This article was written by Victor Debs
This article was published in 2002 Baseball Research Journal
“It is no bad thing to be a king.” — Homer
On a cool October afternoon in Boston in 1914, the Red Sox hosted the Yankees at three-year-old Fenway Park. On the mound for the Sox was rookie left hander George Herman Ruth, already referred to as “Babe” by teammates and press. Ruth was pitching in his third major league game, having split his first two decisions. Enjoying a 9-2 lead, batter Babe began the home seventh with a double, then scored following a sacrifice bunt and sac fly. Ruth hurled a complete-game, six-hit victory against the team with which he would gain renown the following decade.
For both clubs the ballgame was unimportant, as Mack’s A’s had already won the 1914 flag. Modern historians find significance in it, though. Ruth’s tally was his first of a still-standing American League record 2,174 runs scored; the double his first major league hit. How appropriate that baseball’s “Sultan of Swat” attained these two milestones against a pitcher with the equally worthy sobriquet “King.”
Leonard Cole had earned the regal title four years earlier when he won 20 with the Cubs; it is a feat only 18 other rookies achieved in the 20th century. Cole’s league-best .833 winning percentage in 1910 ranks fourth among all NL hurlers with 20 or more wins, and is the best by any rookie. His 1.80 ERA makes him one of nine NL rookies to finish the season with an ERA under 2. 00. He is one of only 50 NL pitchers to toss a shutout in his first major league start and one of 14 senior-circuit hurlers. He is the only rookie to hurl an abbreviated no-hitter. King Cole competed in the 1910 World Series, and the slender six-footer pitched well in Chicago’s sole victory against the A’s.
Following a sophomore season only slightly less superb, Cole’s career sank as suddenly as the Titanic. He won only three in 1912, was a minor leaguer in 1913, and a second-stringer with the Yankees when he opposed Ruth in the final week of the 1914 season. Cole’s nickname seemed a misnomer by the spring of 1915 as he prepared to fight for a starting position. By the end of the year, Cole was fighting for his life.
Barnstorming with the Boston Bloomer Girls wasn’t an exhilarating experience for a young male ballplayer of the early 20th century, especially if it included wearing a lady’s wig and trousers, but it was a way of earning money while playing ball. Having female teammates wasn’t particularly distressing either. Smoky Joe Wood and Rogers Hornsby endured the carnival-like atmosphere and hilarity from spectators and used the Bloomer Girls as a stepping-stone to the majors. So, too, would Cole.
Leonard Leslie Cole was born on April 15, 1886, to parents Keury and Cora in the small rural town of Toledo, located in central Iowa approximately 60 miles northeast of Des Moines. After establishing a reputation as a talented local pitcher, Leonard left Toledo to join the Bloomers in 1907. In 1908 he played for semi-pro clubs in Ottumwa, Iowa and Tecumseh, Michigan. Following an exhibition game against Bay City in 1909, the 6-foot-2, 180-pound fire baller was signed by the manager of the local Class D team in the Southern Michigan League. He became a standout starter, finishing the season with a 21-7 record. Cole complemented his artistry on the mound with part-time work as a tonsorial artist, and proficiency in both professions soon earned him the nickname “Bay City Barber.”
While pitching in a late-season game in 1909, Cole was spotted by Chicago Cub scout George Huff. Huff had played an important role in building the powerful Chicago team, one that won three straight pennants and two world championships from 1906 to 1908. Huff recommended Cole to player-manager Frank Chance, who signed Cole. He then tested him on October 6 with a starting assignment in the opener of a season-ending twin bill against the Cardinals. Any misgivings Chance might have harbored were assuaged when the 23-year-old righthander hurled a six-hit shutout, becoming only the ninth NL pitcher in the century to grab a whitewash in his major league debut. The King fanned one and walked three and displayed a good sinker as infielders Johnny Evers and Joe Tinker combined for nine assists and one double play. Cole was equally impressive with the lumber, stroking three hits, including a triple, in four at-bats.
Assured of a major league contract for 1910, Cole married a resident of Bay City with the surname Seder, and continued barbering during the winter while keeping in shape by running and exercising in preparation for the upcoming season.
Fred Clarke’s Pirates, led by Honus Wagner’s league-leading .324 average and 100 RBIs, had snapped the Cubs’ string of consecutive pennants in 1909, prompting Chance to shore up his pitching staff by acquiring veterans Harry McIntire and Lew Richie. Otherwise, the club was about the same as it had been for the past four seasons, with the exception of Cole.
The Cubs were confident of regaining the pennant in 1910, an optimism not unfounded. By midseason, they held a seven-game lead over the Giants and Pirates, with Cole the leading pitcher on the staff. King had won his first seven decisions, not taking his first loss until June 15 in a Brooklyn marathon that featured Dodger starter Cy Berger’s matching Cole pitch for pitch through 13 innings. After retiring the Cubs in the 14th, Berger came to bat with the winning run at second and drilled a game-ending single. In what was reported as unprecedented at Washington Park, fans rushed on the field and carried hero Berger to the clubhouse.
The Sporting News commented, “Cole of the Cubs is certainly some pitcher. He is easily the sensation of the kid crop of the National League.” The rookie continued impressing. At the end of July, Chicago faced the Cardinals in a doubleheader in St. Louis. Cole was working on a no-hit shutout in the nightcap when Umpire Hank O’Day called play after seven innings due to darkness. The no-hitter was the only one thrown in the senior circuit in 1910.
Already referred to as “King” and “Hi,” Cole went undefeated in August, won his first decision of September, and survived a sloppy outing against Cincinnati, in which he walked five, and another against Pittsburgh when he yielded a dozen hits and four passes.
His winning streak was snapped at Brooklyn’s Washington Park on September 17. Tied at two in the tenth, Cole faced a second-and-third situation with one out. Right-handed batter Bob Coulson dribbled a comebacker to Cole, who, after a momentary juggle, threw to the plate. Brooklyn manager Bill Dahlen was certain the game was over but umpire Bill Klem called the runner out, prompting Dahlen’s charge to the plate and subsequent banishment to the clubhouse.
Following his expulsion, a shower of projectiles emanated from the stands, mostly in the form of soda bottles; none found their intended target and ballpark police quickly restored order. Given a reprieve, Cole appeared to have escaped the jam when Humpy McElveen, a .225 hitter, rolled a grass cutter to short, but Tinker dumped Humpy’s ball at the feet of first baseman Chance, whose fumble led to the game-winning tally.
Pitching at the Polo Grounds in his next start on September 23, Cole hurled a shaky but scoreless first frame, then was given a 2-0 lead in the second courtesy of Tinker’s poke into the stands. The Giants squared the game in the home half, then knocked Cole from the box with a pair in the third. The Cubs rallied to tie, taking the King off the hook, but lost when Fred Snodgrass tagged a McIntyre fastball over the head of center fielder Hofman for an inside-the-park homer.
The Cubs’ 1910 lead remained seven following their loss to the Giants on September 23. By October 1, Chicago could clinch the pennant with a victory in Cincinnati. With Cole on the mound, the Cubs grabbed a 1-0 lead and added a pair in the fourth. The Reds got one back in the bottom of the inning, but Chicago tallied twice in the fifth and Cole coasted to a 9-6 victory.
Despite winning the battle for the flag, the Cubs lost the war for the World Series. In the fifth inning, baserunner Evers collided with Cincy catcher Tommy Clarke at home and broke his ankle. The Cubs’ spirited second baseman watched the Series from the stands. His replacement, Heinie Zimmerman, would lead the league in batting two years later, but was still a green 23-year-old part timer in 1910, and his play in the Series was mediocre. The A’s trounced the lackluster Cubs four games to one, outscoring the losers by a count of 35-15.
For Chicago, old sol shined in the Series solely when King Cole took the mound in game four. Having won his final start of the season on October 9—a complete game 4-3 decision in which he walked ten Cardinal batters, hit a batter, and tossed a wild pitch—Cole’s arm was fully rested by the 22nd. Cole surrendered a run in the third, two in the fourth, but was otherwise effective in his eight innings’ work. The Cubs trailed 3-2 and were two outs from elimination when Chance drove a triple over the head of A’s center fielder Amos Strunk, chasing home Frank “Wildfire” Schulte. Chance was stranded at third, but the Cubs won it for reliever Three Finger Brown in the tenth on a double and two-out single.
