Today in Baseball History: A new car and a batting title scandal

Getty Images
10 Comments

On March 25, 1910, the Chalmers Auto Company of Detroit came up with a cool idea: it offered to award a new car to the batting champion of each league. After some consideration, the National and American Leagues would accept the offer.

I don’t care about the award as such, but it did lead to a pretty tasty baseball scandal I want to talk about. I’ll get to that in a minute. First, a little background.

What would become the Chalmers Auto Company started as the E.R. Thomas Company of Detroit. It was one of many late 19th-early 20th century companies trying to make a go of it in the auto business, but it was making a pretty poor go of it. In 1908 Thomas hired a bright young cash register salesman from Dayton named Hugh Chalmers to boost its fortunes. Chalmers was named president. Later that year he bought out Thomas completely and changed the name of the company, creating the Chalmers Auto Company of Detroit.

Chalmers had a knack for promotion and did a lot to increase the company’s visibility. He hired professional drivers and arranged for them to enter Chalmers cars in road races, endurance events and other sorts of contests and exhibitions. Via partnerships he got involved in the nascent Hudson Motor Company, but eventually sold off his interest there, leaving Hudson to produce smaller, more economical cars, while Chalmers increasingly focused on building larger, more luxurious cars. His crown jewel: the Chalmers Model 30 Roadster. It was a pretty sweet ride. It was also the model of car that Chalmers would award the batting champ of each league.

By the end of the 1910 season the American League batting race had come down to two legendary players: the 35 year-old veteran Napoleon Lajoie — a player so loved and respected that his team, the Cleveland Naps, was literally named after him — and the 23 year-old Ty Cobb, who despite his youth was already a three-time batting champion and, without question, the game’s best player. Unlike Lajoie, however, Cobb was not a well-liked man. Surly and, according to some, dirty, Cobb didn’t have many friends in the league.

Heading into the final couple of games of the season Cobb led Lajoie by a few points in average. Since the Tigers were over 20 games behind the mighty Philadelphia A’s in the standings the games were pretty meaningless for them, so Cobb sat out the final two contests. The Naps, also well out of the race, finished their season in St. Louis to face the Browns.

On the final day of the season a Naps-Browns doubleheader was scheduled. Lajoie had a very, very slim chance at the batting title and the car, so he played. Browns manager Jack O’Connor, no fan of Cobb’s at all, instructed his infielders to play deep so that Lajoie would have a shot. He specifically instructed Browns third baseman Red Corriden to play deep so that any ball Lajoie bunted in Corriden’s direction would result in a hit. That’s exactly what Lajoie did, going 8-for-his-first-8, with seven of those hits being bunt singles to third. Lajoie reached on an error in his final plate appearance, which caused him to fall just short. The final tally, at the time, was Cobb .385, Lajoie, .384.

But that was not the end of the story.

Cobb sitting out the final two games didn’t sit well with many. Lajoie being gifted eight hits didn’t sit well with anyone. The issue was brought to American League president Ban Johnson. Johnson thought it all stunk to high heavens, but in the end he kept the batting averages official, deeming Cobb the champion. Chalmers, not wanting to alienate anyone, awarded each of the future Hall of Famers a Model 30 Roadster. There’s no such thing as bad publicity, right? Chalmers was no fool, however, so the following season he changed his promotion and decided to give a car to the MVP winner, not the batting champ. Best to keep math out of it.

But that was not the end of the story either.

In the late 1970s, pioneering baseball statistician Pete Palmer was going over the old box scores and discovered a discrepancy: one of the 1910 Detroit Tigers box scores was counted twice in official records, which resulted in Cobb being given an extra 2-for-3 day, which raised his average. Instead of a .385, he should’ve finished with a .383. Given that Lajoie had a .384 average for the season he should have been the sole batting champion. At least if you don’t think Jack O’Connor having his fielders lay down for him tainted it too much. Either way, both Cobb and Lajoie had been dead for some time by then and no one went after their relatives to make them return the cars if they were still around.

Besides, there was no one to do that even if they wanted to. The Chalmers Automobile Company ceased to exist in the early 1920s after several years of financial troubles. It would be absorbed into what would become Chrysler. That company is still around, but if you want to win a car as a baseball player these days, it has to be a Chevy for being the All-Star Game MVP.

 

Also today in baseball history:

1985: An Illinois judge rules that state and city laws effectively banning night baseball at Chicago’s Wrigley Field are constitutional. After being forced to give up a home game during the 1984 NLCS, and threatened with playing future postseason games at another stadium in order to accommodate network television’s prime-time schedules, the Cubs had sued to overturn the laws. Check out what the judge said about baseball in his decision:

1997: A big trade, on the eve of Opening Day, takes place between the Braves and Indians. The Indians send All-Star center fielder Kenny Lofton and reliever Alan Embree to Atlanta in return for David Justice and Marquis Grissom. The Braves would 101 games and lose the NLCS to the Marlins. The Indians would win only 86 games, but won a weak AL Central and won the 1997 American League pennant, losing to the Marlins in seven games. Lofton would play one season in Atlanta and then return to Cleveland for 1998.