Episode 5 — Chapter 4
September 9, 1911
Deep in thought, Cobb sat in his rocking chair staring out the large living room window onto the darkened street; Charlie and the children had long since retired for bed. It had been nearly three months since the miracle victory, but a season of such early promise, with the Tigers spinning off 20 wins in their first 22 games, had turned to mediocrity and disappointment. Now ten games off the pace in second place, Cobb’s main motivation was to win his fifth consecutive batting title.
Nearing the end of his greatest season yet, Cobb couldn’t help but feel anxious. His average had soared to .450 in June in the midst of a forty-game hitting-streak during which he had garnered eighty hits—though not a single newspaper commented on it and Cobb himself was ignorant of the feat. Cobb had then seemed a virtual cinch to clinch the batting title, leading all comers by a considerable margin, until Joseph Jefferson Jackson caught fire during the summer months; the American League’s new sensation had been sixty points in arrears at the end of June, but his average had ascended to .400 as August came to an end, and the sixty point gap had been sliced to twelve.
Cleveland was coming to town for their last series of the year with the Tigers, and it would be Cobb’s last head-to-head confrontation with Jackson. Rocking slowly in the wooden chair, Cobb searched his mind for some stratagem that would ensure that there was no repeat of the chicanery which had nearly cost him the batting crown the year before.
Since learning to play baseball at an early age, Cobb quickly realized that a hitter was defined by his batting average. It was the only statistic of import; it labeled a batter a success or failure. Hitting .300 represented the hallmark of excellence during a time when the .300 hitter had become nearly extinct, with the collective major league average hovering barely above .240. In 1905, Cobb’s first season in the big leagues, there was little indication of the star he would soon become since he ended up a point below the league average; that year, Elmer Flick was anointed the batting champion hitting just .308, in a year where only three batters reached .300.
In his second season, Cobb’s average soared eighty points to .320, though he didn’t play a full year. But it was his third year, in 1907, when Cobb became a full-fledged star, winning his first batting title with a lofty .350 in a season where only five other batters managed to reach the .300 mark, and three of them just barely attained that level. After surging to an incredible .377 in 1909 and then surpassing even that lofty mark in 1910 with a stunning .385 average, Cobb had his sights set on a new barrier that had seemed altogether impossible just a couple of years before: .400.
With four straight batting titles under his belt, Cobb was not about to be denied a fifth. He was still scarred by the events of the 1910 campaign. Locked in a tight race with Napoleon Lajoie all year, he had finally widened the gap to seven points on the last day of the season and he looked forward to claiming the new automobile that the Chalmers Company awarded to the top hitter in the major leagues. Along with other starters, Cobb sat out Detroit’s last game, since it had no bearing on the pennant race and his batting title was assured. Meantime, Lajoie and the Cleveland Naps had a season-ending double-header with the worst team in baseball, the St. Louis Browns.
As the sun set on the last day of the campaign, Cobb was shocked to learn that Lajoie had garnered an astonishing eight hits in eight at bats in the double-header, denying Cobb the batting crown by a single point: .384 to .383. Cobb immediately suspected foul play and over the next couple of days, reports emerged that the Browns had ordered their rookie third baseman to play deep behind the bag during both games, thereby enabling Lajoie to bunt successfully every time up after his first trip to the plate.
Cobb knew that his firebrand and cocksure style of play had created many enemies on opposing teams, but he had never expected such flagrant cheating on a wide scale, even to benefit Lajoie, who was adored by players and fans across the country. The American League brass intervened and, after a thorough review of batting records, discovered that Cobb had earned one extra base hit during the season, thereby putting him back over the top by a single point—.385 to .384. Now one year later, Cobb was determined that no batter would come close enough to trigger a similar, sinister plot.
Earlier in the year, Jackson had sought Cobb out before a game and told Cobb how much he idolized him. Cobb, in turn, had praised Jackson’s smooth, effortless swing, admonishing him never to allow anyone to tinker with it. Over the course of the season, a bond formed between the two Southerners and Cobb became a mentor of sorts to the naive and uneducated Jackson. At the beginning of each series with the Naps, Jackson routinely sought out Cobb to say “hello” and engage in small talk when the players warmed up.
As the hall clock chimed midnight, a devious smile formed on Cobb’s face. The more he mulled over the idea, the more brilliant it seemed. If it was executed perfectly, he would be assured of winning his fifth consecutive batting title.