It had been a splendid season for Cole. The rookie won 20 of 24 decisions. Cole led all regular starters in winning percentage (.833), ERA (1.80), opponents’ batting average (.211), and average hits allowed (6.53/nine innings). He pitched four shutouts, a no-hitter, and allowed five hits or less in 12 of his 29 starts. Despite his club’s loss in the Series, Cole returned triumphantly to his Bay City home, where a car manufacturer presented the local hero with an automobile. The Wolverine workhorse had exploded out of the gate in 1910, and much was expected from him in 1911.
Cole did not disappoint, and was only slightly less effective in his second season. He accumulated 18 victories against seven defeats, with his .720 winning percentage third best in the league. His ERA rose to 3.13, his opponents’ batting average to .236, but most NL pitchers suffered as well, as the league ERA jumped from 3.02 in 1910 to 3.39 in 1911, the league batting average from .256 to .260.
His combined record for 1910-1911 of 38-11 gave him a winning percentage of .776, second only to Doc Crandall’s .780 for the first two seasons, was the best on the Cubs staff, and was superior to such renowned winners as Christy Mathewson and Rube Marquard. The Sporting News labeled Cole “the pitching find of the National League.”
He was also somewhat of an oddball, quickly gain ing a reputation as a jokester. Cole’s humorous per:sonality made him a natural on the vaudeville stage, and perhaps a longer life would have afforded Cole as much renown as ballplayer-comics Nick Altrock and Germany Schaefer. Cole’s free-spirited manner would arouse criticism by managers and sportswriters, who pointed to the King’s predilection for training improperly and breaking rules. In addition, Cole had the unusual and unfortunate habit of sleepwalking. Teammates would tease him after each somnambulistic episode, not all of which were harmless. During the spring of 1914, a nightly promenade on a Pullman left Cole with a severe cut on his right leg that required several stitches.
Whether due to a flippant attitude toward training, off-the-field distractions, the beginnings of a fatal disease, or simply an overworked arm, Cole’s career began its nosedive in 1912. In the first two months he appeared in eight games for the Cubs and won once. His ERA of 10.89 contrasted sharply with his combined 2.45 for his first two seasons. In 19 innings pitched, Cole surrendered 36 hits and eight walks. Batters were feasting off his fastball at a .409 clip. Though he maintained his popularity with fans, team mates began resenting his antics and work ethic. Rumors of dissension arose. By mid-May, Chance suggested to owner Charles Murphy that Cole be traded.
Murphy found a sucker in Pittsburgh’s scrupulous owner Barney Dreyfuss. Cole was shipped to the Pirates along with outfielder Solly Hofman for two veterans: former 20-game winner Lefty Leifield and longtime Buc Tommy Leach. Dreyfuss had been impressed with Hofman’s versatility as a semi-pro player in Belleville, Michigan, in 1903. He signed the infielder to a Pirate contract but later released him. He was now happy to have Hofman back. As for Cole, Murphy assured Dreyfuss that his arm was sound and that a change of scenery was all the pitcher needed.
Ruing the swap a few months later, Dreyfuss accused Murphy of deceiving him regarding Cole’s arm. Revenge was realized a year later. Murphy’s callous treatment of such popular players as Chance and Evers (Chance was fired as manager in 1912, and replacement Evers was gone the next season), Tinker and Ed Reulbach (traded), and Brown (banished to the bushes), further alarmed fellow owners already fidgety over the threat of the newly established Federal League’s pirating of disgruntled major leaguers. Regarding Murphy as somewhat of a renegade anyway, fellow NL magnates welcomed President John Tener’s decision in the winter of 1913 to force Murphy to sell his club.
