In the early spring of 1917, the United States declared war on Germany and formally entered World War I. As if to warm up for the real thing, Ty Cobb, the most combative ballplayer of his or any other generation, got involved in one of his most widely publicized frays.
That spring the Detroit Tigers trained in Waxahachie, Texas. On the last day of March, the team traveled to Dallas to open a series of exhibitions against the New York Giants, managed by the feisty John McGraw. Cobb, who had played 18 holes of golf that morning, arrived just before game time. His tardiness earned him an earful from the Giants’ Art Fletcher and Charles “Buck” Herzog, who shouted that the Tigers star was a “showoff” and a “swellhead.”
Ty singled his first time up and yelled to second baseman Herzog that he was coming down on the next pitch. The throw had him easily, but Cobb’s expertly aimed spikes sliced Herzog’s trousers and drew blood. The battle was on. As the two players thrashed about in the dirt, Fletcher an over from his shortstop position to get in his licks. Within seconds Giants, Tigers, and park policemen were knotted around second base.
Order was quickly restored. Cobb was given the thumb by umpire Bill Brennan, a decision that brought a storm of protest from the 5,000 fans who had come to see a favorite son of the South.
Both clubs were staying at the Oriental Hotel. That evening, Herzog interrupted Cobb’s dinner and challenged him to go up to Cobb’s room and finish their business. They agreed to meet in one hour—-which gave Cobb time to clear away the rugs and furniture and to sprinkle the floor with water. Herzog, who had boxed some in the army, arrived wearing tennis shoes, a fateful decision. Several players from both teams jammed the fourth-floor hallway to get a better view of the show, but only the Giants’ Heinie Zimmerman and Detroit catcher Oscar Stanage were allowed into the room as seconds.
Tigers trainer Harry Tuthill refereed the match, which according to everybody present was won by Cobb. As he planned, the slippery floor negated Herzog’s superior boxing skills. Ty, who was wearing leather street shoes for a better grip, had Herzog stretched backwards over the bed and was hammering him when Tuthill finally declared the affair over.
But it wasn’t. McGraw, enraged when he discovered the condition of his badly mauled infielder, accosted Cobb in the hotel lobby the following morning. As a crowd of stunned hotel guests looked on, McGraw “became so vituperative that I had to restrain myself from repeating the performance of Room 404,” Ty said.
Ignoring the pleas of local chambers of commerce and the taunts of the New York team, Cobb refused to take the field for the rest of the Tigers-Giants tour. Instead, he traveled to Cincinnati, where he continued his conditioning with the Reds. The Giants and Tigers finally parted company in Kansas City, where McGraw and the rest of the Giants dashed off a telegram to Cobb: “It’s safe to rejoin your club now. We’ve left.”
“That was the one way the Giants could have the last word,” Cobb retorted in his autobiography. “By mail.”