The Ty Cobb baseball strike of 1912

It was Wednesday, May 15, 1912. Ty Cobb and the Detroit Tigers were playing the New York Highlanders at American League Park (Hilltop Park) in Upper Manhattan. Cobb was reportedly a regular target of hecklers around the league, but this day, in response to particularly nasty words from a fan named Claude Lueker (or Lucker, different contemporary accounts use different spellings), Cobb climbed into the stands and beat the crap out of the heckler.

Much has been made of the fact that the fan was missing a hand. This fits with the image of “Cobb as Monster” created by his biographer Al Stump. But, note:

  • Player security really was a problem during this era.
  • Cobb didn’t go into the stands alone. The other players grabbed bats, stood the base of the stands, and a few ventured up behind Cobb to guard his retreat.
  • When Cobb was suspended by baseball for this act, the other players went on strike in protest – the first player strike in baseball history.

This was at a time when few ushers kept order in baseball stadiums, security forces were lax and openly cheered for the home team, actual police were often not present in the stadium, and ballplayers were regularly subjected to not just hurled insults, but hurled bottles as well. The next day’s New York Tribune article on the incident sarcastically noted that security forces were not exactly protecting the visiting players.

There are two acts worth noting here – the first is a tactical attack by baseball players on a fan. The players conspired together to attack the fan. Cobb was getting the brunt of the fan’s insults, and Cobb was a brawler, so it made sense he would be the one to confront the fan. But he didn’t go it alone. “As the crowd stood to get a better view and Detroit players stepped outside their dugout brandishing bats, Ty went to town on the astonished Lucker.”*

Apparently, this was a popular move as “a majority of the fans applauded Cobb’s actions” and the Tribune described the incident as “a well deserved beating.”

Then American League President Ban Johnson suspended Cobb, and the Tigers went on strike, engaging in an unprecedented act of solidarity with Cobb and with each other. In a subsequent game, Tigers management fielded a team of replacement players, who were humiliated. While the American League threatened  the Tiger players with ever escalating penalties if they didn’t return to play, they held firm. And while they were certainly taking a stand for themselves and player safety, they also did it for Cobb, and only went back to work when Cobb asked them to.

As with everything Ty Cobb it matters whether the account of the incident was written before or after the Al Stump piece so radically changed Cobb’s image.* It is as if – post-Stump – long-standing Cobb stories were re-imagined to fit with the character Stump created, and earlier versions of stories (versions with a lot of evidence to support their veracity) were discarded. And this story about Cobb – on its face, a story about Cobb’s historically significant role in early collective action among baseball players – is now generally told as another example of what a monster Cobb was – i.e., Cobb once jumped into the stands to beat-up a crippled fan.

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