Today in Baseball History: Athletics beat a glorified sandlot team

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On May 15, 1912, the Detroit Tigers were in New York playing the Highlanders. During the game a Highlanders fan named Claude Lueker spent several innings heckling Tigers star Ty Cobb. Cobb brushed it off for a while, but at some point Lueker began to cast the Tigers star’s mother in what was then considered to be an extremely negative light by virtue of some racist sexual innuendo, and we’ll leave it at that. Upon hearing it, the Georgia Peach snapped, leapt into the stands and began to pummel the Lueker.

This would be bad enough, but there were two other factors which made it even worse:

  • Lueker had lost one complete hand and three fingers from the other hand in an industrial accident the year before, so Cobb was beating up a disabled person; and
  • American League President Ban Johnson was in the crowd that day.

Needless to say, Cobb’s attack did not go over well with the public or with Johnson, and Johnson suspended Cobb indefinitely.

That game took place on a Wednesday. Thursday was a travel day. The Tigers played their next game on Friday, in Philadelphia against the Athletics, winning 6-3. After the game the Tigers players, angry that Cobb had been suspended, voted to sit out until Johnson reinstated him. A standoff had begun with the Tigers players one on side and Tigers owner Frank Navin and Ban Johnson on the other. They had about 22 hours — until game time on Saturday afternoon — to see who would blink.

When Johnson got wind of the walkout, he told Navin that the club would be fined $5,000 — over $134,000 in 2020 dollars — for each game it failed to field a team, with each game also being declared a forfeit. Navin could weather losses on the field but he could not weather such financial losses, so he was kind of freaked out about it. Philadelphia manager Connie Mack suggested that Navin simply hire a team of local amateurs for the Saturday game. Navin thought that was a splendid idea, so he enlisted the help of a friend of his — a Philadelphia sportswriter named Joe Nolan — to scrounge up a team.

Nolan knew the 20-year-old assistant manager — and pitcher — of the St. Joseph College baseball team, one Allan Travers. Travers agreed to help out and, in turn, recruited a number of people he knew, some of whom were amateur baseball players, many of whom were not, to show up at Shibe Park the next day.

Travers was not too discriminating when it came to his recruits’ baseball talent, actually, because Nolan had told him that the team of replacements wasn’t, actually, going to play. The idea, he was told, was for them to simply show up at the ballpark and be prepared to take the field in what Navin and Nolan figured was the extremely unlikely event that the real Tigers didn’t show. Navin and Nolan assumed that once the big leaguers realized thae game could go on without them, they’d relent. Their real purpose of Travers and his motley crew, then, was to help Navin call the players’ bluff.

At first it looked like it might work. Just before the 2:30 start to Saturday’s game, the Tigers — the real Tigers — actually exited the clubhouse in uniform and went to the visitors’ dugout. Cobb was with them. When the home plate umpire saw the suspended Cobb he ordered him off the field. When Cobb left, the rest of the Tigers left too. If their star center fielder was not playing, they weren’t playing either. The players all went back to the visitors’ clubhouse, took off their uniforms, changed into their civvies and left.

At that point the Tigers brass had no choice: manager Hughie Jennings, on Navin’s orders, signaled for Travers and his replacements  to go suit up. After quickly dressing in the real Tigers’ uniforms and hastily signing one-day contracts, they took the field, with Travers taking the mound for “Detroit.”

Before we get into what happened, here’s a fun fact: As the man in charge of the home team, Connie Mack actually could’ve canceled the game before it started. Indeed, he and Navin discussed the possibility of him doing just that in the event that the Tigers players didn’t back down on their strike. If he had done so, Johnson could not have fined Navin and the Tigers — they were prepared to play — the game would be rescheduled and, in all likelihood, the whole suspension/walkout drama would’ve been resolved.

Except Mack didn’t do it. For whatever reason, there was a larger than usual crowd at Shibe Park that day and Mack didn’t want to have to offer that many refunds. It’s also worth noting that Mack’s Athletics — the defending World Series champs — were scuffling a great deal in the early going and were already 9.5 games out of first place. Between the box office and the sure-thing victory, Mack decided that the game would go on.

So on it went. And it was ugly.

Travers sort of held his own for a while. The college pitcher’s fastball would’ve been absolutely destroyed by the A’s lineup, but he had a pretty serviceable curve. It was slow, so it gave the Philly batters a bit of trouble with timing early. Travers gave up three runs in the first but held the Athletics scoreless in the second. He gave up another three in the third but, again, held the A’s scoreless in the fourth. With the “Tigers” scoring two runs in the top of the fifth it was only 6-2 entering the home half.

Then the wheels fell off.

Travers kept spinning his curve ball up there, but the A’s had mostly figured out the timing. The balls they didn’t tattoo were at least hit in the air, and the rank inexperience of the “Tigers” defense caused them to misplay almost every fly ball into an error if they got close enough to it to put a glove on it or a hit if they totally misjudged it. The A’s also began to bunt a lot, realizing that the “Tigers” third baseman could not field his position. As a result of all of that, Philly scored eight in the fifth, four in the sixth, another four in the seventh, and two in the eighth. The “Tigers” didn’t score another run.

The game ended with the A’s winning 24-2. Travers line: eight innings pitched, 26 hits, 24 runs — only 14 earned — seven walks and one strikeout. The strikeout victim was an A’s pitcher named Boardwalk Brown, who had a career batting average of .147. Travers work set a major league record for most runs allowed in a nine-inning game. The record still stands and will almost certainly never be broken.

On offense, the “Tigers” got four hits. Two of them came from Tigers coaches who had suited up to play, each of whom had some big league experience, albeit several years previously. The other two — both triples — came from one of the recruits, Ed Irwin. Did Irwin have any promise? Maybe. He had played some minor league and semi-pro ball over the years prior to 1912. However, if he had any baseball ability left in the tank he took it with him when he died less than four years during a bar fight. Yup.

When the game ended the stands were hardly full, with most fans having walked out early, disgusted at the spectacle they paid to see.

The next day was Sunday and games weren’t played on Sunday then, but Ban Johnson — realizing what kind of farce his threats to Navin had created — immediately canceled Monday’s getaway day game. Instead of the game, he called the striking Tigers players into a meeting. At the meeting he fined each one of them $100 for walking out of Saturday’s game and told them that if their walkout continued they would all be banned for life. Cobb, not wanting to see his teammates take any more heat for his actions, told them that they should play. Which is what they did on Tuesday in Washington and for the rest of the season. Not long afterward, Johnson reduced Cobb’s suspension to ten days. Part of that was because Cobb had threatened to sue Johnson. He’d win his sixth of nine straight batting titles that year, hitting a cool .409.

The “star” of the Replacement Tigers, Allan Travers, never played baseball again. He graduated from St. Joseph’s in 1913, entered seminary school and joined the priesthood in 1926. He would teach high school in New York for a time and then return to St. Joseph’s as the Dean of Men and a teacher until his death in 1968. He didn’t talk too much about his baseball career, such as it was, though he gave an interview or two about it late in his life.

Cobb continued to play through the 1928 season. You’re probably familiar with his work.