The Detroit Tigers opened the 1925 season by hosting the White Sox at Navin Field in front of more than 40,000 fans. It was the largest crowd for a home opener by any team that year. The big draw was Ty Cobb, the popular manager and center fielder for the Bengals. But Ty didn’t write his name in the lineup that day, preferring to tip his cap to the crowd as he delivered his lineup card to the umpires before he shuffled over to speak with Chicago skipper Eddie Collins, a longtime rival in the American League.
The fans would not see Cobb swing a piece of lumber that afternoon in what turned out to be a hard-fought 4-3 victory, but it was the lid lifter on what turned out to be an amazing season for Ty personally. While he certainly had better seasons in his prime, what Cobb did in 1925 at the ripe age of 38 is stupefying considering the circumstances. Entering his 21st season in the big leagues, Cobb was winding down his legendary career but his bat still carried a lot of sting.
In spring training in Texas, Cobb had told his team and assembled reporters that he would be “backing off” in ’25, giving more time to younger players. He wanted to concentrate more of his efforts on “sorting out the team” as he said, meaning he wanted to manage more games from the bench instead of from his customary station in center field. 1925 was Cobb’s fifth season as player/manager and to that point he’d had disappointing results. Initially he’d infused the team with energy, leading his team to a 10-win improvement in his first season and tacking on eight more in 1922. The following year the “Ty-gers” won 81 games and finished second, albeit a distant 16 games back of the Yankees. Then, in 1924 Cobb had the team in first place as late as August 10th but the Senators galloped away and Detroit eventually came in third despite winning 86 games, the most ever under their star player/manager. Cobb played every game in ’24 and hit a respectable .338, but he was not satisfied with his own performance.
“I was winded by the end of the summer,” he said, “and when [the other teams] got their steam, we were left behind.”
Cobb felt his ’24 team had suffered from a lack of readiness and he was determined to have his roster battle-tested in 1925. That meant he needed to give some younger players more playing time and he also wished to more closely monitor the sore point of the club – the pitching staff. For several seasons the Tigers boasted the best or one of the best offensive juggernauts in the game, racking up runs like a chef stacks hot cakes. But invariably the pitching staff would let them down. Usually Ty had only one or two arms he could rely on and he was constantly searching for more mound help.
“If they had given me two more serviceable pitchers the caliber of the Yankees or A’s,” Cobb told Grantland Rice later, “I would have put some pennants on the flag pole in Detroit.”
The starting center fielder for the Tigers on opening day in 1925 was Heinie Manush, a 23-year old who reminded Ty a lot of himself. Manush was a left-handed swinger with a knack for lining the ball to all fields. He was tall and muscled for that era (6’1 and 200 pounds), and he also loved to hit a baseball. It was there that the similarities to Cobb ended. Where Cobb was serious and moody, Manush was jovial and well-liked by his teammates. Cobb concentrated on baseball to the exclusion of almost everything else while Manush liked to go out to Detroit restaurants and illegal speakeasies to drink alcohol. Almost every photo of Manush shows him with a dashing, toothy smile. Cobb usually looked like he had a million things on his mind.
His manager recognized Manush’s talent and played him regularly early in the season, giving the young ballplayer a chance to learn the pitchers in the league. The Detroit outfield consisted typically of Manush in center flanked by Red Wingo in left and Harry “Slug” Heilmann in right. Both were masters with the bat. Ty gave Wingo his first regular starting job and the young outfielder flourished while also accepting Cobb’s batting tips. His average soared to .370, an improvement of 83 points. If there was one thing Cobb excelled at as a manager, it was teaching the art of hitting a baseball.
“In all modesty, I could teach hitting,” Cobb said.
The ’25 Tigers got off to a terrible start: by the end of April they were in last place and had a 4-11 mark. Cobb had inserted himself in just four games in April and faced with a cellar-dwelling team he gave himself more playing time. In May he put on one of the most remarkable shows in the history of baseball when he decided to show off his power. On May 5th in St. Louis during a series against the Browns, Cobb listended while reporters gushed over the power exploits of Babe Ruth and other heavy-hitters. “I’ll show you something,” Cobb snapped, “today I’ll go for home runs for the first time in my career.” That afternoon Cobb belted three home runs and had six hits in the biggest offensive game of his career. He also had a double which nearly left the playing field for a fourth home run. After the game reporters buzzed around the 38-year old manager and he loved every minute of it. The next day Ty hit two more home runs and narrowly missed a third. His five homers in two straight games were a new record (one that has never been broken in the nine decades since). Satisfied with himself, Cobb went back to choking up on the bat and hitting the ball all over the field the next day.
Playing in center and relegating Manush to pinch-hitting duties, Cobb flourished as the ’25 campaign unfolded. In June he experienced what may be the hottest two-week stretch of his career (which is saying a lot). From May 31st to June 12th, a span of 11 games, Cobb punished pitchers for a .610 batting average (he went an incredible 25-for-41 and reached base at least three times in every game during that stretch). His average shot up to .428 after that torrid rampage. In one game against the Senators, Cobb hit what should have been two routine singles and a routine double but stretched each of them one more base for two doubles and a triple. Feeling new life at 38, even his legs were revitalized.
Cobb’s average didn’t stay above .400 but Heilmann made a run for that coveted plateau. Blossoming under Cobb’s guidance, the right fielder ended up hitting .393 to win his third batting title in five years. If Cobb couldn’t win the batting crown the next best thing for him was to have one of his pupils do so.
The final ledger for Ty in 1925 was impressive: a .378 average (good for fourth in the league), 157 hits (in just 121 games), 102 runs driven in, and a hefty extra-base total of 55 (31 doubles, 12 triples, and a career-tying 12 homers). His 1.066 OPS (slugging plus on-base percentage) was the best in the circuit. Even though he’d played himself more sparingly and eased himself into the season, Cobb came on like a tornado. He even swiped 13 bases with his battered and beaten 38-year old legs. His performance wasn’t lost on his charges.
“After Ty got accustomed to [being a manager] he relaxed and really smacked the ball that season,” third baseman Fred Haney said.
The ’25 campaign was the last time Cobb hit above his career average of .367, it was also his last great season as a Tiger. He’d serve as player/manager again the following year but would appear in only 79 games and hit .339. In 1927 he would sign to play for Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics. In his six seasons as a player/manager for the Tigers Cobb never won a pennant, but he did have great years at the plate, the last of which happened 90 years ago in 1925 when he displayed a power stroke to go along with his master ability to spray the ball to all fields.