Fred Clarke had patrolled the outfield for Dreyfuss teams for 18 seasons, first as a member of the Louisville Colonels, then as a Buccaneer. As player manager for Pittsburgh from 1900 to 1911, “Cap” Clarke guided the club to four pennants including a world championship in 1909. His team finished third the next two years and was already badly trailing the defending champion Giants by June of 1912. Clarke expressed optimism that the trade for Cole would help narrow the gap.
But Cole continued struggling in Pittsburgh and by July was demoted to the role of mop-up reliever. On the 2nd, he entered a game with his former club comfortably ahead and allowed seven hits, two walks, and five runs in as many innings. Six days later, he pitched the final frame in a Philly rout of the Pirates. By then Cole had thrown in 13 games, allowing a generous 76 hits and 19 walks. Not what was expected of a king.
Cole’s scoreless inning against Philadelphia earned him a start the following week. He pitched effectively against the Dodgers and held a 4-2 lead after eight frames. But Cole allowed two runs to score in the ninth and was removed for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the inning, as the Pirates won in the tenth.
If the outing encouraged Cole, his optimism was short-lived. In his next appearance on July 25, King relieved in the ninth and surrendered three hits and the go-ahead run to the Dodgers. He was not involved in the decision, as the Pirates tied the game in the bottom of the inning and won in the tenth. Clarke showed reluctance in using Cole thereafter, and in early August instructed his floundering fireman to remain in Pittsburgh while the team headed east on an extended road trip. Cole left town instead, and when Clarke was informed by scouts that Hi was having a high old time, the Pirate skipper suspended his AWOL hurler for an “indefinite” period. Cole reacted defiantly, heading home to Bay City while declaring he was through with major league baseball.
A week later, both Cole and Clarke relented. King joined the team in New York, and on August 22 made his first appearance in four weeks, pitching a perfect inning in relief against the Giants. The next day, he entered the eighth with the score tied at one and yielded a run on a walk, single, and double before pitching a perfect ninth. On the 27th, Cole started against the Braves in Pittsburgh and was rocked for four runs and five hits in a third of an inning.
If Clarke’s decision to bring back Cole had been for the purpose of shopping him around, his pitcher’s flops weren’t helping. After Cole’s early exit against the Braves, Clarke came to another decision. Cole sat on the bench through September as the Bucs finished strongly, taking twelve straight and second place.
With no big league clubs interested in Cole, the Pirates sold him to Columbus of the minor league American Association. It was a fortuitous banishment for the King. After spending part of the winter in Chicago and opening a barber shop in the Com Exchange Bank Building adjacent the Cubs’ executive suite, the rested righty reported to Columbus and had the best season of any pitcher in the AA that year. He accumulated a 23-11 record for his sixth-place club, and proved his arm sound by leading the league in innings pitched. Cole became one ofthe few hurlers to pitch a no-hitter in both the majors and minors when he defeated the league-leading Brewers 3-1 in Milwaukee, the unearned run a result of a walk, error, and sacrifice fly. By season’s end, every major league club was bidding for Cole’s services, one offer being as high as $10,000.
One of the interested teams was the New York Highlanders, or Yankees as they were alternately referred to, now managed by former Cub skipper Chance. The Peerless One had accepted a mammoth offer of $40,000 in 1913 from owner Frank Farrell, who was desperately trying to boost the image of his bottom-berth ball club in a town where that perennial pennant winner of the rival league, the Giants, shared the same Polo Grounds. During the 1913 season, Chance heard about Cole’s resurgence and sent a scout for a look-see. Receiving a favorable report, Chance pressed Farrell to acquire his former ace. Farrell outbid other team offers and acquired Cole from Columbus in September. With a week remaining in the big league season, Cole was instructed to join the club the following spring.
It was now a question of whether Cole would report. Rumors circulated that King still resented Chance’s trading him to the Pirates in 1912, and he was quoted as saying he would never play again for his former skipper. Cole later denied making the statement and maintained he was committed to pitching for the Yankees. Perhaps he was, but an old teammate would soon change his mind.
