Baseball’s First Strike

On May 18, 1912, the Detroit Tigers were in Philadelphia facing the Athletics at Shibe Park.  Just after warm-ups when the umpire called for the game to begin, the Tigers players walked off the field in unison into their clubhouse and refused to play.  In doing so, they effectuated the first strike in the history of major league baseball.

The reason for the work stoppage, which lasted only 3 days, is peculiar to say the least.  The strike was a showing of support for Ty Cobb, who was just as legendary for his talent and toughness as he was for his racist asshole douche-baggery.  Cobb had been suspended indefinitely by the league on March 16th and the Tigers didn’t think the suspension was warranted so they boycotted play.

Anyone supporting Ty Cobb for anything is shocking.  He was the guy two teams conspired against to cock block from the batting title; the guy who sharpened his spikes in the dugout and deliberately cleated other players, like “Homerun” Baker; the guy who drop-kicked catchers; and the  guy who used a knife on a hotel watchman which resulted in an attempted murder warrant.  Even the guys in Field of Dreams hated him.  So in order for players to rally around Cobb, his suspension had to have been a miscarriage of justice, right?  A completely baseless and patently unfair decision, right?  Well, you be the judge:

Three days prior to the boycott, Cobb’s Tigers were playing the New York Highlanders (they’d be renamed the Yankees one year later) at Hilltop Park in Washington Heights.  In the stands, seated in the 3rd row along the third base line, was Claude Lucker.  Lucker was an overzealous heckler and especially despised Cobb.  Lucker, who was maimed in a machine press injury as a youth which cost him one hand and three fingers on his other hand, relentlessly berated Cobb from the time he took the field.  Lucker got under Cobb’s skin quickly, and after the Tigers got out of the 2nd inning, Cobb stayed out in the field and sat in foul territory instead of returning to the dugout with the rest of his teammates.  He did so because he didn’t think he’d get a chance to bat in the 3rd and because he didn’t want to pass Lucker on his way back into the dugout.

Two innings later, Cobb sat on the bench with Lucker continuously yelling obscenities.  Teammates asked Cobb why he was letting the fan call him names, to which Cobb replied “I don’t know how much more I can take.”  When the Tigers were retired, Cobb got off the bench to return to the field when Lucker allegedly called Cobb a racial epithet.  That was it for Cobb, and as it turns out, for Lucker too.  Cobb turned around and jumped the barrier into the stands where he unleashed a beating on Lucker.  The Times described the scene as follows:

Everything was very pleasant…until Ty Cobb johnnykilbaned a spectator right on the place where he talks, started the claret, and stopped the flow of profane and vulgar words…Cobb led with a left jab and countered with a right kick to Mr. Spectator’s left Weisbach, which made his peeper look as if someone had drawn a curtain over it…. Jabs bounded off the spectator’s face like a golf ball from a rock.

Lucker’s account, found here, doesn’t include words like “johnnykilbaned” or “Weisbach,” but it is just as entertaining:

Cobb vaulted over the fence where I was sitting in the third row and made straight for me.  He struck me with his fists on the forehead over the left eye, and knocked me down.  Then he jumped on me and spiked me in the left leg and kicked me in the side, after which he booted me behind the left ear.  I was down and Cobb was kicking me when some one in the crowd shouted, “Don’t kick him, he has no hands.”  Cob answered, “I don’t care if he has no feet!”

Ban Johnson, president of the league, was actually at the game and suspended Cobb immediately.  Cobb was upset he didn’t get to tell his side of the story, and his teammates sided with him.  They sent a message to the league on May 17th, which read, in part “We want him reinstated for tomorrow’s game, May 18, or there will be no game. If the players cannot have protection we must protect ourselves.”  Johnson replied to team owner Frank Nevin threatening a $1,000 fine for each game the Tigers did not field a team.  Under the direction of Nevin, the Tigers coach Hughie Jennings went on a hunt for local amateur players as backup just in case the regulars did not take the field.

Jennings contacted St. Joseph’s College and recruited 7 bodies: Al Travers, Dan McGarvey, Jim McGarr, Vince Maney, Jack Smith, Hap Ward and Ed Irvin.  He also added the services of 2 local boxers: Bill Leinhauser and Billy Maharg; and rounded out the replacement squad with members of his coaching staff.  Jennings had the “misfits,” as they were described in the press, arrive to the ballpark early on May 18th and sit in the bleachers.

When the Tigers regulars walked onto the field for game, the umpires called Cobb in from center field and advised him that he was barred from playing.  As he walked off the field, the rest of his team followed and changed out of their uniforms in the clubhouse.  With that, the replacements were called in from their seats, quickly signed one-day contracts, and donned the uniforms of the regulars.  A bunch of college kids and 2 amateur boxers had just become major league baseball players.

The game turned out as one would expect, with the Athletics pummeling the Tigers 24-2.  Taking a look at the box score reveals the A’s didn’t take it easy on the “Tigers” with their lineup or with their play.  They started most regulars including Homerun Baker, Jack Barry, Eddie Collins, Amos Strunk, Hal Maggert and Stuffy McGinnis; and pitched aces Jack Coombs and Herb Pennock.  The A’s stat line included 4 doubles, 7 triples and 9 steals.  Taking a look at the box score also reveals that Jennings was forced to insert himself late into the game; he went 0-1.

Al Travers

Al Travers, who played violin in the student orchestra at St. Joe’s and who would be ordained as a priest a few years later, agreed to be the starting pitcher for Tigers when he was offered $50 (the position players received $25).  Up until that day, Travers baseball experience consisted wholly of  “some stick-ball” in his youth.  Pitching to the HOF caliber A’s lineup, Travers gave up 24 runs on 26 hits with 7 walks.  He did manage one strikeout.  Decades after the game, Travers discussed it in an interview:

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. I was doing fine until they started bunting. The guy playing third base had never played baseball before. I just didn’t get any support…no one in the grandstands was safe! I threw a beautiful slow ball and the A’s were just hitting easy flies…trouble was, no one could catch them.

After this travesty and seeing that his teammates, coach and owner would be financially burdened with fines if the strike continued, Cobb urged the Tigers to get back on the field.  And on May 21st, they did, ending the first strike in baseball history.

2 Comments on “Baseball’s First Strike”

  1. Jennifer says:

    The NY Times had a story about this a couple of weeks ago. This is my favorite quote:
    At third base, Maharg was hit in the mouth by a ground ball and lost several teeth. “This isn’t baseball,” he said. “This is war.”

  2. Martin C. Babicz says:

    The 1912 Detroit Tigers strike is NOT baseball’s “first strike.” Most major league players went on strike in 1890, leaving their major league club and creating their own “Players’ League.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *