“When going through hell, keep running” – Winston Churchill1
“Beware of advice from experts, pigs and members of Parliament” – Kermit the Frog2
Mickey Cochrane was going through hell as he rounded the bases on his June 4 inside-the-park grand slam against the Philadelphia A’s in Shibe Park. He made it home, but he wasn’t safe.
Cochrane had delivered a pennant to the city of Detroit as player-manager in 1934,3 then topped that by winning the 1935 World Series. He was a godsend to Depression-era Detroit,4 leading its transformation into the City of Champions.5 On the cover of Time magazine,6 and on top of the world. Soon Cochrane, like Atlas, would feel the weight of the world on his shoulders.
Five weeks after the 1935 World Series, Tigers principal owner Frank Navin died suddenly.7 Walter Briggs Sr., now sole owner, needed someone to handle player acquisitions and contract negotiations, roles previously handled by Navin himself. Briggs turned to Detroit’s superman, Mickey Cochrane.8 Ever loyal, the 32-year-old Cochrane accepted the role (and the title of vice president); on top of his duties as manager and starting catcher.9 A combination unthinkable now.
The next day Cochrane awoke to a news story that his star first baseman and the 1935 American League MVP, Hank Greenberg, was holding out for more salary.10 In fact, Greenberg had been offered a salary increase from $15,000 to $25,000 but had asked Navin for $35,000. Greenberg felt the details were exaggerated to the press to intimidate him into signing the club’s offer. So he held out, refusing to sign a contract until the tail end of spring training.11
While the core of the team was returning for the 1936 season, Cochrane wanted to upgrade the outfield. Jo-Jo White, a marginal defender at best, had hit only .240 the year before, the lowest among Tiger regulars.12 So in December 1935 Cochrane purchased the contract of former A’s teammate, and close friend, Al Simmons for $75,000.13
Simmons, a two-time AL batting champ and a superior defensive outfielder, had a down year in 1935 with the White Sox, hitting .267 after hitting .344 in 1934. Nonetheless, Cochrane, and his players, saw Simmons as their ticket to another pennant.14 “With Al Simmons in our lineup,” said second baseman Charlie Gehringer, “I don’t see how we could miss repeating.”15
Driven by his emotions, Cochrane was known as Black Mike, reflecting his gloomy tendencies.16 He could be “taciturn, surly, sullen or boyishly happy[,]” cautioned Malcolm Bingay, editor of the Detroit Free Press, in evaluating the team’s chances with Cochrane now wearing three hats.17 The Tigers broke training camp with Cochrane confident but subdued about the likelihood of winning a third straight pennant. The Sporting News identified a rash of spring-training injuries and “a loss of spirit” as “dangers,” adding that Greenberg’s holdout and Simmons’s purchase “left some of the other members of the squad muttering and mumbling.”18
Disaster struck on April 30, a little over two weeks after Opening Day, when Greenberg broke his left wrist in a collision at first base – the same wrist he’d broken in a home-plate collision during Game Two of the 1935 World Series. Cochrane desperately needed to plug the gaping hole left by Greenberg’s absence.19 He bypassed young Rudy York, who’d impressed many during spring training, and traded his top reliever, Elon “Chief” Hogsett, for St. Louis Browns first baseman Jack Burns.20
The Detroit Free Press cried foul, that Cochrane had lied during spring training about York being ready to replace Greenberg.21 “[This] explained [sic] why newspaper men frequently doubt the sincerity of vice presidents, especially of those who learned their baseball under Connie Mack,” the paper wrote.22 The accusation must’ve been particularly galling to Cochrane, who revered Mack.23
Roster problems dogged Cochrane the first six weeks of the season. A few days before Greenberg’s injury, star pitcher Schoolboy Rowe left the team to be with his dying father. He pitched poorly after returning, then came up with a sore arm. Nagging injuries to Gehringer, right fielder Pete Fox, and Cochrane himself, together with pedestrian offense from Simmons (batting .269 at the end of May, with only 4 home runs) kept Detroit from firing on all cylinders.
Cochrane was falling to pieces. He slept two hours a night. A pilot, he took to flying after midnight to help him find peace.24 The Tigers (23-21) were 7½ games behind the first-place Yankees when they arrived at Shibe Park on June 2 for a three-game series with the Athletics.
By 1935, Mack had sold off much of his second dynasty, winner of three pennants and two World Series championships from 1929 through 1931, and the team sank into the cellar. Mack’s retinue of journeymen, retreads, and unproven players foretold another poor finish in 1936. The A’s (13-27) entered the Detroit series in seventh place, a nose ahead of the St. Louis Browns.