Prior to the start of the 1914 season, the upstart Federal League was making moves to become a serious challenge to the majors by pirating former major league stars. Among the club owners looking to pilfer was Chicago Whales president Charles Weeghman. The restaurant entrepreneur especially savored the prospect of landing an established and popular Cub as player-manager. With that in mind, he approached castoff Joe Tinker. Tinker had resented Evers’ appointment as manager of the Cubs in 1913 and demanded a trade. He got it, but liked even less playing in Cincinnati. When he was shipped to Brooklyn at season’s end, the idea of moving from one loser to another did not appeal to Tinker either. What did appeal was Weeghman’s suggestion that Chicago was his kind of town, especially when it included the opportunity to pique former employer Murphy and former teammate Chance. Tinker jumped at the offer.
Upon hearing the news of the Yankees’ most recent, high-priced pitching purchase, Tinker visited Cole in December and presented him with a three-year contract to play for the Whales at a salary greater than that being offered by the Yankees. Cole thought about it, then signed. Immediately, Tinker made public the acquisition.
It was now the Yankees’ turn. An infuriated Farrell asked for help from his close friend Art Irwin. Irwin and Farrell had been the shortstop-second base combo on the Providence Grays of the National League and played in what is regarded by some as the first World Series, with Providence defeating the American Association’s New York Mets three games to nothing in 1884. Today, Irwin is credited with having been the first to use a fielder’s mitt and to participate in the first squeeze play. He was somewhat inventive off the field as well. After his presumed suicide in 1921 (he boarded a steamer but was not among the passengers that got off), it was discovered that good old Arthur had been a bigamist.
Farrell sent his 56-year-old crony to Chicago to talk some sense into Cole. Irwin appealed to Cole’s sense of fair play. How could he do this to his former manager? Hadn’t he already agreed to report to the Yankee camp in the spring? Then there was the tentative nature of the Federal League. It could never seriously compete with the majors. When the Feds folded, Cole would be out of a job. There was security playing at the major league level.
Irwin’s efforts met with success. Cole returned to New York and pledged his allegiance by signing a Yankee contract. There followed bickering from Tinker and Weeghman, who insisted their contract with the Michigan right hander was binding. The issue never went Lu court. When the Yanks’ spring training camp opened in Savannah in early March, Cole and Chance were reunited.
Encouraging reports came from the South regarding Cole’s comeback bid. A Sporting News article stated, “Chance seems very well impressed with the ex Chicago star, and rumor has it that he is so good he may pitch the opening game of the season for the New Yorkers.” Cole did show flashes of his old form in 1914, but he proved unreliable both as starter and reliever. By the time Farrell fired Chance in September in favor of Roger Peckinpaugh, Cole was a .500 pitcher with little speed on his fastball and erratic control. His main success had come against the White Sox, but Chicago broke the hex in their last confrontation on September 18 by exploding for seven runs in the fifth. After surrendering Ruth’s first-ever double and run scored on October 2, Cole’s record for the year stood at 11-9 with an ERA of3.30. One local writer commented, “We trust that Bay City has not a surplus of barbers at this time, for Cole is apt to hear the call of his old trade any day now.”
Still, Cole’s season had not been a complete flop. After all, he finished two games above the break-even point on a team with a 70-84 record. He was among a group of American League All-Stars who played a series of barnstorming exhibitions after the season, and it was reported that Cole “did fine work.” The hurler had every reason to be optimistic, especially after the announcement in January that he would be among the group of pitchers invited to Savannah for 1915 spring training. First, he would have to report to Yank scout Joe Kelley for winter work in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
Before the winter ended, Farrell sold the Yanks to beer baron Jacob Ruppert and army engineer T. L. “Cap” Huston for $460,000. The new owners immediately pushed for changes. They pressed Connie Mack for the purchase of slugging star Home Run Baker, a deal not realized until the end of the season. They consulted with AL president Ban Johnson over the site of a new park, and during the season inspected a particularly desirable location in the Bronx, although the need to build Yankee Stadium would not be felt by the magnates until Ruth donned pinstripes.
Ruppert and Huston liked Peckinpaugh, who at 23 was the youngest manager in history, but preferred more experience at the helm. Immediately following the acquisition, they relieved Peck of managerial duties while retaining him at shortstop. They hired former NL hurler Wild Bill Donovan, who gladly relinquished his managing position with the minor league Providence club, where he had instructed southpaw Babe Ruth on the finer points of pitching before the youngster was recalled by the Red Sox in September of 1914. Donovan brought with him from Providence trainer Jimmy Duggan.
