In baseball’s rough-and-tumble Deadball Era, no player was more vilified for spiking his opponents than Detroit’s Ty Cobb. While there’s no doubt he spiked many players during his 24-year career, a large part of Cobb’s reputation as a vicious baserunner stems from an incident that occurred in the heat of the 1909 American League pennant race. The play in question not only endangered the Tigers’ chances of winning the league title, it also threatened to end Cobb’s blossoming Hall of Fame career.
The Tigers and Philadelphia Athletics began a fierce rivalry in 1907 as Detroit rose from mediocrity and became a league force. The Tigers played some tense games with the Athletics that season, including a memorable 17-inning tie in late September during a tight pennant race. Detroit captured its first American League pennant by 1½ games over the Athletics. Cobb also emerged as the league’s biggest star, winning his first batting title and leading the junior circuit in hits, RBIs and stolen bases.
The enmity between the teams extended into 1909. Detroit set out to capture its third straight pennant while Philadelphia kept pace in the standings. By late August, the Athletics had a one-game lead over the Tigers when they began a three-game set in Detroit. Sportswriters anticipated a tense series and felt its outcome would have a major impact on the pennant race. At that point in the season, Detroit had won just four of 15 games against Philadelphia.
The Athletics arrived with a five-game winning streak and rookie third baseman Frank Baker. He had already earned a reputation as a powerful hitter by socking the first home run to clear the fence in Philadelphia’s Shibe Park.
Sparks started flying in the first inning of the series’ first game, played on August 24 before a near-capacity crowd of 9,711 at Bennett Park.
Philadelphia scored two runs off Tigers starter Ed Summers in the top of the first. Detroit tried to counter against Athletics left-hander Harry Krause in the bottom of the inning. With two outs, Cobb walked, stole second, then attempted to steal third as batter Sam Crawford took ball four.
Athletics catcher Patrick “Paddy” Livingston threw Cobb out to end the inning. The play wasn’t close, but Cobb spiked Baker while sliding into the base. Cobb’s spikes cut Baker on his inner forearm about three inches below the right elbow. The Detroit Free Press mentioned the play briefly:
“Cobb spiked Baker’s right forearm in sliding into third back in the first inning. Baker was aggrieved, regarding the injury as premeditated. Cobb was out easily, but went into the bag feet first, only to be tagged.”1
The Detroit News simply stated: “Cobb was easily thrown out. There was no doubt about his being out.”2
The Tigers scored four runs in the seventh to take a 7-5 lead. Cobb tied the game with a two-run double that exemplified his no-holds-barred playing style. As the throw came in from the outfield, Cobb knocked second baseman Eddie Collins head over heels while sliding into the bag. The Detroit Free Press noted that Collins was in the baseline while receiving the throw. He made no appeal to the umpires.3
The Athletics added a run in the ninth and loaded the bases with one out. But Tigers right-hander Bill Donovan retired the final two batters to seal the 7-6 victory for Detroit. Fans rushed onto the field in joyous celebration after outfielder Crawford caught an easy fly for the final out.
While Tigers fans enjoyed the thrilling victory, protests from Athletics manager Connie Mack overshadowed the outcome. Mack angrily criticized Cobb, claiming he deliberately spiked Baker in the first inning:
“Cobb is the greatest ball player in the world, but he is also one of the dirtiest. He boasted before the game that he would get some of the Athletics before the game was over, and he made good by spiking Baker and all but cutting the legs off Collins. … Such tactics ought to be looked into by the American League, and I intend to see to it that the matter is taken up. … [Cobb] may be a great player, but he is a pinhead in this respect. Organized base ball ought not to permit such a malefactor to disgrace it.”4
Cobb fired back, stating that the spiking was unintentional:
“Mack knows that I have never spiked a man deliberately, and he also knows that the runner is entitled to the line, and if the baseman gets in his way, he is taking his own chances. When I slid I made for the bag. If the man with the ball is in the way he is apt to get hurt. But that is his lookout, he has no business on the line.”5
Baker’s injury seems to have been minor, as he remained in the game with a small plaster dressing over the wound and played every inning of the series. However, American League President Ban Johnson weighed in on the matter, implicating Cobb directly:
“There’s been altogether too much of this sort of game at Detroit, and somebody is going to be made a shining example of if I hear of another such affray. Cobb seems to be the chief offender, and a word of advice should go a long way. He must stop this sort of playing or he will have to quit the game.”6
Controversy swirled for several days as the Tigers swept the Athletics to take a two-game lead in the standings. Would Johnson banish Cobb from baseball? Or was Cobb’s slide clean?
