The 1910 baseball season began with President William Howard Taft throwing out the first pitch, the beginning of a White House tradition that persists to this day. But even with fans across the country fixated on what would happen in St. Louis on the last day of the season, there was no such pageantry there on Sunday, Oct. 9. The miserable Browns were more than 50 games out of first place in the eight-team American League. Still, a mass of 10,000 or so fans—a respectable crowd—ventured to Sportsman's Park, a concrete and steel bandbox in a northern St. Louis neighborhood, a few miles back of the muddy Mississippi.
This is an article from the Sept. 20, 2010 issue
Men wearing derby hats and women in sundresses, most of them paying a quarter for a seat in the grandstand, showed up for a doubleheader against Cleveland, the league's fifth-place club. Unencumbered by commercials and pitching changes, games tended to last only 90 minutes or so in 1910. But with floodlit stadiums still a quarter century away, contests started early, and the fans streamed into Sportsman's by noon. They came mostly by streetcar—the ballpark was within a few blocks of five different lines—but others walked, bicycled or rode in horse-drawn carriages. A select few arrived in style, piloting this newfangled contraption, the automobile.
It was a mild, 70° day, and, true, you could do worse than pass an afternoon watching a doubleheader on a sun-dappled field. But the crowd wasn't there just to enjoy one of the year's last summery days. The fans had come to see the conclusion of a batting race that had gripped the country that year. By the end of the afternoon they would also witness a (literal) comedy of errors and the climax of a morality tale. And, even if they didn't realize it at the time, they would see an amusing yet ominous illustration of how professional sports could be corrupted and manipulated, and where the nascent national pastime was headed in the century to come.
Later it became known as the Dead Ball era, the interregnum between 1900 and '19, because in the decades predating Babe Ruth, home runs were scarce. But that didn't mean that there weren't players who could smack the hell out of the ball. In many years the top hitters flirted with the .400 mark. Batting average—not home runs, RBIs or a pitcher's wins—was the most important baseball stat.
That being the case, Hugh Chalmers seized on an idea. Today they would call it sports marketing. But a century ago it just seemed like a sensible promotion. In 1910 the U.S. automobile industry was just gaining traction, and Chalmers, a Detroit car magnate, was eager to distinguish his new model from the competition's. The Chalmers Motor Company's 30 Roadster was a durable, open, four-cylinder vehicle that retailed for $2,000 or so—high end, to be sure, but not the most expensive car on the market. This at a time when the automobile was a luxury item, owned by only one in 200 Americans, and the average weekly wage was $15.
Chalmers, who had made his fortune as a cash-register salesman, had always been an incurable sports fan. To help publicize the car, Chalmers figured: Why not associate his product with the burgeoning sport of baseball? After securing the approval of National and American League executives, Chalmers announced before the 1910 season that the player with the highest batting average would receive a new Chalmers 30.
This was welcome news to another heavy hitter in Detroit. Ty Cobb was arguably the best player in baseball, a man so devoted to his craft that when he married in 1908, he took the altar with his black bat at his side. The Tigers outfielder already owned a Chalmers 30, but he thrilled to the prospect of winning another. As he told sportswriters before the season, giving Chalmers precisely the type of publicity the businessman had envisioned, "I am glad that something besides medals and trophies is offered for the championship in batting. I think the offer of a Chalmers 30 is simply great and I hope to be lucky enough to own a new Chalmers next fall."
The 23-year-old Cobb had won the American League batting crown three years running and was the odds-on favorite—and there were odds—to win the car. Inasmuch as Cobb had a rival as the best player in the game, it was Honus Wagner, the Pittsburgh shortstop, who'd won six of the last seven National League batting titles. But within the American League, Cobb's closest peer was Napoleon Lajoie, an athletic second baseman for Cleveland who'd won four batting titles of his own earlier in the century. Lajoie had been Cleveland's player-manager much of the previous five seasons but had resigned his administrative duties because he felt they were exacting a price on his playing. He reckoned that now, at age 35, he could once again channel all of his efforts into doing what he loved.
