Saturday, July 12, 2014

Ty Cobb's Greatest Day in Baseball Revisited

The Tigers and Athletics mascots decorate the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer - October 1, 1907

Life is full of little ironies.  One of mine is that I'm frequently asked how I became interested in the Civil War, which I can't answer, but am never asked the same question about my interest in baseball history, which I can.  The answer is books and one book in particular.  When I first became interested in baseball in the mid 1950's, it quickly became such a consuming passion that when I wasn't playing baseball or watching it on television (in glorious black and white), I read books about it.  Most of the books came from the Bloomfield Junior High Library where my father was a teacher and, of all of them, the one which still stands out is My Greatest Day in Baseball as told to John Carmichael and others.  As the name suggests, it's a collection of what are now called oral histories, in this case told by baseball's premier players, each recalling his greatest day in the game.  My Greatest Day anticipated Lawrence Ritter's timeless classic, The Glory of Their Times and had the good fortune to include the stories of Ty Cobb, Cy Young and Babe Ruth and other great players who were dead by the time Ritter embarked on his own quest.  In fact, Ritter wrote in his preface that it was Cobb's 1961 death that gave him the idea for The Glory of Their Times.

View of Columbia Park, home of the Athletics from 1901-1908, note the lack of dugouts and the fans in the foreground standing behind ropes in the outfield

Although My Greatest Day encompasses games from roughly 1900 to 1950, for some reason the stories that were the most fascinating to me were from the Deadball era (1901-1919) such as the famous (or infamous) Merkle game and the ensuing makeup contest which decided the mythical 1908 National League pennant race.  Almost 60 years later, I thought it would be interesting to revisit some of those games to see whether what so excited a 10 year old boy was really the stuff of legends.   One of the stories I've never forgotten is Ty Cobb's account of a game in only the third year of a career that spanned over 20 years from 1905 to 1928.  Cobb played in over 3000 major league contests, but what stood out for one of baseball's fiercest competitors was a September 30, 1907 game with the Philadelphia Athletics even though the Tigers didn't win the game.

Some of the crowd on the way to Columbia Park by trolley car - Philadelphia Inquirer, October 1, 1907

1907 was only the American League's sixth pennant race which for most of the season, according to Cobb, was a four team competition among Philadelphia, the defending champion White Sox, Detroit and Cleveland before turning into a Tigers-Athletics dash for the flag.  In an interesting twist, 1907 was the last pennant race where the clubs didn't necessarily play the same number of games because the home club decided whether or not rain outs and ties (more common then due to a lack of lights) were made up.  Philadelphia manager, Connie Mack, supposedly to preserve his pitching staff, opted not to make up nine games so the A's ultimately played five fewer games than Detroit which meant the pennant would be won by the team with highest winning percentage.  At the end of September, Detroit came to Philadelphia for a crucial three game series after which each team had seven games remaining.  Philadelphia was in first place by percentage points, but fell from the lead when Detroit took the first game on Friday, September 27th.  Two games remained on Saturday, the 28th and Monday, the 30th (Sunday baseball was illegal in Philadelphia in 1907), but the Saturday game was rained out, forcing a doubleheader on Monday.  Detroit went with their ace, "Wild Bill" Donovan while Connie Mack countered with spitballer Jimmy Dygert, reserving ace Eddie Plank for the second game.

Philadelphia Inquirer - October 1, 1907

A two day break in an intense, winner take all pennant race, not only gave both teams badly needed rest, but also helped build fan excitement about Monday's crucial doubleheader at Columbia Park, a wooden structure holding about 18000 fans, to unprecedented levels.  Although a record crowd should have been anticipated, like the 1865 Atlantics-Mutuals match at Elysian Fields, the local authorities were apparently unprepared for the estimated 40,000 fans who tried to cram into the park.  The official attendance was listed at 24,127 so over 6000 people had to find standing room, some of which, in the custom of the day, was available in roped off sections of the outfield.  For reasons I can't explain over half  a century later, when I first read Cobb's account, the idea of fans standing on the field behind ropes somehow seemed incredibly cool - testimony to the game's importance.

