Homer’s Odyssey recounts how Odysseus, conqueror of Troy, overcomes a Cyclops, Sirens, and the six-headed monster Scylla during his perilous 10-year journey home.1 Mickey Cochrane’s odyssey from his breakdown in June 1936 to once again playing for his World Series champion Detroit Tigers took but 10 weeks, yet seemed almost as harrowing.
After Tigers owner Frank Navin died in November 1935, the 32-year-old Cochrane took over responsibility for roster decisions and contract negotiations. This was on top of his already heavy burden as player-manager. Hard-nosed and fiercely competitive,2 Cochrane anguished over the team’s inability to challenge for first place early in the season. Known as Black Mike for his sporadic dark moods, Cochrane wasn’t sleeping. A pilot, he took to flying a small plane after midnight to calm his nerves and find peace.3
Cochrane broke down during the Tigers’ June 4 contest with the Philadelphia Athletics at an otherwise triumphant moment: after hitting an inside-the-park grand slam to punctuate a 10-run inning. “I don’t know what happened. I started to go to bat but was suddenly seized by a dizzy feeling. Then my heart started beating at a rapid rate, and I thought I was going to die.”4 Collapsing after reaching the dugout, he was tended to by the A’s team doctor in the clubhouse for an hour. After the game, Cochrane attributed the episode to a lingering thyroid problem, then hopped on a train to Washington for the Tigers’ next series.
Cochrane’s breakdown was the most severe in a string of attacks he’d suffered the past few years.5 In August 1931 he was sent home to rest for a few days after struggling with insomnia and loss of appetite, and looking “tired and low in weight and spirits.”6 During the 1934 World Series, he collapsed and was taken to Detroit’s Providence Hospital, where he was told he had a nervous condition. Finally, after the 1935 World Series, Cochrane was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism.7
During the Washington series, Cochrane managed and coached first base, though he kept himself out of the lineup. On June 9, after feeling poorly in Boston, he underwent thyroid testing and was ordered home by the Red Sox team physician. Assistant manager Del Baker was anointed the Tigers’ acting field general.8
For the next 10 days, Cochrane was treated at Henry Ford Hospital, then yo-yoed in and out for another four weeks. On days that he felt up to it, he’d manage a game,9 then invariably suffer bouts of the shakes or dizziness. Detroit newspapers closely tracked Cochrane’s progress.10 When he stepped off a train after two weeks convalescing in Wyoming,11 a news photographer was there to greet him.12 When Cochrane shared that he had an infected tooth, the papers speculated how that could have contributed to his breakdown. Even entertainer Ed Sullivan, appearing at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, commented on Cochrane’s condition in his nationally syndicated Manhattan column, saying, “Mickey Cochrane’s description of his thyroid illness is terrifying.”13
Cochrane temporarily took back the manager’s reins on July 15.14 Five days later, he had another attack, and was “a shaken, underweight and definitely nervous manager when taken to Henry Ford Hospital.”15 Released from the hospital a week later, Cochrane made a trip to Navin Field where, after a 10-3 loss to the Red Sox, he gave his team “a verbal beating that was worse than the one handed out by the Bostonians.”16 The next day Cochrane was back in uniform. But for two attack-free weeks, he remained reluctant to write his name on a lineup card.
Entering their August 14-16 series with the White Sox at Comiskey Park, the Tigers’ record was 58-52. Detroit, treading water since Cochrane’s breakdown, was stuck in fourth place, now 15 games behind the first-place Yankees.17
Rain washed out the August 14 contest, to be made up on the 16th. Before their already scheduled doubleheader on August 15, Cochrane announced, “I am getting no better fast, and unless there is a big change for the better, I will not do any more catching this season.”18 Detroit won both games, leapfrogging Chicago into third place.19 Largely unnoticed, in the first inning of game two, Tigers catcher Glenn Myatt (a 16-year veteran acquired in July to backfill the loss of Cochrane) jammed a finger stabbing for a low pitch,20 and was replaced by Ray Hayworth, who’d become the everyday catcher since Cochrane’s breakdown.
