Smokey Joe and the Time Bandit: Chapter 8

Unlike the current team, the 1912 Red Sox had an ace you could depend on and a manager who cared. It is was great. .(Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

With the season lost and the Bobby Valentine circus in full swing, maybe you need something to distract you from this miserable state of affairs. Why not get lost back in a time when the Red Sox had an ace to turn to, when they were the young upstart team in their division and when the Yankees were called the Highlanders and they sucked?Back in 1912, the Red Sox were a safe bet to win almost every night. Intrepid Time Traveler Ryan O'Malley was there and he can tell you all about that bliss season 100 years ago.

Get caught up on the story with the first seven Chapters if you need. They are right here

Chapters

Chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

The Braves series against the Dodgers at the start of May was by far the worst baseball I had witnessed since landing back in 1912. It was probably the worst baseball I had ever seen played by "major league" teams. Both teams were perennial bottom dwellers and it was easy to see why. Both teams lacked talent at a level that would not be possible today. They were basically minor teams and covering that series was excruciating. It was made that much worse by the fact that the Red Sox were traveling to Washington and would face Walter Johnson again. As I dragged myself through the tedious lopsided, error ridden Braves-Dodgers games, I focused on the next home series at Fenway, when Tris Speaker and Ty Cobb would go head-to-head for the first time that year. I had no idea how much my second month after falling back in time would be impacted by Cobb.

The Tigers were a strong team in the early part of the year. Their outfield was a close second to the Boston trio, with Wahoo Sam Crawford, Cobb and a mix of veterans Kangaroo Davy Jones and Jim Delahanty in left. They were an offensively strong team with questionable pitching though, and back then especially, that was not a recipe for success. That would ultimately doom the Tigers in 1912, but they had finished second in 1911 behind the A’s and even after a weak start to the year, many people around the game liked their chances. After all, they had Ty Cobb.

With everything that has been said about Cobb since the time he played, I thought I knew what to expect when I got to the park for the first game against the Tigers. It promised to be a good match up with Smokey Joe Wood taking on Tiger’s ace George Mullin and the two top centerfielders in the game anchoring the offenses. I wanted to see Cobb hit with his trademark hands-apart grip on the bat and see him slide spikes extended toward some defenseless defender. As a writer, I would not really get the chance to boo greatest villain right along with the crowd, but I was looking forward to hearing that sound rise up through Fenway.

The reality of Ty Cobb was not quite what history had painted for me. He was booed and booed hard when he came to plate against Wood in the first, but it was not the vicious, hateful noise I expected. It was almost reverent. Cobb had not yet gone into the stands to beat a crippled man and he was far and away the best position player in the game at that point. Opposing fans hated him and he welcomed the part of the villain, but few people could hide their awe for his abilities.

Watching him opposite Tris Speaker was fantastic. Speaker did not yet have the reputation that Cobb had, but his star was quickly rising. In the first game between the two, Cobb was robbed of a line drive hit by Speaker, who showed no fear in playing the game’s best hitter just seventy-five feet or so behind second base. Wood was once again less than spectacular, allowing four runs, which was a lot of that time, but he was bailed out by Speaker and the rest when they ran up five runs on Mulligan. This was perfect for me. Had Wood dominated opponents, the betting lines would have become less and less profitable for me, but by struggling early so consistently he planted enough doubt in other fans that a sizable group was always willing to go against him, especially if the other team could hit. And the Tigers could certainly hit. Even with Boston at 10-7 entering the game and Detroit under .500 at 9-12, the Tigers got nearly even money with their own ace on the mound. I was sure this kind of good luck would not last long.

After a rainout pushed the game by a day, Boston took the second game behind pitcher Charley Hall. This game was not nearly as close and would hardly have been notable if it weren’t for a few plays involving Cobb. In the second or third inning, he doubled and then tried to tag up on a fly ball to Speaker. It was a terrible read and a reckless play, but it was also the kind of play Cobb always seemed to get away with. His intensity and willingness to challenge other players almost seemed to cast a spell over them. He would dance off first until a pitcher made a wild throw on a pickoff attempt. At third base, he was a complete menace, making false starts and chiding the pitcher and always ready to steal a run if he saw the slightest hesitation. Though, he would never have understood the comparison and been enraged if he did, the player it most reminded me of was Jackie Robinson. Cobb was like one of those old films of the 1947 World Series come to life in a paler shade. This time, though, Cobb was testing Speaker and Speaker was not one to be unnerved. He made a hard throw on target and even Cobb’s high spikes couldn’t save him.

