August 4, 1918: Ty Cobb's single in 18th inning defeats Walter Johnson
The decision had come down barely a week before: baseball was closing up shop and going to war. Suddenly, in the middle of summer, the 1918 baseball season was drawing to a close.
On May 23 General Enoch Crowder, provost marshal and director of the draft, decreed that by July 1 all eligible men aged 21 to 30 employed in “non-essential” occupations must apply for work directly related to the war effort or be prepared to be called into military service.
Despite the fervent pleas of team owners for an exemption, Secretary of War Newton Baker agreed with Crowder, announcing on July 20 his decision that playing baseball qualified as "non-essential" employment. On July 26 Baker agreed to delay the “work or fight” deadline for Major League Baseball by two months, to September 1. With no decision yet on the American and National Leagues’ petition for a further extension to allow the playing of a World Series, a sense of urgency had fallen over the August schedule.
For all practical purposes, the season was already over for the Detroit Tigers. When the Washington Nationals arrived in Detroit on Friday, August 2, for a four-game weekend series, the Tigers were in sixth place, 43-53 and 16½ games behind the league-leading Boston Red Sox. Outside of Ty Cobb’s league-leading .388 batting average, the team had been punchless all season and their pitching poor. “They [can’t] quit any time too soon to suit me,” Tigers owner Frank Navin scoffed to the press.1
Washington, on the other hand, was enjoying a competitive season. After putting up a 74-79 record in 1917, the Nationals found themselves this season in a bona-fide pennant race with a 52-44 record, good enough for third place, 7½ games out of first and a scant two games behind Cleveland for second place. A first pennant for the club did not seem to be out of reach.
Washington’s improved fortunes rested almost exclusively on the phenomenal pitching arm of Walter Johnson. Johnson’s 18-11 won-lost record scarcely reflected his formidable presence on the mound. Coming into the series with the Tigers, Johnson had completed his last 29 starts, including all 23 so far in 1918. His earned-run average for the season was a microscopic 1.30, and had been as low as 0.76 on June 30. On May 15 Johnson had pitched all 18 innings of a 1-0 shutout of the defending world champion Chicago White Sox, one of seven extra-inning complete games the Big Train had pitched already this season. His most recent, a 15-inning, 1-0 shutout of the St. Louis Browns and a 10-inning, 3-2 win over the New York Yankees, had come in his last two starts.
Friday’s series opener saw the Nationals rough up George “Hooks” Dauss for 14 hits in eight innings in taking the game 5-0 behind a six-hit shutout by Harry Harper. Detroit’s bats continued their slumber on Saturday as the Nationals pummeled the Tigers 10-1, the loss dropping the hapless Tigers into seventh place behind the Browns.
Nonetheless, nearly 10,000 fans2 passed through the turnstiles at Navin Field on the brutally hot afternoon of August 4 for a Sunday doubleheader. In the first game, the Nationals scored six runs in the first three innings off rookie right-hander Rudy Kallio and coasted to a 7-0 victory. But the day’s big attraction was the opportunity to see the extraordinary Walter Johnson pitch in the nightcap.
The Tigers’ sacrificial lamb, so to speak, was right-hander Carroll “Deacon” Jones, making his first start of the season after 14 games of mostly mop-up work, which included a scoreless sixth inning in the previous day’s Nationals rout. Curiously, the Tigers had announced Jones’s unconditional release, along with that of pitcher Harry Coveleski, after Friday’s game, but quickly retracted Jones’s release the following day.3
Whether Johnson, having pitched 26⅔ innings in the past eight days (including a short relief appearance on July 29), was just off his game, or the Tigers had called upon some heretofore untapped collective resolve in taking on the most renowned hurler in baseball is uncertain, but the Tigers appeared to find the immortal Johnson decidedly human that afternoon. Detroit’s bats were as hot as the weather, hitting Johnson hard; even more uncharacteristically, Johnson was walking more batters than he struck out. The Tigers reached Johnson for three runs on three hits and a walk in the third inning and, after spotting Washington two runs in the sixth, added three more runs in the seventh on five singles, an error, and a wild pitch. The scrappy Nationals pushed across two more runs in the eighth to narrow the gap to 6-4.
