On April 14th, 1910 President William Howard Taft started an American tradition by being the first United States President to throw out the first ball at a baseball game. That historical game was the Washington Senators against the Philadelphia Athletics. While the Senators won that game (much to President Taft’s pleasure) the Athletics went on to have a fantastic year and eventually took home the pennant at the 1910 World Series.
The Athletics were led by a man named Cornelius Alexander McGillicuddy who was responsible for making the Philadelphia Athletics a force to be reckoned with. Known to all as Connie Mack he was born during the Civil War in East Brookfield, Massachusetts. He started out his career in baseball as a catcher for the Washington Statesmen and throughout his 11 years in the major leagues he played every position except for third base and pitcher.
While at one time Mack heavily supported John Montgomery Ward denouncing the National League his position changed after he became the part owner and manger of the Athletics. He was determined to be seen as a conservative gentleman and wanted his team to be seen the same way. Mack always appeared in a suit and tie while demanding the best behavior of his players.
“I will not tolerate profanity, obscene language, or personal insults from my bench.
I will always insist as long as I am manager of the club that my boys be gentlemen.”
Connie Mack set the example by always behaving like a gentlemen on the bench. Many players claimed that no matter how badly you performed he would never ‘bawl’ you out in front of everyone. Mack would wait until he and the player had a moment in private and then ask the player if he could have handled the play in a different way.
One player who did not follow the example of Connie Mack’s calm ways was Ty Cobb. Cobb remained as volatile as ever and in spite of some of his less admirable traits Cobb was wildly hailed as ‘the best player in the league’. In 1910 Cobb was in heavy competition with another player named Napoleon Lajoie.
Napoleon was the second baseman for his team and often referred to as the best second baseman in the league. For obvious reasons Ty Cobb resented this comparison and when Chalmers Motor Company promised a new car to the man who won the official title of the best second baseman in the league Cobb was determined to beat Lajoie. Aside from the prestigious title it was the first time in baseball history that such a prize had been offered to a player and Ty Cobb really wanted that new car.
At the end of the season Cobb was proclaimed the winner by one, single, percentage point. He was happy in his new car until it was revealed that Lajoie was the winner. Apparently one of Cobb’s games had been accidentally counted twice. In the end both players received a new car which was just as well. I doubt anyone from Chalmers Motor Company would have liked to ask Cobb to return that car to the lot.
During all of this competition Cobb decided to make the best of his money and plan for the future. Baseball still did not offer any sort of serious security unless one some how became an owner or manager of a team once his playing days were up. In a shrewd business move Cobb invested in a small soft drink company known as Coca-Cola.
While Cobb was an impressive business man and player he still had the temper that his late father once lamented. On May 15th 1912 is temper came to the surface in a furry when a one handed reporter named Claude Lueker carried his harassment campaign one step too far during a game. In the midst of hurling out insults directed at Cobb the reporter crossed the line by calling Cobb a “half nigger”.
Furious Cobb vaulted the railings, knocked the man to the ground, and began stomping him repeatedly with his spiked shoes. Members of the crowd called for mercy but Cobb continued until the authorities appeared. He was suspended immediately without a hearing. In protest the other players of the Tigers went on strike.
In that day and age being called a ‘half nigger’ was probably worst than being called an ‘abomination’. It was felt that no self respecting white man needed to take such insults and even those members of the team who did not like Cobb supported him and felt his actions were perfectly justified. Cobb himself pointed out that the crowd had even cheered him through every inch of his rage.
Desperate the Tiger’s manager hurriedly rounded up a team of amateurs to continue the season. While the players may have felt justified in their actions the owners were more interested in selling tickets and keeping the game rolling on. Ban Johnson, furious at the strike, threatened to ban all of the players unless they returned immediately. Ty Cobb insisted that his fellow teammates return to the Tigers which they did after each paying a $100 fine for their actions.
Interestingly enough Cobb was also allowed to return after paying a token $50 spike. I must point out how interesting this is because based on the dollar amount of the fine it appears that the owners of the league were more outraged at players for going on strike than for attacking handicapped reports. Insults aside the owners had much more to lose from teams striking together than from players physically injuring reporters.
In 1911 the star pitcher for the Cleveland Naps, Addie Joss, suddenly died of meningitis. When his team members began making arrangements to pay their respects Ban Johnson came close to forbidding them leave on the day of their game against Detroit. The only reason it was allowed was because other owners pointed out how bad that action would look to the public. Taking advantage of the situation the team also arranged a benefit game and was able to raise $12,000 for the widow.
