Bill Kirby began his career with The Augusta Chronicle 40 years ago and has held just about every job in the newsroom. He and his wife Carla spend their spare time doting on their West Highland terriers, Lil' Bow Wow ("Buddy") and Snoop Dog. He writes several local columns each week, as well as YouTube videos on local history called "Kirby's Augusta." From 1998 until 2001 he was editor and publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. Over a 40-year newspaper career he has won more than 100 state, regional and national awards for reporting, editing, column writing, editorial writing, sports writing, business writing, investigative reporting, layout and design.
Posted May 8, 2010 08:12 am - Updated May 11, 2010 11:39 am

Standing up for Ty

Hall of Fame baseball player Ty Cobb of the Detroit Tigers
Ty Cobb
Cobb got into trouble when he went into the stands after a heckler in May 1912.

Many say Augustan Ty Cobb might have been the best, most complete baseball player ever.

Many will also tell you he was mean, selfish, hot-tempered and shunned by most that knew and played with him.

Many popular movies in recent years have depicted Cobb as a friendless loner, ostracized by those with whom he played.

Well, I have two words: Claude Luecker.

I also have this story.

It was this time in May 1912 and Claude Luecker, a New York baseball fan known to many as "a lout," was in fine form. He loved going to baseball games and calling the other team's players names.

Luecker did not like Cobb, the Georgia-born star of the Tigers, and with Detroit in town he began yelling from a seat  not far from Cobb's bench.

What he said was bad.

It not only involved some things about Cobb, but several sexual references involving Cobb's sister and his dead mother.

For three innings, Cobb seethed.

He searched in vain for a stadium official to make Luecker shut up. By the fourth inning, Cobb could take no more.

He left his bench, vaulted the fence and began to pound Luecker. According to accounts of the time, Cobb kicked his butt.

He then threw the unlucky Luecker to the ground and kicked him with his spikes, cutting Luecker's head.

Police (finally) arrived and led a bleeding Luecker away.

The umpire threw Cobb out of the game because that's what the rules said you had to do.

And pretty much every sportswriter, rival player and fan who saw what happened thought Cobb was completely justified in giving a loudmouth what he deserved.

But not everyone.

Ban Johnson, an overweight former sports editor who was then president of the American League, had dropped by to see the game and didn't like what he saw.

He suspended Cobb on the spot.

No hearing. No meeting. No arguing.

Cobb's teammates reacted quickly.

Yes, we hear stories a century later about how much they hated their brilliant, but moody star.

We hear about how they privately avoided his company and tried to keep him from joining their fun.

Maybe they did sometimes.

But in May 1912, Ty Cobb's teammates did something I don't think anyone had ever done before, and hasn't done since.

They all quit.

They informed the Tigers management that if Cobb wasn't allowed to play, they wouldn't play, either.

Now this was 1912, not today.

Today ballplayers have enormous salaries, lawyer-agents and are pretty much set for life.

In 1912  the team that had your contract could decide to cut you loose for any reason and send you back home to the farm or the coal mine, and no one else would sign you as a free agent.

Yet Cobb's teammates stood by their Ty.

This presented an immediate problem for the Tigers, which were to play their next game in Philadelphia.

If  the team failed to put a team on the field against the A's , it forfeited $5,000.

Management fanned out across the city of Brotherly Love looking for replacement players.

They found some.

To pitch, they signed Aloysius Travers, a 20-year-old theology student who later became a priest.

He gave up 26 hits and lost 24-2 , but did pitch a complete game.

Cobb's own replacement in center field was Bill Leinhauser, 18 , who not only went hitless but was struck on the head by a fly ball.

"Kid," his manager told the dazed substitute, "just field them off the walls."

When league President Ban Johnson -- who would later distinguish himself by bungling the Chicago Black Sox scandal -- heard of the "replacements,' he took the first train to Philadelphia and threatened Ty's teammates with $100 fines if they didn't show for the next day's game.

"You made your point, boys," Cobb told his Tigers. "I'll be all right."

And he was.

Cobb sat out a 10-day suspension, paid a $50 fine and eventually finished what was one of his best seasons.

Claude Luecker wasn't heard from again and neither were rowdy fans like him.

The incident so upset the league, that a new policy was decreed that ushers would be required to escort unruly or profane fans from the ballpark.

It is a rule still enforced today, in part because somebody once said something about Ty Cobb's mother.