Del Pratt was what bosses would call an instigator. Some teammates would have called him opinionated, but other teammates found him hard-working and strong-willed. Whichever camp you were in, Pratt was a damn good baseball player, although he was often embroiled in clubhouse politics.
Despite his agitating personality, at the end of his fine playing career, Pratt found an unlikely ally in the clubhouse when he played for Ty Cobb in Detroit. Together, Ty and Del helped the Tigers become one of the greatest hitting teams in baseball history.
First, about Del Pratt the ballplayer: he hit for some power and he drove in runs. He was a bad ball hitter and he gained notoriety for swinging at pitches in the dirt and over his chest, he was sort of like Jose Altuve in that respect. In the field the record indicates he was pretty average and he had to work on handling the ball on the double play transfer early in his career. He ended up playing nearly 1,700 games at second base, but his 381 errors rank among the most for any player at the position. He was sort of a brute: he came from a football background, having been a star running back in college for the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Pratt was a southerner with a quick temper and a habit of sharing his opinion even when it wasn’t requested. Throughout his career he got himself into the middle of several disputes. In the most famous off the field, Pratt and a teammate sued the owner of the St. Louis Browns when he insinuated that Del and others on the team were not playing to win. Pratt recruited players from around the league to testify to his honor, and Ty Cobb gave a deposition to that effect. The lawsuit was a sensation, but eventually the two sides settled, Del reportedly getting more than $5,000.
Del’s most famous on-field scrap came during a “city series” game between his Browns and the Cardinals in St. Louis. A young rookie in the Cards’ dugout said something Pratt took offense to, so Del stormed across the diamond during the exhibition and punched the player in the nose. Several members of the Cardinals attacked Pratt, but moments later, once the dust settled, the lone Brown emerged from the enemy dugout with only a few scratches, leaving several bruised Redbirds behind.
After years with the lowly Browns and a few more with the terrible Red Sox, Pratt was traded to the Tigers a few weeks after the conclusion of the 1922 season. He joined a club led by player/manager Cobb, who had few friends on the club. But Pratt, with his marble-mouthed southern drawl, was instantly drawn to the Tiger manager. Soon, the two became dinner companions and buddies.
Pratt batted over .300 in each of his two seasons with the Tigers, keeping second base warm for young Charlie Gehringer, who was nipping at his heels. But the Tigers were used to .300 hitters: in ‘23 when Cobb brought them in for a second place finish, Detroit batted .300 as a team. That season, Ty batted .340 at the age of 36, but that fell far behind Harry Heilmann, who led the league with a .403 mark.
In 1924, while Cobb was losing hair over the state of his dreadful pitching staff, Pratt had a superb season, filling in at second, third, and even seeing some action in the outfield and at first base. He also kept a watchful eye on the Tiger players, who often seemed to be at the edge of mutiny under the cranky Cobb.
Years later, when he was retired in South Carolina, Pratt recalled his two years playing and dining with Cobb, and he remembered the Detroit legend as a gentleman.
“I never had a bad word with Ty,” Pratt said. “He was set on winning, and he would do whatever he could to win a ballgame, but he wouldn’t toss a player aside without helping him be better. I learned more from Cobb than any man I ever played with.”