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June 21, 2004
You Could Look It Up
Everything Happens in 1912 and 2004
Every once in a while you have a day or a week that flashes back to other, older days and weeks.
Last week, the United States and Great Britain signed a treaty pledging to protect the wreck of the Titanic, which sank beneath the waves in 1912; Roger Clemens and Mark Prior faced off in a pitching match-up that was a descendant of one in 1912; and a boob from Texas mistreated a four-year-old fan in a way that made one wish it was 1912. John McCain even had an opportunity to bolt the Republican Party last week, but apparently no one told him that Theodore Roosevelt had done so with honor back in 1912, because the Senator refused to go along with the 1912ness of things. Baseball, though, was unabashedly singing "When the Midnight Choo Choo Leaves for Alabam", hip-hopping to that non-funky 1912 groove.
With thousands of baseball games played each year, most individual games are entirely disposable. Most 5-3 games played in June are largely indistinguishable from each other no matter which teams played them. There is always another day, another full slate of games, as the season marches inexorably towards October. Even if someone hits three home runs in a Monday game, by the next Monday it's ancient history.
This was even more true in the early 20th century, when weekday crowds sometimes numbered under 1,000. The players played those games in near-privacy. Tinker, Evers, and Chance (who played their last game together in 1912) made amazing plays that no one saw. George Sisler ran out triples in complete silence. As such, it is only the truly unique regular-season games that are preserved in memory.
Last Monday, Roger Clemens and Mark Prior faced each other in a game that had the potential to go down in history but probably won't; the end result, in which Clemens quickly bowed to a dominant Prior, lacked drama. The Two Aces Clemens-Prior duel is a descendant of one of the first games that did live up to the hype, the 1912 crossing of Boston Red Sox ace Smokey Joe Wood and Washington Senators demigod Walter Johnson with the latter's record for consecutive wins on the line.
In 1912, Wood and Johnson carved up the league between them and dominated, having two of the best seasons that pitchers have ever had. Wood and Johnson were one-two in wins, strikeouts, ERA, complete games, and shutouts. The two were a study in contrasts. Wood's motion was mostly upper body, throwing his fastball by batters with just his arm. Johnson had a graceful sidearm delivery with which he whipped the ball to the plate with blinding speed.
The differences in their mechanics would become painfully apparent as early as 1913, when Wood's arm gave out. Johnson rolled on into the late 1920s and his arm never did quit; it was a leg injury that ended his career in 1927. Even in 1912, Johnson had the better results, but really, on any given day you could have flipped a coin and won with whichever one came up heads: Wood went 34-5 with a 1.91 ERA in 344 innings (62 runs above average). Johnson went 33-12 with a 1.39 ERA in 369 innings pitched (91 runs above average).
Both went undefeated for weeks at a time. On July 3, Johnson beat the Highlanders/Yankees 10-2 in the second game of a double-header. He won his next start, and his next. On August 20, Johnson defeated the Indians for his 15th consecutive win, breaking Jack Chesbro's 1904 record. On August 23, he laid out the Tigers for his 16th straight win. He would finally be stopped in his next appearance against the St. Louis Browns on Aug. 26. The whole run lasted 51 days.
Five days after Johnson's run started, Wood kicked off one of his own. After beating the Browns that day, Wood went on a rampage, notching win after win. By early September, Wood had won 13 consecutive games and the Senators were coming to town.
Initially, there was a chance that Wood and Johnson might miss each other, but Senators manager Clark Griffith put on a great show of challenging the Red Sox, accusing the Sox of cowardice if Smokey Joe was not scheduled to face the Big Train. Sox player-manager Jake Stahl took the bait and juggled his rotation. On Sept. 6, the two aces faced each other on the field of brand-new Fenway Park.
A sellout crowd of 30,000 came to see the contest. The Red Sox drew 597,000 for the season, so better than 5% of their season total came through the turnstiles for this one game. The turnout was solely to see the two greatest hurlers in the game face off; the game had no significance to the pennant race. Boston, with a record of 91-37, had a 14.5-game lead on Philadelphia and Washington, who were in a virtual tie for second place. With the seats taken up, the overflow crowd was placed in the outfield.
Wood and Johnson matched zeroes for five innings. In the bottom of the sixth, Red Sox center fielder Tris Speaker floated a two-bagger into the overflow crowd in left field. He was followed in the batting order by left fielder Duffy Lewis. Lewis was a right-hander, and the Senators played him to pull. Instead, he flared a ball down the right-field line. Washington's Danny Moeller, running hard, came within inches of catching up with the ball. It ticked off of his mitt and bounced into the crowd. Speaker scored.
