On May 15, 1912, Ty Cobb went into the stands in New York after a crippled heckler and set up for the one of the more bizarre games in major league history.
As recounted in one of my favorite books, Ken Burns’ Baseball, the Detroit Tigers immortal earned a suspension from organized ball after going into the stands for Claude Lueker, who had taunted Cobb as a “half [racial epithet].” Georgia-native Cobb was a legendary racist, with longtime baseball writer Fred Lieb speculating in his autobiography Baseball As I Have Known It that the Tigers great moonlighted as a Ku Klux Klan member (Lieb also wrote that Rogers Hornsby, Gabby Street and Tris Speaker told him they were members.) A disabled newspaper reporter, Lueker commonly berated Cobb at games, but when he shouted the racial epithet, in the third inning of a Highlanders-Tigers game, Cobb had enough. Page 109 of Baseball captured what ensued:
Cobb vaulted the railing, knocked down his tormentor, and began stomping him with his spikes. When someone shouted that the man was helpless because he had just one hand, Cobb answered, “I don’t care if he doesn’t have any feet,” and kept kicking him until a park policeman pulled him away.
(For his part, Lueker may have gotten off light– toward the end of his life, Cobb reportedly told biographer Al Stump that he killed a would-be mugger in the street that same season.)
Following the assault on Lueker, American League President Ban Johnson suspended Cobb without a hearing. However, the rest of the Tigers sympathized with Cobb because of the nature of Lueker’s taunt, given that it was 1912, and what followed was the first player’s strike since 1890. Detroit management scrambled to fill a roster to avoid a forfeit for its May 18 game. According to the 20th Century Baseball Chronicle, among those recruited were amateur players, former major leaguers and even some fans.
For a pitcher, Detroit turned to a seminary student named Aloysius Travers, who would go down in the record books. Travers set major league marks that still stand for runs and hits allowed as the Tigers lost 24-2 to the Philadelphia Athletics. Subsequently, Johnson reinstated everyone, including Cobb, and just like Moonlight Graham in “Field of Dreams,” Travers’ career ended after one game.
So why do I bring this all up? This past weekend, I got to be Aloysius Travers.
One of my good friends is getting married in June and for the bachelor party, we went camping this weekend. I suppose a lot of bachelor parties involve strippers, gambling and drunken debauchery. We played sports. On Saturday, my friend’s best man organized a day of games that began with soccer, kickball, and ultimate frisbee. We started around 10 a.m. and by 3 p.m. everyone was pretty beat, including yours truly. Thankfully, by this point, we were onto our final game, wiffle ball, and because we had an odd number of players, I volunteered to serve as all-time pitcher.
When I played Little League, one of my dreams besides hitting a home run was to pitch. I got an idea this weekend of why that dream never came to pass. Over the course of seven innings, I probably allowed 20 runs between both teams. In vain, I experimented with several different wind ups, debuting the wiffle ball equivalents of Juan Marichal (kick windup), Hideo Nomo (back to the mound) and Dan Quisenberry (submarine), among others, to no avail.
My dad used to do a great job of this kind of pantomime in epic, front driveway wiffle ball games we had when I was a kid. He had a whole lineup of players he impersonated, including the sluggers Mail Murphy and Mickey Mammoth, the all-purpose spray hitter Tito Fuentes, the soft-tossing pitcher MacGregor and my nemesis, the flame-throwing hurler Nelson (for my part, I came up with Silly Mays.) I often whiffed against Nelson’s overpowering fastball, though my dad was sometimes merciful and kept his star pitcher out of games with the excuse he was in jail.
I wasn’t nearly as menacing this weekend, and my friends teed off on just about everything. In fact, my more elaborate offerings seemed to be belted deeper into the outfield. I honestly didn’t know wiffle balls could go as far as some went. Granted I struck out a few guys, including the groom-to-be (which is kind of messed up, come to think of it.) Still, the next time we play ball, I reckon I’ll be back in the outfield where I spent the bulk of my Little League career.
Either that or, just like Travers, it’s off to the seminary for me. I’m just glad none of my friends chose to impersonate Ty Cobb.