On August 16, as the two teams prepared for their makeup doubleheader,21 temperatures were expected to reach 93ºF22 in what was the hottest summer on record in the United States.23 Across the Pond, closing ceremonies were underway for the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Hitler’s showcase for Nazi superiority, ultimately dominated by Black American Jesse Owens’ four Gold Medal performance.24
The Tigers took game one, holding off Chicago after grabbing an early 5-0 lead. Tommy Bridges worked around an ugly two-error, three-run inning for his 16th win of the year.
The nightcap featured White Sox starter John Whitehead25 opposite Schoolboy Rowe. Whitehead entered the game 9-11, with a 4.39 ERA. Rowe, 13-7 with a 4.12 ERA, had struggled early in the year, after the death of his father. He then went on a 7-1, 2.07 ERA tear, including a pair of saves, putting him in line for a third consecutive standout season.26 His last three starts, though, had been rocky, with 16 earned runs and 28 hits allowed in 19⅔ innings.
Cochrane rolled out the same lineup as in the opener: regulars (minus Greenberg) at each position, including Hayworth catching his fourth game in two days. White Sox player-manager Jimmy Dykes started his regulars, with the exception of Tony Piet at third base and player-coach Merv Shea, catching in his first start of the season.27
The White Sox struck in the bottom of the first, scoring four off Rowe. Singles by Mike Kreevich and Rip Radcliff and a walk to slugger Zeke Bonura loaded the bases. Luke Appling drilled a double to right scoring two, raising his batting average to .375 and extending his hitting streak to 13 games.28 Jackie Hayes followed with a fly out, scoring Bonura. Piet’s single plated Appling for a 4-0 lead.
Whitehead breezed through the Tigers lineup in the first three innings, with all nine outs on groundballs, including a pair of twin killings. Detroit halved the White Sox lead in the fourth on a two-run homer to deep left field by Goose Goslin. The White Sox were up 4-2.
Trouble found Rowe again in the fifth. With two out, Radcliff singled and Bonura smacked a double. Rowe intentionally walked Appling, preferring his odds with Hayes.29 The gamble failed. Hayes rapped a single to center, scoring two to push Chicago’s lead to 6-2.
The Tigers clawed a run closer in the sixth on an error by Whitehead, a single by Goslin, and Al Simmons’s fly out. In the eighth, Detroit scored a pair, cutting the White Sox lead to a single run. Singles by Jack Burns and Charlie Gehringer plus a walk to Goslin loaded the bases. Closer Clint Brown30 came in for Whitehead – and picked Goslin off first and retired Simmons on a comebacker. But Marv Owen31 blooped a clutch two-out double to center, scoring Burns and Gehringer.
Down a run entering the ninth, manager Cochrane faced a dilemma. Hayworth, the scheduled leadoff batter, had been hitless all day. Cochrane’s top pinch-hitter, Jo-Jo White, was available.32 With backup Myatt still nursing an injured thumb, Cochrane knew he’d have to catch if he pinch-hit for Hayworth. Cochrane put team before self and sent White up to hit.
The strategy worked. White singled to left. The next batter, Rowe, came up with orders to bunt.33 Brown threw a high hard one that made Rowe “collapse like a punctured balloon.”34 “I’m dyin’! I’m dyin’!” wailed Schoolboy. “That ball done hit me and it liked to killed me. Oh, I’m a-goin’ to die.”35 Umpire Harry Geisel awarded Rowe first base.
Walker advanced both runners with a well-placed bunt, then Burns’s fly ball to left chased White home with the tying run. Up stepped Gehringer, who crushed an 0-and-1 pitch deep into the right-field bleachers for a two-run home run. Dykes’s helpless groan could be heard up in the press box.36 The Tigers had stormed back to take the lead, 8-6.