There was plenty else going on that year. Halley's Comet was visible from earth. Jack Johnson successfully defended his heavyweight boxing title against James J. Jeffries, sparking race riots around the country. Another fledging means of transportation, the airplane, was flown to a one-mile altitude. There were progress reports from Europe about the construction of a massive cruise ship, the Titanic.
But the cultural weight of baseball was growing in America, and few events gripped the national imagination 100 years ago the way the batting race did. By midseason the country (pop. 92 million) was in the thrall of what became known as the Chalmers Race. With Wagner uncharacteristically off his game—he hit only .320 for the season—it became a two-man duel between Cobb and Lajoie, the McGwire-Sosa chase of the Progressive era. At a Detroit social club an ardent Cobb supporter reportedly suffered a fatal heart attack while arguing with a Lajoie backer. In neutral markets fans checked the race in sports sections of newspapers before fixing their gaze on the standings, never mind that due to the spotty record-keeping of the day, the numbers published by many of those papers were comically inaccurate. Nationwide, so-called rooting clubs formed for Cobb and Lajoie. As Cobb recalled years later in his typically self-serving autobiography, written with the help of journalist Al Stump, "The Chalmers contest became a more vital issue than the political rift between President Taft and [former president] Teddy Roosevelt or the crackdown on trusts by the Supreme Court."
The mania over the batting race wasn't driven solely by curiosity. Left unsaid by Cobb: There was a great deal of money wagered on the outcome. Already there were abundant signs that baseball was becoming a serious business, with real money to be made, legitimately and illegitimately. From 1902 to '08, the annual attendance at major league games mushroomed from just under four million to more than seven million. Salaries were jumping too: Lajoie was making $2,600 in 1900, but he was pulling down $12,000 by '10. Lajoie's reputation was spotless, but there were more sinister ways to earn cash too. In 1908 an umpire said he was offered $3,000 to fix a game. Baseball was fast becoming America's national pastime—and it had a dark side.
But this wasn't just a derby to win a car or a bet. On its face, anyway, the Cobb-Lajoie showdown had the dimensions of a morality tale, a classic battle of good versus evil. Fine ballplayer though he was, Cobb cut a damaged, loathsome figure. He was born in rural Georgia in 1886 to a mother, Amanda, who was 15 years old at the time. His father, William, was a bitter taskmaster who disapproved of his son playing baseball. When Cobb was 18, Amanda shot William to death. The apocryphal story: Suspecting Amanda of adultery, William crouched surreptitiously on the roof next to their bedroom late one night, hoping to catch her in flagrante. Thinking an intruder was lurking outside her window, Amanda grabbed a shotgun and took aim. A sympathetic Georgia jury acquitted his mother of involuntary manslaughter, but Ty Cobb, by his own reckoning, never got over the tragedy.
It's easy to assume that this was the source of Cobb's almost pathological intensity. Cobb's appellation, the Georgia Peach, was more than a little ironic. Peach? As short on fuse as he was long on talent, Cobb fought with opponents, teammates and fans, especially if they were dark-skinned. At one of his first spring trainings, he suspected that a black groundskeeper had damaged his glove. So Cobb slugged him. When the man's wife tried to intervene, Cobb strangled her. (It took teammate Charlie Schmidt, a former boxer, to pry him off the woman.) Cobb once climbed into the stands and beat a heckler to a pulp, indifferent to the fact that it was a man who had lost one hand and most of the other. ("I don't care if he has no feet!" Cobb responded.) He sharpened his spikes and impaled his opponents. Connie Mack, the longtime Philadelphia Athletics manager, was known to warn his players, "Never get Mr. Cobb angry." As Cobb once conceded, "In legend I am a sadistic, slashing, swashbuckling despot, a Draco of the diamond who waged war in the guise of sport."
In 1961, shortly before his death, Cobb wrote that autobiography with Stump, titled My Life in Baseball: The True Record. Uncomfortable at having ghostwritten such a glowing portrait, Stump wrote the authoritative biography on Cobb three decades later, a withering account of a racist, combative misanthrope. This time the title was a little different. Cobb: The Life and Times of the Meanest Man Who Ever Played Baseball.
