Episode 1 — Prologue
“Not a man living could do more thrilling things than the boy from Georgia accomplished yesterday; nobody else could duplicate his feats of speed, daring and consummate skill… the greatest individual exhibition ever given by a ball player.”
Detroit Free Press — May 13, 1911
Long shadows from the ramshackle bleachers darkened the infield in the late afternoon sun. Two outs. Two runs down. Two men on base. Full count. The tense crowd’s cheering intensified, knowing that the next pitch would likely end the seventh inning or keep the Tigers’ hopes alive.
Ray Caldwell checked the runners at first and second, before kicking his left leg and firing to the plate. The long, wooden shaft thrust forward, colliding violently with the spit-covered, speeding sphere, propelling it on an upward arc far into the field of play. The batter dropped the bat and his legs churned furiously down the chalk lines to his right, aware that the discolored ball would drop between the charging left and center fielders. Off with the pitch, the two base runners gobbled up dirt at a lightning pace, desperate to complete their circuit around the diamond and erase the two-run deficit.
For an instant, the pounding legs of three runners, with trailing, vanishing swirls of dust, was visible on the diamond: Tex Covington touched the edge of the third base bag with his right foot a split second before Ownie Bush sailed past second, followed by the batter’s frenzied trek around first and sprint toward the keystone sack. Left fielder Birdie Cree retrieved the ball and gunned it to Otis Johnson, who readied for a throw home. Covington reached home standing, but Bush was only twenty feet past third, when the ball left Johnson’s grip in short left field. Seeing the ball hurtling toward the plate, the batter sped past second base and began his dash towards third.
Burly catcher Ed Sweeney crouched in front of home plate, preparing to snare the horsehide sphere surging his way. In the corner of his eye he glimpsed the speedy Bush’s cleats plowing up dirt, bracing for the impending collision. Bush went airborne feet first, just as the ball struck the catcher’s glove. Bush slammed into the catcher’s feet as Sweeney shoved the gloved ball into the charging runner. The force from the collision knocked the catcher onto his back, but the ball remained lodged in his glove. In triumph, Sweeney raised the ball in the air for the third out, an instant before the arbiter thrust both hands out wide, signaling and shouting “Safe.” The crowd ignited in a deafening roar.
Instantly, the incensed catcher leaped to his feet, brandishing the sphere in his right hand. “Are you out of your friggin’ mind! I tagged him before he touched the plate!” Sweeney punched the ball towards the umpire’s head in a prize-fighter’s motion, missing by inches, though the umpire flinched not at all. “What the hell’s wrong with you, dammit!” Slamming the ball back into his glove, Sweeney began tearing at his hair, frantic to change the umpire’s verdict.
Rip Egan, his cap and suit in navy blue, with white shirt and black tie, folded his arms and returned a stoic stare.
In a flash, New York Manager, Hal Chase, exploded out of the dugout to join the fray. “He’s out! And you damn well know it! Be man enough to change the call!”
Caldwell next blistered Egan’s ears, flailing his arms like a windmill. By now, the Yankee infielders had converged on the trio, as the apoplectic Sweeney continued his rants, obsessed to evoke any reaction at all from the motionless man in blue.
The batter, now planted on third, screamed at the fuming Yankees, “Quit your bellyachin’! On with the game!” Sweeney angrily waved off the remarks with a throat-slashing gesture, before directing the arbiter’s attention to the spike marks on his left foot, “Look at the tear in my shoe! He never touched the plate!”
Egan’s face remained expressionless.
The runner on third base studied the spirited debate, aware that the bag was no longer protected. He shuffled off the bag and took a couple of steps down the third base line. Confident that the surrounding players obstructed the catcher’s view, the runner crept further toward the plate. If just one Yankee took note of his advance, he knew the inning would be over and the crowd would condemn his folly.
The debate raged on as each Yankee seemed impatient for his turn to denounce the umpire’s decree.
Suddenly, there was a white blur.
A sharp cry of warning pierced the air from the huddled players.
Sweeney, jolted from his histrionics as the white streak approached, stretched wide to his left to tag the sliding runner, but missed, just as a man would miss one who tried to play tag with a bullet.
From the cloud of dust, the base runner picked himself up on the far side of the rubber, safe as a murderer in Mexico.
The crowd erupted in astonished and delirious cheers as the runner dusted himself off and jogged towards the throng of celebrating teammates, with the eventual game-winning run.
Eyewitness accounts labeled it the “greatest performance in baseball history.” In a single contest, one man had accomplished three incredible and seemingly impossible feats. It started in the game’s introductory frame, when the player scored from first base on a single. Several innings later, the same man scored from second base on a passed ball. In each instance, the ball arrived before the runner, but in each instance the runner somehow managed to avoid the tag. The odds-defying trifecta was then polished off with a steal of home plate, with the catcher holding the ball just five feet away.
Tyrus Raymond Cobb was just getting started.