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Mickey Cochrane

The Life of a Baseball Hall of Fame Catcher

by Charlie Bevis
McFarland Publishing

(Member, Society for American Baseball Research {SABR})


Excerpt from the book - Chapter 11

Assault by Pepper

Philadelphia opened the 1931 World Series with a win in Game 1 at Sportsman Park, a 6-2 victory over St. Louis in a rematch of the 1930 Series, as Cochrane was 2 for 3 and scored two runs. Mickey drew a base on balls off Cardinal hurler Paul Derringer in the 4th and scored on Jimmy Foxx’s single in the A’s 4-run rally. He singled in the 5th and then again in the 7th, the latter time scoring on Al Simmons’ 2-run home run to clinch the victory.

Perhaps more importantly, Cochrane guided Lefty Grove to a complete game win for the A’s. “For the most part Lefty employed a curve ball at such tense and critical moments as are known in the strange jargon of the diamond as the pinches and also a change of pace which, dear reader, was even more deadly in effect,” John Drebinger wrote as he described in the New York Times the pitch selection process that Cochrane and Grove used to curb the Cardinals, who did reach Grove for 11 hits. “For it never failed to change the pace of the Cardinals, who, in plunging futilely for the plate, invariably pitched on their heads.”

However, in a hint of things to come, Cardinal rookie center fielder John “Pepper” Martin went 3 for 4 off Grove and was credited with one stolen base. Martin’s performance in the 1931 World Series would become a thorn in Cochrane’s side for many years to come. His reputation as a ballplayer would actually suffer from fans’ remembrances of Mickey being tabbed the “goat” of the 1931 World Series. In retrospect, the goat horns seem to be unfounded for the most part.

Martin’s stolen base #1 in the 6th inning of Game 1 was questionable. Contemporary accounts typically restate the facts as “after one of his singles he stole second.” Martin's single had moved Chick Hafey only from first to second base, so Martin was on the back end of a double steal, the easier part of that combination. Hafey, on the front end, drew Mickey’s throw to third, which admittedly was off the mark.

“Hafey stole third base, Cochrane’s throw was high and Dykes had to jump for the ball,” according to the New York Times. “While Dykes, with ball in hand, was disputing the call with Umpire McGowan, Martin dashed to second.” Under current scoring rules Martin perhaps wouldn't have been credited with a stolen base if he weren't running with the pitch coincident with the runner ahead of him.

St. Louis took Game 2 to even the Series, as Bill Hallahan pitched a 3-hit shutout in a 2-0 victory as the teams headed back to Philadelphia. Martin was 2 for 3 at the plate off George Earnshaw, scored both runs, and was credited with two more stolen bases.

Martin’s stolen base #2 occurred in the 2nd inning after he had doubled. “It was Martin who stole third base right under the nose of Mickey Cochrane, generally acclaimed as baseball's greatest catcher,” one newspaper account went. The less well-read play-by-play account revealed that “as Wilson tried to bunt but missed the ball, Martin dashed to third for a clean steal sliding to the bag head first as Cochrane’s throw to Dykes came too high.” Being hindered by a bunter is no sin for a catcher.

“Earnshaw may have allowed himself to become slightly careless,” the newspaper account continued “for he should have known that to move on is an inherent trait of the exuberant Cardinal outfielder. So stealing third was nothing unusual of Johnny Martin.”  A pitcher not holding the runner close is no sin either for a catcher.

Stolen base #3 happened in the 7th inning when Martin stole second base, again victimizing Earnshaw when not surprisingly “Cochrane’s throw to Williams sailed wide of the bag,” as a result of haste to make up for Earnshaw’s transgression.

During the 1931 World Series, Cochrane was featured as the writer of a daily column in the Philadelphia Bulletin. This column gave the world a glimpse of Cochrane’s thoughts about Martin, which were translated by a ghostwriter. Ghostwriters typically reported no breaking news, but tried to give the column the flavor of the alleged author in thought and word. Given the lack of post-game interviews in this period, the ghostwritten columns at least provide an inkling of the thoughts of famous athletes.

“Folks, we’ve tried to fool him with everything in the book. We’ve given him fast ones, inside, outside, high and low ones and even slipped one down the middle. To-date he doesn't have a weakness. But we'll get him yet,” Cochrane wrote on October 3 aboard the train back to Philadelphia after Game 2.

A Saturday travel day preceding a Sunday off day, since Sunday baseball was still prohibited in Philadelphia, gave the teams two days off. John Kieran in his New York Times column “Sports of the Times” took the opportunity to try to exonerate Cochrane publicly. “To be fair to Cochrane those base runners were given fine starts by Grove and Earnshaw, but it’s in the records as an indictment against the catcher just the same.”

Back in Philadelphia, Cochrane provided a hint of some of his problems when he was quoted as saying, “We gotta win. We need the money,” with a sheepish grin and then muttering something about honor and winning three in a row. It was a telling sign.

