Many famous trades and deals have been made in the long history of the Detroit Tigers, but the most important was the acquisition of “Black Mike” Cochrane on this date in 1933. It was the Great Depression that made it all possible.
When Tigers owner Frank Navin agreed to pay $100,000 to Connie Mack for his superstar catcher, Mickey Cochrane, the Tigers gained the tenacious leader they needed to take a giant cat-like leap to greatness.
For more than 50 years professional baseball had been played in Detroit, but not until the trigger was pulled on this deal on December 3, 1933, were the Tigers able to climb to the top of the baseball world.
Navin threw in his catcher, Johnny Pasek, but there was no doubt that the transaction was heavily weighted in the Tigers favor. Mack, the venerable owner and manager of the Athletics, was a prudent businessman. He had dismantled a powerhouse team once before – in 1914 – ridding himself of future Hall of Famers so he could weather financial difficulty. Now, in the early years of the Depression, with unemployment near 30% in Philadelphia, Mack saw his attendance nosedive in 1933. After finishing second in attendance among American League clubs from 1928-1931, the ’33 A’s finished sixth with less than 300,000 fans at their home games. It was a drop of more than 60% from their pennant-winning seasons of 1929-1931.
To help himself get through the tough economic times, Mack sold most of the stars who had been the nucleus of those great teams, including Cochrane. Pitchers Lefty Grove and George Earnshaw, and second baseman Max Bishop fetched $125,000 from the Red Sox, while star third baseman Jimmy Dykes was purchased by the White Sox for $100,000. Left fielder Al Simmons also went to Chicago, at the price of $75,000. Even after dealing Cochrane, Mack packaged Pasek with pitcher George Earnshaw to coax $20,000 more from the White Sox. Only Jimmie Foxx, like Grove, Simmons, and Cochrane, a future Hall of Famer, was held onto by Mack, and only until after the ’35 season when the big slugger was sent to the Red Sox for $150,000. In all, Mack deposited close to half a million dollars into his bank account as he tore apart one of baseball’s greatest teams.
The biggest beneficiary proved to be the Tigers, who in Cochrane acquired the greatest catcher in the game and maybe of all-time to that point in baseball history. A career .321 hitter when he came to Detroit, Cochrane frequently hit #2 or #3 in the lineup for the A’s. He was a fantastic defensive catcher, ranked the best behind the plate in the league. But it was a new role that Navin wanted Mickey to perform that proved to be the catalyst to a Tiger championship.
Navin announced that Cochrane would not only be his starting catcher, he would also be his manager. Player/managers were still pretty common at that time, and Cochrane seemed to fit the mold to be successful. But the results far exceeded Navin’s expectations.
Taking over a talented and emerging team, Cochrane pushed the team to a franchise record 101 wins and their first pennant in 25 years. He hit a solid .320 and instilled leadership that helped young players blossom. His biggest impact came with the Tiger pitching staff. Pitchers Tommy Bridges and Schoolboy Rowe became 20-game winners pitching to Cochrane. New left fielder Goose Goslin also proved pivotal in adding another big bat in the Detroit lineup.
The Tigers lost the 1934 World Series in seven games, but the following season they won the pennant again, with “Black Mike” hitting .319 near the top of the lineup. In Game Six of the Fall Classic against the Cubs, Goslin singled in the ninth to score Cochrane with the winning run that gave the city of Detroit their first World Series champion.
Had it not been for the deal swung by Navin nearly two years earlier to get Cochrane, the Tigers wouldn’t have won that title. It remains the most important transaction in Detroit sports history. Sadly, after finally seeing his beloved team win the championship, Navin died of an apparent heart attack less than five weeks later while riding his favorite horse at his ranch.