Three outs from victory, Cochrane took the field, 73 days since his breakdown in Philadelphia. The Chicago crowd greeted him warmly.37 With Cochrane behind the plate, Rowe retired the side in order. The Tigers had swept the doubleheader. And their leader, Mickey Cochrane, was back from his odyssey.
Cochrane played another four games during the 1936 season. At home against the White Sox on August 22, he struggled, failing to throw out two basestealers in the third inning and allowing one to score on a passed ball.38 The hometown crowd booed their hero. Then, as if to ease Cochrane’s suffering, the crowd embraced him, cheering when he came to bat the next inning, On August 26, with backup catcher Myatt’s soreness now gone from his left hand, Cochrane announced his “retirement” from playing for the rest of the year.39 After spending less than half of the 1937 season on the active roster, Cochrane hung up his catching gear for good in February 1938.40
In addition to the Sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted the Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org websites for pertinent material and the box scores noted below.
1 It was Odysseus who conceived the idea for the Trojan Horse, then led the band of Greek warriors that snuck into Troy hidden inside the wooden horse. They opened the city gates, allowing the Greek armies to overrun the city. https://theconversation.com/guide-to-the-classics-homers-odyssey-82911.
2 Tigers second baseman Gehringer called Cochrane the second hardest loser he’d ever seen, after Ty Cobb. White Sox player-manager Jimmy Dykes recounted an episode from their days together on the Philadelphia Athletics when Cochrane, frustrated with pitcher Rube Walberg’s loss of control during a game he was catching, took matters into his own hands. Cochrane “raced to the mound furious, grabbed Walberg, spun him around and kicked him in the seat of the pants, then rasped, ‘Now get in there and pitch your ball game.’” Walberg did and the A’s won the game. https://sabr.org/journal/article/1935-detroit-tigers-city-of-champions/; “Scribbled by Scribes,” The Sporting News, June 18, 1936: 4.
3 Tom Stanton, book excerpt: “Mickey Cochrane’s Tormented Decline in Detroit,” Detroit Free Press, June 18, 2016.
4 Charles P. Ward, “Victory Over A’s Costs Bengals Services of Cochrane: Four-Run Circuit Blow Is Followed by Collapse,” Detroit Free Press, June 5, 1936: 17.
5 Charles P. Ward, “Cochrane Ordered Home to Undergo Thyroid Treatment,” Detroit Free Press, June 10, 1936: 1.
6 During a road series in St. Louis, A’s manager Connie Mack sent Cochrane to a local physician, who found nothing wrong but told Cochrane he was “run down and needs to rest.” Cochrane shared with a reporter that “I wish I could go away and forget baseball for a week.” Cochrane’s wish was half-granted. He left St. Louis for Philadelphia on August 24 and returned to the team for its homestand opener against the Yankees four days later, on August 28. James C. Isaminger, “Mickey Cochrane Ailing, Takes Airship for Home,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 25, 1931: 14.
7 The term “hyperthyroidism,” now known as overactive thyroid, was introduced in 1901 by Dr. Charles H. Mayo to describe the production of too much thyroxine hormone. His namesake Mayo Clinic lists the symptoms of untreated hyperthyroidism as including anxiety, irritability, difficulty sleeping, pounding of the heart, trembling in hands and fingers, increased sweating, unexpected weight loss and fatigue/muscle weakness – each of which was mentioned in newspaper descriptions of Cochrane’s symptoms during this period. The predominant method for treatment of mild hyperthyroidism in the 1930s was the application of iodine solutions; saturated solutions of potassium iodide (SSKI) or potassium iodide-iodine (Lugol’s solution). Coincidentally, in 1936 doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital first tested the use of radioiodine for treatment of hyperthyroidism. This new therapy would become the standard treatment for hyperthyroidism in the 1960s, and remains the standard to this day. https://www.thyroid.org/about-american-thyroid-association/clark-t-sawin-history-resource-center/thyroid-history-timeline/; https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hyperthyroidism/symptoms-causes/syc-20373659; https://www.uptodate.com/contents/iodine-in-the-treatment-of-hyperthyroidism/print.
