Thursday, December 29, 2011

Spoiled Fish Jeopardized Ty Cobb's Career


Ty Cobb is nearly as well known for his fits of temper and violence as he is for his 4,189 base hits and .367 career batting average. His aggressive play on the baseball diamond carried over to his willingness to fight anyone at any time. During his life he was involved in several widely publicized altercations, but one that has largely slipped into the historical abyss nearly ended his major league career; and it was a dispute over 20 cents worth off fish.

The Detroit Tigers started 1914 in fine form, with a 36-24 record by June 20th, good for second place, and just .12 percentage points behind the first place Philadelphia Athletics. However, on the evening of Saturday the 20th, that all changed. 

After playing a game at Navin Field against the Washington Senators, Cobb went home with Senators’ manager Clark Griffith to have dinner with Cobb’s wife, Charlie.  Upon reaching Cobb’s home, his upset wife described to them an argument she had earlier in the day with local butcher W.L. Carpenter, who had delivered fish for that night’s dinner. Upon preparing the fish, Mrs. Cobb discovered it appeared spoiled. She tried to return the 20 cents worth of fish, but Carpenter insisted it was fresh and refused to issue a refund. Carpenter’s refusal to acquiesce was seen by Mrs. Cobb as being called a liar, and it drove her to near hysterics.

Cobb phoned the butcher and accused him of upsetting his wife and calling her a liar. After a brief, heated conversation in front of his shocked wife and Griffith, he grabbed his gun and ran out of the house, later telling police he took his automatic revolver and four cartridges with him in case he needed protection.

When Cobb reached the butcher’s shop, he drew his gun on Carpenter, and demanded he call Mrs. Cobb to apologize. The terrified man did as he was asked, and afterwards, Cobb thanked him and asked what was owed for the fish. This was when the real trouble started.

Carpenter’s 20 year old brother-in-law, Harold Harding, an African American, had heard the commotion, from the back of the shop, and emerged wielding a meat cleaver and demanding Cobb leave (Given Cobb’s connection with racism, it is interesting to note the added detail of Harding’s race in this story). Cobb later told police, “Our little affair was practically over when Harding butted in. He seemed to want trouble and I was so angry I gave him what he was looking for.” 

The two men scuffled, and Cobb pulled his gun once again, hitting Harding over the head several times. During the fight, a glass case and some other furniture in the shop were smashed, and Harding began bleeding from his head. Cobb suggested they go outside and finish their fight, and Harding agreed. While Cobb continued to beat the younger man outside, Carpenter called the police.

When the police arrived, it was clear that Cobb had been the aggressor, but he had also injured his hand. He was taken to the hospital, where he was treated for a broken thumb, and then was taken into custody and held in jail over night. He was released the next day after Harding declined to press charges, but was re-arrested for disturbing the peace the following week after Carpenter decided that Cobb was going to pay for the damage and humiliation he had caused.

Carpenter explained to reporters why he decided to take a stand. “The easy thing would be to drop the whole matter, but I feel it my duty to the public to see that this wild man is halted in his mad career. If he is allowed to go into a man’s place of business and threaten him with a revolver, and not suffer for it, there is no telling what he will do next. If I could have gotten the revolver away from him, Cobb would have had to settle with me on the spot. I am sorry my young brother-in-law interfered, for it was a case for the police to handle, but the kid would have licked that big ball player if the fight had been allowed to go on. Most professional ball players are gentlemen.”

To avoid a trial that could have sent him to jail for up to six months if convicted, Cobb decided to please guilty and was assessed a $50 fine. This slap on the wrist was the least of his worries, as his mortified wife took their children and relocated to Augusta, Georgia for the remainder of the summer. Cobb himself was also said to be extremely embarrassed over the incident.

Cobb had been dissatisfied with baseball salary since 1913 and had considered jumping to the rogue Federal League. Before his plea agreement, several of his friends indicated that Cobb talked about leaving Detroit for good to avoid an embarrassing trial, and start his career anew with a Federal League team. It is more likely that he used this incident as leverage with the Tigers, instead of actually considering skipping out on his arrest.

A newspaper article that appeared in November, 1914 contradicted Cobb’s supposed embarrassment. Cobb stated, “In Detroit one afternoon, a butcher called Mrs. Cobb a liar. What would you do? Somebody had to apologize, and when I forced the apology, a personal affair with me, I again broke into the papers as a rowdy. There have been other incidents, but not one in which the most minute details have not been spread wide and far.”

The Tigers struggled mightily in the 22 games Cobb missed because of his broken thumb. They went 8-13-1 and rapidly fell out of contention. They finished the season at 80-73, in fourth place and 19.5 games behind the first place Athletics.

While this fight has gotten somewhat lost over time, it is a fascinating episode in his lengthy and complicated career. It put his infamous temper on full display and came close to impacting his major league career. Like many other troubles in his life, Cobb escaped from this incident relatively unscathed. He played another 14 seasons in professional baseball, but they came close to not happening, all because of a piece of spoiled fish.

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