The teams split the first two games of their series. The Tigers won the opener, 5-4, on eight walks by the A’s Harry Kelley,25 the last one, to Cochrane, giving Detroit the lead. An apparent RBI single by the next batter, Gehringer, hit Cochrane for the third out. He must’ve been mortified. In game two of the series, Detroit suffered an 11-8 loss described as “humiliating” by the Free Press.26
On the mound for the June 4 rubber match were two righties, the A’s Gordon Rhodes and Detroit’s Elden Auker. Rhodes had been acquired in the offseason from the Red Sox, along with minor leaguer George Savino and $150,000, for slugger Jimmie Foxx and pitcher Johnny Marcum. He’d lost his last three starts, injuring his arm in his last appearance, but had a serviceable 4-5 record and a 3.97 ERA. Auker shined during the Tigers ’35 campaign, with an 18-7 record and 3.83 ERA, but was having an uneven ’36 season, with a 4.55 ERA and losses in his last two starts.
Regulars filled the Tigers lineup, with Gee Walker subbing for Simmons, who’d sprained an ankle the day before. The A’s started their rag-tag regulars with two exceptions: Al Niemiec was making his first start of the year at shortstop in place of Skeeter Newsome, benched after three errors in a loss to the Senators, and catcher Charlie Moss replaced the slumping Frankie Hayes.27
Both starters put up zeroes in the first two innings, Rhodes working around a pair of walks in the first. That changed in the top of the third. After a walk to Auker, Fox singled and Cochrane walked, loading the bases. Gehringer singled to right fielder George Pucinelli,28 who booted the ball, allowing all three baserunners to score. Mack lifted Rhodes and brought in rookie lefty Red Bullock.
In his last outing, Bullock had allowed five earned runs in a third of an inning. A similar fate awaited him today. His first batter, World Series hero Goose Goslin,29 hit a comebacker, but Bullock’s toss to first was muffed by first baseman Lou Finney. Walker’s single chased Gehringer home, and after Burns flied out, Billy Rogell and Marv Owen each singled in a run. The score now 6-0, Bullock was replaced by rookie righty Stu Flythe, making his second major-league appearance.30
The lineup now turned over, Auker took a called third strike. Owen stole second and Fox walked, loading the bases again. Up stepped Cochrane.
Cochrane crushed a Flythe offering to deep center field, circling the bases for an inside-the-park grand slam.31 Into the dugout Mickey ran, elated with the Tigers’ 10-run inning; and at that moment, he collapsed in the dugout. “I don’t know what happened,” he said after the game. 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.”32
Weakened by insomnia and the effort it took to beat the ball back to home plate, Cochrane was overcome by emotion: anxiety about the future, shame over the team’s underperformance, and resentment over his treatment by the press. Helped to the clubhouse, Cochrane was tended to by the A’s team physician over the next hour,33 the game playing out like a distant thunderstorm.
Two innings later, the Tigers plated six more runs, highlighted by Gehringer’s league-leading 20th double clearing the bases and three A’s errors. The last run scored on catcher Moss’s throwing error, as Rogell brazenly stole second. The Tigers led 16-0, while “the [A’s] outfielders had scarcely enough breath left in them to whistle.”34
After scoring their 17th run in the sixth on Gehringer’s single, the Tigers gave Philadelphia a little air. The A’s scored two in the sixth and, after Detroit’s 18th run, scored another two in the seventh. In the ninth, Philadelphia batted around, taking advantage of a pair of Tigers errors to score six runs. Pinch-hitter Emil Mailho, who’d opened the inning with a walk, popped out to end the game.35
Losing 18-9,36 the Philadelphia Inquirer’s James Isaminger quipped, “Connie Mack’s Athletics took one of those beatings that give fighters tin ears and put them on the street with tin cups and lead pencils at the age of 35.”37
After the game, Cochrane attributed his “seizure” to a recurrence of thyroid problems he had the previous season. The A’s physician called it the result of strain, combined with the excitement from running out his inside-the-park homer. The newspapers called it a nervous breakdown.38
Not until 10 weeks later, August 16, was Cochrane well enough to play again. He appeared in five games before the season ended with the Tigers in second place, their hopes for a three-peat gone to hell.
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 Drake Baer, “Elon Musk Loves This Winston Churchill Quote About ‘Going Through Hell,’” Business Insider, January 6, 2015. https://www.businessinsider.com/elon-musk-on-winston-churchill-hell-quote-2015-1, accessed November 20, 2021.
2 Alex Parale, “60+ Kermit the Frog Quotes from the Muppet Star,” Comicbook and Beyond, July 3, 2019. https://comicbookandbeyond.com/kermit-the-frog-quotes/, accessed November 20, 2021.
