On May 11, 1915, the Detroit Tigers rattled a 20-year old Red Sox’ pitcher named Babe Ruth in a 5-1 win at Navin Field. The victory put the Tigs 4 1/2 games ahead of Boston and improved their record to a glossy 18-7, 3 1/2 games ahead of the next closest team in the American League. The Tigers were on their way to the best season in the history of the franchise to that point.
But it would be a year filled with success and disappointment for the Tigers.
The rascally Bengals peppered 10 hits (all singles) off Ruth in that May game at The Corner. Ty Cobb had two singles and delighted in agitating the inexperienced Ruth with lively comments. Cobb never much liked any opposing player and a green-horned left-handed pitcher in his first full season was an easy target. It would be a few years before Ruth became a superstar and a more prominent target for Cobb’s insults. Still, in 1915 the Red Sox and Tigers shared several tense moments as they tangled for the pennant.
The Red Sox went 19-8 in June but that was only good enough to catch the Tigers, not pass them. And amazingly, though both Cobb’s Tigers and Ruth’s Red Sox were on pace to win 100 games, neither was in first place when the calendar turned to July. At the top of the heap in the junior circuit was the Chicago White Sox, a gritty team that went 35-14 in May and June behind the bats of Big Jack Fournier and Eddie “Cocky’ Collins and the rubber arms of pitchers Red Faber and Death Valley Jim Scott, both of whom used spitballs, which were legal at the time. But the ChiSox had a weakness — they couldn’t beat the best teams in the league. Chicago went just 17-27 against the Tigers and Red Sox, and by the end of July it was a two-horse race. Another incident seemed to hamper the White Sox that summer as well. In August they traded for Shoeless Joe Jackson, acquiring him from Cleveland. Jackson was an equal of Cobb as a hitter, but his arrival in Chicago caused a rift in the clubhouse and the White Sox teetered down the stretch.
1915 was the season when Detroit skipper Hughie Jennings let Ty Cobb run amok on the basepaths. The fiery Georgian swiped bases at a feverish pace. In 24 games in June, Cobb swiped an incredible 28 games, including five against Boston at Fenway Park in a three-game series. After an off-season regiment that included wearing weighted boots on his frequent hunting trips, Cobb was in the best shape of his career in 1915. He ended up stealing 96 bases, a new record that would stand for more than four decades.
Cobb wasn’t the only Detroiter who showed aplomb as a baserunner that season. Little leadoff man Donie Bush swiped 35 bags and two others (Wahoo Sam Crawford and Ossie Vitt) topped 20 steals. The Tigers stole a league-best 238 bases in ’15 but they also had a fantastic hitting team that led the league in runs, hits, doubles, and batting average. All summer long the Tigs terrorized enemy pitchers with line drives, well-placed bunts, the hit-and-run and the run-and-hit plays, and double steals. They even tried a triple steal in New York against the Yankees with Cobb on third, Crawford on second, and Bobby Veach on first. The play worked as Cobb slid safely under a late toss to home plate.
Speaking of Veach, 1915 was when he and Cobb and Crawford teamed to form the greatest outfield baseball has ever seen. Sure, 100 years have passed since that season two world wars ago, but what the trio did that year is incredible and noteworthy.
In 1915, Cobb won his ninth straight batting title while racking up 208 hits and stealing those 96 bags. Opposing pitchers walked Ty 118 times that season, by far the highest total of Cobb’s career. The figure is curious because batting right behind The Georgia Peach was right fielder Crawford, at 35 still one of the best sluggers in the game. Crawford led the league in triples while hitting .299 in the cleanup spot. The #5 hitter in Jennings’ lineup was left fielder Veach, another left-handed slugger who could slap the ball all over the ballpark. Veach hit .313 and had 112 runs batted in, which tied Crawford for the league lead. Cobb, Crawford, and Veach finished 1-2-3 in the league in total bases, the only time three members of the same outfield have ever done that. Detroit’s 1915 outfield trio had the best single season any outfield has ever had.
On August 19 the Tigers won their ninth straight game and took a slim 1/2 game lead in the pennant race. The victory was their 13th in 14 games, but while the Tigers kept winning (they went 23-7 in August), they couldn’t catch the red-hot Red Sox. On the morning of September 1, Boston led Detroit by 1 1/2 games. But even when Ty and the Tigers went 11-5 in the first half of September, they could only shave a half game off their deficit. The Red Sox, led by Cobb’s friend and diamond rival Tris Speaker, were just too good. Three straight Detroit losses at Fenway in late September (more on that series in an article coming soon) sealed the fate of the Tigers. On September 28 the Tigers won their 98th game tying the franchise record set by the 1909 club. Three days later in Detroit, Crawford delivered a single in the bottom of the 11th to score Bush with the game-winning run for a 99th victory. The Tigers won the next day in the last game of the season for their 100th win. But the Red Sox went 101-50 to finish 2 1/2 games ahead of the boys from Detroit. It was the first time an AL team won 100 games but failed to win the pennant.
The 1915 Detroit Tigers got off to a great start, were an exciting team who pestered opponents with a powerful offense that also featured baseball’s greatest basestealer. They had a solid pitching staff too, led by the master of the curveball, George “Hooks” Dauss. They featured the best outfield in baseball up to that time and probably in baseball history. But they still finished second and no one remembers who finishes second. But we should try to remember the ’15 Tigers 100 years after their fine season.