Cobb had one more highlight in him that game though. In his next at bat, the Georgia Peach hooked a lazy curve down the line right field. Harry Hooper closed on it as curved away toward the stands and towards the foul pole that would one day be named for the great Johnny Pesky, who had not even been born at that point. Hooper reached the seats just as the ball arched its way around the pole and into the grandstand. The park was silent for a beat until the umpire circled his finger around, releasing a groan of displeasure from the home crowd. Cobb had Fenway’s second out-of-the-park home run and had just become the first player to make good use of one of the shortest fences in the game. I was the only in the press box who thought this was a significant moment. The rest of the men just shrugged the hook shot off as luck, an event too wildly unlikely to occur again that it only noteworthy as a freakish twist of fate.

Even if there had been more made of that home run, it would have been quickly overshadowed by the events of the next week. The Tigers left Boston for New York and the hapless St. Louis Browns took their place in Fenway. Even with Wood’s struggles, the line against the Browns was horrible at 1-10 and I was tempted to deviate from my plan. I was glad I didn’t, however, as the series was a blowout, with a four game sweep for the Red Sox. In the final game, with Wood and the Sox holding a narrow 2-1 late in the game, the wire at the back of the press box momentarily took over everyone’s attention. A report had come through that Cobb had been ejecting from the game after going into the stands to beat a man. I knew right away what had happened. I had not thought of it before, but of course, 1912 was the year that Cobb had beaten the crippled man in the stands and been suspended for just three games for it. I had not thought about the year at all. Now it was happening and I would have to write about it.

This would be a potential landmine for me. The world of 1912 had become familiar enough to me, but, at times, I had gone to out of my way to avoid the broader social issues that made the world of that time so much more barbaric and unjust a place than our own. Chief among these issues was race and though it was not at all revealed in that first wire transmission, I knew that was to be a central point in this story. Cobb had not just been heckled, I remembered, but he had received a slight that he felt no man could endure- the heckler had implied his mother was black. I knew this detail already and I dreaded the task of reporting on it. To write with the moral indignation of a 21st century man, would have absolutely destroyed my reputation with the vast majority of the Crier’s readership, but I did not want to betray my own sense of justice either. I was lost in thought about this when I heard the tall slim man next to me, an old pro name Tom Mulholland, chuckle

"No surprise in that," the newsman said. "You poke at a tiger, you get mauled."

"Still," I mused, "beating a crippled man."

It was grievous error. The wire had not mentioned the man’s handicaps. That part of the story would probably come out soon, maybe even in the next wire, but there was no way of explaining how I knew it then. The other writers looked at me curiously.

"Crippled?" Tom said. "Who the hell told you the man was crippled? It doesn’t say that here."

I was cornered. It was impossible to explain, of course.

"You want me to give you my sources," I sneered, trying to feign a proper amount of distain for the idea. The veteran reporter gave me a hard look, and then let the matter drop. A base hit drew the collective attention of the group back to the field and that was it. A few minutes later, more of the story came across the wire and Mullholland read it aloud. As he read the description of the beaten man, the other men began following me out of the corners of their eyes.

"Cobb’s heckler- missing both hands- unable to defend himself. Cobb- quote I don’t care if he hasn’t got any feet-end quote." Tom read.

The room was quiet for a split second after he finished. He looked up at me once again then shook his head in wonder. Once again the clatter of heavy keys filled the small box as the race to meet their deadlines pressed the questions of my sources from the other writer’s mind.

I hammered out my own account of the story before the Red Sox had even completed their sweep of the Braves. This story accompanied nearly every discussion of Cobb I had ever encountered and my story, which broke the news to many people in Boston I imagine, was little more than a recitation of versions that had not yet been written. When I pulled the page from my portable type writer and filed it into the case ahead of the more senior men, I caught a few more glances. There was a mix of suspicion and admiration in these looks. Nobody in that box had thought much of me when I first turned up to cover baseball and just like the players on the field, the veteran writers gave rookies the silent treatment. My effects of my gaff were similar to a kid hitting his first home run; it didn’t make me a pro, but it won me some small measure of credibility. I would have felt good about that if I had anyway of explaining myself, but I didn’t. I could only hope that I could continue to dodge any question about my first "scoop" in the name of journalistic integrity.

I rushed out of Fenway early that day, dashing down the ramp the minute that Smokey Joe put the 2-1 lead to bed. I wanted to get the story in as quickly as possible and get to Third Base. With the odds against the Red Sox dropping, I wanted to see if I could take advantage of what might be the last bit of significant news I had knowledge of until the World Series. While I had not remember that Cobb was suspended in 1912, I did know the length of his suspension, which was still be reported as "indefinite" by Ban Johnson’s office. It was always a point of contention for baseball historians that Cobb only served three days suspension for beating a crippled fan. Few people back in 2011 would have glossed over that detail, which was so telling of the tolerance for racism back in "those days" in the minds of the more enlightened future. I was now stuck living in those days and I figured that if I could not right that injustice- and I was sure that I couldn’t- at least I could rip off the future scourge of the game with it. I handed in my articles and went to find Sport Sullivan.

