-11-13 16:51:01
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