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Ty Cobb, game-fixing, and the fascinating end to an iconic career

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Today we start our series looking at some MLB players who are franchise icons for one team, but ended up moving on to another before retirement.  The story of Ty Cobb is a great place to start.

Baseball Player Ty Cobb

On the field, baseball has remained more-or-less the same over the course of the generations. If you teleported someone from 1935 to watch an MLB game today, they would not require much explanation to get into one specific game. Sure, there’d likely be questions on why they had to watch eight pitching changes, and if it were an American League game, they’d have no concept of a designated hitter, but overall, the basic rules of the game remain constant.

One of the biggest changes over the longer-term, and something someone would definitely notice if they were transported and watched multiple seasons of games, is just how often players change teams. With the evolution of the game beyond the Reserve Clause, and with the advent of free agency, players are far more mobile and transient than they were previously.

Even before the advent of free agency, many players that identify as classic heroes for one particular team ended up suiting for another team as a swan-song to an epic, and often legendary career.

This week we kickoff our extended off-season series diving into the backgrounds of some franchise players many of us may not recognize in the uniform where they ended their careers; this is not meant to be an all-encompassing list, but rather a look at some of the game’s most famous players with interesting stories who in their last season or two played for one other team.

Some of the names on this list will be familiar, while others may raise an eyebrow (and maybe even encourage the perusing of a FanGraphs’ player page to see how that player aged with their newfound team.

We kickoff the series looking at the earliest days of baseball, starting off with Ty Cobb who finished his career with the Philadelphia Athletics amidst allegations of his involvement in a game-fixing scandal.

Ty Cobb, game-fixing, and the end of an iconic journey in Detroit

Whenever most people think of Ty Cobb, they undoubtedly think of a black and white photo of a player with an old-timey glove, in the crisp, clean white uniform of the Detroit Tigers. For the most part, 22 years of a 24-year career to be exact, it’s the uniform Cobb donned in a famous (and infamous) career.

Cobb’s iconic stature as one of the best hitters in the history of baseball has him intrinsically linked with Detroit. Over the course of his two-decades-plus in the Motor City, Cobb led the league in batting twelve times, including nine consecutive seasons. He led the league in hits, and in slugging eight times each. Cobb’s Baseball-Reference page has more bold ink than nearly any other player in the history of the game, save perhaps Barry Bonds.

He unsurprisingly is the Tigers all-time bWAR leader, and is the player people think of when they think of the history of Detroit baseball and when they think of early-20th century icons of the game.

Baseball in the late 1910s and 1920s was mired in gambling conspiracies (some true, some not) and game-fixing scandals. It may come as no surprise that the best player in the game ended-up implicated in one such scheme in 1919.

A staple in the Tigers outfield for over two decades, Cobb ended his 22-year career with the Tigers in 1926, following alleged game-fixing issues that coerced him into retiring earlier than he otherwise would have preferred. The accusation stemmed from a fixed series against Cleveland in the last week of the 1919 season — immediately preceding that year’s World Series scandal that forever will live in infamy.

Cobb wasn’t the only player implicated in the scandal, lesser-known players like Dutch Leonard, and player-manager Tris Speaker were involved as well. As far as wide-ranging implications, the fix was on in a series late in the 1919 season that little mattered.

New York and Detroit were vying for third place in the American League (Chicago had already clinched the pennant), and Cleveland players wanted Detroit to finish ahead of the Yankees, and likely figured they could make a little money in the process.

Considering the fix-was-in, Cobb and other players figured they might as well make some money off the series as well. The story goes that Cobb wished to put-up $2,000 (not an insignificant sum of money in 1919) and place the bets through a stadium worker. The $2,000 became considerably less since odd-makers had no interest in taking the risk on that large a bet.

The series ended with Detroit winning (shock) and the Yankees finished ½ game behind the Tigers for third place in the AL. The baseball world ended up being rocked by the Black Sox 1919 World Series scandal.

Cobb regretted his involvement in his own cheating scandal, and ended up sending a letter to Leonard in 1919 expressing his remorse for being involved in the game-fix. That letter would lay dormant for over half-a-decade before nearly derailing Cobb’s reputation and the back-end of his career.

Dutch Leonard and Ty Cobb had a history of animosity towards one another, making him a strange gambling bedfellow for Cobb. Leonard had quit on the Tigers to play independent ball due to the problems he had with Cobb, who was serving as the Tigers player-manager.

Cobb and Leonard fought about curfews (Cobb regularly fined Leonard for violations) and even vehemently disagreed on how to pitch to certain players. The feud lasted years, and picked up firth where it had left off when Leonard rejoined Detroit in 1925.

Leonard claimed that Cobb had a hand in effectively ending his career (Cobb probably did, but it’s not like Leonard was lighting the world on fire), and in 1926 went to Tigers ownership saying he planned to sell Cobb’s remorseful letter to a local newspaper.

Smartly wishing to avoid a scandal of a franchise icon, Detroit owner Frank Navin paid Leonard $20,000 to leave the letter out of the press. That fall, Navan handed over the letters to then-commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who called Cobb in to defend himself.

Landis, who was brought in as the man to fix baseball’s reputation following the 1919 World Series debacle, but was beholden to public opinion, called both Cobb and Speaker to his office at the end of the season and demanded both resign their posts as player-managers of their respective clubs, and Cobb left his position as Tigers manager and Speaker left his post as skipper of the Indians.

Landis then let the issue pass as it seemed that the baseball world was scandal-weary, and that the public simply did not believe that fierce competitors such as Cobb and Speaker would consistently throw games. The fact that the accusations were six years old played into it as well.

With Cobb out of Detroit, but basically exonerated due to the lack of public pressure to investigate further, and Landis’ intention to just let things go and move on, the greatest hitter in the game had to finish his career elsewhere.

Landis’ ‘pocket-exoneration; of Cobb allowed him to walk into free agency, where he ultimately signed with the Philadelphia A’s. Cobb said he wanted to go out on his own terms and his own timeline, alluding to the fact that the Tigers had moved-on from him.

Cobb started regularly for the A’s in 1927, though they were playing second-fiddle to one of the all-time great teams in the 1927 Yankees. It was in that season he went over the 4,000 career hit mark, an achievement he made in Detroit against his former teammates.

In 1928 he only played in 95 games, and although he managed another .300+ batting average, his 22nd consecutive year of doing so, he announced he’d be calling it quits at the end of the season.

Next week we’ll be taking a look at a few New York-based players who came to define their team in a crowded three-franchise city in the 1940s and 50s.

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Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano