By Glen Sparks
Czarist Russia was a nasty place for anyone Jewish. Government pogroms (Russian for “harm” or “destruction”) led to rioting and to thousands of injuries and deaths.
Cruel orders such as the May Laws added more burdens to an already difficult life. Decreed by Alexander III in May 1882, the laws prohibited Jewish residents from settling in agricultural areas, forcing them into urban ghettos. May Laws also created a quota system in higher education and for professional jobs.
Many Jewish residents fled Russia for a better life. William and Ida Goldstein, along with their three children, escaped from Odessa, Russian Federation (present-day Ukraine). Isidore Goldstein was born June 6, 1908, not long before his parents and siblings left for New York City. Izzy mostly grew up in the Bronx and graduated from James Monroe High School.
The product of a faraway place, Izzy quickly picked up on the American game. Not much of a student, he preferred to play baseball. A 6-foot-tall, slender right-hander, Izzy hurled a powerful fastball. The Detroit Tigers liked him and signed him. They assigned Izzy in 1928 to the Wheeling, West Virginia, Stogies of the Class C Mid-Atlantic League. Young Goldstein went 12-9 with a 3.61 ERA.
Izzy followed up that campaign by going 12-8 and 2.74 ERA for the Evansville, Indiana, Hubs of the Three-I League in 1929 and 14-11 with a 3.52 ERA, in 1930, again for Evansville. The pitcher packed his bags for sunny California the next season. The Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League wanted him. In the end, though, Izzy pitched in the Texas heat in 1931 for the Class A Beaumont Exporters.
The Detroit Tigers invited Goldstein to spring training in 1932. He pitched well; the Tigers sent him back to Beaumont, anyway. There, Izzy put up his best numbers yet. He started the season by going 6-1 with a 1.58 ERA. Those stats were impressive enough for the Tigers brass. Izzy boarded a train, headed for the major leagues.
He pitched his first game for the Tigers on April 24, 1932, against the Chicago White Sox. He got in only one inning of work, in relief of starter George Uhle, who was rocked for five earned runs in just two innings. Izzy gave up just one hit, and he struck out a batter. Unfortunately, he allowed three walks, and that led to another Chicago run. Of note, the White Sox led 9-2 going into the bottom of the eighth inning, but ended up blowing that sizable advantage. The Tigers scored four runs in the eighth and another four in the ninth to win 10-9.
On May 24, Goldstein earned his first big-league win. He started in Detroit against the St. Louis Browns. Izzy gave up single runs in the first and second innings, but the Tigers came back with two runs apiece in the third and fourth. St. Louis answered with a run in the fifth, while Detroit scored two more times in the seventh. Goldstein allowed two runs in the eighth before getting the hook. The Tigers held on to win 6-5. In his 7.1 innings, Izzy gave up 10 hits, walked six and struck out two. He was charged with all five St. Louis runs. Considering that he allowed 16 base runners, it could have been worse.
Izzy’s best game as a big leaguer came June 27 at Comiskey Park in Chicago. He scattered five hits and gave up three runs, one in the first and two in the seventh, as the Tigers beat the White Sox 9-3. Izzy upped his won-loss record to 3-1 as the Tigers improved to 37-27 on the season. The 24-year-old even lowered his ERA to a solid 2.75. And, he never started another game.
Maybe it was the five walks. Goldstein was never one for pinpoint control. Izzy’s last game came exactly one month after his best game. He pitched in relief of starter Earl Whitehill, against the Philadelphia A’s. Walks got him again. He gave up two free passes in two/thirds of an inning, to go along with two hits, and allowed two runs.
The Tigers sent their rookie to pitch for the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League. Izzy Goldstein never pitched another game in the majors. He logged time with Toronto and at some point, he did what pitchers tend to do. He hurt his arm. That only earned him his release from the Tigers. Izzy pitched a little bit and played outfield for some semipro teams in New York, hoping to hook on again in the majors. It never happened. He retired from the game in 1938.
For a while, he sold men’s suits. Then, World War II broke out. Izzy, a single man, got a draft notice in the mail and served in the South Pacific. When the war ended, he went back to selling suits.
Izzy eventually got married. He and the former Carol Levine moved to Florida. Erwin Lynn included Izzy in the book The Jewish Baseball Hall of Fame: A Who’s Who of Baseball Stars. Goldstein pitched in 16 games in the majors. He started six times and tossed two complete games. His ERA ended up at 4.47 over 56.1 innings. He allowed 61 hits and struck out just 14 batters. Most telling, he surrendered 41 walks.
Izzy Goldstein died on September 24, 1993, at the age of 85. He is buried at the Jewish Eternal Light Memorial Gardens in Boynton Beach, Florida.
By Glen Sparks
The Minnesota Twins gave a 40-year-old, self-made ballplayer his first chance at managing in the majors in 1969.
What did the Twins expect from Billy Martin? He relied on modest tools and battled in every game as a player. The tough guy from Berkeley, Calif., hit .257 over 11 big-league seasons, mostly with the New York Yankees. He knocked 64 career home runs and drove in 75 runs in 1953. Martin played in five World Series while in the Bronx (batting .333, 33-for-99) and made a shoestring catch with the bases loaded in Game 7 of the ’52 Series.
Once, he fought Red Sox shortstop Jimmy Piersall underneath the grandstand at Fenway Park. He also duked it out with catcher Clint Courtney of the St. Louis Browns. The word got around: Billy Martin, who did some boxing as a teenager, liked to brawl.
