The first genuine strike in the history of baseball came not as a result of discontent with pay or working conditions, but as a kind of reflex action following the misbehavior of one of the game's most contentious characters, Ty Cobb.
In 1911, the Detroit Tigers had finished second to the Philadelphia Athletics, and feeling was high that they could go all the way in 1912. Cobb, the spark plug of the team, got off to a slow start that spring, along with the rest of the Tigers, but so did the A's. With a record of 12-14, Cobb and his teammates were anxious to get a streak started when they arrived at the old Hilltop Park for a game with the lowly New York Highlanders.
In the stands that day was Claude Lucker, a one-handed loudmouth who had a violent hatred of Cobb. Which wasn't unusual, because all American League parks had their Cobb haters and baiters. What was different in this case was Lucker's unique ability to infuriate Cobb. By the second inning the Detroit outfielder was so angry that he lingered in foul territory adjacent to left field when his team went to the dugout. He presumed he would not come to bat and did not trust himself to pass the section of the stands where Lucker sat awaiting the opportunity to unleash a torrent of abuse at point-blank range.
Two innings later, Cobb sat on the Tiger bench next to Sam Crawford as one obscenity after another was hurled at him. "You going to let that bum call you names?" Crawford finally asked. Cobb replied, "I don't know how much more I can take." When the Tigers were put out for the inning, Cobb started toward his position, and at that moment, Lucker outdid himself. Cobb suddenly whirled around and charged the stands. In an instant he had vaulted the railing and found his target. Sportswriters of the period had a field day describing what happened next. "Everything was very pleasant...until Ty Cobb johnnykilbaned a spectator right on the place where he talks, started the claret, and stopped the flow of profane and vulgar words," the Times writer noted. "Cobb led with a left jab and countered with a right kick to Mr. Spectator's left Weisbach, which made his peeper look as if someone had drawn a curtain over it.... Jabs bounded off the spectator's face like a golf ball from a rock." Lucker's description to the police was less florid. "He struck me with his fists on the forehead over the left eye and knocked me down. Then he jumped on me and spiked me in the left leg and kicked me in the side, after which he booted me behind the left ear."
Cobb was banished from the game by Umpire Silk O'Loughlin. Then, without hearing Cobb's side of the incident, American League President Ban Johnson suspended him indefinitely. The highhanded treatment angered Cobb nearly as much as Lucker's barbs. "I should at least have had the opportunity to state my case," he said. "I feel that a great injustice has been done."
The rest of the Tigers agreed and two days later sent a message to the league office that stated, "We, the undersigned, refuse to play in another game after today, until such action is adjusted to our satisfaction. [Cobb] was fully justified in his action, as no one could stand such personal abuse from anyone. We want him reinstated for tomorrow's game, May 18, or there will be no game. If the players cannot have protection we must protect ourselves."
Manager Hughie Jennings wired Detroit owner Frank Navin, saying that he was sure the players were not bluffing and asking what to do to avoid incurring the mandatory $5,000 fine for forfeiting a game. The next day it was clear Jennings' question had not been academic; when the team heard that Cobb's suspension was still in effect, the players changed out of their uniforms and left the Philadelphia park.
Navin ordered Jennings to get some sort of team together, which sent Hughie racing to the local sandlots. Some students from nearby St. Joseph's College were recruited, including a pitcher named Al Travers whose sole asset, by his own admission, was a roundhouse curve. "Any ballplayer who could stop a grapefruit from rolling uphill or hit a bull in the pants with a bass fiddle was given a chance," said Arthur (Bugs) Baer, another of the stand-ins.
About 20,000 Philadelphians were in Shibe Park to see a reinstated Cobb or a collection of misfits take on the Athletics' Eddie Collins, Home Run Baker and Herb Pennock. Jennings had strengthened his sandlot lineup with a couple of Detroit scouts, Joe Sugden, whose last game in the major leagues had been in 1905, and Deacon McGuire, who had been retired for two years.
Not surprisingly, Mack had his team play with as much vigor as if they were facing the real Tigers. At the end of four innings the score was 6-0 in favor of the A's. At this point it became plain that Travers could not field. One bunt base-hit after another trickled down the third-and first-base lines until the Athletics had scored eight more runs.
Meanwhile, the fans were having a joyous time watching the team of stand-ins try to get Philadelphia out. The third baseman on the pickup club was struck in the mouth by a ground ball and lost two of his teeth. "This isn't baseball," he said, "this is war." One outfielder, Jack Leinhouser, had a fly ball land on his head. Nevertheless, he remained in the game. "I played all nine innings," he recalled, "and did nothing but chase balls all over the place. Jennings finally came out and told me to forget about trying to catch them on the fly. 'Just play them off the walls,' he told me."
After one hour and 45 minutes and nine "Tiger" errors, the game was over. Travers had pitched a full eight innings, yielded 25 hits and seven bases on balls and had struck out a batter. The game, a 24-2 victory for the Athletics, counted in the standings.
That was enough for an exasperated Navin, who wanted to cancel the remaining games until the strike could be settled. But he never had to. Perhaps fearing that Johnson would fine his teammates, Cobb decided he had played the role of martyr long enough. "Forget about me and go back to work," he told them. "You've made our point.... I don't want you paying any more fines. Johnson will lift my suspension soon." After the players returned to the field, Johnson did fine them—$100 each, except for Cobb, who was assessed $50 and given a 10-day suspension.
Baseball's first strike was over. Many fans felt nothing had been proved, but others suddenly realized that baseball players were independent—and crazy—enough to do just about anything.