That time Ty Cobb’s baserunning got a pitcher released

Helmar E145 featuring Ty Cobb, and Helmar Oasis of Cy Morgan.

There’s a tendency by baseball historians to focus on three things when it comes to Ty Cobb:

  1. His .367 career batting average
  2. Ty’s famous temper and alleged dirty play
  3. “Only one person from baseball attended his funeral”

Working in reverse, the myths surrounding Cobb have been disputed by myself and other writers and baseball historians in recent years. There was not “just one” representative of baseball who attended Cobb’s funeral. The fact is, Ty’s family had a fairly private service in Georgia, and did not extend invitations to the organizations that he played for, or many teammates. Still, Mickey Cochrane was there, as well as Nap Rucker, a fellow Georgian who spent many years in the major leagues as a pitcher. Finally, Ray Schalk, the famed Chicago catcher was also in attendance. He respected Cobb, and with Cochrane and Rucker, the men helped as pallbearers. The Mack family, who had formerly owned the Athletics, sent a flower arrangement, and cards and telegrams poured in from across the country.

Cobb was an intense player, and one would say aggressive. But he was emblematic of the Deadball Era, he did not play outside the norms of that time. He was a daring baserunner, and he slid hard into the bags. But so did Tris Speaker and countless others. Ty hollered at opposing players and used intimidation on the diamond, a tactic you would have found from every team in the league, at least any team that wanted to compete.

Finally, Cobb’s .367 career mark, a glimmering figure, deserves to be remembered. Nearly a century after he played his final game, Cobb’s career batting record sits alone, an unreachable figure. In the last 50 years, only ten players have even batted as high as .367 in a single season.

With the focus on the items I list above, there’s a tendency to overlook an aspect of Ty’s playing style: his baserunning.

It’s safe to say that no one ever ran the bases with more blatant disregard for his own health, and no one was ever as unyielding in their approach to the 360 feet from home to first and second, and eventually back home again.

A story from the 1909 season illustrates Cobb’s amazing abilities to intimidate the opponent with his running skill. It was a Deadball Era event that directly led to a team releasing a pitcher.

Ty Cobb’s 1909 Season: A Deadball Era Classic

The 1909 season, which was Cobb’s fourth full year, is an important one in baseball history. That season, the fidgety 22-year old outfielder from the deep south finally served notice that he was the best overall performer in the game. A game that demanded aggressive tactics in what was called The Deadball Era.

In ’09, Ty won his third consecutive batting title. But he would go on to capture a dozen batting titles, so it wasn’t that, as much as the full game Cobb displayed as a maturing athlete. In 1909, Cobb was like a young deer who had finally stretched out his sinewy, muscular legs and learned to run full speed, with an agility and strength that inspired awe.

Cobb led the league in hits, runs, total bases, runs batted in, and in every calculated stat you could dream of: batting, slugging, on-base-percentage, you name it. But he also displayed the magical skills of his spikes.

In 1909, Ty stole 76 bases, winning the second of what would be six stolen bases titles. He also terrorized enemy infielders with his brazen feats with his uh…well…feet.

Thanks to Cobb, the Tigers win a third consecutive American League pennant, the first team to do so. Despite losing the World Series (again), the Tigers were a menacing force in their league, a team that opposing pitchers approached with care, like a hungry bear sitting near their honey pot.

Making a pitcher cry

On June 4, 1909, the first-place Tigers were in Boston to face the Red Sox for an afternoon game. Every game in 1909 was an afternoon game: the ballpark would come to life early in the morning, and by noon, fans would arrive by horse and buggy, or maybe a streetcar, entering to grab a seat and maybe a scorecard and a bag of peanuts. Ladies—if there were any in the stands—wore dresses. Men wore hats—all of the men—and they usually had collared shirts and a tie. In the grandstands you would have seen young boys hawking drinks and snacks, and men carrying large bullhorns they used to holler out the lineups.

It was in this atmosphere that Ty approached the game that day with his feisty teammates. The previous afternoon Detroit had defeated Boston 5-3, and now they looked to complete a three-game sweep. It was a Friday.

Cobb batted cleanup in the Tiger lineup, directly behind Wahoo Sam Crawford, a veteran outfielder with many great accomplishments to his credit as a ballplayer. Crawford hated Cobb. He hated his guts. The two men played side-by-side in the Detroit outfield (at this time Sam was in center and Ty was in right, but they would switched later), but they never shared a word, on or off the field. Crawford despised Cobb’s crude southern upbringing, and he was resentful of Ty’s emerging fame. Cobb didn’t help himself by being hellbent on proving to everyone that he belonged. “I had to fight all my life to survive,” Cobb later said, “They were all against me, but I beat the bastards and left them in the ditch.”

Cy Morgan was on the mound for the Red Sox. He was a tough man with a strong nose and deep-set eyes. Morgan was a fine athlete from Ohio, and he was a fighter: he didn’t take anything from anyone, even his own teammates. But he was also sensitive and prone to emotional outbursts. His biggest fear was being embarrassed.

Ty reached base via a walk, and moved to second on a wild pitch by Morgan. Earlier in the game, Morgan had sent a pitch up and in to the left-handed hitting Cobb, and Ty remembered the gesture. He determined that if Morgan let another pitch loose from the catcher, he would try to score all the way from second. Sensing that Morgan was jittery, Ty bounced off the bag, increasing his lead and making a scene that the Boston pitcher could not ignore. Fans screamed for Morgan to peg a throw behind Cobb to pick him off second, but Cy seemed frozen and did nothing. Finally, Morgan unleashed a pitch toward home. The baseball bounced two feet in front of catcher Pat Donahue, who chased it to the backstop. Cobb was already near third when the ball took the bounce, and he barreled around the bag and sped home.

Knowing that Cobb was irritated at being thrown at, Morgan was not interested in being a target at home plate for the furious Tiger. Still, Morgan received the ball from Donahue in plenty of time to tag Cobb out, he was actually waiting for Ty to get to the plate. But Cobb had revenge in his heart.

“As I came down the line and went whipping at him with my steel showing,” Cobb wrote later in his autobiography, “Morgan … turned and actually ran away from the plate. I scored …”

Indeed, Cy Morgan decided to run away from Cobb rather than try to tag the Detroit Demon in a collision at home. After the play, Morgan tiptoed to the mound, Donahue screaming at him, challenging his decision to avoid a play. The Boston catcher was furious that his teammate had conceded a run.

After the inning, Morgan had the difficult task of having to go into his dugout and face his manager and the team. The manager was a man named Fred Lake, who immediately informed Morgan that he was out of the game. Morgan was met with glares from his teammates, and Donahue was so upset he had to be restrained from attacking the pitcher.

Before the game was over (which Detroit won 5-0), Morgan had changed his clothes and shed a few tears under the stands at the ballpark. He didn’t return to the dugout after being ordered from the contest, and in fact he never threw another pitch for the Red Sox. Immediately following their loss, the Red Sox released Morgan. The worst had happened: Morgan was out of a job and he had been made to look bad on the diamond.

Ty Cobb’s baserunning had claimed another victim, but this time it came without a play.

Morgan landed on his feet: the A’s signed him a few days after the embarrassing incident against Detroit, and he actually settled in and won 16 games for Philadelphia. However, manager Connie Mack refused to pitch Morgan against Cobb and the Tigers.

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