By the first of March, most of the Yankee players had assembled at Penn Station in New York to accompany Donovan on the trip south. Cole and his fellow Hot Springs hurlers joined the team in Savannah the following week, and Duggan assessed his king as being ”just as fit as possible at this stage of the training season.” Yet while the team was playing its first intra-squad game, Cole complained of having a sore arm and feeling fatigued and did not take the field. He seemed fine the next day and made his initial appear ance of the spring, allowing only one hit and no runs in three innings in the “Regulars’” defeat of the “Yannigans” in another intra-squad contest. Two days later, Cole gave up one run and five hits in five frames.
Cole’s work impressed Donovan sufficiently to include him with five other pitchers on a first team that would travel to Daytona for a series with Brooklyn and likely continue north afterward. Two days prior to departing for Florida, Cole pitched against a local club from Savannah, allowing two hits and no runs in a rain-soaked three innings.
Cole had been scheduled to start the first game of the Brooklyn series but instead watched from the bench as the two teams played to a 6-6 tie. He took the mound the next day and was in control throughout his six-inning stint, surrendering one run, five hits, and one walk. On April 2, he blanked the Cubs on one hit through four innings, while fanning four. The New York Times wrote the next day, “Donovan was much elated over King Cole’s great pitching. Cole is the best conditioned of the New York pitchers, and has toyed with his opponents all Spring.”
The Yanks continued their march north with a stop in Richmond on April 7. They defeated the local competition by a score of 8-3, with Cole hurling the final four frames.
For the first time all spring, Cole did not look sharp as he allowed two runs and walked three against the bush leaguers. The team arrived in Brooklyn on the 9th to play a two-game set against the Dodgers, but Cole sat out both games and began complaining about pains in his groin. He was taken to a New York hospital, and an examination revealed a tumor. The surgeons gave a grim prognosis following its removal. The 30-year-old’s ball-playing days were over, they said, and his life expectancy measured in months.
Cole remained in the hospital for two weeks following the operation, then returned home to Bay City to recuperate. If the medical experts were counting him out, Cole wasn’t listening. He worked hard to get back in shape, then surprised Donovan and his Yank team mates by showing up in Chicago at the end of May and declaring he’d be ready to contribute in a few weeks. On July 9 Cole rejoined the team, reporting himself fit to resume his starting role.
The right hander’s opportunity came in the second game of a Sunday doubleheader in Detroit on July 13. It was a disaster. The Bengals clawed King for two runs in the first, another three in the second, and the reeling righty was finished after an inning and two thirds, replaced by 24-year-old Bob Shawkey, who tamed the Tigers the rest of the way while the Yanks came back to win. Cole relieved the next day and in two innings yielded three hits, two walks, and a hit batsman, although sloppy fielding led to two of the three runs.
The two shaky outings thwarted Cole’s comeback. Donovan’s Yanks had been surprising baseball followers by playing competitive ball. The rookie manager was as sentimental as the next fellow and had been pulling for the cancer-stricken ballplayer to come through, but the team came first. For the next few weeks Donovan resisted any temptation to use Cole.
Another obstacle would delay Cole’s return to action. On July 24, the Yanks were scheduled to play the White Sox at Comiskey Park in Chicago. At about 7:40 that morning the steamer Eastland, docked at a pier located on the Chicago River between LaSalle and Clark streets in the center of town, was preparing to take passengers on a 35-mile excursion across Lake Michigan to Michigan City, Indiana. Chicago Herald reporter Harlan Babcock had planned on boarding the Eastland but decided to take the next steamship, feeling Commander Henry Pederson was “taking awful chances in so overcrowding the boat.” A wise decision. The ship began to list, then capsized. Many among the 2,500 passengers plunged into the harbor, while hundreds more clung to the upper railing of the overturned vessel before falling in. Desperate rescue attempts were made. Life preservers were thrown from the dock and from a nearby steamer, whose crew manned lifeboats and pulled frantic swimmers aboard. Their efforts kept to a minimum the number of fatalities, at first reported to be 1,800; today, the estimate is 800.
