SABR

Mickey Cochrane

This article was written by Charlie Bevis.

Gordon Stanley "Mickey" Cochrane was one of baseball's greatest catchers. He compiled a .320 lifetime batting average over 13 seasons from 1925 to 1937, handled outstanding pitchers Lefty Grove and Schoolboy Rowe during their record-tying 16-game winning streaks, and in 1947 was the first catcher elected by the Baseball Writers Association of America to the Hall of Fame. (The Hall's Veterans Committee had elected Buck Ewing in 1939 and Roger Bresnahan and Wilbert Robinson in 1945.)

Cochrane wasn't just a great baseball player, though. He was a hero and role model to millions of people during the Great Depression of the 1930s when as player-manager of the Detroit Tigers he led the downtrodden Tigers to their first pennant in 25 years. The combination of Cochrane's fierce competitiveness on the field and his likable personality off the field, mixed with his successful rise from humble beginnings, helped Americans take their minds off the widespread unemployment during the Great Depression and encouraged them that they too could weather the economic times. Many parents named their children after Cochrane, including one Oklahoma family named Mantle.

Playing for the Philadelphia Athletics and Detroit Tigers, Cochrane led five teams to American League pennants during the seven-year span from 1929 through 1935, an era most fans remember as being dominated by Babe Ruth and the New York Yankees. Three of these five teams went on to win World Series titles. Cochrane was the catcher on Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics team that won three consecutive pennants from 1929 to 1931. It was as player-manager of the Detroit Tigers, however, that Cochrane achieved national fame and adulation, leading the Tigers to pennants in 1934 and 1935, and to Detroit's first World Series title in 1935.

Cochrane was born on April 6, 1903, in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, the fifth of seven children of immigrants John and Sadie Cochrane. His parents were both of Scottish descent. John Cochrane was born near Omagh, Northern Ireland, where his family had relocated from Scotland, while Sadie Campbell was born on Prince Edward Island, Canada, where her family had emigrated from Scotland.

This Scottish heritage made it rather ironic that Cochrane would eventually be tagged with his nickname "Mickey," based on the belief that he was just another Irish "mick," when Tom Turner signed Cochrane in the fall of 1923 to play for Portland in the Pacific Coast League. Understandably, then, no one in the family or anyone who knew Cochrane well ever called him Mickey. Instead, he was known as Mike in his private life while the public called him Mickey. As for his given name Gordon, only his parents called him that when Cochrane was an adult.

On the sandlots of Bridgewater and the playing fields of Boston University, where he matriculated after graduating from Bridgewater High School in June 1920, Cochrane was known by the nickname "Kid" before he acquired the Mickey moniker. By his own admission and the observation of others, Kid Cochrane was a much better football and basketball player than he was a baseball player during his high school and college years. On the baseball diamond, Cochrane also rarely played catcher, but rather mostly played shortstop or the outfield.

While football may have been Cochrane's passion, baseball was to be his meal ticket. He couldn't support a family by playing in the fledgling days of professional football in the 1920s, but he could make enough money by playing baseball for a living. In 1923 while still in college, he played under the assumed name of Frank King for Dover in the Class D Eastern Shore League, filling a spot on the team that Dover was lacking: catcher. After batting .327 for first-place Dover, Cochrane signed to play in 1924 for Portland in the PCL. Cochrane dropped out of BU, batted .333 at Portland, and then joined the Philadelphia Athletics for the 1925 season.

"I didn't want to be a catcher. It was thrust upon me, as they say in the classics," Cochrane told New York Times writer John Kieran in 1931. "I was in a fever to get out from behind the plate. Oh boy, I was terrible back there."

An unsung cast helped Cochrane learn the catching trade and shape him into a great catcher. His benefactors included Jiggs Donohue (manager at Dover), Tom Daly (catcher at Portland), and Cy Perkins (Athletics catcher), whose job Cochrane eventually took over before the 1925 season concluded. Ty Cobb, in his waning years playing for the Athletics in 1927-28, also had a hand in refining the tenacity that became a Cochrane hallmark.

Cochrane was one of the cogs in Connie Mack's dynamite team that copped three consecutive American League pennants from 1929 to 1931. The Athletics won the World Series in 1929 and 1930, but were stymied by Pepper Martin and the St. Louis Cardinals in 1931. Unfortunately, the Great Depression forced Mack to sell off his star-studded lineup in 1932 and 1933 to pay the bills. Cochrane was sold to Detroit and became player-manager of the Detroit Tigers.