New York shipped Billy out of town midway through the 1957 campaign. Or, about a month after that famous incident at the Copacabana night club in Manhattan. It was Martin’s 29th birthday. He, along with teammate Hank Bauer, Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, decided to celebrate. The evening turned into a mess. Bauer, for instance, slugged a patron.
Yankee brass blamed Martin for being a bad influence. The team shipped him to the Kansas City A’s, a perennial loser. Over his final 4 ½ years in the majors, Martin played on six teams. He drank and fought and got fined and suspended.
Martin did some scouting and minor-league managing after his playing career ended in 1961. He served as skipper of the Twins’ Triple-A team in Denver before getting the major-league gig. Martin ended up managing five different squads and did five tours as the Yankees skipper. He won five division titles, two pennants and one World Series. Then, there was all that other stuff … Once, he battled it out with a marshmallow salesman.
This is a brief rundown of Billy Martin the manager, in the Twin Cities and elsewhere:
Minnesota Twins (1969): Martin’s squad compiled an admirable 97-65 mark in the skipper’s rookie season, 17 games better than in ’68. The Twins finished in first place after sinking to seventh the previous year. Hamon Killebrew pounded 49 home runs; Tony Oliva slugged 24. Rod Carew hit .332 and won the first of his seven batting titles. Jim Perry (20-6, 2.82 ERA) and Dave Boswell (20-12, 3.23) led the pitching staff.
The Baltimore Orioles swept the Twins in three games in the playoffs. Martin started Bob Miller, 5-5 during the regular season, in the final game. Owner Calvin Griffith asked Martin why he would do such a thing. “Because I’m the manager,” Billy replied. Griffith fired him.
Detroit Tigers (1971-73): Detroit, fresh off a 79-83 campaign, hired Martin in the fall of 1971. The new skipper led his squad to 91 victories and to second place in the American League East. The next year, Detroit dropped to 86 wins but still won the division. Veterans like Al Kaline, Norm Cash, Willie Horton, Bill Freehan and Mickey Lolich led Detroit on the field.
Once again, Martin lost in the playoffs. This team, the Oakland A’s beat him. In Game 2, Bert Campaneris, angry at being hit by a pitch, flung his bat at Tigers pitcher Lerrin LaGrow. Martin practically came out his underwear trying to get to Campy.
Detroit fired Martin on Sept. 2, 1973. The team was 71-63, but Billy was wearing out his welcome, as he would so often do. He already had gotten himself arrested during a public disturbance at spring training. Later in the season, he told reporters that he wanted his pitchers to throw spitballs. He also ripped management, the commissioner and everyone else in the newspapers. Billy was great ink.
Texas Rangers (1973-75): Well, it didn’t take Billy long to find a job. The Rangers nabbed him before the season was up. Martin guided the team to a 9-14 mark in the closing weeks (Texas ended up 57-105 after going 54-100 in 72.). Even better, Texas improved to 84-76 in ’74, good for second place in the A.L. West. Young outfielder Jeff Burroughs hit 25 homers, drove in 118 and hit .301 to win the A.L. MVP award. Future Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins won 25 games.
Expectations were high going into ’75. The Rangers, though, struggled. On July 20, with the team 44-51, team owner Brad Corbett fired Martin.
New York Yankees I (1975-78): Once again, Martin didn’t stay out of work for long. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner hired Billy on Aug. 1. The skipper would be going back to his baseball roots. His team went 30-26 to close the season.
The Yankees won the pennant in 1976 and met the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. Cincy swept the Yankees in four games. Billy didn’t even have to watch the final out from the dugout. First-base umpire Bruce Froemming tossed him out in the ninth inning after Martin threw a baseball at home-plate ump Bill Deegan.
New York signed Reggie Jackson as a free agent before the 1977 campaign, won 100 games in the regular season and knocked off the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games in the World Series. Steinbrenner, a.k.a. The Boss, gave Billy a fat bonus and a new car. Everything looked good until midway through ’78. Martin uttered his famous quote on Jackson and George: “One’s a born liar (Jackson) and the other’s convicted (George, who pleaded guilty in 1974 to making illegal contributions to Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign).” Martin resigned July 24. … (Billy kept a mustache for much of his managerial career. He looked a bit like cartoon villain Snidely Whiplash, famed nemesis of Dudley Do-Right.)
New York Yankees II (1979): Well, why stay mad? Steinbrenner hired Billy to right the ship after the Yanks got off to a slow start in ’79. Billy led the team to a 55-40 mark. New York finished 89-71 overall, good but not good enough to make the playoffs. Steinbrenner fired him at the end of the year. (This was the year that Billy clobbered the marshmallow salesman during a bar brawl. The guy, Joseph Cooper, required 15 stiches to close up his injury.)
Oakland A’s (1980-82): Billy, who grew up near Oakland, was going home. Charlie Finley, one of baseball’s most eccentric owners (orange baseballs, a mechanical rabbit that would pop up near home plate and deliver new baseballs to the umpire, etc.) hired him to lead a team filled with talented pitchers like Mike Norris, Brian Langford and Matt Keough. The three combined for 72 complete games in 1980; Oakland finished second at 83-79.
The next year, the split season of 1981, Oakland made the playoffs but got bounced out by the Yankees. Once again, the A’s starters threw a ton of complete games. Following a disappointing 1982 season (68-94, fifth place in the A.L. West), Billy got the boot. The biggest criticism? He burned out those starting pitchers.
New York Yankees III (1983): The third time is a charm, right? Well, sorta. The Yanks did manage to go 91-71. The problem was, that was only good for third place in the division. This was the year of the infamous pine-tar game, by the way. The Kansas City Royals’ George Brett hit a two-run homer in the top of the ninth inning at Yankee Stadium to give K.C. the lead. Or, so everyone though. Martin, a stickler for details, knew that Brett liked to lather up the bat with pine-tar, even more so than the rules allowed. The umps agreed, took the runs off the board, and Brett—as the video shows—went berserk. (Baseball later overruled the umps.) Anyway, Steinbrenner canned Martin about a week before Christmas this time.
New York Yankees IV (1985): This is when it got funny. George fired team icon Yogi Berra 16 games into the season and hired Billy. The Yanks got into a groove and went 91-54 under the new/old skipper. They were only 6-10 under Berra, though, and missed the playoffs. This time, Steinbrenner cut Martin loose on Oct. 27, a few days before Halloween. Things were getting scary.
New York Yankees V (1988): This is when it got farcical. Martin replaced Lou Piniella as skipper nearly 100 games into the season, went 40-28 and got fired. Most people didn’t care at this point. It was getting silly.
There was no Billy Martin VI. Martin died Dec. 25, 1989, in a one-vehicle accident in Fenton, N.Y. He was 61 years old. The man who once dubbed himself “the proudest Yankee of them all” is buried at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, N.Y., not far from the greatest Yankee of them all, Babe Ruth.
By Glen Sparks
A con named Jimmy Karella wrote to Billy Martin about Ron LeFlore.
Billy was managing the Detroit Tigers at the time. Karella supposedly had been one of Martin’s old drinking buddies, one of many.
LeFlore, Karella relayed, was spraying line drives all over the Jackson, Mich., State Penitentiary baseball field. And, the guy could outrun just about everybody. There was just one problem. Ronald LeFlore, born June 16, 1948, owed the state a few more years on an armed robbery conviction.
Martin, determined as always, made a few phone calls. He arranged a tryout for LeFlore at Tiger Stadium in the summer of 1973.
The longshot prospect had been a former heroin user and small-time drug dealer. Now, he spent his days and nights inside a maximum-security penitentiary. How many more chances did he have?
Karella got the scouting report right. LeFlore belted shots all over Tiger Stadium. He busted it down the first-base line. Detroit signed him to a deal. LeFlore met the conditions for parole: He had a job.
Detroit called up LeFlore mid-way into the 1974 season. As a rookie, he hit .260 in 59 games and stole 23 bases. (Martin, predictably, didn’t get to see any of this from the Detroit dugout. The Tigers fired him late in the ’73 campaign after Billy told reporters that he liked his pitchers to throw spitballs. Ralph Houk replaced Martin.)
By 1975, LeFlore had won the full-time centerfield job. The next year, he stole 58 bases and earned a spot on the American League All-Star team. LeFlore also scored 100 runs; he collected a career-high 212 hits and blasted 16 homers. In 1978, he led the A.L. in runs scored (126) and stolen bases (68).
One in a Million: The Ron LeFlore Story, a made-for-TV movie, premiered on CBS on Sept. 26, 1978. LeVar Burton, of Roots fame, played LeFlore. Billy Martin, not surprisingly, played himself.
The former con, the teenage drug abuser from the tough streets of Detroit, had turned around his life. Baseball fans liked to talk about Ron LeFlore. They looked at him as a last-chance guy who made good, playing America’s game.
But, the truth got all muddled up. LeFlore still fought to stay out of trouble. The Tigers traded him following the 1979 season. LeFlore had just scored 110 runs and stolen 78 bases, and Detroit shipped him to the Montreal Expos for journeyman pitcher Dan Schatzader. Tigers Manager Sparky Anderson didn’t like LeFlore’s attitude or his friends. The drug use whispers began.
LeFlore spent one season in Montreal. He swiped a career-high 97 bags in just 139 games. Unfortunately, the drug talk—cocaine and heroin—got louder. Montreal opted not to re-sign the speedy outfielder.
The Chicago White Sox gave LeFlore another chance. They signed him to a two-year free agent deal. LeFlore fell fast. He played two injury-riddled seasons and hit only four home runs (He did steal 64 bases). His off-field life turned into a mess. Police arrested him at one point on drug charges and illegal gun possession.
Chicago released him in the spring of 1983; no one picked him up. LeFlore hit .288 in nine seasons (.342 on-base percentage) and swiped 455 bags. He ripped 59 homers and drove in 353. LeFlore topped the 90-run mark and the 50-stolen base mark four times each.
LeFlore later admitted that he was four years older than previously reported. So, he was 34 when he retired, not 30. That probably helps explain the quick drop in his baseball numbers.
Then, things got worse. LeFlore couldn’t find a job. He worked for a while as a baggage handler for Eastern Airlines and then went to the famous Joe Brinkman umpire school. LeFlore did so poorly he didn’t even merit a minor-league job.
More embarrassment followed. Police arrested him in Detroit on Sept. 27, 1999, for unpaid child support, following a ceremony marking the final game played at Tiger Stadium. On May 5, 2007, police arrested LeFlore again for non-payment, this time while he was signing autographs at a show.
Five years ago, LeFlore lost his right leg to arterial vascular disease, caused by a lifetime of cigarette smoking. Now, he gets along carefully in a prosthetic leg and lives in the Tampa, Fla., area.
LeFlore, 68, says he still loves the game of baseball. He can offer some valuable lessons, he says. Ron LeFlore is asking for just one more chance.
By Glen Sparks
They’re going to play baseball again at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull in Detroit.
Construction is scheduled to begin in April on a youth sports center where Tiger Stadium once stood. The new headquarters of the Detroit Police Athletic League (PAL) will feature a baseball field, as well as a field for soccer and football.
The $12 million facility, located in the city’s historic Corktown neighborhood, will be 9 ½ acres. A mixed-use development, called The Corner (one of the nicknames for Tiger Stadium) also is part of the construction plan.
Tiger Stadium opened April 20, 1912, as Navin Field, named for then-owner Frank Navin. The steel-and-concrete park, which cost $300,000 to build, opened the same day as Fenway Park in Boston. Navin Field replaced Bennett Park, also located at Michigan and Trumbull avenues.
Following Navin’s death in 1935, Walter Briggs bought the team. He renamed the park Briggs Stadium, Seating capacity increased from 23,000 to 36,000. A few years later, 17,000 more seats were added.
Joe Fetzer, a radio and television executive, bought the team in 1961. He also re-christened the ballpark Tiger Stadium. (The Lions played on this site from 1938 through 1974.)
Through the years, the Tigers won nine pennants and four World Series (1935, ’45, ’68 and ’84) at Navin Field/Briggs Stadium/Tiger Stadium. Players proudly wore the Olde English “D” on their caps. This was the home of Ty Cobb, Mickey Cochrane, Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenberg, Hal Newhouser, Al Kaline, and so many other players. Rudy York, Bill Freehan, Willie Horton, Norm Cash …
Mike Ilitch, the head of Little Caesars Pizza, bought the Tigers in 1992. He made some cosmetic changes to Tiger Stadium and began working on plans for a new park. The Tigers played their last game at Michigan and Trumbull on Sept, 27, 1999. They beat the Kansas City Royals 8-2.
Comerica Park opened April 11, 2000, at 2100 Woodward Ave.
10 things you might not know about Tiger Stadium highlights:
- Detroit first baseman Johnny Neun turned an unassisted triple play against the Cleveland Indians on May 31, 1927.
- Detroit fans gave the St. Louis Cardinals’ Joe “Ducky” Medwick a fruit-filled shower in Game Seven of the 1934 World Series. The fans didn’t like the way Medwick slide into Tigers third baseman Marv Owen earlier in the game.
- New York Yankees sluggers Babe Ruth notched home run No. 700 on July 13, 1934. The ball sailed over the right-field and supposedly traveled more than 500 feet on the fly.
- Joe Louis defended his heavyweight title by knocking out contender Bob Pastor Sept. 20, 1939, in the 11th round.
- The Boston Red Sox’ Ted Williams belted a three-run homer to win the 1941 All-Star game 7-5.
- The Tigers and Yankees slugged a combined 11 home runs on June 23, 1950. The Tigers won the game 10-9.
- The Washington Senators’ Frank Howard, the Capital Punisher, cranked his 10th home run in a six-game span on May 18, 1968. Not surprisingly, the 6-foot-7 Howard belted the ball onto the roof.
- Detroit ace Denny McClain beat the Oakland A’s on Sept. 14, 1968, to win his 30th game of the season, the first pitcher to reach that milestone since Dizzy Dean in 1934.
- Reggie Jackson crushed a home run off Dock Ellis during the 1971 All-Star game. The ball plastered a light-standard transformer on the right-field roof.
- Detroit phenom Mark Fidrych talked to the baseball at Tiger Stadium and everywhere else he pitched. Fidrych fashioned a 19-9 won-loss in his rookie season of 1976. Arm problems followed. He retired with a 29-19 career record.
By Glen Sparks
Walt Dropo stood 6-feet-5 and weighed 220 pounds, a giant of a man in 1950s baseball. Dropo pounded baseballs in the first year of that decade, his rookie season. He looked as solid and as powerful as a brand-new Chevrolet.
“The Moose” from Moosup, Conn., tied Boston Red Sox teammate Vern Stephens for the American League lead in RBI with 144. He slammed 34 home runs (second to Al Rosen’s 37), hit .322 (eighth in the league) and slugged .583 (runner-up to Joe DiMaggio’s .585).
Not surprisingly, the writers voted Dropo the A.L. Rookie of the Year. The right-handed hitter finished sixth in the league in the MVP race.
Did the Red Sox have yet another slugger on their hands? Someone to go with Stephens, Bobby Doerr and the great Ted Williams? Not really, as it turns out.
The first baseman never again posted the big-time numbers that he did in 1950. He played 13 years and cranked 152 home runs. He hit .270 lifetime with a .326 on-base percentage and .432 slugging percentage. The one-time All-Star (1950, of course) accumulated 3.5 career oWAR points (baseball-reference.com), 3.1 of them in his first full season.
The Moose, born Jan. 30, 1923, hailed from a family of immigrants. His parents were born in present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina in southeastern Europe. Savo and Mary Dropo settled with their family of five children on a one-acre farm in rural Connecticut. Young Walt milked cows, bailed hay and chopped wood.
The young man grew up big and strong. He earned a football scholarship to the University of Connecticut and also served in World War II. Cpl. Dropo mostly helped rebuild bridges in Europe for the Army Corps of Engineers.
Following the war, Dropo returned to UConn and athletic glory. Finally, he had a choice to make: Play pro baseball or play in the NFL for George Halas and the Chicago Bears. (Halas knew a big, athletic guy when he saw one.) The Red Sox and owner Tom Yawkey offered Dropo a tryout and, after Dropo peppered line drives all over Fenway Park, offered him a fat check. Yawkey’s money beat out Halas’s.
Dropo debuted with the Red Sox in late 1949 and hit just .146 in 41 at-bats. That modest cup of coffee led into his big rookie campaign. Among others, Dropo beat out the New York Yankees’ Whitey Ford for ROY honors. (Ford, a future Hall of Famer, went 9-1 in 1950 with a 2.81 ERA.)
The promising ballplayer broke a wrist in 1951 and was never the same. He hit just .239 that season with 11 homers in 99 games. Dropo played only 37 games for the Red Sox in 1952 before being traded to the Detroit Tigers in a nine-player deal on June 3.
In his 115 games with the Tigers, Dropo slammed 23 homers after hitting six in Boston. That combined total of 29 would be the second-best mark of his career. Dropo drove in 96 runs for the ’53 Tigers and smacked 19 homers for the 1955 Chicago White Sox.
Dropo struggled over the last several years of his career. He hit 13 home run for the White Sox in 1957, the last time he would reach double figures. The Baltimore Orioles released Dropo on May 20, 1961.
In his post-baseball career, Dropo did quite well for himself. He worked in real estate and several other business ventures, including a successful family fireworks company. Moose also made community relations appearances on behalf of the Red Sox.
This is also of note: In part due to his ethnic roots in Serbia, Dropo held a sympathetic spot for minorities in baseball. He was friends with White Sox teammate Minnie Minoso, for instance, and went to a Nat King Cole concert with Larry Doby.
Once, Dropo got into a fight with the St. Louis Cardinals’ Enos Slaughter after Slaughter began race-baiting Doby at Comiskey Park. Big Wally Dropo wrestled Slaughter to the ground and put a quick end to the nastiness.
Dropo died Dec. 17, 2010, at the age of 87.
By Glen Sparks
Ty Cobb played 24 seasons in the major leagues, 3,034 games. Every game was a battle, every season a war. “Cobb was pursued by demons,” MLB historian John Thorn has said.
Born Dec. 18, 1886, in Narrows, Ga., Tyrus Raymond Cobb grew up the son of a school-teacher dad and wealthy mom. Young Ty idolized his dad, who wanted his son to study law or medicine, not play baseball.
The game fascinated young Cobb, though, and he began trying out for various semi-pro clubs. He figured to make it big as a ballplayer and make his dad proud. On Aug. 8, 1905, Amanda Cobb fatally shot her husband, William Herschel Cobb. Charged with murder, Mrs. Cobb was later acquitted of the charge.
W.H. Cobb had suspected his wife of adultery. He left home one night and hoped to sneak back and catch his wife in an act of infidelity. Amanda Cobb shot her husband when she saw a silhouette in the window.
“He never got to see my play,” Ty Cobb always said.
One of the greatest players ever—maybe the greatest ever—competed with a sense of fury in large part because of what happened on that humid August night in 1905.
This is a summary of the life of Ty Cobb.
- “A ball bat is wondrous weapon.” – Ty Cobb
- Cobb batted .240 (150 at-bats) in his rookie season of 1905. He hit at least .316 in every season after that.
- The Georgia Peach won 12 batting titles over his 24-year career (1905-23). He topped the A.L. in hitting every year from 1907-15 and from 1917-19.
- Cobb took home the Triple Crown in 1909. He led the league with nine homers, 107 RBI and a .377 batting average.
- In 11 seasons, Cobb drove in at least 90 runs without reaching double digits in homers. His single-season high mark in home runs was 12 (1921 and 1925).
- Cobb always played the game hard. He famously cut the arm of Philadelphia A’s third baseman Frank “Home Run” Baker after sliding on a close play. Death threats from riled-up A’s fans followed.
- “The great American game should be an unrelenting war of nerves.” – Ty Cobb.
- “He lived on the field as though it was hit last day.” – Branch Rickey
- Cobb committed several violent assaults. He held some detestable racial views, especially early in his career. Once, he went into a rage when a black groundskeeper tried to shake his hand. Later, his racial views reportedly mellowed. He called Willie Mays “the only player I’d pay to see.”
- Cobb put together his lone MVP season in 1911. That year, he led all A.L. players in runs scored (147), hits (248), doubles (47), triples (24), RBI (127), batting average (.420), slugging percentage (.621), OPS (1.088), OPS+ (196) and total baes (367). He finished second in homers (eight) and on-base percentage (.467).
- “I never saw anyone like Ty Cobb. No one even close to him. He was the greatest all-time ballplayer.” – Casey Stengel
- Cobb’s regular-season heroics did not extend into the post-season. He hit .200 (4-for-20) in the 1907 Series, .368 in 1908 (7-for-19) but just one extra-base hit, and .231 (6-for-26) in 1909. The Tigers lost all three Series.
- Cobb served as player-manager for Detroit from 1921-26. His squads compiled a 479-444 (.519) mark and finished as high as second place (83-71-1) in 1923.
- When he retired, Cobb held the major league records for games played (3,035), at-bats (11,434), runs scored (2,246), hits (4,189), total bases (5,854) and batting average (.366). He held the 20th century mark for most career stolen bases (892).
- All told, Cobb led the league in OPS 10 times, hits and slugging percentage eight times, on-base percentage seven times and stolen bases six times.
- Cobb left baseball a wealthy man. He owned thousands of shares of Coca-Cola, along with three bottling plants. He helped build the Cobb Memorial Hospital in Royston, Ga., (now part of the Ty Cobb Regional Medical Center) and the Cobb Educational Fund for needy college-bound students.
- In 1936, Cobb received more votes than any other player on the Baseball Hall of Fame’s inaugural ballot. Writers gave him 222 of 226 possible votes (98.2 percent).
- “You’ve got to remember, I’m 73.” – Ty Cobb later in life, explaining why he might hit just .300 against the day’s pitchers.
- Cobb died July 17, 1961, at the age of 74. He is buried in Rose Hill Cemetery in Royston, Ga.
By Glen Sparks
Denny McLain made winning look easy in 1968. He did it more than 30 times.
He challenged hitters with right-handed fastballs and sliders. He stood on the mound, the brim of his cap turned low, and looked into catcher Bill Freehan for the sign.
McLain, in the Year of the Pitcher, compiled a 31-6 won-loss record with a 1.96 ERA (154 ERA+). He completed 28 of his 41 starts and threw 336 innings. The writers voted him both the American League Cy Young Award winner and the league MVP. McLain was just 24 years old, already in his sixth big league season.
The following year, 1969, he finished 24-9 with a 2.80 ERA (134 ERA+). McLain completed 23 games and hurled nine shutouts. (He tossed six shutouts in ’68.) Once again, the writers voted him the A.L. Cy Young Award. This time, he ended up sixth in the MVP voting.
At this point, he sported a 114-57 career won-loss record (.667 winning percentage). Then, Dennis Dale McLain made a mess of things. He played just three more seasons. The young veteran struggled to go 17-34 (.333), the victim of a sore arm and his own foolish decisions.
Once, the future looked so promising for McLain. Detroit brought him up to the big club late in the 1963 season. The Chicago native and Mount Carmel High School graduate went 2-1 in 21 innings. The next year, he finished 4-5 in 100 innings and followed that by going 16-6 with a 2.61 ERA (134 ERA+) in 1965.
McLain’s ERA soared to 3.92 in 1966. He still went 20-14 and made the All-Star team, thanks in large part to a 13-4 start. McLain faded again in ’67. He won 17 games but none after Aug. 29. He put up another pedestrian ERA, too, 3.79.
McLain said his problems began that year when he stubbed two toes after hearing some raccoons making a ruckus outside his house. Detroit teammates insisted that McLain hurt his foot by kicking a water cooler in the dugout. The Tigers lost out to the Boston Red Sox in the pennant race.
Detroit easily won the pennant in 1968, going 103-59 and finishing 13 games ahead of the second-place Baltimore Orioles. McLain won his 30th game on Sept. 14, a 4-3 decision against the Oakland A’s. He won his 31st game less than a week later. No pitcher had won 30 games since Dizzy Dean did it for the 1934 St. Louis Cardinals.
The Tigers played the Cardinals in the ’68 Series. Detroit won the Series in seven games, but St. Louis ace Bob Gibson got the best of McLain. Coming off an incredible season highlighted by a 1.12 ERA over 304 innings, Gibson went 2-1 with a 1.67 ERA against the Tigers. McLain went 1-2 with a 3.24 ERA.
Not surprisingly, McLain hit the banquet circuit—hard–in the fall of 1968 and winter of ’69. He signed endorsement deals, did talk shows and ended up in Las Vegas a time or two. He did the same thing the next year. Trouble inevitably followed.
Sports Illustrated published a story in 1970 titled “Denny McLain and the Mob, Baseball’s Big Scandal.” The text was even worse than the headline. McLain, the article alleged, had fallen in deep with the Syrian mob in Flint, Mich. Not long afterward, the pitcher filed for bankruptcy, a $200,000 salary notwithstanding.
Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn put down the hammer. He suspended McLain for nearly a half-season. McLain came back July 1, but on Aug. 28, he tossed a bucket of ice water on top of some local sports writers. The Tigers’ brass didn’t get the joke. McLain was suspended for seven days.
Just a few day later, Kuhn found out that McLain had carried a gun onto a team flight earlier in the year. The commissioner told McLain to sit down. McLain ended the 1970 campaign with a 3-5 won-loss record and a 4.63 ERA.
Detroit, to no one’s surprise, traded McLain in the offseason. The Washington Senators, to everyone’s surprise, picked him up. McLain and Washington skipper Ted Williams, to no one’s surprise, hated each other. McLain, winner of 31 games just a few years before, led the A.L. in losses in 1971. He went 10-22 with a 4.28 ERA (77 ERA+).
By the end of the 1972 season, split between Oakland and Atlanta, McLain was out of major league baseball. His career record stood at 131-91. He was 29 years old. His troubles continued. He said his arm hurt, but he was out of shape. He kept putting on weight. He drank one Pepsi cola after another.
McLain made several business investments. Almost all of them were bad. He filed for bankruptcy again. Supposedly, he did some loan sharking. One story is that he flew his airplane out of the country with a fugitive in the passenger seat.
The U.S. Justice Department filed a bunch of charges against him (racketeering, cocaine trafficking, etc.) and got enough of them to stick. A judge sentenced McLain to 23 years, but the ballplayer only did 30 months. An appellate court threw out the case.
In 1993, for reasons known but to God or the Devil himself, McLain and a buddy bought an old meat-packing company in Michigan. Pretty soon, $3 million was gone from the company’s pension fund, and the feds wanted to know why. McLain faced another round of charges and spent seven years in a jumpsuit.