Detail from Jim Nasium's cartoon drawing of the action outside the park, Philadelphia Inquirer, October 1, 1907

Although the gates to the park were closed at 1:00, people still kept trying either to find a way inside or an alternative view of the action.  Supposedly a number climbed over the outfield fence, including an enterprising dozen who climbed up and over a rope some friendly soul dropped from the 29th Street end of the bleachers.  Equally enterprising were property owners along 29th Street beginning with the owner of  a three story house at 29th and Oxford Street who offered those denied admission to the park, the choice of a window or the roof for $3.  When enough people forked over their money without complaint, the entrepreneur  boosted the charge to "five simoleons" and "he got it."  Further along 29th Street at Columbia Avenue, a druggist charged $1-3 to 200 fans to stand on soda fountain stools for what sounds like a limited view.  Others stood on wagons that enabled them to see well enough to pass on a running play-by-play commentary to the less fortunate stuck at street level .

Cartoon drawing by Jim Nasium who was also a long time Philadelphia sportswriter, Philadelphia Inquirer, October 1, 1907

It's not uncommon for games with this kind of buildup to be anti-climatic, but that was far from the case on this early fall afternoon in Philadelphia.  As Ty Cobb remembered many years later, by the time the game was over, "with the street lights aglow,"  he had "experienced everything that can come in baseball" even though he was only 20 years old.  The game didn't, however, start in quite so memorable a fashion for Cobb and the Tigers as the A's jumped all over Donovan in the first to take a 3-0 lead.  But in the Tigers second, Dygert tried to give the lead back, combining poor judgement and poor fielding to allow one Tiger run while loading the bases with only one out and the top of the order coming up.  By then, Mack had seen more than enough so he pulled Dygert for the eccentric Rube Wadell who was uncharacteristically focused, fanning the next two batters (and four of the next six) with what Cobb described as "a pitch that broke down from your waist."

A number of the key players in the September 30, 1907 clash, New York Herald, October 1, 1907

With the Tigers denied, if only for the moment, the Philadelphia onslaught against Donovan continued unabated and the Athletics led 7-1 after six innings.  Even at a time when starting pitchers usually went the distance, no matter the score, Donovan would typically have joined Dygert in the showers.  Cobb and others asserted that Tigers manager Hughie Jennings left Donovan in because he didn't want embarrass his star pitcher in front of his family who lived in Philadelphia.  Norman Macht, in the first volume of his biography of Connie Mack, dismissed the idea that Jennings would make a sentiment driven decision with the pennant on the line.  Macht is probably on target in thinking Jennings had more likely given up on the first game and decided to save his pitching staff for the second contest.  Jennings did, however, replace Charles Schmidt, his regular catcher, with weak hitting Fred Payne who had the "better arm and head."   According to Macht, Donovan suspected the A's had stolen the Tigers signals so he and Payne changed them.  Regardless of the cause from that point on Philadelphia had a much harder time generating much offense.

Eddie Plank - Philadelphia Inquirer, October 1, 1907

Even so when the Tigers came up in the seventh, down by six runs, many A's fans had probably started thinking ahead to the second game.  Some of the A's players may have lost their focus as well since two errors and a walk loaded the bases for Sam Crawford who promptly unloaded them with a double.  Detroit got another run in the seventh plus one in the eighth, but Philadelphia added one in the bottom of the seventh for an 8-6 lead headed to the ninth.  Crawford got on base to lead off the inning bringing up Cobb who was without a hit to that point and hardly on his way to any kind of memorable game, much less his greatest day in baseball.  According to Macht, Wadell threw the first pitch on the inside corner for a strike and then guessing Cobb would expect an outside pitch, came inside again only to be outguessed by Cobb who hit a home run (only his fifth of the season) over the right field fence to tie the game.  Seldom have so many people gotten so quiet so quickly including Connie Mack who reportedly "slid so far on the bench that he tumbled into the bats lined up on the ground."  Realizing that not only was the scored tied, but that there was no one out, Mack recovered quickly, forgot about the second game and brought in Plank who retired the side without further incident.