Without that transaction, Cochrane likely would have retired from the game as simply a very good catcher. The Detroit job propelled Cochrane into greatness, a role for which he was unprepared and, in many respects, ill suited. While Cochrane won two straight pennants in Detroit in his first two years there, 1934 and 1935, the success cost him his health and nearly his life in the process. Cochrane never liked the limelight in Detroit and was even burdened by it.

"When I was a player I worried only about myself. Good money and easy work," Cochrane once said, according to a 1960 profile in Sport magazine. "Now I have to worry about everybody. I have to see that they're in shape and stay in shape. If one of them eats something that makes them sick, I get sick too."

Cochrane was perceived as such a civic savior that his picture graced the cover of Time magazine on October 7, 1935. Inside that issue was a story that noted, "Cochrane's arrival in Detroit coincided roughly with the revival of the automobile industry and the first signs of revived prosperity. His determined jolly face soon came to represent the picture of what a dynamic Detroiter ought to look like."

It was too much for Cochrane. Following the World Series victory in 1935, he suffered a breakdown in 1936 after being elevated to general manager in addition to his player-manager duties. On May 25, 1937, soon after his recovery from the breakdown, he was hit in the head by a pitch from Yankee pitcher Bump Hadley in those helmetless days and was nearly killed, ending his major league playing career. Cochrane came back as bench manager in 1938, but was ineffective outside his playing-field leadership and was fired on August 6, 1938. He was a great leader on the field, but cast as a "caged lion" bench manager, he never managed again in the major leagues.

His last managerial role was at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center outside Chicago, where Cochrane ran a baseball team for the Navy during World War II, from 1942 to 1944. Except for a brief stint as general manager of the Athletics in 1950 during Mack's final days in Philadelphia, and brief outing as a scout with the New York Yankees in the mid-1950s, Cochrane never again worked in major league baseball.

Cochrane had all the attributes expected of a great catcher - mastery of calling pitches, good arm, and defensive capabilities - which he supplemented with a mastery of human nature. His psychological knack for handling pitchers, treating each one differently according to perceived needs, helped to maximize pitching efforts on the mound. He also had the attributes expected of any great ballplayer. He hit for average, drew walks, had above-average speed on the basepaths, and could hit for power when needed.

Over his 13-season playing career, Cochrane compiled a .320 lifetime batting average, best among all retired major league catchers (but not current-day receiver Mike Piazza) to rank among the top 50 of all players. His best season at bat was 1930 when he hit .357, good for fifth-best in the American League after having led the league in hitting at the end of June that year with a .404 average.

His exceptional batting eye was also reflected in his patience at waiting out pitchers, piling up 857 career walks and a top 60 ranking in walk percentage. Cochrane also struck out less than once in every 24 plate appearances - topped by just 8 whiffs in 514 at-bats in 1929 - to rank among the top 35 in at bats per strikeout.

Cochrane's exceptional .419 career on-base average ranks in the top 20 among all players. While OBP has historically been an overlooked measure of baseball success, recent research now indicates how valuable the frequency of getting on base is to team run production, and consequently how OBP relates to team victories. Demonstrating how valuable he was to his teams, Cochrane ranks in the top 50 of Total Player Rating Per 150 Games with 3.22 additional team victories per season above the average player (compared to #1 Babe Ruth with a 6.53 TPR).

While hitting just 119 home runs in his career, Cochrane had 64 triples, the most among Hall of Fame catchers that played in the 20th century. His ability to launch doubles and triples lands him just outside the game's top 100 in slugging percentage with his .478 average. Cochrane's lack of home run production over his career - which wasn't required because he batted in front of such sluggers as Al Simmons, Jimmie Foxx, and Hank Greenberg - has somewhat unfairly diminished the luster of his contribution to the game.

In his first 11 years in the majors, Cochrane never caught fewer than 110 games in the then 154-game season. He perfected the one-hand catching style to help protect the fingers on his throwing hand from getting overly banged up. Cochrane assisted two pitchers to establish 16-game winning streaks, still the American League record, when Lefty Grove accomplished the feat with the A's in 1931 and Schoolboy Rowe with the Tigers in 1934.

Cochrane was selected as American League MVP twice, in 1928 and 1934, primarily on his leadership abilities rather than his statistical accomplishments. On the field, Cochrane had a certain inspiration that infected other players to do their best. Cochrane never played on a team that finished worse than third place.