Lajoie appeared to be everything Cobb was not. Smooth, not scrappy; accommodating, not confrontational; a wildly popular figure armed, it seemed, with the instruction manual for life. Despite his French-Canadian heritage and exotic, often mispronounced name (la-ZHWA), Lajoie was born and raised in Rhode Island. His father died prematurely, and by age 11 Napoleon had dropped out of school to help support the family, working in a local textile mill. He later became a livery driver, shuttling tourists and cargo around Rhode Island aboard a horse-drawn carriage for $30 a month. On the weekends he relaxed by playing baseball in a semipro league. There the 21-year-old "Slugging Cabby" was discovered in 1896 and signed by the Philadelphia Phillies. He is said to have signed the contract atop the roof of his cab.
At 6'1" and 200 pounds Lajoie was so strapping that he reportedly received off-season offers from carnival promoters to be a model for the male physique. He brought his size and strength to bear at the plate, where he was an efficient hitter with a liquid stroke, capable of hitting for power but often content to make solid contact and drive the ball to every pocket of the field. He was so feared by opponents that he was once walked intentionally with the bases loaded. In the field he played every position except pitcher before settling on second base. A New York Sun columnist gushed that Lajoie was "living poetry at second base... . A big, swarthy jungle cat whose superiority oozes from him." The sportswriter Fred Lieb called him "the most important personage in American history [from] Rhode Island since the Revolution."
In 1901 Mack attempted to poach Lajoie from the Phillies, offering the player more than double his $2,600 Phillies salary to play for the A's. When Lajoie accepted, the Phillies sought an injunction. Unperturbed by the chaos around him, Lajoie hit .426 for the Athletics that season, still the modern baseball record. The next season the Pennsylvania supreme court ruled that the reserve clause in Lajoie's contract tethered him to the Phillies for life, but the court's jurisdiction applied only to the state of Pennsylvania. Ban Johnson, the imperious American League president, would have none of it: Eager to keep the star in his circuit, he transferred Lajoie from the A's to the Cleveland Bronchos—and instructed Lajoie never to play in Pennsylvania, where he was considered a fugitive. (The issue was resolved when the AL and NL made peace and signed the National Agreement, essentially establishing the modern major leagues, in 1903.)
Lajoie's first home opener for Cleveland, on April 28, 1903, drew a crowd of 19,867—higher than the average attendance of the 2010 Indians—and nearly caused a stampede when fans pressing against the ropes in the outfield barged onto the field. In Lajoie's first plate appearance the bat boy presented him with a bouquet. As Ogden Nash would later write in his poem Lineup for Yesterday: "L is for Lajoie/Whom Clevelanders love/Napoleon himself/With glue in his glove."
Though it didn't compare to Cobb's, the lovable Lajoie also had a streak of badass. He was once suspended for spitting tobacco juice into the eye of an umpire. Another time he missed a month of games with a broken hand when he attempted to punch a Philadelphia teammate, Elmer Flick, and smacked a wall instead. He once complained to the umpire that the ball was too dirty. When the ump was unsympathetic, Lajoie grabbed the ball and chucked it over the fence, causing Cleveland to forfeit the game. But these outbursts hardly scuffed his reputation, and his popularity was such that by 1903 the team was nicknamed in his honor: the Cleveland Naps.
Lajoie was enjoying one of his typically sensational seasons in 1910, and as the summer ambled on, it looked as though he would drive off with the Chalmers. By July he was hitting above .400; Cobb was hovering around .380. Plus Cobb was dogged by persistent eye trouble. Photos from the time show Cobb wearing smoked glasses, and he missed several games when the sun shone too brightly. Cobb wrote a letter to a friend—in Cleveland, of all places—complaining, "The blur in the front of the right eye causes it not to focus and I can only see well from the left eye... . I am very worried." When a Cleveland newspaper got hold of the letter, a headline screamed, IS COBB GOING BLIND IN ONE EYE?
In his quest for the Chalmers, Cobb was not his usual combative self and showed uncharacteristic sportsmanship. He didn't argue with official scorers over errors that could have been ruled hits for him. As Lajoie was eyeing .400, Cobb seemed resigned to losing. In that same letter to his Cleveland friend Cobb also wrote, "If I am not to win, no better, cleaner contestant could win than Lajoie. He is the one I wish to win it, if I can't."
