Upon learning some Chicago White Sox players were serious about organizing a boycott of a spring training game last week, two names came to mind.
One was Ty Cobb, whose big-league career spanned 23 seasons. The other was Al Travers, whose big-league career lasted less than two hours.
The pair couldn’t have been wired more differently. Travers played the violin and went on to take his vows as a Jesuit priest. Cobb was fueled by the kind of rage a typical Sunday morning congregation should find unsettling.
And yet Cobb was the reason Travers, a 20-year old assistant student manager for the baseball team at Saint Joseph’s University, signed a single-game contract to pitch for the Detroit Tigers.
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Some background: During a trip to New York in 1912, Cobb became the target of a heckler identified as Claude Lucker. Victim of a childhood machine-shop accident that required the amputation of one hand and cost him three fingers of the other, Lucker had an apparent determination to test Cobb’s boiling point.
This was accomplished when Lucker shouted a racial slur at Cobb, who jumped into the stands and began a beatdown of the heckler.
“I went down and Cobb was kicking me when someone in the crowd shouted, ‘Don’t kick him, he has no hands,’” Lucker would recall. “And Cobb answered, ‘I don’t care if he has no feet.’’’
Police were able to intervene, likely sparing Lucker an extended hospital stay, but not before American League president Ban Johnson, a nearby spectator, saw the incident. Johnson ordered a three-day suspension of Cobb, to take effect during Detroit’s visit to Philadelphia.
The penalty angered the Tigers to the point they decided to boycott the games their teammate was forced to miss. Reluctant to lose money from the forfeit, Tigers owner Frank Nevin told manager Hughie Jennings to assemble a replacement squad.
Jennings went to a street corner and found Travers, who recruited seven friends on the Saint Joe’s campus along with a couple of guys in the neighborhood boxing gym. Jennings and his coaching staff filled out the remainder of the team.
Philadelphia Athletics owner/manager Connie Mack, meanwhile, showed no mercy. He filled out the A’s regular lineup card and assigned his ace pitcher to the mound.
When a seminary-bound violinist — somebody whose baseball experience has been limited to childhood games on a sandlot — faces major-league hitters, suspense does not ensue.
But Travers gutted it out. Instructed by Jennings to throw only off-speed pitches — the manager figured fastballs would endanger the pitcher — Travers finished with a box-score line for the ages.
He gave up 26 hits and 24 runs — thanks to nine Tigers errors, only 14 of those were scored as earned runs — while walking seven and striking out one in a 24-2 defeat.
On the bright side, Travers was credited with a complete game, or one more complete game than the St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates, Miami Marlins and Baltimore Orioles produced last season.
Travers also avoided a serious injury, which is more than can be said of third baseman Billy Maharg, who lost several teeth when he took a line drive to the face.
“This isn’t baseball,” Maharg said afterward. “This is war.”
But the numbers counted, which explains why Al Travers, who died in 1968, still owns the major-league record for most earned runs surrendered in a single game.
As for Cobb? He told the Tigers to call off the boycott after the 24-2 debacle in Philadelphia, and they respected his request.
It’s impossible to know whether that uncharacteristic demonstration of prudence earned a legendary misanthrope any bonus points on his Judgment Day, but give him this: When the White Sox threatened to boycott a game last week, it occurred to me of how much more relevant baseball history is than the history of any other sport.
I mean, I thought of Ty Cobb. He was born 130 years ago.