Connie Mack - Philadelphia A's owner and manager for over 50 years

Philadelphia failed to score in the bottom of the ninth and incredibly a game tied 8-8 reverted to a more typical Deadball era pitcher's duel between Plank and Donovan who by rights should have been out of the game a long time ago.  Things looked good for Detroit in the 11th when Cobb hit into the crowd behind the ropes (a ground rule double) and scored on Claude Rossman's single, but Philadelphia tied it, aided by Donovan's wild pitch.  Detroit loaded the bases in the 12th, but failed to score and an A's attempt to win in the 13th was short lived when Topsy Hartsell doubled only to be picked off second.  That set up the most controversial play of the day in the bottom of the 14th when Harry Davis hit a fly ball to center that Crawford couldn't catch, putting the winning run on second.  However the Tigers argued long and loud (and probably profanely) that a policeman guarding the ropes had interfered with Crawford while the A's argued equally loudly (and probably equally profanely) that the cop was only getting out of Crawford's way.  At the time major league baseball only used two umpires and the call belonged to home plate umpire "Silk" O'Loughlin who was the furthest away from the action.  With both clubs baying at him, O'Loughlin hesitated for what seemed an eternity to some, before asking for help from first base umpire Tommy Connolly who quickly said there was interference and Davis was out.  That didn't end matters as Claude Rossman of Detroit and A's reserve Monte Cross got into a fistfight that threatened to degenerate into a brawl drawing in the crowd already on the field, restrained only by largely symbolic ropes.  Fortunately the police restored order and Rossman was ejected.  The importance of the call was demonstrated almost immediately when Philadelphia's Danny Murphy hit a single that could have driven in the winning run.

"Silk" O'Loughlin

 Perhaps by that point, both sides were too emotionally drained and physically exhausted for further drama and after three more scoreless innings, the game was called on account of darkness as a 17 inning, 9-9 tie.  Incredibly, even for the Deadball era, Bill Donovan had pitched all 17 innings for Detroit, giving up seven runs in the first five innings and only two over the next 12 while Plank allowed only one run in nine innings of relief.  Neither the tie nor the second game were ever played so when both teams went 5-2 over their last seven games, Detroit won the pennant with a .613 winning percentage compared to the A's .607.  Not surprisingly, a new rule was introduced for the 1908 season, requiring that all rain outs and ties be made up.  According to Cobb, Connie Mack seldom criticized umpires, but this was the exception and Macht confirms that Mack characterized O'Loughlin as a "robber" and the two men never reconciled.

Philadelphia Inquirer - October 1, 1907

While there was plenty of disagreement in the media over the controversial 14th inning, there was unanimity that regardless of one's rooting interest, the game was special.  The New York Times wrote that "From the seventh inning on the game was simply teeming with incident after incident" so that by game's end, "players and spectators alike were simply exhausted."  Equally excited was the New York Herald which called it "one of the most remarkable games in history," while the home standing Philadelphia Inquirer paused from its outrage at O'Loughlin to proclaim "The game and the crowd will make the day forever memorable in baseball history as the greatest ever." Bozeman Bulger of New York's Evening World joined in the chorus of superlatives citing a long list of what made the game so special:

"Brilliant fielding and the rankest of errors"

"Enough hits [35] to win two ordinary contests"

"Some of the prettiest pitching baseball ever saw"

"A home run . . . . . which tied up the score"

"A dispute between the two umpires"

"A fight between two players"

"The longest game of the season"

"The record crowd of the season and almost any other season"

"Game settled the American League pennant"

Bulger concluded with the rhetorical challenge,  "If you can think of anything that this game didn't produce kindly write."

Is it any wonder stories like this made a 10 year old boy a baseball history buff for life?

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing this! We have a home at 30th & Oxford and I've been working hard to find information about the history. It stood just 3 doors down from Columbia Park and I've stood on that roof many times. To think of baseball fans standing up there watching this game makes me so happy! I can't wait to get back up there and remember all the fans who stood in my place 100 years ago.