Cobb had no personal animus against Lajoie. In fact, they had nearly played alongside each other: In 1907 the Tigers offered to trade Cobb to the Naps for Flick. The phrase didn't exist yet, but Cleveland rejected the trade on the grounds that Cobb was a clubhouse cancer. "We'll keep Flick," Cleveland owner Charles Somers allegedly said. "Maybe he isn't quite as good a batter as Cobb, but he's much nicer to have on the team."
By August, Lajoie's lead had diminished. Cobb's vision trouble had abated, and suddenly he was smiting the ball, turning in multiple-hit games as a matter of ritual. In his final 13 at bats of the season, against the New York Highlanders and then the White Sox, he logged nine hits. Perhaps showing his age, Lajoie slowed down the stretch, and going into the final day of the season Cobb led Lajoie .383 to .376. Not that anyone knew that for sure at the time. It's hard to believe now, given how meticulously baseball data are recorded and mined, but in the early 1900s statistics were often compiled by writers covering games and eventually sent to the league office. Mistakes and inconsistencies were common.
Even if the exact numbers were fuzzy, Cobb knew he had a healthy lead in the race. He decided to rest for Detroit's final two games against Chicago. He cited another flare-up of his vision problem, but it was assumed that the Georgia Peach was simply protecting his average. (It didn't help his case that he spent the final weekend in Philadelphia, playing in a mock All-Star game designed to help the Athletics prepare for the upcoming World Series against the Chicago Cubs.) The media jumped on him. As Lajoie's hometown paper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, speculated, it was a faint heart, not faint eyesight, that prevented Cobb from playing.
Lajoie was faced with an impossible challenge against the Browns on Oct. 9: To have any hope of catching Cobb, it was assumed, he needed to get a hit every time he batted in the doubleheader. One strikeout, one ground out, one fly out and he'd be out of contention. There was a source of hope, though. Not only was St. Louis a dreadful team with the league's worst pitching staff, it was a franchise—like many others—with a hatred of Cobb.
With the season a lost cause, the Browns experimented with younger players and shifted starters from their regular positions. Red Corriden, a rookie shortstop, was stationed at third base. Before Lajoie stepped up to the plate for his first at bat, the St. Louis manager, Jack (Peach Pie) O'Connor, cautioned Corriden to play back. "He'll tear your head off with line drives," the skipper warned. Corriden obeyed, playing in short leftfield, both feet on the grass. Not that it mattered. Lajoie turned on a pitch and seared the ball to the centerfield wall for a stand-up triple.
Corriden was deployed deep again for Lajoie's second plate appearance, but this time there was no risk to the third baseman's head. Lajoie dropped a bunt and easily beat the throw to first base. Lajoie bunted again his next time up. And again. And again. And again and again and again. After the initial triple, Lajoie batted eight times, all bunts. Six of them were fielded by Corriden—who never changed his positioning—but resulted in infield hits. One was a roller to shortstop that Lajoie beat out for a hit. In his second at bat of the second game of the day, Lajoie beat the throw to first, but he also advanced a runner. Under the scoring at the time, it was ruled a sacrifice and thus didn't count as an official at bat. Then as now players might go an entire season without logging seven bunt singles. Lajoie had seven in one afternoon.
He finished 8 for 8 on the day—4 for 4 in each of the two games—to bring his average, we know now, to .384, .001 higher than Cobb's. It would take some time for the official announcement to come from the league office, but it appeared that the good guy had won the batting race. Yes, the Browns may well have had a hand in the outcome, but Lajoie would get the car. The telegrams of congratulations came rolling in over the following days, including one signed by eight of Cobb's Detroit teammates.
The debate over that hit that was scored a sacrifice, though, was just beginning. After the play St. Louis's pitching coach, Harry Howell, clad in street clothes, had made a surreptitious visit to the press box. He pulled aside the official scorer, sportswriter E.V. Parish, and allegedly offered a bribe to get Parish "to do well by Lajoie"—that is, to call it a hit and not a sac. (Of course, the point became moot after Lajoie's perfect day.) According to one account, there was an offer of cash. According to Stump's biography of Cobb, the scorer received an anonymous letter reading, "If you can see where Lajoie gets a B.H. [base hit] instead of a sacrifice, I will give you an order for a forty-dollar suit, for sure."
