Ty Cobb’s most daring baserunning maneuver defeated the Yankees

Ty Cobb swiped home 54 times in his Hall of Fame career.

Ty Cobb swiped home 54 times in his Hall of Fame career.

During a career that featured 54 steals of home, nearly 900 stolen bases, and countless collisions with enemy baserunners, Ty Cobb made more daring dashes and vicious slides than anyone in baseball history. It might seem impossible to choose one of Cobb’s baserunning exploits as the best, but what happened on May 12, 1911, is hard to top. After doing the seemingly impossible in that game, Cobb had the Yankees scratching their heads as they saw themselves on the wrong end of a 6-5 final.

In 1911, Cobb was at his best. That season, “The Georgia Peach” set an American League record with 248 hits as he pushed his batting average to an incredible .420 mark for the Tigs. He was especially efficient on the bases, where he set the Tiger offense in motion. Cobb’s baserunning antics and red-hot batting propelled Detroit to a feverish pace out of the gate – the team pounced out to a 21-2 record and built a nine-game lead in the standings. In what was known as the “Deadball Era,” the Bengals were doing the unthinkable – sending runners around the bases like it was a merry-go-round. Through the first 23 games, Detroit averaged more than six runs per game, a figure almost 60% above the league average.

On May 12, Cobb and his teammates entertained the New York Yankees at Bennett Park in Detroit. It would be another year before Navin Field would open for play at The Corner. On this day, “Wild Bill” Donovan was on the hill for Hughey Jennings’ club, the right-hander was always anxious to battle the New Yorkers, having been raised in the East and played for Brooklyn for several seasons. Donovan was roughed up a bit by the Yanks in this game though, which was watched by a crowd of about 4,500 on a Friday afternoon. But with Cobb enjoying his best season, the Tigers were hardly ever out of a game.

The action started in the first inning when Ty reached first on a walk. “Wahoo Sam” Crawford followed and tapped a slow roller toward the right side of the infield, splitting the Yankee defenders. As the ball trickled into short right field, Yankee second sacker Schoolboy Knight scooped it up, by the time he turned to look at Cobb, the “Dixie Demon” was charging into third base. Knight held the ball and checked Crawford at first. When he glanced away, Cobb saw his opening and sprinted home to score a run. Knight’s throw bounced in the dirt and Cobb slid in easily. Later, in the sixth inning, Cobb was standing at second base. As he surveyed his environs and sized up the Yankee defense, the New York hurler tossed a pitch that eluded catcher “Big Ed’ Sweeney. As the ball bounced behind Sweeney, Cobb circled third and kept coming to home, scoring from second base on a wild pitch. The Bennett Park crowd screamed with delight. They had seen two daring plays by Cobb in one game, but they couldn’t have been prepared for what would happen in the next frame.

In the seventh inning, trailing 5-3, the Tigers got two runners on base: reliever Tex Covington and shortstop Donie Bush. Cobb came up and promptly laced a gapper that went past the center fielder and right fielder. Both Covington and Bush came around to score, Bush sliding in spectacularly in a cloud of dust and colliding with Sweeney at the dish. When Donie was called safe, Sweeney and the Yanks took offense. New York manager Hal Chase, who was also the team’s first baseman, came to home plate and started an argument with the umpire. Sweeney and two other Yanks also joined the brouhaha. Meanwhile, Cobb, who had stationed himself at second with a double, danced off the bag and took third, which was unguarded. With time not having been called by the Yanks, Ty kept eye on the situation at home. As the argument grew louder and louder, Cobb started to holler at Chase and Sweeney, agitating his opponents.

“Quit your bellyachin,” Cobb barked. The Yankees waved him off, turning their attention toward the umpire, who was giving it back at Chase as bad as he was getting it. The spit was flying. Finally, Cobb stalked down the third base line to point his finger at the Yanks, pointing out their folly. When the New Yorkers failed to pay attention to his advance, Cobb deftly avoided Sweeney, who was holding the ball in his mitt, and gingerly stepped on home plate. Sweeney finally realized that time hadn’t been called and he recognized what Ty was up to. But his tag attempt was a split-second too late. Cobb scored and the crowd roared their approval. The Detroit star had scored from second on consecutive steals without ever drawing a throw. It was the 14th steal of home in his young career, and the third of the ’11 season.

The play was not only daring and devious, it was clutch – Cobb had given the Tigs a 6-5 lead. Covington made it hold up, retiring the frustrated Yankees in the final two innings.

The Tigers wouldn’t hold onto first place that season, but Cobb never had a slump, either with the lumber or with his legs. He would steal home two more times that year, the last time on the front end of a triple steal. In all, Ty Cobb swiped a league record 83 bases in 1911, with the two most thrilling (and cunning) coming in that contest against the flummoxed Yankees in May.

7 replies on “Ty Cobb’s most daring baserunning maneuver defeated the Yankees

  • Jean

    What a GREAT story! I pictured the whole thing unfolding via your great storytelling. I’m sure seeing Ty Cobb play was worth the price of admission in and of itself…

  • Keith Anleitner

    Nothing more exciting than to read about the greatest hitter and base stealer in baseball history. what I would give go back in time to watch Cobb in this moment! Pure magic, power, cunning and grace oll into a whirlwind of a competiive personality. Keith Anleitner

  • Dan Holmes

    Jean – thanks very much.

    Keith – I’m with you. If we could go back in time, we could sit in the stands and watch Ty and Wahoo Sam play on a sunny afternoon in Detroit. I bet we’d be amazed at how different some parts of the game would be.

  • Gary Steinke

    Boy, I sure would have loved to have seen Cobb play, but if I did see Cobb play then I wouldn’t be enjoying the play of Miguel Cabrera.

  • Gary Steinke

    Russ, I bet your uncle’s told you some great baseball stories. When I was a kid my great-grandfather (who named my great-uncle Ty, after Mr. Cobb) use to tell some great BB stories.

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