The acquisition of a dark haired fiery Irish-American seventy five years ago just may be the greatest off season move in Detroit Tiger history.
When the Tigers obtained the renowned Philadelphia A’s catcher Gordon Stanley “Mickey” Cochrane to be their manager and catcher, baseball fans in Detroit suffering from the Great Depression were finally given something to cheer about.
In 1933, as unemployed Detroiters stood in bread lines, the Tigers finished in fifth place, their fifth losing season in six years. Attendance at Navin Field had dropped to 320,972, the lowest in 15 years. Even with Ty Cobb, the team had never won a World Championship and last won a pennant in 1909.
Finally fed up with losing, Tiger President and co-owner Frank Navin fired manager Bucky Harris and looked to Yankee legend Babe Ruth nearing the end of his playing days. Ruth was interested in managing, but when he opted to take a Hawaii trip instead of immediately meeting with Navin, the impatient owner passed on the Great Bambino.
Navin then looked to the financially strapped Philadelphia A’s owner/manager Connie Mack who was unloading his star players from his 1929 and 1930 world championship teams.
With $100,000 provided by Tiger co-owner Walter Briggs (and catcher John Pasek thrown in) the team acquired Cochrane and convinced him to manage the club from behind the plate for a $40,000 salary.
“I was ecstatic when we got Cochrane,” former UAW President Douglas Fraser told me five years ago.
Though easy going off the field, with his jet black hair, stocky build, dark piercing eyes and quick Irish temper, one of the game’s fiercest competitors at just 30 years old had already been dubbed, “Black Mike.”
The Massachusetts native quickly became one of the most beloved Tiger players in the history of the franchise.
In his first two seasons, Cochrane lead the Tigers to consecutive American League pennants, and their first World Championship.
As a teenager in the 30’s, Doug Fraser worked part time at Navin Field ushering and picking up litter in exchange for seeing the games for free. “Mickey was a tremendous catcher, a great hitter, (.320 lifetime) and so inspirational. He made all the players play better,” said Fraser.
“I remember in my west Detroit neighborhood you could walk down the street and listen to the game because everybody had their radio on. You could hear the voices of either Ty Tyson or Harry Heilmann through the screen windows and porches,” said Doug Fraser. “With the Depression, everyone was in misery and had very little to cheer about, but Cochrane and the Tigers gave us something to hang onto. It was very uplifting.”
Led by the “G-Men”, Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenberg, and Goose Goslin, and a solid pitching staff of “Schoolboy” Rowe, Tommy Bridges, and Elden Auker, in 1934 the Tigers won the American League pennant while Cochrane won his second American League MVP award.
Detroit went crazy for the Bengals and the Navin Field attendance increased by 600,000 fans.
Although Cochrane’s Tigers fell to the St. Louis Cardinals’ “Gas House Gang” in a thrilling seven game World Series, Detroit won the pennant again in 1935 and faced the Chicago Cubs in the October classic.
On October 7, 1935, the same day his image graced the cover of Time, Cochrane experienced what he later called his biggest thrill in baseball.
After Tiger hurler Tommy Bridges courageously protected a 3-3 score in the top of the ninth following a lead off triple by Stan Hack, with one out in the bottom of the ninth, Cochrane slapped a single and then advanced to second on a Gehringer ground out. With 48,000 delirious Tiger fans yelling for their heroes, Goose Goslin lined a single to right, and fittingly, Cochrane raced home to score giving the Tigers their first World Championship.
Paul Gallico, the legendary sports editor of the New York Daily News described Cochrane’s mad dash home.
“It was something to see, Mickey Cochrane stabbing his spikes into the plate with the winning run and then going mad, like a young colt, leaping and cavorting about, shaking his bare, dark head…….When Cochrane stood on second, a lone figure in white, I have never seen such will and energy from a single person. He had to come home. He willed to come home. I believe if Goslin hadn’t hit he would have stolen home from second base.”
Sadly, just two years later, at age 34, Cochrane’s playing career abruptly ended in a near fatal injury.
On May 25, 1937 in New York, Yankee pitcher Bump Hadley threw a fastball that sailed in on Cochrane, hitting him on the right temple and knocking him out cold.
Cochrane lay in critical condition in a New York hospital with three skull fractures. For several days grieving baseball fans across the country stayed tuned for bulletins as Cochrane hovered near death. Although he returned to the Detroit bench as manager two months later, he never played again.
After the beaning, Cochrane was never the same.
By the middle of the 1938 season, the Tigers struggled, and following a lopsided loss to Boston, owner Walter O. Briggs summarily fired Cochrane, sending shock waves throughout the community. Hundreds of tearful Tiger fans gathered at City Airport the next day to wave goodbye to their beloved hero.
Sadly, Cochrane would never have another significant role in major league baseball.
Cochrane became a manufacturer’s representative in Detroit and during World War II joined the Navy as an officer heading up the baseball program at the Great Lakes Naval Station. In 1950, three years after his Hall of Fame induction, he returned for one season with the A’s as a coach and then general manager. Except for short scouting stints with the Yankees and Tigers, Cochrane was said to have drifted through the ’50s trying to get back into baseball in a larger role.
In the late ’50s his health began to deteriorate and on June 28, 1962 he died of lymphatic cancer in Lake Forest, Illinois, survived by his wife and two daughters. The city honored Black Mike by renaming National Avenue, the street just west of Tiger Stadium, Cochrane.
A Detroit Free Press editorial recounted why Cochrane was a towering hero to the City. It read in part:
“………….To a depression ridden Detroit, Cochrane’s baseball leadership brought an interest, an enthusiasm, an élan that somehow kept hearts high and grins going despite life’s daily discouragements. It has been said that Mickey Cochrane licked the depression in Detroit. That’s overstating it, naturally. But the man had a magic about him that made it easier for Detroit to ride out those early ’30s.”
In the history of Detroit sports, no has had a more immediate and significant impact in turning around a team, let alone a city.
*A significant portion of this entry is from Bill Dow’s 2004 Detroit Free Press article,
“Cochrane a good model for Pudge.”
One reply on “Mickey Cochrane’s Arrival 75 Years Ago Made the Tigers Roar“
I want to thank you for the email Peter Riley forwarded to me last night: re: the Crains article. After being at the Ballpark during the whole drama, I arrived home after midnight and was totally energized by your email to Peter.
I want to encourage everyone involved in saving our beloved Queen of Diamonds to call Peter Werbe on Nightcall (the long-running liberal talk show on WRIF-FM 101.1 on Sundays for over 35 yrs. now) tomorrow, as Peter has mentioned many times, he was a big fan of TS preservation, but I feel a little insecure, talking “nuts and bolts” about the $$ situation with regard to how much has been raised, etc. since I have just recently returned to the Detroit Metro area after 30+ years away. You know — give the listeners the facts that we have A PLAN, unlike DEGC, with no plan at all and get the discussion going. Peter Werbe is open to ANY TOPIC on his show.
Would any of you on this board consider also calling Peter at 11pm Sunday night on his call-in show, Nightcall to raise this subject? I will call also, but I don’t want to give erroneous information about $$ raised, etc., as I do not have those figures at my fingertips.
Thanks — we need to discuss this on the radio, as well. Time is of the essence.
For those of you who cannot listen or do not feel like calling at 11pm Sunday night, here is Peter’s email — he would love to hear from you: [email protected]
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