Despite the pressure, the scorer refused to change his ruling, and the newspapermen in the press box were disgusted by what had transpired on and off the field. The same writers who had ripped Cobb for sitting out the final game of the season now defended him staunchly. The local paper editorialized, "All St. Louis is up in arms over the deplorable spectacle, conceived in stupidity and executed in jealousy... . St. Louis people should subscribe to a fund to buy Ty Cobb a Chalmers auto, should it prove that he has lost one he legitimately won." The New York Morning Telegraph columnist Heywood Broun wrote, "As the world knows now, Tyrus Raymond Cobb is less popular than Napoleon Lajoie. Perhaps Cobb is the least popular player who ever lived... . Whether you like or dislike this young fellow, you must concede him one virtue: what he has won, he has taken by the might of his own play. He asks no quarter and gives none." And in a story titled ST. LOUIS TEAM 'LAYS DOWN' TO LET LAJOIE WIN, the Detroit Free Press called the games "a farce, a hippodrome which should be investigated by the highest authorities."
And so it was. When Ban Johnson, the league president, got word of Lajoie's suspicious 8 for 8 and the attempted bribe, he was irate. Within the week he summoned Corriden and O'Connor to his office in Chicago and interrogated them. Corriden explained that he was simply a rookie following orders. O'Connor stuck with the story that he gave reporters on the day of the game: "Lajoie outguessed us. We figured he didn't have the nerve to bunt every time. He beat us at our own game." Lajoie was no help either. He sent the St. Louis newspapers a telegram reading, "After I made my first hit, a clean drive to centre for three bases, the St. Louis men played deep, expecting me to pound the ball every time. I fooled them right along. The pitchers did their best to deceive me, I am certain."
On Oct. 15 O'Connor boarded a train for the trip back to St. Louis from the commissioner's office. He was asleep in the Pullman car when a porter awoke him with the news: Johnson was banning him from baseball. (O'Connor later successfully sued to receive his $5,000 salary for the 1911 season. He went on to manage in the upstart Federal League.) Howell was banished as well. Corriden was absolved, though he spent the following season in the minors until he was signed by, of all teams, the Tigers. Lajoie, not surprisingly, was cleared of any wrongdoing as well.
Johnson had also ordered his longtime apparatchik, Rob McRoy, the American League secretary, to recheck the data. Lo and behold, McRoy found an error. The Tigers had played a doubleheader on Sept. 24, yet the league statistician only recorded the first game. Cobb had gone 2 for 3 in that missing game. It turned out, Johnson said, that Cobb was not 194 for 506 (.383) on the season, but rather 196 for 509, which pushed his average to .385—after rounding, a full point above Lajoie's.
The situation sounds comical now, but it was plausible at the time. The Oct. 9 doubleheader in St. Louis? According to The New York Times the times of the games were 1:42 and 1:16. Yet according to the St. Louis newspapers, the times were 1:12 and 1:36. In his Cobb biography Stump noted that in the days after the 1910 season, as everyone awaited Johnson's decision, the Chicago Tribune had Lajoie winning the batting race .385 to .382, but The Sporting News called it .38415 to .38411 for Cobb.
Six days after the season ended, Johnson announced his findings. He declared that "there is no substantial ground for questioning the accuracy" of Lajoie's 8-for-8 doubleheader. He also said that Lajoie's sacrifice—the source of the attempted bribe—should have been ruled a hit. And yet after retabulating the averages for the 1910 season, "their respective batting averages are as follows: Cobb, 509 times at bat, 196 hits, percentage .384944; Lajoie, 591 times at bat, 227 hits, percentage .3840948." (As if the episode called for more confusion, Johnson got his math wrong. Cobb's percentage should have been .385069.) Said Johnson, "I will certify ... that Cobb has a clear title to the leadership of the American League batsmen for 1910 and is therefore entitled to the Chalmers trophy."
