GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Major League Baseball is no stranger to labor strikes. The owners and the Player’s Association have been at odds several times. Most of the time, they hammer out the issues before any games are canceled, and the World Series has only been canceled once.
But there’s only been one instance where strikebreakers were used to keep the game going. Just one team, in fact: The 1912 Detroit Tigers.
So what happened? At the heart of the story is a heckler and a Hall of Famer who lost his cool.
MAY 15, 1912
The story starts three days earlier and a state away. On May 15, the Tigers were wrapping up a series with the New York Highlanders — one year before the team took on a new moniker, the New York Yankees.
The Highlander fans didn’t care for Tigers outfielder Ty Cobb. The Georgia Peach was entering his prime. The 25-year-old was the American League’s reigning most valuable player, coming off a season where he led the AL in batting average (.419), hits (248), doubles (47), triples (24), RBI (127) and stolen bases (83).
But that wasn’t the only reason they hated him. Cobb was, by most accounts, a mean-spirited and hateful person. While there are debates about his views on racism, he was universally known as being overly aggressive. There are countless stories of Cobb getting into arguments and physical altercations with anyone and everyone, from waiters and cashiers to his own teammates.
According to Paul Hofmann of the Society for American Baseball Research, the jeers from the stands started before the first pitch.
“New York fans greeted Cobb with a verbal barrage as soon as he appeared on the field,” Hofmann wrote.
One heckler in particular got under Cobb’s skin — a man named Claude Lueker. According to Hofmann, Lueker and Cobb traded barbs for a few innings, with both men incorporating racial slurs and each other’s relatives in their taunts.
After the third inning, Cobb snapped.
“Teammate Sam Crawford, who rarely saw eye-to-eye with Cobb, added fuel to the fire when he asked the volatile Southerner if he intended to ‘take that.’ This set the Georgia Peach off,” Hofmann wrote. “Leaping a railing, Cobb trampled fans to get at his tormentor, sitting a dozen rows up in the stands.”
Cobb pummeled the man, landing at least a dozen punches and kicking him with his spiked cleats.
The bleachers turned to chaos, with people screaming for help and accusing Cobb of targeting a man who couldn’t defend himself. Unbeknownst to Cobb, Lueker had lost one hand and three fingers on the other in a workplace accident.
Cobb was immediately kicked out of the game, but his punishment was far from over. American League President Ban Johnson just happened to be in attendance that day and witnessed the beating firsthand.
That night, Cobb was summoned to Johnson’s hotel room to discuss what happened. Dissatisfied with Cobb’s response, Johnson told him that he was suspended indefinitely.
After a travel day to Philadelphia, the Tigers took on the Athletics on May 17 with Paddy Baumann inserted into Cobb’s spot in center field. Even without Cobb, Detroit managed to beat the reigning World Series champs, 6-3. But the big surprise came after the game: The Tigers players announced that they would not take the field until Cobb was reinstated.
Livid by the announcement, Johnson threatened each player with a $100 fine if they missed a game and would ban them from baseball if the strike continued on. He also threatened the team’s owner, Frank Navin. Johnson said the franchise would be fined $5,000 for every game they had to forfeit, meaning a long-lasting strike could bankrupt him and cost him his franchise.
Navin and manager Hughie Jennings scrambled to find a team of alternates on the off chance that the Tigers players went through with their strike. Working with a local sportswriter, the team quickly put together some tryouts to see who could feasibly take the field to avoid the fines.
In all, the Tigers organized seven amateur or semi-pro baseball players from around the area and two men who were better known as local boxers. Jennings, along with fellow coaches Deacon McGuire and Joe Sugden who were also retired players, rounded out the roster.
First pitch was set for 2:30 p.m. that day. An estimated crowd of 15,000 people packed the stands to watch the drama unfold.
“Cobb sheepishly strolled out to his customary spot in center field until umpire Ed ‘Bull’ Perrine waved him off. Cobb stalked off the field with the rest of the Tigers following behind. They returned to the visitors’ clubhouse and removed their uniforms. With that, the first-ever major league players strike was on,” Hofmann wrote.
Jennings didn’t waste any time. He called for the strikebreakers and the new players rushed in, grabbing the uniforms of the players who just minutes earlier had left the field. They quickly signed one-day contracts and were officially professional baseball players.
Joe Naiman for the Baseball Research Journal said the players made between $10 and $50, with the largest contract handed to Alan Travers, a local college student who pitched the entire game for Detroit.
A METAPHORICAL BLOODBATH
A team of amateurs against the reigning World Series champs went about as well as you would expect. The Athletics ran away with the game, winning 24-2.
The A’s scored three runs in the first and third innings, sending many fans to the box office to demand a refund. The Tigers were able to stop the bleeding and even scratch out a couple of runs of their own before the levies broke.
After the Tigers scored two runs in the top of the fifth inning, Philadelphia responded with eight of their own and then four more in the sixth to stretch the lead to 18-2.
Travers was given an impossible task, but his defense didn’t do him any favors. Philadelphia’s 26 hits were helped by 7 Tiger errors.
“I was throwing slow curves and the A’s were not used to them and couldn’t hit the ball. Hughie Jennings told me not to throw fast balls as he was afraid I might get killed,” Travers recalled. “I was doing fine until they started bunting. The guy playing third base had never played baseball before. I threw a beautiful slow ball and the A’s were just hitting easy flies. … Trouble was, no one could catch them.”
It wasn’t just insult. There were injuries, too. One of the strikebreakers, Billy Maharg, lost two teeth after being hit with a line drive while playing third base.
After the game, it was Cobb who demanded that his teammates call off the strike and return to the field. You could argue that he was touched by his teammates’ support and didn’t want them to face any more punishment. Some argue that Cobb simply wanted to win and knew the strikebreakers would only hurt the team.
Regardless, the next day, the Tigers returned to the lineup and took the field. Cobb was suspended for a total of 10 games before returning to action. He went on to play 14 more seasons with the Tigers before spending his final two seasons in the city where the legendary strike happened: Philadelphia.
CORRECTION: A line in this story was edited to clarify the debated history on Cobb’s views on race. News 8 regrets the error.