When the Tigers, Yankees, Cobb, and Ruth brawled in Detroit at Navin Field

With the long arc of the swing of his bat, Babe Ruth shook up Ty Cobb’s world.

And it burned “The Georgia Peach” to no end. As a result, Cobb despised the man who became the biggest sports star in the country in the 1920s. In response, Ruth needled the notoriously touchy Cobb every chance he got. “The Sultan of Swat” realized that as his fame grew, Cobb’s dimmed.

Each time the two squared off on a baseball diamond it was a clash of polar opposites, of two different philosophies. It was New World vs. Old World. Cobb was a master of what was called “inside baseball”, the art of advancing around the bases 90 feet at a time, in a vicious struggle of daring and wit. It was, he believed, the cerebral approach to the game. By deftly using the bat to propel line drives where the defenders weren’t, Cobb reached base more often than anyone else. Once there, he embarked on more daring base running plays than anyone ever had imagined. His brilliance brought him honors, money, and acclaim. Though he was almost universally hated by his opponents – and many of his own teammates – no one denied his mastery of the National Pastime. He was even a movie star.

Ruth was not much more than a big child when he made it to the big leagues with the Boston Red Sox in 1914. But he was already an incredibly talented athlete. First he was a great pitcher, one of the best lefties in the league, then he hammered the baseball so far and so frequently that the Red Sox had no choice but to write his name on the lineup card every day. In 1918 as a pitcher and part time outfielder he hit 11 homers and led the AL. The following season as a full-time right fielder he hit an eye-popping 29 home runs to again lead the loop. In 1920, his first season wearing the pinstripes of the New York Yankees, Ruth hit an astounding 54 home runs, a total so absurd that it was higher than that of most teams. How did Ruth do it? It was no secret: the man had power in his arms and legs and he was bold enough to use it. While Cobb and Tri Speaker and other champions of the “Dead Ball Era” were still playing the game according to the established strategy of one-run at a time, Ruth was ushering in a new era of fence busting. He shunned the idea of choking up on the bat. He ignored the stigma of strikeouts. He refused to accept that he couldn’t have a high batting average and hit the ball for distance. It never entered his mind that he shouldn’t swing as hard as he could all the time.

That sickened Cobb.

“Anyone can hit a home run if they try,” the Detroit star sneered. “It’s a brute way to approach the game.”

No, Ty didn’t like the way Ruth changed the game. Indeed, it wasn’t long before many batters were imitating The Bambino’s approach at the plate. Two years after Ruth clubbed 54, Rogers Hornsby hit 42. In short order, nearly every team had a slugger who was putting up 20 homers a season.

But in Detroit, Cobb seethed. As of 1920, his career high in homers had been nine in 1909, and many of them were inside-the-parkers. In 1921, perhaps in response to the fuss over Ruth’s exploits, Cobb increased his homers from two the previous season to 12. Later, in 1925, Cobb would famously “try” to hit home runs and blast five in two games, again finishing with 12 for the season. But he refused to change his approach and hit for power. He was an artist with a bat, not a monster.

Their contrasting approach the game was the foundation of Cobb’s hatred of Ruth. Personality differences also played a part, and a feud between the two grew after Ruth’s sale to the Yankees. On June 13, 1924, that feud erupted into a fight at Navin Field in Detroit. As we recently noted in our story about another famous Detroit fight, sometimes things get out of hand in sports.

Cobb was not only the center fielder for the Tigers in 1924, he was also their manager. He wanted nothing more desperately than to win a title as a player/manager, as his friend Speaker had done for the Cleveland Indians in 1920. A championship was the only thing missing from Cobb’s resume as the greatest player in the history of the sport. But he had watched while the flamboyant Ruth led the Yankees to three consecutive pennants, and in ’24 the “Bronx Bombers”, as they were beginning to be called, were on their way to yet another flag.

Entering the Friday afternoon contest, the Tigers were just one game behind the Yankees in the standings. Saddled with a mediocre pitching staff, Cobb was keeping the Tigers in the hunt by using the few good arms he had as much as possible. Meanwhile, his offense was clicking on all cylinders: the team had four .300 hitters in the lineup to face the Yankees that day.

Much to Cobb’s chagrin, the Yankees battered starter Lil Stoner for six runs before he could get anyone out in the third inning. When Ty trotted in from center to take Stoner out of the game, the Yankee bench hurled insults at the Detroit skipper. Cobb glared and filed away the information for use later. The later came fairly soon, when in the fourth inning he reached on an error by Yankee second baseman Ernie Johnson. On an ensuing pitch, Cobb stormed toward second base and threw himself at shortstop Everett Scott, who was covering the bag. The Yankee shortstop went tumbling while the ball trickled at his feet. Cobb stood triumphantly at second with a steal, but he couldn’t come around to score and his team trailed 6-2.

