(Editor's note: Each week VICE Sports will take a look back at an important sports event from this week in sports history. We are calling this regular feature Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.)
Claude Lucker, an assistant in the Tammany Hall law office of former New York sheriff "Big Tom" Foley and a former pressman at The New York Times, showed up to the ballpark late. It was May of 1912 in New York City, and the New York Highlanders (who would be renamed the Yankees the following season) were hosting the Detroit Tigers at Hilltop Park in Washington Heights. According to Lucker, the "good-natured" heckling of Tigers star Ty Cobb had already begun by the time Lucker arrived and sat with his friends behind third base.
What happened in the ensuing innings is yet another in a series of incidents that would solidify Cobb's reputation as an unrepentant villain. Ty Cobb attacked a defenseless fan! But it also prompted a backlash in Cobb's favor—an unusual labor protest by teammates that would culminate in Philadelphia on May 18, when 19 of Cobb's teammates, concerned for their own safety, refused to play a game against the Athletics.
More than a century later, as Cobb's reputation is being reappraised in the wake of new biography from author Charles Leehrsen, that one-game boycott stands as yet another moment when Cobb almost certainly went too far. At the same time, it raised legitimate concerns about the rights of athletes in an era before a baseball players' union had come to fruition, and foreshadowed the modern era of strikes, lockouts, lawsuits, collective bargaining, and disciplinary disputes between sports labor and management. "There has been so much talk of such a plan from time to time that in the minds of many the impression prevailed that (a union) did really exist," wrote The New York Times.
The situation came to a boil in the fourth inning of the Highlanders-Tigers game, when Cobb hurled an insult at Lucker, a man he would later describe in his memoirs as "a character who had ridden me hard in past New York appearances." A teammate, Sam Crawford, asked Cobb what he planned to do about it, and Cobb leapt into the stands and charged Lucker, who was seated about 12 rows up.
According to Lucker's account to the Times, Cobb "struck me with his fists on the forehead over the left eye, and knocked me down. Then he jumped on me and spiked me in the left leg, and kicked me in the side, after which he booted me behind the left ear." This was bad enough, but what made it worse was that Lucker had lost a hand, and three fingers on his opposite hand, while working as a pressman.
"Don't kick him, he has no hands," someone in the crowd shouted, according to Lucker.
"I don't care if he has no feet," Cobb supposedly responded.
"The folks in my district," said Foley, Lucker's boss, "don't believe in a trained athlete assaulting a cripple, that's all."
Cobb, of course, was ejected from the game. Also in attendance that day was American League president Ban Johnson, who suspended Cobb indefinitely. Meanwhile, fellow players didn't condemn Cobb; instead, they rallied around him. How much of a role Lucker had in provoking Cobb appears uncertain: According to Leehrsen's book, Lucker's story kept changing, and Cobb said that after being repeatedly taunted by Lucker, he asked him to lay off, and Lucker responded "with a flow of the worst talk I have ever heard."
Clearly, Cobb had overreacted. But the larger point was not lost on his teammates—as Cobb told The Sporting News, "A ball player ... should not be expected to take everything, as we have some self-respect, and cannot endure more than human nature will stand for."
"If the players cannot have protection, we must protect ourselves," Cobb's teammates wrote in a letter to Johnson.
And so they decided they would strike to protest Johnson's suspension. Facing a $5,000 fine if his club forfeited the game against the Athletics, Tigers owner Frank Navin told manager Hughie Jennings he'd better find a team to play that day, one way or another. Jennings turned to local sportswriter Joe Nolan, who turned to Allan Travers, assistant manager of the St. Joseph's College baseball team, who recruited eight position players from his neighborhood for $25 apiece. A boxer named Billy Maharg, who would later be implicated as a bag man in the 1919 White Sox scandal, was added to the roster, as were a pair of coaches, 48-year-old Deacon McGuuire (who played catcher), and 41-year-old first baseman Joe Sugden. Jennings himself served as a pinch-hitter. "The most farcical lineup the majors ever had known," said writer Al Stump.
Travers himself wound up pitching, throwing largely curveballs in attempt to ensure his survival against a lineup that was one of the most potent in baseball. A's manager Connie Mack showed no mercy, and filled out his lineup card as usual. Travers, a seminarian and violinist, gave up 26 hits and seven walks; his teammates in the field made nine errors. Maharg was hit in the face by a ball and lost several teeth; the center fielder, Bill Leinhauser, had a ball drop on his head. The Tigers lost the game, 24-2, and Travers still holds the record for most earned runs allowed in a single game.
Each of Cobb's teammates wound up being fined $100, and Cobb was suspended for 10 days, but after urging his teammates to come back and play, they did so the next day. So ended the first (unofficial) players' strike in baseball history, after a single game. An ex-player turned lawyer named Dave Fultz would start the short-lived Baseball Players' Fraternity later that year, though it would take another 40 years and several failed efforts for Major League Baseball to cobble together a working players' association, and more than 50 years for executive director Marvin Miller—hired in 1966—to assert the strength of that union by challenging the reserve clause.