 

Game 3 was played at Shibe Park on Monday October 5 with President Herbert Hoover in attendance, once again to the beer jeers of a crowd unhappy with Prohibition. Burleigh Grimes had a no-hitter through seven innings and wound up with a 2-hitter to best Grove and the A’s 5-2. Martin did go 2 for 4, but had no stolen bases.

Cochrane was hitless again, as he was in Game 2 also, although he managed to keep the game alive in the bottom of the 9th with two outs by coaxing Grimes into a walk on a 3-2 count. As a sign of an injury-riddled Cochrane, manager Connie Mack sent out Eric McNair to pinch-run for Mickey. McNair scored on Simmons’ subsequent home run to ruin Grimes’ shutout effort.

“It may be that at last we’ve discovered Pepper Martin's weakness,” Cochrane wrote in his column the next day after holding Martin hitless in his last two at bats. “I’ll know better today after we’ve had another chance to try out our latest theory of his weakness.”

Earnshaw twirled his own superb game the next day in Game 4, with a 2-hit, 3-0 shutout. Both hits were by Martin, who also was credited with another stolen base; Frank Frisch also had a stolen base.

Earnshaw’s mound habits apparently were again the cause of the two stolen bases in Game 4. Frisch had walked in the 4th on a 3-2 pitch that both Earnshaw and Cochrane protested should be strike three. “On the next pitch to Bottomley, Frisch stole second cleanly, sliding head first to the bag ahead of Cochrane’s perfect throw.”

Martin’s stolen base #4 in the 5th “duplicated Frisch’s steal of second using the head first slide and beating Cochrane’s good throw.”

Kieran again took up Mickey’s cause in his “Sports of the Times” column. “Six stolen bases charged against Cochrane at that stage in the series, a bad record for a good catcher. But Mickey doesn't get much help in that respect when Grove and Earnshaw are pitching. The crime wave doesn’t bother them.”

The first words of injury also surfaced in that Kieran column. “Cochrane has been troubled with a bad leg all through the series. He spends the mornings having it baked out and his afternoons hurting it again.”

Eddie Collins noted in his syndicated column, “Please don't overlook the manner in which Mickey Cochrane handled the delivery of Earnshaw and few know of the physical handicap under which Mike is working.”

Hallahan held the A’s in check in Game 5, as the Cardinals won 5-1 to take a 3-to-2 Series edge heading back to St. Louis. The 8th inning was a watershed for Mickey for two reasons. In the top of the inning, Martin collected his twelfth hit of the Series in a 3 for 4 day at the plate, but Cochrane threw Pepper out attempting to steal second base. And in the bottom of the frame, Mickey finally got a hit, his first in 12 at bats since Game 1, beating out a hard drive to Jim Bottomley at first base.

Cochrane did not have a good train ride back to St. Louis, as conveyed in a New York Times headline October 9, the day of Game 6: “Cochrane is ill; Mates Concerned.” The story related that Mickey “had an uncomfortable trip from Philadelphia due to an attack of indigestion which assailed him last night shortly after he retired to his Pullman berth. Cochrane vigorously asserted that he would be all right and in his regular place behind the bat and in the batting order.”

Cochrane may have had indigestion, but it wasn’t from anything he ate. Two things were bothering Cochrane, one related to baseball and one personal. Pepper Martin was driving him crazy, a rookie bedazzling the A’s with his play, having 12 hits in 18 at bats through five games for a .667 average. He also had four stolen bases, for which Cochrane seemed to be unfairly picking up the lion’s share of the blame. Martin would be shut down at the plate the remainder of the Series, but the damage had already been done.

In his October 8 column, Cochrane admitted that Waite Hoyt, the A’s pitcher in Game 5, “couldn't find this youngster’s weakness. He hasn't any.” Backtracking on his post-Game 2 thoughts, he wrote, “You may think you've discovered one only to have him crack the same pitch for a safety the next time it’s used.”

Cochrane himself was not playing up to his lofty standards, and for once there seemed little he could do to stop that slide. Perhaps it also bothered Cochrane that a poor, uneducated farm boy from Oklahoma was getting the better of someone who had escaped the farm to obtain a college education and become reasonably well-off financially. Unfortunately this was another sighting of the dark side to Cochrane, his incessant worrying and the physical reaction when he couldn’t personally affect the outcome. It would eventually impact his ability to lead when not on the playing field.

Years later, it was often written that Cochrane was heavily involved in the Depression stock market of that unhappy period and there was a bad break in the market during the Series, requiring several urgent margin calls from his brokers to be delivered to the Athletic bench. Fred Lieb wrote, “Unable to meet them, or borrow additional collateral, he saw much of his early baseball earnings go down the drain.”

The stock market did take a big annual tumble in calendar year 1931, losing 43% of its value, as the ineffectual policies of President Hoover did little to lessen the impact of the Great Depression. By year-end, stocks were worth 25% of their September 1929 highpoint.

If margin calls were the issue for Cochrane, they would have occurred long before the World Series in October. During September the stock market lost over 30% of its value, as the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped from 140.13 to 96.61 from the beginning to the end of the month. Cochrane’s margin account surely would have been called during this period had he been that leveraged in the stock market.