Sullivan was at his usual spot at the bar with a group of gamblers and fans around him. As I made my way to the bar, I heard members of the Royal Rooters chatting about the game and rehashing old arguments about this player and that. I didn’t hear anyone talking about Cobb though. This shouldn’t have surprised me, really. I had just handed in the story, making the early morning deadline by less than an hour. Without the internet, cell phones and twitter accounts, news often took a day or two to circulate. Even these die-hard fans would not have cared enough to seek out the account of some other team’s game on the wire. They could wait for the morning papers. It was three or four hours after the story had happened, but almost no one had heard about it. I decided to check with McGreevy, who was certain to have caught word of it if anyone had heard.

"Evening Mike," I called out as I made it through the crowd. McGeevy spotted me and poured an unsolicited glass of dark brown booze.

"What’s the good word, Mr. O’Malley" He shouted back. He arrived with the drink and continued in the same booming voice. "Heck of win today, Ol’ Joe Wood is coming around, ay?"

"He sure is," I agreed, "though St. Louis isn’t much of test. I wanted to ask you, did you hear about Cobb?"

McGreevy looked puzzled, he hadn’t heard. "What’d that son-of-bitch do this time?" McGreevy asked. With Cobb, anything was possible.

"He beat a fan for heckling," I told the barkeep. " A crippled man actually"

McGreevy gave a loud snort. "No surprise there," he said, "everyone always rides him hard. I just surprised he took it this long."

"He is going to be suspended." I added.

"Really?" McGreevy replied, genuinely surprised. " I guess Johnson thinks that damned redneck is bad for business then," he mused. "Ol’ Johnson should been at the park in the 90’s, back when McGraw was an Oriole." He laughed, fondly recalling a time when such financial concerns didn’t intrude on a good fight. "So, how long is he gone for?" McGreevy then asked, clearly thinking of the pennant implications.

"No, word on that yet," I told him. "Officially it is, 'indefinite.'"

McGreevy smiled brightly, "that’s good for us, that’s very good for us."

At that point, he was pulled away by other customers and I turned my attention back to Sullivan. Sport was making his book and doing nothing at all to hide it from anyone. Gambling was illegal, but in and around the Royal Rooters, the ball park, and wherever baseball was the central focus of a crowd, no one bothered to limit it in anyway. Sullivan’s book almost certainly had the names of many important men in its ledgers and that too helped protect him.

When he had finished a series of bets and payouts he finally took notice of me and rolled his eyes. I walked up to him as he counted out a few dollars from a large role he kept in his pocket.

"Five for you today on the game, two more of Wood’s win. Missed on the shutout, though so just six total, "the gambler grunted. It wasn’t much. The Browns brought the worst odds with them and I had had to lay down $20 just to make that small profit.

"You want to let it ride?" he asked pulling the money back for a moment.

"No, I told him, just the fifteen on the win tomorrow." I said. "You hear about Cobb?" I asked him after he had handed over the money.

Sullivan gave me a long, hard look. "I might have heard something," he replied softly. With all his gambling interests, Sport Sullivan was a bit more proactive about his news gather than most. I wasn’t too surprised to find that he had heard the story, but the careful way he looked at me then gave me pause.

"Pretty shocking, I would say." I offered.

"I wasn’t shocked," he fired back. I gave shrug. I decided I had to drop it. I had gotten careless in the press box earlier and I didn’t want to lose this opportunity. Sullivan was starting to distrust me already. After all, I kept winning. I could see from his expression that he wasn’t going to take any action from me on this just yet. He would probably assume that my sources in the league office had told me the length of the suspension and shut down the whole thing before it even began. I couldn’t take that chance. With the odds on wins dropping, I was taking real risks betting, even with my spotty knowledge of the season’s outcome. I needed this to work. I pocketed my winnings and went back to my original spot at the bar.

I was on my third glass of whatever it was that McGreevy kept pouring me when a familiar voice interrupted my drinking.

"That was impressive work earlier," Tom Mulholland said as he slid up next to me at the bar. "Don’t worry, I won’t ask you for your secret," he continued. "It was something though. I never saw you leave the box, yet, you had the scoop, right there in your pocket, as if there was a ticker tape in your drawers." He laughed hard.

"That’s the job, right?" I said, trying to act the way a 1930’s newshound might act in a B-movie crime drama.

"That it is," he concurred as he raised his glass. "To secret sources."

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