At the end of the 1926 season the baseball world was shocked by the sudden resignations of two almost legendary player-managers—Ty Cobb of the Detroit Tigers and Tris Speaker of the Cleveland Indians.
Speaker was considered the best outfielder in history. His lifetime batting average was .344, and at the age of 38 he was still going strong. Ty Cobb was considered to be the best baseball player who ever lived. For 23 years he was a terror to the game. He stole 892 bases. His lifetime batting average was .367. Cobb, too, was still going strong, so why the resignations?
Well, it all resulted from a charge made by a former pitcher, Hubert (Dutch) Leonard that in 1919, the year of the Black Sox scandal, Leonard, Speaker, Cobb and Smokey Joe Wood (Cleveland pitcher) had conspired to rig a game.
The four happened to meet, said Leonard, under the stands after the first game of a series in Detroit on Sept. 24, 1919. Cleveland had already clinched second place. Detroit was in a dogfight for third. There was a fair piece of change involved. One thing led to another and, Leonard said, it was agreed that the Cleveland team, since it had nothing to lose, would let the Tigers win the next game. Then it suddenly dawned on them that if they knew who was going to win they might just as well make some money out of it.
"Cobb said he would send a guy named West [who knew how to get a bet down] over to us," Leonard said. "I was to put up $1,500 and, as I remember it, Cobb $2,000, Wood and Speaker $1,000 each. I had pitched that day and was through for the season, so I gave my check for $1,500 to Wood at the ball park and left that night for Independence, Mo."
Things seemed to go off without a hitch. Detroit jumped to a 4-0 lead in two innings and won easily 9-5. But Leonard didn't make much on the deal. His $1,500 grew to only $1,630 because, he was told, it was impossible to get a big bet down on the game.
This was the story that Leonard told Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis—a story that no one in the world would have believed. Except for one thing. Leonard had thoughtfully saved two letters, one written to him by Wood, the other by the great Cobb himself. Wood's letter read:
Dear Friend Dutch:
The only bet West could get up was $600 against $420 (10 to 7). Cobb did not get up a cent. He told us that and I believe him. Could have put some at 5 to 2 on Detroit, but did not, as that would make us put up $1,000 to win $400.
We won the $420. I gave West $30, leaving $390, or $130 for each" of us. Would not have cashed your check at all, but West thought he could get 10 to 7, and I was going to put it all up at those odds. We would have won $1,750 for the $2,500 if we could have placed it....
Let me hear from you, Dutch....
Cobb wrote, in part, from Augusta, Ga. on Oct. 23, 1919:
Well, old boy, guess you are out in California by this time and enjoying life.
Wood and myself are considerably disappointed in our business proposition, as we had $2,000 to put into it and the other side quoted us $1,400, and when we finally secured that much money it was about 2 o'clock and they refused to deal with us, as they had men in Chicago to take the matter up with and they had not time, so we fell down and of course we felt badly over it.
Everything was open to Wood and he can tell you about it when we get together. It was quite a responsibility and I don't care for it again, I assure you.
I thought the White Sox should have won [the Series], but am satisfied they were too confident. Well, old scout, drop me a line when you can.
It was not difficult for Landis to confirm the authenticity of the letters. Wood, for one, was quite willing to elaborate. "I told him [Leonard] I did not care to put up as much money as the $2,500 he suggested," Wood told the commissioner, "but a friend of mine, from Cleveland, said he was willing to take a third of it."
Despite such convincing evidence, Cobb and Speaker turned the air Day-Glo purple with denials. "I told Judge Landis, and I say now," Speaker said, "that I never bet a dime on a game and that I never had anything to do with a game being thrown or knew of a game being thrown." As proof, he offered the fact that he had made three hits in the game and scored two runs. Cobb charged that the whole thing was a case of blackmail on Leonard's part: "I'll stake my record on the diamond and off it against that of any ball player, manager, club president or even Judge Landis. I 'm clean and have always been so.... I've told everything I know. I rest my case with the fans of the country. The only blame that can be attached to me is that I knew there was betting going on."
If Cobb expected that argument to work with Landis, he was naive. Only weeks before, the Judge had banned poor, drunken Shufflin' Phil Douglas for life because he suggested in a letter that he would leave his team—the Giants—so that Manager John McGraw would win fewer games. Landis' instincts were hardly in doubt. He wanted all four men out of the game. But he knew he had to tread softly. Coming so soon after the Black Sox scandal, a ban on two of the best-known players in the game could have been a disaster.
The development of the case shows how frightened baseball was. In his report Landis said, "This investigation was instituted by the Detroit club of the American League. They had been dealing with Leonard over his claims for money and it was in these conversations that Leonard made the charges against Cobb, Speaker and Wood." It was a long time before Landis was called in, because the American League didn't want him. It did not want any noise. Just as Charles A. Comiskey, owner of the White Sox, did not want the Black Sox convicted (none of them were), the American League did not now want to mar the reputations of two great heroes. The letters were strong stuff, however, and there was no keeping Landis out. The problem now was to minimize the noise.
Landis' solution was to allow Cobb and Speaker to resign their jobs "for personal reasons." Since Wood, by now a baseball coach at Yale, and Leonard were already out of the game, that would solve the problem in the quietest way. Indeed, when he made his deadpan statement to the press, Landis said that since all four were out of baseball there was no need for him to take any action.
This bland solution, however, failed to account for Cobb's arrogant personality. If Ty was going down he would take baseball with him. He threatened a suit. He threatened to reveal other skulduggery. "I could say a few things about fake turnstile counts and juggled ticket-counting practices by major league owners," he said later. Baseball was frightened of the courts. Its reserve clause was always open to legal challenge. The evidence against the players was good, but it might not stand up in court. There wasn't much Landis could do. On Jan. 27, 1927 he capitulated.
"These players had not been, nor are they now, found guilty of fixing a ball game," Landis announced. "By no decent system of justice could such a finding be made. Therefore, they were not placed on the ineligible list."
In his autobiography Cobb wrote later: "I'll reveal something here never before told. That famous Landis 'verdict' was dictated to him by attorneys representing Speaker and myself." Whatever its authorship, the verdict made it possible for Cobb to play baseball with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1927 for $70,000. Speaker went with the Washington Senators. Cobb played two years and was joined by Speaker in Philly in 1928. Cobb hit .357 and .323 those last two years. Speaker finished with .327 and .267. No matter what is said about Cobb and Speaker no one will ever say they couldn't hit.