In 1906 we see that Cobb is thinking critically about the game and playing smarter than his opponents. He would go from first to third on bunts that the third baseman fielded when the shortstop was slow to cover third. He watched the eyes of fielders to see where the ball was coming and then positioned himself in the way of the throw.
After a mediocre year for the Tigers in 1906, owner Frank Navin hired the enthusiastic, aggressive Hughie Jennings to be the manager. Jennings knew what Cobb could do and let him run the bases on his own, without signals from the manager. With a free hand to do as he wished, Cobb did the following against Cleveland on Opening Day, 1907: in the eighth inning, he drove a single past the second baseman, stole second, went to third when the catcher's throw got by Nap Lajoie at second, and then scored when the center fielder's throw to third was wild.
|The most famous baseball action photo ever taken. Cobb stealing third at Highland Park, 23 July 1910.|
Another example of Cobb running amok on the bases came at Hilltop Park in New York. The Highlanders' first baseman, Hal Chase, had a habit of throwing the ball to third on plays when a runner had advanced to third on an infield out, to keep the runner at bay on third. On one occasion, however, with Cobb on second after a double, Claude Rossman laid down a sacrifice bunt. Instead of stopping at third, Cobb kept running full speed towards home, and Chase, accustomed to throwing the ball to third, was completely surprised. When he tried to stop and throw to home, he threw the ball over the third baseman's head, allowing Cobb to score easily.
The main tenet of Cobb's baserunning strategy was that the base paths belonged to him. He felt that he had every right to do whatever he could to keep it that way. An example of this was against Cleveland in June 1907, when he tripled. Instead of stopping at third, Cobb continued to home where the catcher, Harry Bemis, was waiting with the ball. Cobb lowered his shoulder and plowed Bemis over, knocking the ball loose. Bemis picked up the ball and beat Cobb over the head with it until the umpire pulled Bemis off Cobb and ejected the catcher.
Cobb claims in his autobiography that because Bemis beat him over the head with the ball and verbally abused him, he became one of only two intentional-spiking victims in Cobb's career. He also claims that although he missed Bemis with his spikes, the message had been clear and Bemis never again bothered him. Cobb liked to talk about his exploits, and even in his autobiography, when he states that he is writing it to dispel vicious rumors about him, it is clear that he revels in the image of him as a demon.
He couches his baserunning style in this way:
I say this: I ran the bases hard at all times, and I'm proud of that...I saw no reason why the base-runner should be a hunted thing, a rabbit chased by wolves. When his team was at bat, he was supposed to be on the all-out attack. But it wasn't working that way when I broke into the gamejust the contrary. I wanted a clear shot at the bag, under the rules, and I went after it. I have dozens of spike scars, from my ankles to my thighs, to show for that point of view. I also left a few marks of my own around the league. In staking my claim, people were bound to get hurt... (Cobb, 124)He slid so hard so often on what he constantly complained about as rock-hard infields that his legs were often covered with scabs and sores, "raspberries" or "strawberries." It was often painful for him to slide, yet he continued to do so, doing whatever it took to win. Charley Schmidt, the Tiger catcher, once remarked, "Why, Cobb loses a good pint of blood every time he slides!" (Cobb, 60)
By far Cobb's favorite baserunning practice was going from first to third on sacrifice bunts. He perfected this with the expert bunter Claude Rossman, who hit after Cobb in the Detroit lineup. On first, Cobb would send his own bunt sign to Rossman at bat, and then take off with the pitch. Rossman would place the ball down the third base line where the third baseman would field the ball and throw to first.
|Cobb avoiding a collision with New York shortstop Kid Elberfeld|
A consequence of Cobb's hell-bent baserunning style was repeated injuries to his legs, especially abrasions from sliding on rock-hard infields. Another problem with the scrapes and scratches on his legs was that Frank Navin, tightwad owner of the Tigers, often would not pay for Cobb's medical treatment when he needed it.
In game 3 of the 1908 World Series against the Cubs, he got a single, then announced that he would steal on the next pitch and did so, knocking over second baseman Joe Tinker (of Tinker to Evers to Chance fame) in the process. He then repeated the process and stole third base. Claude Rossman, the Tiger batter, drew a walk, and continued past first to second. Cobb tried for home, as he had done many times, but was caught by the throw of pitcher Ed Reulbach and tagged by the third baseman, much to the delight of the Cubs' fans.
Cobb made other mistakes, though infrequent, while running the bases. One such incident came at home on 11 May 1909, the day that the Tigers hoisted the 1908 AL pennant. In the seventh inning, Cobb tried to score from second base on a bunt, as he often did. Unfortunately, this time his teammate Sam Crawford was standing on third base, and Cobb ran right past him and was called out for passing a runner. It was probably the worst booing he ever received at home.
|The infamous spiking of Home Run Baker|
The reaction in Philadelphia was one of outrage. Before his next visit to the City of Brotherly Love, he received several death threats. When Detroit squared off against the Athletics in Philadelphia, the park was filled with almost as many policemen as fans, all of whom expected something besides great baseball, but all were disappointed, as the series had little more than great baseball.
As a student of baserunning, Cobb did many things, some little, some big, that he felt gave him an advantage, for he felt that no edge was too small for him to exploit. He would often get up from a slide and limp around, call time, and generally act disabled, as if he had suffered an injury. With the defense's guard down, he could then run hard and catch them napping. He would kick each base towards the next, taking advantage of a few inches of play in the base mounts. He would sometimes jump, yell, and wave his arms at the pitcher to distract him.
His guiding philosophy in all baserunning matters was:
"Baseball is not unlike a war."Running hard above all else was his priority. In Philly in August 1910, he hit a high bouncing ball behind second base. He didn't even slow down as he passed first and headed to second, sliding in safely ahead of the ball which had been fielded and thrown too late to first and then too late to second. He then scored from second after a hard line drive ricocheted off the pitcher's glove to the second baseman who got the out at first.
|Cobb stealing home against Paul Krichell and the St. Louis Browns, 4 July 1912, after also stealing second and third in the same inning.|
Since Cobb was aware of his declining speed, he knew that he would just have to pick his spots more carefully than in the past. In 1927, at age 40, he was able to pull off the increasingly scarce double steal, go to third on the throw by the catcher into centerfield and score on the bad throw to the plate.
Cobb's last flash of brilliance, his last steal of home, came at the age of 41 in 1928. With such a move hardly seen anymore,
it was easy for him to catch the Cleveland pitcher asleep and steal home for the 55th (or 35th, sources vary) and last time, a most impressive record. For comparison, Max Carey has the second most steals of home, 33, and modern base-stealing giants Lou Brock and Rickey Henderson, both of whom have stolen more bases than Cobb, have only stolen home only 7 times combined (as of 1994).
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