Then a serendipitous photograph surfaced. Detroit News photographer William Kuenzel had been stationed near third base with his camera during the series’ first game. He wasn’t aware of the debate surrounding Cobb’s slide until the sports department asked if he had a photo of the play. Kuenzel didn’t, but retrieved an undeveloped glass plate negative he set aside because it was scratched.7
The photo first appeared on the front page of the August 27 Detroit News. It shows Cobb in the baseline sliding feet first into third with his right leg extended about 10 inches above the ground toward the base. Baker is reaching across the bag to tag Cobb with the ball in his bare hand. The News presented the image as evidence that Cobb attempted to avoid Baker’s tag and reach third safely. Cobb added:
“This picture plainly shows that I did not spike Baker intentionally. … Baker is mighty nice about it and said yesterday that he did not think I tried to spike him intentionally. He looks at it as an accident and lets it pass at that. Connie Mack, naturally sore at losing to us, is inclined to look at the matter more seriously as he naturally would, being a hard loser.”8
Johnson backtracked after reviewing the image, stating that if Cobb had violated the rules of the game the umpires would have settled the matter promptly.9
Kuenzel’s photo is one of the most widely reproduced images from Cobb’s career, appearing in countless publications through the years. Cobb, Baker and Mack came to terms about the incident. But the play became a notorious part of the Cobb legend, seemingly gaining embellishments with each passing decade, much to his chagrin.
In a 1953 article, former player Al Schacht said Cobb spiked Baker so badly, he had to be carried off the field.10 When Baker was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1955, Cobb was present at the induction ceremony. According to New York Herald Tribune sportswriter Tommy Holmes, an attendee wondered aloud if Cobb would “slide across the dais in front of [Baseball Commissioner Ford] Frick, spike Baker again and start another riot.”11
As late as 1961, the year of his death, Cobb defended his actions, maintaining in his autobiography that he slid away from Baker in order to hook the base with his foot.12
Was Cobb completely innocent, or was Mack right in his assertions? Regardless of intent and photographic evidence, the Cobb-Baker incident remains one the most controversial and widely discussed plays of the Deadball Era.
This article appeared in “Tigers By The Tale: Great Games at Michigan and Trumbull” (SABR, 2016), edited by Scott Ferkovich. To read more articles from this book, click here.
In addition to the sources cited in the notes, the author also consulted:
Alexander, Charles C. Ty Cobb (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984).
Cobb, Ty, ed. William R. Cobb. My Twenty Years in Baseball (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2009).
Jones, David, ed. Deadball Stars of the American League (Dulles, Virginia: Potomac Books, Inc., 2006), 546-550, 620-624.
Lieb, Frederick G. The Detroit Tigers (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1946).
Macht, Norman L. Connie Mack and the Early Years of Baseball (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2007).
Sparks, Barry. Frank “Home Run” Baker: Hall of Famer and World Series Hero (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2006), 28-33.
1 “Told about the Tigers,” Detroit Free Press, August 25, 1909.
2 “Fighting Spirit Is Again a Prominent Feature of Playing,” Detroit News, August 25, 1909.
3 “Told about the Tigers,” Detroit Free Press, August 25, 1909.
4 “One More Regrettable Athletic-Detroit Controversy,” Sporting Life, September 4, 1909.
6 “One Way to Beat the Tiges,” Detroit Free Press, August 27, 1909.
7 William W. Lutz. The News of Detroit: How a Newspaper and a City Grew Together (Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1973), 159-160.
8 “The Disputed Play on Account of Which Philadelphia Now Wants Ban Johnson to Drive Ty Cobb From Organized Base Ball,” Detroit News, August 27, 1909.
9 “Told About the Tigers,” Detroit Free Press, August 28, 1909.
10 Al Schacht, “Mr. Mantle and Mr. Moore,” Rome (Georgia) News-Tribune, September 13, 1953.
11 Tommy Holmes, “Cooperstown Ceremony Recalls Old Stories of Baseball Greats,” St. Petersburg Times, August 2, 1955.
12 Ty Cobb with Al Stump, My Life in Baseball: The True Record (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1961), 114-115.