His happiest post-playing days were at his Montana ranch in the late 1940s, where he operated a dude ranch with his wife Mary and daughters Joan and Sara. His only son, Gordon Jr., died on a battlefield in Europe in World War II. At the ranch, Cochrane could be just plain "Mike," his preferred nickname and what anyone close to him called him, rather than "Mickey" that was his baseball persona. Joining Cochrane in Montana were his father and two brothers Archie and Bert (his mother died in 1942), who lived there full-time while Cochrane divided his time between the 4K Ranch in the foothills of the Beartooth Range of the Rockies and his home outside of Chicago. One of the last vestiges of the Cochrane family in Montana is the Archie Cochrane Ford dealership in Billings.

The twin nicknames symbolized Cochrane's dual nature, where he was tough on the ball field but gentle off it, sort of hard on the outside but soft inside. "Mickey" Cochrane was renowned for his on-field tenacity, playing baseball with a take-no-prisoners attitude. This was exemplified by the oft-reprinted photograph of his leaping through the air to tag a runner out at home plate - a feat that occurred during a 1933 exhibition game that had no impact in the league standings. "Mike" Cochrane loved music, dancing, playing the saxophone, and assisting friends and associates, especially financially, during the tough times during the Great Depression (although his generosity with money was often not repaid by its recipients).

These two aspects of Cochrane's personality clashed several times in very public ways. In his later Detroit years, he picked up the less-than-esteemed nickname "Black Mike," which in a positive way related to the gritty image of a hard-working catcher but also hinted at the dark side of the man. Cochrane had a difficult time coping with stressful situations where failure seemed imminent. In the 1931 World Series, after losing money in bank failure, he was embarrassed that Pepper Martin stole so many bases. In the 1934 World Series, he was hospitalized after the sixth game when the Cardinals rallied to overtake the Tigers who had been on the verge of winning the series. He came back for the seventh game, but the Tigers were already whipped and lost 11-0 in a game best remembered for the disappointed Detroit fans showering garbage on St. Louis left fielder Ducky Medwick, forcing Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis to remove him from the game. Of course, the 1936 regular season breakdown was telling, after he assumed the duties of general manager in addition to his player-manager responsibilities. This element of his character likely resulted in his being left out of organized baseball following his 1938 firing in Detroit.

In the late 1950s, Cochrane developed lymphatic cancer, which claimed his life prematurely at age 59 on June 28, 1962, in Lake Forest, Illinois. His body was cremated. His wife Mary survived him by nearly 37 years, dying on June 16, 1999, in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Unfortunately, many people perceive Cochrane subsisting on handouts in his later years from his old friend Ty Cobb, thanks to Al Stump's 1994 biography of Cobb. Cochrane's wife and daughter have denied the allegation, which was likely due to Cobb's failing memory in his last years. A Cochrane biographer believes that Cobb remembered lending Cochrane some money, but apparently failed to recall its repayment after Cochrane sold his Montana ranch in the late 1950s.

Whether Cochrane is the greatest catcher in baseball history is of course subject to intense debate. Yogi Berra, Bill Dickey, and Roy Campanella are often selected to all-time teams although Cochrane has had his share of such honors, including the 1969 baseball centennial team. Cochrane is one of just 15 catchers enshrined in the Hall of Fame (following the 2003 induction of Gary Carter) and one of only eight elected by the baseball writers, so he is certainly one of the game's greatest catchers -- if not the best in the minds of some observers.

Sources

Bevis, Charlie. Mickey Cochrane: The Life of a Baseball Hall of Fame Catcher. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1998.

Cochrane family interviews, 1991-1996.

Dooly, Bill. "How Cochrane, Who Disliked Catching, Became One of Game's Best Backstops." The Sporting News, February 7, 1929.

Duncan, C. William. "Mickey Cochrane, Always a Fighter, Should Bring Back to Detroit Tigers Scrappy Ways of Ty Cobb." The Sporting News, December 21, 1933.

Graham, Frank. "The Mickey Cochrane Story." Sport, December 1955.

Kieran, John. "The Man in the Iron Mask." New York Times, April 22, 1931.

Lane, F.C. "All the World Calls Him Mickey." Baseball Magazine, August 1929.

National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cochrane subject file.

Newcombe, Jack. "Black Mike of the Tigers." Sport, April 1960.

Salsinger, H.G. "What Price a Pennant?" Detroit News, September 26, 1934.

Temple University Library, Urban Archives, Philadelphia newspaper clipping file on Cochrane.


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