In their history, the Detroit Tigers have had only one player (non-pitcher) to finish with a career batting average of 1.000.
His name was John Mohardt, and his life story is an eventful one that ultimately ended in tragedy.
The son of Austrian immigrants, Mohardt was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on January 21, 1898. When he was still a child, his family moved to Gary, Indiana, where his father found work as a pipe fitter.
Life in the burgeoning industrial city couldn’t have been easy for the Mohardt family. Founded in 1906 by the United States Steel Corporation, Gary was (and still is) a bleak, hardscrabble town dominated by the sights, sounds and smells of the Gary Works steel mill.
Whether because his family needed the money, or because he simply didn’t like school, Mohardt decided to drop out after only finishing the tenth grade. He got a job at the Gary Works. We’re not sure what kind of work he did at the mill, but chances are it was dirty, backbreaking labor.
After two years, perhaps having decided that he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life in a steel mill, Mohardt applied to the University of Notre Dame.
Years later, Mohardt’s son would regale listeners with the tale of how Notre Dame officials had administered two tests to his father: “Running and throwing.” In any event, Mohardt must have passed them both, because he enrolled at Notre Dame in 1918 at age 20.
He got out of the Gary Works just in time. Less than a year later, the Steel Strike of 1919 resulted in riots between strikers and scabs. Martial law was instituted to restore peace to the streets of Gary.
At Notre Dame, Mohardt developed into a fine athlete, lettering in football, baseball, and track. He batted over .330 in three years of play on the diamond, and captained the 1921 Irish squad as a third baseman and center fielder. He even put together a 6-1 record as a pitcher.
On the gridiron, Mohardt’s coach was the legendary Knute Rockne, then in his first year at the position. The assistant coach was Walter Halas, whose more-famous brother, George, would eventually form the NFL’s Chicago Bears. One of Mohardt’s teammates was Curly Lambeau, who later founded the Green Bay Packers (and is the namesake of the stadium in which the modern-day Detroit Lions seemingly can’t win).
Mohardt was the third-string left halfback on the Irish, behind teammate George Gipp. Gipp’s tragic death, however, resulted in Mohardt’s becoming a starter. From 1919-21, the Irish won 28 games, losing only once. Mohardt was an All-American in 1921, with 781 yards and 10 touchdowns rushing, to go with 995 yards and 9 TDs passing. It should be pointed out that the 1921 Irish were, in the words of legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice, “the first team we know of to build its attack around a forward passing game, rather than use a forward passing game as a mere aid to the running game.”
Mohardt eventually lost his eligibility to participate in college sports, after it was determined that he had played in a semi-pro football game. This was common practice in the day, but officials tended to look the other way, most of the time. He also saw some action as a semi-pro baseball player.
Meanwhile, Mohardt, a science major, earned his degree at Notre Dame. He wasn’t ready to quit being a student, however. An aspiring doctor, he gained entrance to Northwestern Medical School (now known as the Feinberg School of Medicine).
But medical school costs money, and Mohardt didn’t have a whole lot of it. So in order to meet his tuition bills, he decided to play pro baseball and football.
After graduating from Notre Dame, he had supposedly received offers from several major league baseball clubs, including the Pirates, Indians, Reds, Cubs, Cardinals, and Tigers. Mohardt signed with Detroit on February 6, 1922. Ty Cobb, the Tigers’ player-manager, had assured Mohardt that he would be able to leave the team early in order to begin medical school in the fall.
The baseball career of Mohardt was brief. He began the 1922 season at Detroit, but saw action in only five games, mostly as a defensive replacement and pinch runner. In his only major league at-bat, on April 21 at Navin Field, he singled, but was later caught stealing.
The Tigers had one of the best outfields in history, with Cobb (who hit .401 in 1922), Harry Heilmann (.356) and Bobby Veach (.327). There was simply no chance of Mohardt seeing much game action. Before April was over, he was optioned to Double-A Syracuse, where he hit an uninspiring .185 in only 21 games. He played one more year of minor-league ball, before hanging up his spikes.
Beginning in 1922, Mohardt also played several seasons in the fledgling National Football League, for the Chicago Cardinals, the Racine Legion, and George Halas’ Chicago Bears, where he was teammates with Hall of Famer Red Grange. In 1926, Mohardt moved over to the Chicago Bulls of the newly-formed American Football League. At season’s end, however, he decided to give up pro sports and concentrate on medicine. By 1930, he was married, and he and his wife Dorothy Ann had plans for a family.
Mohardt’s career as a physician was highly successful. He spent time at the Mayo Clinic before opening up his own practice on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. In time, he garnered a well-deserved reputation as one of the leading brain specialists in all of the Midwest.
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1942, the 43-year-old Mohardt enlisted in the United States Army, where he later served in the Medical Corps. He was sent to the 12th General Hospital Unit in North Africa and Italy, and by the time he was discharged he’d attained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
Upon re-entering civilian life, Mohardt became the chief surgeon at a veteran’s hospital, and the assistant director of the V.A. surgical service.
Mohardt retired to La Jolla, California, but his story does not have a happy ending. He was found dead at his home on November 24, 1961, after he committed suicide by severing the femoral artery in his groin.
Mohardt lived a full life, both as a medical doctor, athlete, and family man. Keith Marder and Mark Spellen, editors of the 2001 book, The Notre Dame Football Encyclopedia: The Ultimate Guide to America’s Favorite College Team, had this to say about him: “Had he come along at another time or at another school, Mohardt might have gone down as one of the best college football players ever. His misfortune was that he played on some of the best Notre Dame teams in history and in the same backfield as the great George Gipp.”
He is also one of the few major league players (and the only Detroit Tiger) to enter the record books with a lifetime batting average of 1.000.