8 Ward, “Cochrane Ordered Home to Undergo Thyroid Treatment.”
9 One game that Cochrane did not manage was the 1936 All-Star Game, played at Braves Field in Boston. Yankee manager Joe McCarthy filled in for Cochrane, who’d earned the honor as manager of the reigning AL pennant winner. Tod Rockwell, “Cochrane’s Condition Warrants Early Return to Line-Up: His Discharge from Hospital Is Due Shortly,” Detroit Free Press, June 15, 1936: 13.
10 Updates on Cochrane’s status appeared almost daily for the first six weeks of his absence. Stepping back from the usual reporting on Cochrane’s condition, one column explored whether the expectations that led to Cochrane’s breakdown might signal that the era of playing managers was moving toward its end. W.W. Edgar, “The Second Guess – Era of Playing Managers in Majors Nearing Close,” Detroit Free Press, June 23, 1936: 13.
11 Cochrane further burnished his superhero reputation while recuperating at a ranch owned by a friend, Max Wilde. After Wilde was thrown from his horse in the South Fork of the Shoshone River, Cochrane pulled him out, saving Wilde from drowning. “Mickey Saves Ranch Owner from Drowning,” Detroit Free Press, June 26, 1936: 21.
12 “Welcome Home,” Detroit Free Press, July 14, 1936: 13.
13 Ed Sullivan, “Manhattan,” Detroit Free Press, July 22, 1936: 18.
14 “Tigers Still Snarl Far in Wilderness,” The Sporting News, July 23, 1936: 5.
15 Tod Rockwell, “Cochrane Visits Hospital for Showdown on His Condition,” Detroit Free Press, July 21, 1936: 13.
16 Charles P. Ward, “Mickey Starts Shake-Up of Tigers After Another Rout,” Detroit Free Press, July 27, 1936: 11.
17 The Tigers also just learned that Hank Greenberg had thrown in the towel for the year, his broken left wrist not recovering sufficiently from an April collision. Charles P. Ward, “Hank Through as Player for Rest of Season,” Detroit Free Press, August 14, 1936: 17.
18 Charles P. Ward, “Cochrane Quits as Catcher for Remainder of Campaign,” Detroit Free Press, August 16, 1936: 42.
20 Irving Vaughan, “Detroit Wins 3 to 1 and 10-3; Sox Drop to 4th,” Chicago Tribune, August 16, 1936: 23.
21 This was the White Sox’ sixth doubleheader in the month of August.
22 “Chicago Weather Week,” Chicago Tribune, August 16, 1936: 31.
23 The summer of 1936 was the hottest in the United States on record. Especially hot across the Plains, Upper Midwest and Great Lakes regions, it was accompanied by widespread drought that brought on what became known as the Dust Bowl. That summer, the state of Illinois experienced a then-record high average temperature (76.9ºF) and low rainfall (6.07 inches). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1936_North_American_heat_wave; https://www.weather.gov/ilx/july1936heat; https://www.wunderground.com/blog/weatherhistorian/the-great-heat-wave-of-1936-hottest-summer-in-us-on-record.html.
24 Owens defeated, among others, a German squad that was barred from including any non-Aryan (nonwhite or Jewish) athletes. Hitler famously refused to congratulate Owens in his personal box at the Olympics as he had for several German Gold Medal winners the day before. “100,000 See Torch Of Greatest Olympiad Extinguished,” Lancaster (Pennsylvania) Daily Intelligencer Journal, August 17, 1936: 6; “Was Jesse Owens Snubbed by Adolf Hitler at the Berlin Olympics,” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/story/was-jesse-owens-snubbed-by-adolf-hitler-at-the-berlin-olympics.