3 Cochrane had been acquired from the Philadelphia Athletics in December 1933. Faced with declining attendance due to the Depression, and with no other sources of income, A’s owner-manager Connie Mack sold or traded the most talented players from his 1929-1931 pennant-winning teams, including the spark plug of those teams, Cochrane. In exchange for Cochrane, Mack netted backup catcher Johnny Pasek and $100,000. Cochrane earned the 1934 American League MVP Award, hitting .320, guiding the Tigers pitching staff to a league-leading 5.5 Win Probability Added by Pitcher (WPA) and throwing out 52 percent of prospective base stealers.
4 The backbone of the Detroit economy was the auto industry. Declines in US auto sales in the early 1930s put tens of thousands of Detroit auto workers out of work. Cochrane’s impact on Detroit’s economy was most keenly felt at the ticket office, with attendance at Navin Field for Tigers games topping 900,000 in 1934, nearly triple the previous season’s total and the highest in the American League. Cochrane was the subject of endless adulation in Detroit, including being the subject of poems and receiving official proclamations from Mayor Frank Couzens. Edgar A. Guest, “Adulation for Mickey Cochrane,” Detroit Free Press, October 7, 1935: 6; Frank Couzens, “Tigers! Detroit Congratulates You,” Detroit Free Press, October 2, 1935: 28; https://elmoore.com/2015/03/11/voices-of-detroit-the-great-depression/; https://www.baseball-almanac.com/teams/detatte.shtml.
5 Detroit forged a long-standing bond to its sporting teams in 1935 as the city’s professional baseball, football, and hockey teams all won championships in 1935. Detroit was also home to world heavyweight champion Joe Louis. https://sabr.org/journal/article/1935-detroit-tigers-city-of-champions/.
6 The photo shows Cochrane in full catching gear, over a caption that read “Detroit Began to Feel Dynamic.” Time, October 7, 1935.
7 It was Navin who negotiated the Tigers’ trade for Cochrane, with the intent of naming him player-manager. Navin initially pursued Babe Ruth for the role, but soured on the idea after Ruth’s apparent indifference to Navin’s early advances. He pivoted to Cochrane upon hearing Ruth’s salary expectations. https://sabr.org/journal/article/the-mickey-cochrane-trade-the-babes-loss-was-detroits-gain/; https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/frank-navin/.
8 Superman didn’t appear in Action Comics until June 1938 but Tigers fans certainly believed Cochrane was, if not faster than a speeding bullet, able to leap tall opponents in a single bound.
9 Upon Navin’s death, there was speculation in the press that Cochrane would be named team president, as he was “well suited both by temperament and training to become the successor of Mr. Navin.” Charles P. Ward, “Mickey Cochrane Seen as Logical Successor to Navin,” Detroit Free Press, November 14, 1936: 17; Ward, “Mickey Cochrane Is Named Vice President of the Tigers,” Detroit Free Press, November 24, 1935: 1.
10 “Cochrane Denies Planning Changes,” Lansing (Michigan) State Journal, November 26, 1936: 17.
11 Greenberg wound up signing a contract on March 26. While the terms of the contract weren’t released, speculation was that the amount was close to $20,000. “Iffy… the Dopester rises to remark…,” Detroit Free Press, March 15, 1936: 45; “Greenberg Puts Tigers in the Pink; Hank Breaks In New $20,000 Mitt,” The Sporting News, April 2, 1936: 1.
12 White had made the second most errors among AL center fielders in 1935.
13 The two became close friends while playing together on the A’s. They spent many offseasons together, Cochrane and his wife even accompanying Simmons and his bride on their honeymoon in the Hawaiian Islands after the 1934 World Series. W.W. Edgar, “The Second Guess,” Detroit Free Press, December 11, 1935: 21.
14 Asked about the strength of other challengers for the AL pennant, Cochrane replied “Do you think any pitcher is going to have any fun pitching against a line-up composed of Fox, Gehringer, myself, Greenberg, Simmons, Goslin or Walker, Rogell and Owen?,” then chortled, “Hah!” Charles P. Ward, “Mickey Cochrane Plans to Play Al Simmons in Center Field,” Detroit Free Press, December 11, 1936: 21.
15 Scott Ferkovich, “When Tigers Got Al Simmons Another World Series Title Seemed Likely,” December 13, 2015. https://www.vintagedetroit.com/when-tigers-got-al-simmons-another-world-series-title-seemed-likely/.
16 Iffy the Dopester mentions Cochrane’s black eyes but not his black temperament when the Black Mike sobriquet first appears in August 1935. “Iffy … the Dopester rises to remark,” Detroit Free Press, August 28, 1935: 15.
17 Bingay’s comments appeared under the pen-name of his alter ego, Iffy the Dopester. Time magazine described Cochrane as “tense and irritable when professionally busy.” “Sport: Cubs v. Tigers,” Time, October 7, 1935: 24-29; Tom Stanton, book excerpt: “Mickey Cochrane’s Tormented Decline in Detroit,” Detroit Free Press, June 18, 2016. https://www.freep.com/story/sports/mlb/tigers/2016/06/18/detroit-tigers-mickey-cochrane/86100246/.