While this was a minor victory it brought home the rather precarious situation of all players. They had essentially no rights and no job security to speak of. The reserve clause prevented them from attempting to find better deals and kept their salaries low. To make matters worst they had no pensions and were always nervous about what their futures would be after they could no longer play baseball. The star pitcher of the Washington Senators wrote and article aptly titled “Baseball Slaver: The Great American Principle of Dog Eat Dog”.
This article shared the feelings and frustrations of American baseball players. They were all at the mercy of owners and managers. In many ways they were being exploited. While they drew crowds the owners raked in large amounts of cash through ticket sales, merchandising, and concession sales. Let’s not forget that players were still paying for their own uniforms.
Out of frustration the players decided to form another group in hopes of fighting to overturn the reserve clause and in hopes of getting some sort of a pension. The group was called the Fraternity of Professional Base Ball Players of America. While the group had high hopes they could not really do anything to get the ball rolling and were thoroughly ignored by the leagues.
Perhaps inspired by the obvious friction between many players and the leagues a group of wealthy businessmen decided to start the Federal League in 1913. They hoped to capitalize on the nation’s love of baseball and started teams in 8 cities, Baltimore, Brooklyn, Buffalo, Chicago, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Indianapolis. With their combined wealth the new owners were able to rebuild baseball fields and lure away many major league players by letting them act as free agents and giving them higher salaries. Many players were eager for the change and signed up with the new league.
To avoid losing anymore players Ban was forced to recognize the Fraternity of Professional Base Ball Players. He raised the salaries of players that stayed loyal to the existing leagues (Ty Cobb went from making $12,000 to making $20,000 in one season) and promised to provide higher salaries in the future. Also Ban stopped requiring players to pay for their own uniforms. With these new changes in place to secure the loyalty of current players Ban and A.G. Spalding began denouncing the new league as ‘pirates’ ruining the great name and image of baseball.
The Federal League soon began to feel the sting and started losing money as attendance dropped. Furious they filed suit against the existing leagues claiming that they were violating antitrust laws. The Federal League denounced the blacklisting of players and the reserve clause. Nervous the existing leagues decided to settle differences and the three leagues met. They figured that as owners they had more in common than with the players and when the smoke cleared the Federal League came away with $600,000 and some other choice presents in return for dropping the law suit.
The only hold outs were the owners of the Baltimore Federal League franchise who refilled their own suit which quickly headed to the Supreme Court. While that suit played out the Federal League and the Fraternity both vanished. The two original leagues were back in control and feeling powerful Ban Johnson decided he had no reason to uphold his original promises. Salaries were soon cut and former agreements were nullified.
In 1917 the United States became involved in World War I and while baseball initial continued as usual it soon came under heavy fire and criticism. After trying to cut the number of games (and cutting the players salaries accordingly) all players of draft age were ordered to either join the military or work for an industry that supported the work effort. Many baseball stars went to fight in World War I and 3 well known stars gave their lives to defend their country. At the end of the war baseball continued as normal and fans returned to the stadiums. Unfortunately in 1919 a great scandal unfolded which would forever soil the image of baseball.
While baseball and gambling still went together (much to the disgust of owners and gentlemanly baseball enthusiasts) the World Series was still the most serious of all events and one would never think of doing something to endanger the prestige associated with taking home the pennant. This changed in 1919 when an unsavory gambler took advantage of the unhappiness of the Chicago White Sox. These were all men chaffing under the strict rule of the leagues and owners. They had families to support, mortgages to pay, and for the most part they were all under paid.
It was not uncommon for managers and owners to resort to cheap tricks to keep from paying players hard earned bonuses and when the World Series came these players were tired of it. When the gambler approached one of the major pitchers with the scheme to throw the game for $100,000 he and fellow teammates accepted. While the details were murky in the end the gamblers made thousands and players made less than what they would have made in bonuses had they won the series.
When it became apparent that they would not be paid the promised $100,000 for throwing the game the White Socks did attempt to redeem themselves but one gambler, already betting heavily on the White Socks losing, threatened the family of the pitcher, the game was as good as lost. As soon as rumors that the game had been thrown on purpose appeared the management refused to believe it even though a few players were sick with guilt and wanted to admit the deception. In the end the plot came to light when other scandals were investigated. The event disillusioned the public and ruined the life of several good men whose only real crime was the desire to be able to provide for their families.