This is Denny McLain post-1969 in a nutshell: In 2011, the former pitcher took the wrong exit and accidentally drove into Canada from Michigan. He turned around, but, he had to go through U.S. Customs on the way back. Lo and behold, McLain had an outstanding warrant. He sat in jail for a week before being released.
By Glen Sparks
Willie Horton climbed aboard a truck in the Detroit summer of 1967. He pleaded for peace in a city ready to burn.
The problems began several hours before, on July 23rd at 12th and Clairmount streets. A police raid at the Blind Pig bar grew into a disturbance and escalated into a riot.
Horton heard about the melee while playing a doubleheader at Tiger Stadium against the New York Yankees. Afterward, he ignored strong advice from team officials to avoid the trouble spot.
The muscular left-fielder, born Oct. 18, 1942, in Arno, Va., grew up in the Motor City, one of 21 brothers and sisters. He graduated from Northwestern High School in 1959 and signed with the Tigers in 1961. Horton saw limited duty with the big club in 1963 and 1964. He pounded 29 home runs and drove home 104 runs in 1965. The right-handed hitter followed up by ripping 27 homers and bringing home 100 runs in 1966.
Ankle problems had been plaguing Horton in ’67. The Tigers were in the thick of the American League pennant race, battling the Boston Red Sox, Minnesota Twins, Chicago White Sox and California Angels.
The Tigers boasted an outstanding group of players, led by Horton, Bill Freehan, Norm Cash and future Hall of Famer Al Kaline in the everyday line-up and Earl Wilson, Mickey Lolich and Denny McLain on the mound. Mayo Smith managed the club.
In a city with a large black population, the African-American Horton was one of the team’s most popular stars. Probably everyone knew who he was when he stepped onto the roof of that truck and urged the rioters to stop. He was, after all, still wearing his Tigers uniform as he spoke, the classic Olde English “D” prominent on his uniform chest.
Tragically, Horton’s words did not stop the riot. The trouble-makers did not go home, as he urged. “What I witnessed on those streets, scared me,” Horton recalled years afterward.
It all turned into a tragedy. Before the entire mess ended five days after it began, 43 people were dead and nearly were 1,200 injured. About 2,000 buildings had been destroyed. Police made more than 7,200 arrests. President Lyndon Johnson ordered the 82nd and 101st airborne divisions onto the scene.
“It was a completely helpless feeling,” Horton said later.
Detroit finished tied for second place with the Minnesota Twins in ’67, one game behind the Boston Red Sox. Horton, battling that sore ankle, hit 19 homers in 122 games. The following year, he rebounded for a career-high 36 homers. McLain won 31 games, and the Tigers (103-59) cruised to an American League pennant. They beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series, and Horton batted .304.
Horton played 18 seasons in the majors, 15 of them in Detroit. He retired after the 1980 campaign with 325 homers and 1,163 RBI. Horton did some coaching following his playing career. Not surprisingly, he also has spent much of his time doing charity work, for the Boys and Girls Club of America, Meals on Wheels, Red Cross and the Foundation for Fighting Blindness. His Horton Foundation gives scholarships to needy students in inner-city Detroit. The former ballplayer also serves as a special assistant in the Tigers’ front office.
As it has done every Oct. 18 for the last several years, the state of Michigan will celebrate Willie Horton Day today. Happy birthday to a man with a big heart.
By Glen Sparks
The first thing to know about Orval Overall is that his name really was Orval Overall.
Mom and pop Overall did not bless their son with a middle name, either. Nor did Orval ever go by a nickname. He was simply, and forever, “Orval Overall,” born Feb. 2, 1881, in Farmerville, Calif., less than an hour from Fresno.
The right-handed pitcher grew up on the sandlots of central California, attended the University of California-Berkeley and enjoyed a seven-year career in the major leagues. He spent most of that time with the Chicago Cubs.
Overall broke in with the Cincinnati Reds in 1905 and compiled a hefty 18-23 won-loss mark. The following year, he started off 4-5, and Cincinnati shipped him to Chicago. Overall cruised to a 12-3 record the rest of the way. He enjoyed a 23-7 season in 1907.
The mighty Cubs ruled the National League (107-45) in ’07, finishing 17 games ahead of the second-place Pittsburgh Pirates. Chicago met the Detroit Tigers in the World Series. Overall pitched two games, went 1-0 and had a 1.00 ERA. The Cubs beat the Tigers in four straight.
The following year, Chicago won 99 games, just one game more than the New York Giants. The Cubs claimed the pennant in part due to Merkle’s Boner, maybe the greatest base-running gaffe in baseball history. (Read more about that here.)
Once again, Chicago met Detroit in the World Series. The Cubs won a 10-6 slugfest in Game 1. Overall pitched one/third of an inning in relief and was charged with one earned run. He started Game 2 and gave up a lone run over nine innings. Chicago won 6-1.
Detroit beat Chicago 8-3 in Game 3 and lost 4-0 in Game 4. Overall started Game 5, the potential World Series clincher. On this date in 1908, Orval shut out the Detroit Tigers 2-0 at Bennett Park in Detroit. He gave up three hits, walked four and struck out 10 in front of the smallest crowd in World Series history (6,210).
As you’re probably aware, no Cubs team has celebrated a Series title since Overall and that 1908 team popped champagne. To put it all into perspective (This is always entertaining.), in 1908:
- Tolstoy was still alive. So was Mark Twain.
- Machine Gun Kelly turned 8. Bugsy Siegel turned 2.
