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Infamous Moment in Ty Cobb’s Career Remembered This Week

Ninety-nine years ago this week, May 15, 1912, Detroit Tigers outfielder Ty Cobb beat up a disabled fan at Hilltop Park, the home of the New York Highlanders (now Yankees).

Ty Cobb (williams.edu)

Cobb is still regarded as one of the best players to ever play Major League Baseball, but this incident marred his legacy.

In the fallout of Cobb’s beating of the fan, the first strike by Major League Baseball players occurred.

The Baseball Library recounts the incident:

In a May 15 game against the Highlanders, Cobb’s ears were burning from the continuous insults of a fan sitting behind the dugout. When Cobb could take no more, he charged into the stands and beat the fan senseless. Cobb was immediately suspended. The Tigers declared they would not play again until Cobb was reinstated. They were scheduled to play in Philadelphia the next day, and Tiger owner Frank Navin was notified he would be fined $5,000 if he didn’t field a team. The players refused to play, so Navin and manager Hughie Jennings rounded up a group of amateurs to fill in. Needless to say, the ersatz Tigers were pounded 24-2. Cobb persuaded his teammates to go back before the next game.

The website Suite 101 has a more detailed story of Cobb’s scandal:

By the end of the fifth inning, Cobb warned the Highlanders manager and the umpires that if the man wasn’t ejected from the game, there was going to be some serious trouble. Nothing was done to the rambunctious fan, and so when he called the notoriously racist Cobb a “half-ni****” in the bottom of the sixth inning, the ferocious outfielder climbed into the crowded stands, leapt upon the man and began beating him senseless.

Other fans began pleading with Cobb to stop the physical attack because the foul-mouthed Mr. Lueker had no hands. He had apparently lost them years earlier in an industrial accident. As the crowd pleaded, Ty Cobb responded as he pummeled the man, “I don’t care if he’s got no feet!”

American League Commissioner Ban Johnson, who was at the game that day, immediately suspended Cobb indefinitely from baseball.

I’ve never seen the 1994 movie “Cobb”, but I’d assume the incident was recounted in the film.

The fire and determination that made Cobb a stellar player, betrayed him in manifesting itself in anger in this incident, his play on the field and his life off the field.

The closest thing we have seen to the Ty Cobb incident in the 21st Century involved Ron Artest in the brawl between fans, the Indiana Pacers & Detroit Pistons in 2004.

Players and spectators have had an uneasy relationship since the time of Cobb.  In Europe and South America, some stadiums use chain link fences and barbed wire to keep the fans separated from players.  Meanwhile, here in American sports leagues, major incidents between players and fans flare up every so often but the barricade (for the most part) between the two remains an invisible fence.

Ty Cobb at the end of his life gave away much of his fortune to a hospital and created a charitable foundation.  But his legacy is tarnished by an incident that happened almost 100 years ago.

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