Jones, who walked two batters in the eighth, may have been tiring — his longest outing of the season had been 5⅓ innings of relief in a game back in June — but manager Hughie Jennings allowed him to take the mound in the top of the ninth inning. Howie Shanks promptly opened the inning with a single and the next batter, Doc Lavan, followed with another base hit. Jennings pulled Jones and sent in Hooks Dauss.
Dauss had fared badly in his start against Washington on Friday, but seemed sharper this day, retiring the first two Washington batters he faced. But when Burt Shotton drilled a triple to tie the score and put the go-ahead run on third, the sweltering crowd might have been forgiven a sense of despair. Dauss retired Eddie Foster for the third out, but the damage had been done, and when Detroit failed to score in the bottom of the ninth, the game, knotted now at 6-6, went into extra innings.
What followed from that point seemed to those in the stands and the press box to be an entirely different game. The Tigers, “seem[ing] to have finally become ashamed of themselves,”4 began to play some very fine baseball. On the mound, Dauss was almost unhittable, setting down Washington batters inning after inning. Back in the game, Johnson had recovered from his poor start and was now mowing down the Tigers, matching Dauss scoreless frame for scoreless frame.
Although their offense had suddenly been stalled, Detroit’s defense was keeping the Tigers alive in spectacular fashion. A mighty heave by Cobb in the 13th inning, “one of the best throws from the meadows ever made,”5 cut down the speedy Clyde Milan attempting to score from second on a single by Lavan. In the 14thinning, shortstop Donie Bush threw two runners out at the plate on balls batted directly at him with the infield drawn in.
Finally, after Dauss had set the Nationals down scoreless for the ninth straight inning, the Tigers came to bat in the bottom of the 18th. “In the golden mellow of the setting sun,”6Donie Bush led off with a single. Bob Jones moved Bush to second with a sacrifice bunt. Into the batter’s box stepped Cobb, who lined Johnson’s final delivery of the afternoon off the glove of Eddie Foster at third for a two-base hit, scoring Bush and giving the Tigers an improbable 7-6 win over the greatest pitcher in baseball.
Johnson’s pitching line for the afternoon: 17⅓ innings, 16 hits (only five of them after the eighth inning), eight bases on balls, five strikeouts, and seven runs, all but one of them earned. Hooks Dauss, the winner in relief, had pitched 10 innings, surrendering but five hits and three bases on balls to go with six strikeouts and no runs scored. It was, in the words of one sportswriter, “one of the prettiest duels between pitchers that it has ever been the good fortune for patrons of Navin Field to witness.”7
Amazingly, all eight position players for Washington played all 27 innings of that day’s doubleheader. The same was true for Detroit, except for the catching position: Oscar Stanage started the first game behind the plate, while Tubby Spencer spelled him in the finale.
“For an exhibition of the national pastime in which the ultimate winners had nothing to gain but a worthless victory and the losers were hysterical to win,” according to one lyrical account of the game, “the contest was, without question, the greatest ever for the edification of Detroit fandom.”8
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, Retrosheet.org and Baseball-Reference.com were also accessed.
Devereaux, Tom, The Washington Senators, 1901-1971 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2001).
Kavanagh, Jack, Walter Johnson: A Life (South Bend, Indiana: Diamond Communications, 1995).
Thomas, Henry W., Walter Johnson: Baseball’s Big Train (Washington, D.C.: Phenom Press, 1995).
Flint Daily Journal.
Jackson (Michigan) Citizen Patriot.
New York Times.
Saginaw (Michigan) News.
1 The Sporting News, August 8, 1918, 7.
2 Harry Bullion, “Tigers Beat Washington in Eighteenth Inning of Sensational Diamond Bout,” Detroit Free Press, August 5, 1918, 9.
3 The Sporting News, August 8, 1918, 7.