Players were testy throughout the game, possibly due to heckling coming from both benches. Cobb was famous for insulting Ruth’s appearance. The Yankee slugger had a wide, broad nose, and a leathery complexion. As a result, Ty often called Ruth the “N-word” or things of that nature. He also loved to comment on Ruth’s notorious body odor, something the entire league was aware of and snickered about. Ruth, for whatever reason, was a stinky figure on the diamond. One American League first baseman noted that when the Babe reached base, he played a few feet off the bag so he wouldn’t have to take a whiff.

Whatever it was, the teams were on each other the entire game. It wasn’t helped by Sam Jones, the Yankee starting pitcher. A nice enough man off the diamond, Jones was all business on the mound. He earned the nickname “Sad Sam” because of the solemn, serious look he had on the mound. In  the fifth inning, Jones whizzed a fastball past the head of Tigers catcher Johnny Bassler. On the previous play, Bob Jones had dropped down a nice sacrifice bunt and on the play he elbowed New York first baseman Wally Pipp on his way down the basepath. Jones may have had a few choice words for the Tigers bench after throwing at Bassler, but he wasn’t able to actually plunk the catcher. The Tigers scored two runs off Jones in the fifth and sixth innings, a pair on a double off the bat of Bassler. The game was tied at 6-6.

But in the seventh inning the Yankees took control of the game, scoring four runs to build a 10-6 lead. Over the last few innings, each team ducked out of the way of pitches from enemy hurlers. Bery Cole, the lefty brought into the game by Cobb, was having a terrible season. Perhaps in an effort to draw favor from his manager, Cole sent several pitches at Yankee batters. In the eighth he sent Yankee pitcher Milt Gaston into the dirt with a high fastball. In the next frame it got even more ugly.

Ruth led off the top of the ninth, and as he strode to the plate the crowd was primed for something. Both benches had been screaming and hollering insults at each other most of the day. Cole wasted no time – his first pitch was at the Babe’s chin. His next pitch was low and inside, nearly hitting Ruth’s ankles. Still trying to get at Ruth, Cole sent a pitch up at his head. Babe pointed to center field at Cobb and starting jawing at the Detroit manager. Filled with rage, Ruth swung mightily at the first pitch Cole threw near the strike zone. He pooped out. As he trotted back to the bench, Detroit’s dugout continued to give it to him. Ruth lingered near the baseline for a few seconds, hollering back. Cobb circled in center, like a caged tiger.

The next batter was Bob Meusel, the Yankee left fielder. Cole sent his first pitch at Muesel and hit him in the ribs. The usually mild Meusel slammed down his bat and ran to get Cole on the mound. He took a swing at Cole but missed the Tiger pitcher. Umpires Billy Evans and Red Ormsby grabbed Meusel and pulled him away. Ruth emerged from the visiting dugout and made his way toward the startled Cole, but before he could get there he was met by a slew of Tigers. Seeing his teammate surrounded, Meusel slipped away from the umpires and charged back into the middle of the pack of players, both benches emptying. Cobb was one of the players in the scrum, but he stayed outside, far away from the main melee. Maybe he didn’t want to tangle with the much bigger Ruth. Order was restored somewhat, with players just milling about. It seemed that Meusel and Ruth, the two most heated participants, were being shuffled away to their dugout. But then, Ruth suddenly turned and charged toward the Tigers bench, perhaps after hearing another slur. Meusel followed behind him. A fight erupted on the Tiger bench between Ruth and Meusel of the Yankees and Dutch Leonard and Bob Fothergill of the Tigers. Smaller fights were popping up at the same time, with Cobb and Cole taking on Scott and the little manager of the Yankees, Miller Huggins.

More frighteningly, there were now fans spilling out onto the field, enraged by the actions of Ruth and Meusel. One fan found himself in fisticuffs with umpire Evans, who quickly leveled him with a roundhouse punch. Police had to be dispatched to the field to surround the Yankee bench and protect the players. Ruth and Meusel were both hustled away under the stand, and there’s no evidence that Cobb and Ruth ever met with fists that day, though they surely exchanged insults.

The entire debacle took more than 25 minutes as police, the umpires, and ballpark officials tried to restore some order. But by the time the fans were removed from the field and the ballplayers were separated, the game had been officially forfeited by the umpiring crew. The Yankees were awarded the game by the score of 10-6, and the final inning would not be completed.

The Yankees would win the next afternoon at Navin Field, too. Then they left town, but Babe Ruth never quite left the mind of Ty Cobb. Years later, the two would meet each other in a series of charity golf matches. Cobb practiced for weeks prior to make sure that he would come out on top of his old rival.


5 replies on “When the Tigers, Yankees, Cobb, and Ruth brawled in Detroit at Navin Field

  • Dan Holmes

    george – this photo was taken with a group of Detroit business leaders prior to a game. Not sure who the gentlemen are. Thanks for reading our blog!

  • Bradley

    Fascinating. Great era of baseball. Tigers in WS 1907 08 & 09. Ty didn’t hit particularly well in the three Det losses.
    Both Ty and the Babe are both fascinating gentleman, both on and off the ballfield.

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