That stood up as the only run of the game. Wood had won his 14th consecutive contest. Wood allowed just six hits and struck out nine. Johnson allowed five hits and struck out five. Sept. 6, 1912 was everything a duel of top pitchers should be.
Wood went on to win two more games before the Tigers defeated him on Sept. 20, leaving him with a share of the American League record. It has since been tied twice, by Lefty Grove in 1931 and Schoolboy Rowe in 1934. The National League record of 19 consecutive twins, set by Rube Marquard in--ready?--1912, has never been equaled, and we'll go out on a limb here and say that with the advent of the relief pitcher it never will be.
WHERE IS TY COBB WHEN YOU NEED HIM?
Come back, Georgia Peach! All is forgiven. Last Sunday, in an incident that was noted by news media around the country, a spectator at the Rangers' Arlington ballpark pushed aside a four-year old boy for a foul ball. Despite entreaties from the rest of the attendees to "Give him the ball," the fan was stubborn and left with his ill-gotten souvenir.
Time-travel for a moment before returning to Texas last Sunday: On Wednesday, May 15, 1912, the Detroit Tigers were playing the nascent Yankees at Hilltop Park in New York City. A fan, Claude Lueker, or "Lucker," "a [printing] press man and minor politician" was heckling Cobb throughout the game. Cobb recognized the man by his coat--he had heckled him before. Crowds were far smaller in those days, and Cobb would have had no trouble picking out a particular leather-lung if he was close by. According to his own account, Lueker was seated in the third row. "By the sixth inning," Cobb remembered, "he was cursing me and reflecting on my mother's color and morals."
Cobb insulted Lueker's sister. Lucker called Cobb a "half-n***er." These were fighting words to a white southerner of the time, though, sadly, Cobb would have been entirely comfortable saying them to an African-American. Still, Cobb didn't respond right away. When he hit the bench, teammate Sam Crawford, who didn't like Cobb much anyway, goaded him, asking if he was going to take that kind of talk. "If you don't do something about that, you're a gutless, no-good..." That was all the prodding Cobb needed. He leapt into the stands and punched Lueker to the ground. Not satisfied, Cobb then kicked him repeatedly and stomped him with his cleats.
As it turned out, Lueker was not going to be able to defend himself--he was short eight fingers, having lost them in a printing-press accident. Bystanders were appalled when they realized what was happening. "Don't kick him! He has no hands!" they shouted.
Cobb was unimpressed. "I don't care if he has no feet!" he shouted in reply. Cobb was a great guy. Meanwhile, the Tigers stood at the railing with their bats, ready to take on anyone who threatened Cobb.
Eventually, Cobb was pulled off of Lueker. He was ejected, and immediately thereafter suspended indefinitely by AL prexy Ban Johnson, who happened to have been in attendance. The suspension led to a weird one-day strike on the part of the Tigers. It may not sound like much today, when the Tigers have been on strike for years, but at the time it was a notable event.
The only moral is this: Morality is contextual, just like RBI. A criminal today may be a hero tomorrow. This is a fancy way of saying that Cobb was wrong to beat up a man with no hands, but if he had gone into the stands after that git in Texas, no jury would have convicted him.
ALL TOGETHER NOW
Speaking of the "Git Game" at Texas, it really is a special thing when something happens that inspires a large crowd, male and female, black and white, conservative and liberal, to speak out in unison, in this case to "give him the ball." In recent years there have been several such incidents at Yankee Stadium, but three stand out in memory--one for excitement, one for pride, and one for anger.
The first was the way that Yankees fans would break out in chants of "Reg-gie! Reg-gie!" whenever Reggie Jackson game to the plate. There eventually would be prompting from the scoreboard, but the chant came first. The second was the spontaneous farewell to Paul O'Neill during Game Five of the 2001 World Series.
The third and most memorable incident came during the top of the 12th inning of Game Two of the 1998 American League Championship Series against the Indians. With the score tied at 1-1 and Enrique Wilson on first for the Indians, Travis Fryman hit a grounder to first which Tino Martinez misplayed, deflecting the ball to second baseman Chuck Knoblauch. Knoblauch somehow thought the play was over and turned to argue with the umpire. Meanwhile, Wilson just kept running. As one, 57,128 distinct individuals shouted the same words, again and again, to no avail: "Throw the [bleeping] ball!"
Actually, there was some individual variation on the gerund that preceded "ball," but the point still stands.
BUT I DID LOOK IT UP!
The June 9 YOU on the amateur draft contained just enough small inconsistencies to prompt a great many letters from readers saying, "Great column, but..." Let's address 'em one by one: