Detroit Tigers legend Ty Cobb had more than his share of tussles on and off the diamond. But one of his most famous occurred in the spring of 1917 while the Tigers were playing the New York Giants in a series of exhibition games prior to the start of the regular season.
It was in Waxahachie. Texas, a classic cowboy and oil town south of Dallas, where the Giants and Yankees agreed to play several games against each other as a tune-up for the upcoming season. On March 31, Cobb arrived at the ballpark just minutes before the game was slated to start, which irked many of the Giants.
“Hey, look at the big man,” shouted Buck Herzog, the Giants second baseman who was known for mouthing off. Several other Giants players joined in the ribbing as Cobb donned his spikes and prepared himself for the contest. Underneath a stoic expression, Cobb was seething.
Wouldn’t you know it, but Cobb singled in his first trip to the plate and found himself standing on first base – only 90 feet from Herzog’s station in the middle of the field.
“I’m coming down, be ready!” Cobb growled at Herzog.
On the first pitch, Cobb pivoted and sped toward second. A few seconds later he hurtled himself into the bag, slashing his spikes into Herzog who was busy trying to field a late throw from his catcher. Herzog was sent sprawling and Cobb bounced up, looming over the Giant infielder. Not easily intimidated, Herzog got up and stuck his face right into the puss of The Georgia Peach. The two players pushed and shoved, but nothing much came of their brief tussle. The fans ate up the spectacle, loving the chance to see baseball’s greatest star doing his thing.
Just then, New York manager John McGraw ran from the dugout and shouted his disapproval over the play, objecting to Cobb spiking his player. The umpire started jawing with McGraw while an increasingly agitated Cobb started to run his mouth toward Herzog. Soon, Herzog and Cobb were on the ground kicking up dirt and throwing punches. Several Giants players ran to the fracas but few Tigers were willing to back up their teammate. As was often the case, Cobb was all alone.
“They were all against me, but I beat the bastards and left them in the ditch,” Ty famously said of his years in baseball.
Cobb was ejected from the game, but strangely Herzog was allowed to stay in the contest. At that point the fans in Waxahachie started to boo loudly, unhappy at not being able to watch Cobb the rest of the afternoon. Ty was furious at McGraw for kicking up a hornet’s nest – as far as he was concerned the matter had been taken care of until “Muggsy” came onto the diamond.
For the remainder of the game, Cobb sat in the stands, chatting with adoring spectators, fanning himself in the Texas heat, and heckling the Giants every chance he got. McGraw and his troops were none too happy about his antics.
But the row between Cobb and the Giants was far from over. Both teams were staying at the Oriental Hotel during the series, and that evening, as Cobb sat in the dining room eating his supper, he was approached by Herzog. Cobb listened as Herzog challenged the Tiger batting champion to a fight, under gentleman’s rules. A bit startled, Cobb quickly sized up Herzog, and through clenched teeth he agreed. The brouhaha would take place in Herzog’s room.
Cobb arrived at Herzog’s room less than an hour later, still wearing his dining jacket. He was alone but found Herzog’s room filled with members of both the Giants and Tigers. Most of the furniture had been removed from the room, and the hotel night manager was present – a wad of bills in his hand assuring that he would not report the activities that were about to occur.
Each man chose a “second” – that is a man to ensure that the fight was fair and step in if he felt the fight should be halted. Herzog selected Heinie Zimmerman, a teammate with a shady reputation for being involved with gamblers and bruisers. (Indeed, Zimmerman would be banned from baseball years later for throwing games).
Cobb chose Tiger catcher Oscar Stanage as his second. Stanage was not a close friend of Ty’s, but he was a large man and he was well-respected in baseball. Though Stanage may have wanted to see his teammate pounded, his sense of honor would not allow anything unfair to tilt the advantage against Cobb.
Each man stripped to the waist and squared off. The crowd that gathered spilled out into the hall and was anxious to see some blood. Almost to a man, they wished to see Herzog beat up Cobb.
Even though Herzog had done some boxing during a stint in the U.S. Army, the fight was a mismatch from the start. For that era, Cobb was a large man – more than six feet tall and weighing nearly 190 pounds of mostly muscle. He was lean, quick, and had the instincts of a fighter. Cobb quickly got Herzog in his clutches and spun the ballplayer around, forcing him against the bed post. It was in that position where Cobb was pounding punches down on Herzog when Zimmerman stepped in to stop the fight and rescue his battered teammate.
Cobb dressed, tipped Stanage, and walked back to his hotel room, the crowd parting for him.
The next day, neither Cobb nor Herzog were in the lineup, but for different reasons: Buck because of the beating he took, and Cobb because he refused to play against McGraw’s club.
“He’a a mucker and always has been,” Cobb explained. (For those of you not well-versed in the derogatory vernacular of the early 20th century, a “mucker” was a person who shoveled shit). “I don’t intend to stand for any of his dirty work.”
Cobb may not have appreciated “dirty work”, but when he had to defend himself, he could do it, even when everyone else was against him.