- The start of World War I was still six years away. The Spanish-American War had been over for just a decade.
- Winston Churchill married Clementine.
- The movie, In the Sultan’s Power, was released. It was the first film completely made in Los Angeles. The city of L.A. had about 300,000 residents when the cameras started rolling.
- Henry Ford introduced the Model T.
Overall, the star of the 1908 World Series, threw 18.1 innings with a 0.93 ERA. He continued his fine pitching in 1909, going 20-11 with a 1.42 ERA (179 ERA+). The Cubs won 104 games and still finished 6.5 games behind the Pirates.
In 1910, Overall ended up 12-6. He missed several starts due to a sore arm, probably caused by tossing too many curveballs. Overall threw a nasty bender. The Cubs won 104 games once again; this time it was enough. The Philadelphia A’s, though, beat the Cubs in five games in the World Series.
Overall figured that he was done. His arm ached. He left for California to work in—get this—a gold mine that he co-owned with teammate Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown. He also played some semi-pro ball.
Overall returned to big-league ball, and to the Cubs, in 1913. He went a pedestrian 4-5 in 11 games, with a 3.31 ERA. Overall retired with a 108-71 mark and a 2.23 ERA (123 ERA+) in the run-suppressed dead-ball era.
Following baseball, Overall ran and lost a bid for Congress, made a lot of money in real estate and ran the family’s citrus farm. He also worked as an executive at a local bank. Overall died July 14, 1947, in Fresno, Calif. He was 66 years old.
By Glen Sparks
Rocky Colavito, being Italian and a Bronx guy from a certain time, idolized Joe DiMaggio while growing up. He wanted to be just as good and just as smooth as No. 5, the famous Yankee Clipper.
Colavito learned the game while playing on the New York City sandlots. He could hit, and, boy, could he throw. The kid had a cannon for an arm, and he liked to show it off.
The Cleveland Indians signed Colavito as a 17-year-old following a tryout at Yankee Stadium. Colavito hit from an open stance, just like Joe D. Unfortunately, he didn’t slug like DiMaggio. Even minor-league curveballs broke harder than they did on the sandlots. Cut the DiMaggio impression, a minor-league coach said.
Rocco Domenico Colavito, born Aug. 10, 1933, took the advice and went on to enjoy a fine major-league career (1955-68). He hit 374 home runs and drove in 1,159 runs over 14 seasons. The 6-foot-3-inch slugger with the mighty forearms topped 30 home runs seven times and 40 homers three times.
Batting from the right side, he hit.266 lifetime (.489 slugging percentage), with a .359 on-base percentage. The Rock made six All-Star teams and finished in the top five in MVP voting three times.
The Indians called up Colavito early in the 1956 season. He promptly smacked 21 homers in 101 games and batted 276 (OPS+ 135), finishing runner-up to Chicago White Sox shortstop Luis Aparicio for A.L. Rookie of the Year.
His career really took off in 1958. He smashed 41 home runs and placed third in the MVP race. In 1959, he led the league with 42 homers and was never better than on June 10 in Baltimore. Rocky ripped four home runs in four at-bats, walked once, drove in six and scored five times.
The Sporting News declared Colavito as the man most likely to break Babe Ruth’s record of hitting 60 home runs in one season. That he never did. But, from 1958-66, Colavito clubbed 323 round-trippers, averaging almost 36 per year. Unfortunately for the Cleveland fans, Colavito hit 173 of them for other teams.
Frank Lane was the Cleveland general manager during Colavito’s time. People called him “Trader” Lane for a reason. He loved to think about trades, to talk about trades and, most of all, to make trades. When he was charge of the Cardinals, he even tried to trade Stan Musial.
Lane shipped Colavito to the Detroit Tigers for Harvey Kuenn on April 17, 1960. Fans lit up the switchboard at Municipal Stadium. They couldn’t believe it. Just about every Indians fan hated the deal. It didn’t seem right; it didn’t seem fair. One baseball executive put it this way: “The Indians traded a slow guy with power for a slow guy with no power.”
An outfielder like Colavito, Kuenn hit for a high average and led the A.L. with a .353 batting average in 1958. He also topped the circuit in doubles three times. But, he didn’t hit home runs. He topped out at a dozen in 1956. Kuenn only spent one season by Lake Erie, batting .308 (118 OPS+). Cleveland sent him to the San Francisco Giants.
Colavito, meanwhile, kept pounding home runs (139 in four seasons with Detroit). In 1964, the Tigers sent him to the Kansas City Athletics, There, he finished with a team-leading 34 dingers.
Finally, Rocky made it back to Cleveland in 1965. Over the next two years, he hit a total of 56 homers. Colavito didn’t slow down until 1967 when he only ripped eight (with the Indians and the White Sox). The next year, he also hit eight (with the Los Angels Dodgers and the New York Mets) and called it quits.
Terry Pluto wrote a book in 1994 titled The Curse of Rocky Colavito. Pluto argued that the 1960 trade of Colavito to Detroit led to an extended playoff drought for the Indians. The team had been a power in the 1950s. They went to the World Series in 1954 (losing to the Giants) and finished in a solid second place in ’59, Colavito’s last year with the Tribe. Not until 1995 did Cleveland return to the postseason. Was it a curse? Well, Pluto, and maybe some others, think so.
Colavito never got much Hall of Fame traction. He stayed on the ballot for two years, getting 0.5 percent of the vote in 1974 and 0.3 percent in ’75. Even so, he remains a legend of sorts in Cleveland, a Rock, if you will.