Johnson appealed to Hugh Chalmers to provide cars to both Cobb and Lajoie. Chalmers agreed, and the following season his company's baseball ties were strengthened further when the Chalmers Award, a forerunner of the MVP, was presented to the "most important and useful player to the club and to the league," as determined by a committee of baseball writers. While it did little to assuage the fans who rooted for (or bet on) the wrong player, giving both Lajoie and Cobb a new car seemed like a Solomonic solution as well as an effective way to avoid more public relations damage. Cobb drove his car south for the winter. Lajoie motored back to Rhode Island. As Cobb wrote (rather richly, given his disposition) in his autobiography, "All the fussing and feuding had been for nothing, as it so usually is in life."
Still, the affair showed how easily the integrity of the game could be undermined. By the end of the same decade eight members of the Chicago Black Sox, including Shoeless Joe Jackson, conspired with gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series, perhaps the greatest stain on baseball's history. A number of historians have made a compelling analogy between gambling in the Dead Ball era and steroids in the modern era. Baseball authorities a century apart ignored abundant warning signs of corruption (the Chalmers controversy, Barry Bonds's swollen head and statistics), and by the time they were forced to confront reality (the 1919 World Series, the Mitchell Report), the malignancy had metastasized.
After his decision Johnson said, "The Cobb-Lajoie affair is a closed matter." Not quite. In the late 1970s baseball statisticians began computerizing their records, and as the researchers Pete Palmer and Leonard Gettelson were transposing the data of the 1910 season, they noticed an inconsistency. The doubleheader the Tigers had played on Sept. 24 that hadn't been recorded, the lost game in which Cobb went 2 for 3? In fact it had been recorded. It had simply been placed mistakenly in the Sept. 25 line on the ledger. In other words Cobb's original total had been correct and, because of a clerical error at the American League office, he had erroneously been credited with a duplicate 2-for-3 game.
The April 18, 1981, edition of The Sporting News publicized the error and republished the league office's original official log from the duplicate game. Someone in the office had clearly realized that an error had been made. The statistics for the Detroit players had been crossed out and nullified. Every Detroit player, that is, except one: Ty Cobb. It takes something less than a detective to arrive at the conclusion that at some point Johnson (or someone in the league office, anyway) realized the error and decided to conceal it.
Though it was more than 70 years after the fact, long after both principals had died, Palmer's finding had all sorts of implications. Without the phantom game, hadn't Cobb finished behind Lajoie in the misbegotten 1910 batting race after all? Therefore, didn't this deprive Cobb of another record he held, his streak of nine straight batting titles from 1907 to '15? Of more pressing concern: At the time, Pete Rose was in pursuit of Cobb's alltime hits record, which was thought to be 4,191. Didn't Rose now need fewer hits to eclipse the mark?
But when baseball executives were presented with this evidence—incontrovertible by any measure—they weren't moved. Bowie Kuhn, the commissioner, essentially said the statute of limitations had lapsed. Others were inclined to correct the error but were disinclined to rewrite the record book and coronate new winners in statistical categories. So it is that according to some references, Lajoie had the higher average that year, yet Cobb was the winner of the batting title.
In makes for a fun parlor game to speculate how Lajoie and Cobb would have reacted to these revelations. When Lajoie found out that he and Cobb were both getting a new Chalmers, he resisted at first, thinking he had won outright. According to a nephew it wasn't until his wife prevailed on him that he accepted the car, somewhat grudgingly. Later he supposedly said with a wink, "I've always understood that the automobile I got ran a lot better than the one they gave to Ty."
As for Cobb, the affair showed a measured dimension to his personality that had seldom been in evidence. When news of the attempted bribe broke, there was ample opportunity for Cobb to lash out, but his public comments were tempered. Had he been deprived of the car, one suspects, he would simply have committed himself to winning one the following season. Not that he wasn't happy with his spoils. As he told writers at spring training the following year, in the off-season he would sometimes drive by his teammates in Detroit, the Tigers who had prematurely congratulated Lajoie. Cobb wouldn't say a word. "I just honk the horn of my new car at them."