25 Whitehead had earned a victory over the Tigers in his major-league debut, on April 19, 1935.
26 Rowe’s performance earned him a spot on the 1936 AL All-Star team. One of only three AL pitchers to appear in the All-Star Game, he pitched three innings in relief of starter Lefty Grove in a 4-3 losing effort. Rowe allowed two runs on four hits, including an unusual home run by the Cubs’ Augie Galan. The ball hit the flagpole in right field, then ricocheted into foul territory. It was ruled a home run. The AL contingent protested until told this was a standard ground rule at Braves Field, the home of the Boston Bees. Galan’s home run sparked a three-run rally, reminiscent of the two-run rally triggered by Galan’s double off Rowe in the top of the first inning of 1935 World Series Game One, leading to a Cubs 3-0 victory. “Pitching Carries N.L. All-Stars to First Triumph: A.L. String Breaks in Fourth Contest,” The Sporting News, July 9, 1936: 2-3.
27 The starting lineups featured five members of the 1936 AL All-Star team (Appling, Gehringer, Goslin, Radcliff, and Rowe), managed by two player-managers who’d been members of the 1934 AL All-Star team.
28 Appling’s hitting streak reached 27 games, then a White Sox record. His record was tied by Albert Belle in 1997 and broken when Carlos Lee hit in 28 consecutive games in 2008. Appling won the 1936 AL batting crown, hitting .388. He also drove in a career-high 128 runs and had the highest range factor for any regular shortstop in the league. He finished a close second in AL MVP voting to Lou Gehrig. https://www.mlb.com/news/longest-hitting-streak-for-all-30-mlb-teams#:~:text=White%20Sox%20%2D%2D%20Carlos%20Lee,by%20Albert%20Belle%20in%201997.
29In his 10th season in the majors, Hayes was in the midst of the finest offensive season of his career. He was batting .304, with a .415 slugging percentage coming into the game. Usually an average or below-average hitter, it was his defense that kept him in the lineup. Manager Dykes called Hayes “absolutely the best double play man of his time.” https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/jackie-hayes/.
30 In 1936 Brown led the major leagues in games finished, with 29. In 1937, he led the major leagues in saves with 18, a new White Sox record (which he tied in 1939). Brown’s record stood until Hoyt Wilhelm saved 21 for the 1963 White Sox.
31 Owen gained notoriety during Game Seven of the 1934 World Series, when he got into a tussle with the St. Louis Cardinals’ Joe Medwick. As Owen told it, when Medwick slid into third for his sixth-inning triple, Owen stepped on Medwick’s foot, then fell back to avoid injuring him. Medwick responded by kicking Owen several times. When Medwick went out to his position in left field, the partisan Navin Field fans bombarded him with vegetables, fruit, and other debris. Attempts to calm the crowd failed, and ultimately Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis ordered Medwick removed from the game. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/marv-owen/.
32 White had been the Tigers’ regular center fielder for their 1934 and 1935 pennant-winning teams. But his marginal batting average (.240) and league-worst fielding percentage among regular center fielders (.955) prompted Cochrane to acquire Al Simmons before the 1936 season. White had been reduced to pinch-hitting and occasionally spelling Simmons. White had had success hitting against Brown in his career, going 6-for-20 (.300), prior to this game.
33 Although bunting during this at-bat, Rowe was a very accomplished hitter. He hit over .300 with 20-plus RBIs and a .450-plus slugging average in each of the two previous seasons.
34 Charles P. Ward, “Gehringer’s Ninth Inning Homer Gives Tigers Twin Victory,” Detroit Free Press, August 17, 1936: 11.
35 Ward, “Gehringer’s Ninth Inning Homer Gives Tigers Twin Victory.”
36 “Gehringer’s Ninth Inning Homer Gives Tigers Twin Victory.”
37 “Gehringer’s Ninth Inning Homer Gives Tigers Twin Victory.”
38 Cochrane also made a throwing error in the fifth inning.
39 Charles P. Ward, “Cochrane Finally Gives Up as Myatt Is Able to Catch,” Detroit Free Press, August 26, 1936: 18.
40 “Mickey Cochrane Retires Officially as Player,” Decatur (Illinois) Herald, February 17, 1938: 9.