Perhaps it is because the catastrophe took place within the confines of a harbor where assistance could immediately be given, not in the dark dreary isolation of the Atlantic, or because most aboard were middle income passengers rather than society’s elite, or because the ship held no title of “unsinkable,” that the Eastland disaster has not retained the same notoriety as has the Titanic tragedy. Nor is it considered as historically significant as the sinking of the Lusitania, which less than three months earlier had been an innocent wartime target of a torpedo. The Eastland incident was nonetheless a calamity of immense proportions made more horrific by its occurring in broad daylight in front of hundreds of spectators.
In April 1912, news in New York of the Titanic sinking had been so depressing that attendance for the Giants’ home opener at the Polo Grounds was held to 13,000. The Eastland tragedy was sufficiently shocking for normally frugal Chicago owner Charles Comiskey to immediately postpone the White Sox-Yankee game of the 24th and the doubleheader the next day. Donovan may not have used Cole anyway, but the lost games prevented the possibility.
Cole’s next chance came a week later as the Yanks hosted the White Sox at the Polo Grounds. Pitching eight innings, he yielded two runs, five hits, and whiffed six batters before leaving for a pinch-hitter. Trailing 2-0, the Yanks won with three in the ninth. On August 10, Cole started the second of a twin bill and held a 2-1 edge over the Indians. He faltered in the final frame as the Tribe tallied twice on a walk, sacrifice, double, and error, giving the King a complete-game, three-hit loss.
Three days later, Cole pitched what might have been the best game of his career. His opponent was Philadelphia, and despite Home Run Baker’s absence (he was sitting out the season due to a contract dispute with Connie Mack), the A’s lineup remained formidable and included newly acquired Nap Lajoie. Nevertheless, Cole limited the opposition to two runs
in nine innings and continued pitching as the game remained tied at two in the twelfth. After holding the A’s in the top half, Cole was aided by fellow moundsman Ray Caldwell, who won it with a pinch-hit RBI single. Cole’s game stats read: 12 innings, two runs, eight hits, five strikeouts, and two walks. A New York Times article noted Cole’s brilliant effort. “It wouldn’t do to forget King Cole. He pitched a heady game, and was not in the least flustered because two Quaker runs came in the second inning, helped by a wild throw.”
The effort culminated a solid stretch where Cole had won one, lost one, with a no-decision in three consecutive starts, and had yielded seven runs, 16 hits, eight walks, and 14 strikeouts in 29 innings. It now appeared Donovan had another reliable starter. Cole was embraced by teammates, who were inspired by his courage.
The press, critical of his lifestyle in past years, praised his newfound dedication. Wrote The Sporting News’ Joe Vila in the August 19 issue, “Since Chance got him from Columbus a year ago last winter, the King has lived cleanly and also has been in high favor with the Yankee owners. Persons who circulated untruthful stories about this goodhearted fellow did him a rank injustice and I take this means to set him right in the eyes of the public. Cole has come back with a vengeance. He was passed up as a permanent invalid and everybody felt sorry. But Cole refused to allow the doctors to count him out.”
The Cole comeback continued in his next start in Chicago on August 19. As investigations continued into the cause of the Eastland fiasco, fans filled Comiskey Park and watched the King reign through seven innings. Cole fanned five and limited the Pale Hose to two singles while retaining a 2-1 lead going into the eighth, at which time he self-destructed. Three walks, three hits, and two runs later, he was relieved by Shawkey, who yielded a bases-loaded single to Eddie Collins, bringing home another pair. An inning earlier, Cole appeared to be adding another notch to his comeback belt. But managers back then weren’t interested in seven-inning starters. What Donovan saw was a 5-2 flop for Cole, with game stats that included five runs, six walks, and a wild pitch.