18 “Mickey Tones Down His Pennant Talk,” The Sporting News, April 16, 1936: 1, 5.
19 Wishful-thinking estimates were that Greenberg would be back after a month, but he missed the rest of the season. Charles P. Ward, “Greenberg’s Broken Wrist Will Keep Him Out for Month,” Detroit Free Press, April 30, 1936: 15.
20 Hogsett, in his second game for the Browns, on May 3, allowed a run-scoring triple to Joe DiMaggio in his Yankees debut. The Browns’ acquisition of Jim Bottomley from the Cincinnati Reds in March had bumped the former starting first baseman Burns to the bench. Moving from the bench of a last-place team to a starting position on the defending world’s champions put Burns on Cloud Nine. Charles P. Ward, “Burns Walks in Cloud as Result of New Job,” Detroit Free Press, May 1, 1936: 21-22.
21 During spring training, Associated Press writer Paul Mickelson proclaimed, “Cochrane is so impressed with [Rudy] York that scribes with the team expect him to let him play the opening game, if for no other reason than to show big Hank that York is a qualified replacement.” Soon after, AL President Will Harridge identified York as the most promising rookie in the league for 1936, “a very slight nod” ahead of Joe DiMaggio. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/rudy-york/.
22 Ward, “Burns Walks in Cloud as Result of New Job.”
23 Cochrane was widely acknowledged to be a Connie Mack disciple. Cochrane’s autobiography, Baseball: The Fans’ Game, cites lesson after lesson he’d learned while under Mack’s tutelage. Free Press sportswriter Charles Ward wrote that “Mickey Cochrane learned all the baseball he knows at the feet of the tall tactician.” Charles P. Ward, “Ward to the Wise,” Detroit Free Press, August 13, 1936: 19; Mickey Cochrane, Baseball: The Fans’ Game, Society for Baseball Research (Pittsburgh: Mathers Printing Co., 1992).
24 Stanton, Book excerpt: “Mickey Cochrane’s tormented decline in Detroit.”
25 Kelley was a 30-year-old rookie, having briefly pitched for the Washington Senators in 1926. He spent the intervening seasons playing for the Memphis Chicks and Atlanta Crackers. He was drafted by Philadelphia with the first selection in the 1935 Rule 5 draft.
26 The Tigers had come back from an early 4-0 deficit to tie the game, before the A’s reeled off seven runs, courtesy of six walks and two wild pitches. The Tigers staged a two-out rally in the ninth, scoring three runs but falling short. 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.
27 Hayes was in a 7-for-63 (.111) batting slump.
28 In his only season as a regular, Pucinelli finished the season leading AL right fielders with 14 errors.
29 Goslin hit a ninth-inning walk-off single off the Cubs’ Larry French to win Game Six of the 1935 World Series, clinching the Series for Detroit.
30 Flythe had thrown 2⅔ scoreless innings against the Senators in his debut, on May 31.
31 This was the only inside-the-park grand slam during the 1936 season. https://www.baseball-fever.com/forum/baseball-almanac-baseball-fever-website/baseball-fever-exclusives/175-inside-the-park-grand-slams.
32 Ward, “Victory Over A’s Costs Bengals Services of Cochrane: Four-Run Circuit Blow Is Followed by Collapse.”
33 “Victory Over A’s Costs Bengals Services of Cochrane: Four-Run Circuit Blow Is Followed by Collapse.”
34 “Victory Over A’s Costs Bengals Services of Cochrane: Four-Run Circuit Blow Is Followed by Collapse.”
35 This was Mailho’s final major-league plate appearance. Frustrated at this lack of playing time, he told the A’s “[i]f you aren’t going to play me, trade me, or I’ll quit.” His batting average only .056 (1-for-18), he was optioned to the A’s Alanta farm team. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/emil-mailho/.
36 Despite the two teams combining for 27 runs, 29 hits, 10 walks, and 9 errors (six miscues by the A’s), the game lasted only 2 hours and 25 minutes.
37 James C. Isaminger, “Bengals Get 10 in 3d Session Clinching Tilt,” Philadelphia Inquirer, June 5, 1936: 21, 24.
38 Isaminger, “Bengals Get 10 in 3d Session Clinching Tilt”; “Cochrane Gets Homer Before Collapse,” Philadelphia Inquirer, June 5, 1936: 24; Tod Rockwell, “Mickey’s Return to Detroit Is Postponed a Week to July 18,” Detroit Free Press, July 9, 1936: 17; Leslie Avery (United Press), “Detroit Coming to Life After Slump,” Oakland Tribune, June 26, 1936: 36; “Del Baker Says Tigers Will Yet Come Through,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 5, 1936: 45.