Still, King was given his regular turn on August 28 in Detroit. The Tiger assault was thorough and quick. In the first inning, a single, Ty Cobb hit, and Sam Crawford RBI single brought home a run, and another came on a sure-triple-turned-sac-fly thanks to a circus catch by Skeeter Shelton, who was playing in one of ten major-league games in a fleeting career. In the second, Cole’s first out came sandwiched between three singles and a run. Cobb’s hit tallied another, but Bobby Veach’s comebacker allowed the comeback king to nail runner Cobb at the plate. Though trailing 4-0, Cole was within an out of being out of the inning. Alas, George Burns burned Cole with a ribby single, sending the righty to the showers. The game marked his final appearance as a starter.
Two days later, Cole pitched well in allowing one run and four hits in six innings of relief. What did not sit well with Cole was Donovan’s decision to remove him from the rotation. When he failed to show up for an exhibition game in Providence, the rebel Yank drew a suspension. Yet he was still among the pitchers on the roster in the second week of September, and his suspension was lifted by the 16th when he made his next relief appearance. In a 2-2 tie with Chicago at the Polo Grounds, Cole pitched a perfect ninth, then watched the Yanks pin a loss on shine-ball artist Eddie Cicotte.
On September 20 at the Polo Grounds, Cole made his tenth appearance of 1915. It would be the last of his career. Entering the eighth with the game tied at two, Cole held the White Sox to no runs and one hit in two innings, and collected his 56th career win when New York scored a run in the ninth. For years Cole had struggled vainly to regain the success he had known as a rookie, making ironic his triumphant swan song.
In August, Vila had written about Cole, “In my opinion, his illness was exaggerated. He had a small growth in his groin which the physicians said was a tumor.”
By the end of October, the severity of Cole’s ailment was obvious to the Yankee owners, who spumed the pitcher’s request for a contract renewal. But Cole had been counted out before. He returned to his wife in Bay City with the intention of spending the winter recuperating and exercising, then joining the Yankees in Savannah in the spring.
When the hunting season opened in early November, Cole grabbed his rifle and headed north. Two days later, he aborted the trip and returned to his home at 2001 Broadway complaining of pain and weakness. The cancer had reached its final stage. For the next seven weeks Cole’s health deteriorated and he was confined to his bed most of the time. By New Year’s, doctors were measuring Cole’s life expectancy in days. At 7:30 on the morning of January 6, 1916, Cole succumbed. The death certificate reported the official cause as “scrofula lymphnaucous of the lung.” Cole’s wife made arrangements for his body to be transported to Tama, Iowa, two miles south of Toledo, where he was interred in the Cole family plot.
T. S. Eliot wrote about the world ending not with a bang but a whimper. In the world of baseball, it is not altogether rare for a ballplayer to make noise early, only to peter out soon afterward. Of the 68 Rookie of the Year winners selected from 1947, the award’s inaugural year, through 1980, 35 went on to have what could be described as average major league careers. Sixteen had careers which spanned fewer than ten seasons. Included among the phenom-to-flop ballplayers were Joe Black, Bob Grim, Don Schwall, Mark Fidrych, Butch Metzger, and Joe Charboneau.
Despite a career tragically cut short, Cole’s pitching performance of 1910 ranks as one of the best of the century. His success was transitory, but Cole was king for a season. And after all, it is no bad thing to be a king, however brief the reign.
VICTOR DEBS JR. is the author of Still Standing After All These Years, Missed It By That Much, and other baseball books. He lives on Staten Island.
Special thanks to researchers at the National Baseball Library for providing news clippings from various newspapers and periodicals along with a copy of Cole’s death certificate. Additional research was gathered through use of the SABR Lending Library, which provided microfilm of The Sporting News and Baseball Magazine—1909 to 1916.
Creamer, Robert W. Babe: The Legend Comes to Life, reprint. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.
Dewey, Donald, and Nicholas Acocella. The Biographical History of Baseball. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1995.
New York Times, 1909 to 1916, numerous articles.
Reichler, Joseph L. The Great All-Time Baseball Record Book, rev. and updated by Ken Samelson. New York: Macmillan, 1993.
Baseball Encyclopedia, 9th ed. New York: Macmillan, 1993.
Thorn, John, and Pete Palmer, eds. Total Baseball. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.