The market continued to decline during the first two games of the World Series in St. Louis and the Saturday travel day (the stock market was open on Saturdays back then). This gave rise to the possibility of a margin call being delivered to Shibe Park on Monday as the market dropped further, closing at 86.48 that day.

The real story appears to be the closing of the Franklin Trust Company, a large Philadelphia bank, on October 5, the day of Game 3. “At midnight Monday October 5, 1931 possession of the affairs and business of the Franklin Trust Company was taken by the Secretary of Banking,” the Public Ledger reported. “According to the Secretary the public continued to gradually withdraw their deposits and this action was particularly accentuated during the past month by the hysteria and unfavorable psychological reaction which are gripping the public.”

In his “Casual Comment” column in The Sporting News, J.G. Taylor Spink reported soon after the World Series: “It is understood that Mule Haas, Mickey Cochrane and several others of the Athletics were worried about the dough that they had tied up in the banks of Philadelphia that blew up just before the Series than anything else. Cochrane is said to have lost $80,000 and Waite Hoyt is understood to have been touched for a wad.”

Mike had probably taken a conservative approach after the 1929 crash and liquidated much of his stock position and invested in interest-bearing bank accounts. In this pre-FDIC period, if a bank failed, depositors lost all their money and banks were failing at a fair pace in 1931. Eventually in 1933, the nation’s banks would close entirely for several weeks. Many banks began calling in loans sooner than expected to meet withdrawal demand from nervous depositors.

Cochrane’s generosity in co-signing a $25,000 note for Cy Perkins and others to weather the economic storm haunted him during the World Series after Franklin Trust failed. No doubt his loans were being called and his broker visited the ballpark to liquidate stock holdings to satisfy the bankers who had taken his bank accounts as collateral for the loans.

The Philadelphia newspapers covered up Cochrane’s financial troubles by reporting that “Mickey is sick at heart – his faith in human nature cracked. For days he’s been subject to a poison pen attack – an insidious anonymous letter writing campaign which Mickey, accustomed only to praise, has felt to the bottom of his heart.”

Cochrane was seen grumbling to himself and cussing, his face screwed up in a snarl.  A number of issues were clearly bothering him, unbeknownst to the public.

 

Cochrane’s attitude didn't seem to impact Grove, whom Mack sent to the mound in Game 6 with the A’s back to the wall. Lefty came through, limiting the Cardinals to five hits in an 8-1 victory. Mickey’s bat awoke slightly with an rbi-single in the A's 4-run 5th inning, a line drive that Frisch leaped to knock down but which Mickey legged out to beat his throw to Bottomley at first.

Cochrane’s stamina held up through a good part of the game, although his problems may have been the cause of an error charged to him in the bottom of the 9th. Collins tried to pawn it off as part of baseball in his syndicated column the next day: “Grove was so fast at times that not only was he unhittable but Mickey Cochrane had trouble catching him, in the last inning when there was quite a shadow over home plate territory. Roettinger fanned and the ball got away from Cochrane who said in the clubhouse ‘I never saw the ball. I don't see how they could ever hit it.’”

Mickey survived through Game 6, but he wasn’t getting any rest due to his concerns and thus fell apart in Game 7 from exhaustion.

The Cardinals scored two runs in the bottom of the 1st, all centered around Cochrane. Andy High scored the first run on what the newspapers termed “a wild pitch off Cochrane’s glove” which probably could have been scored a passed ball as well.

It has been said that Cochrane missed Earnshaw’s ostentatious spit into the dirt near the mound – his signal to Cochrane that an illegal spitball was coming. But Mickey missed the sign and the pitch because he was preoccupied with his financial problems.

Then after Martin walked and obtained Stolen Base #5, the Sportsman Park crowd became uproarious, with George Watkins on third and Martin on second with Orsatti coming to bat still with no outs.

Earnshaw enticed Orsatti to swing and miss for a third strike, but the ball bounced off Cochrane’s glove. As he threw to first to get Orsatti, Watkins dashed from third to beat Foxx’s low return throw, “the ball scudding out of the tangle at the rubber as Watkins slid into Cochrane and both went down.” A similar situation happened again in the 3rd when Orsatti fanned and Cochrane dropped the third strike, but this time Mickey got Orsatti at first for the third out of the inning.

Mickey’s bat was feeble in Game 7; he weakly grounding out his first three times up.  Then in the 8th he hit back to Grimes who easily retired him at first with an underhand throw and surely a few choice, but unrecorded words about Cochrane’s weak condition.

Grimes had shutout the A’s for eight innings as the Cardinals took a 4-0 lead into the top of the 9th of Game 7. The A’s did make a run for their third consecutive World Series title but came up short.

After two were out, Bing Miller singled and Jimmy Dykes and Dib Williams both worked Grimes for walks to load the bases. Doc Cramer then pinch-hit a 2-run single to close the score to 4-2, before Bill Hallahan relieved Grimes and saved  the game by retiring Max Bishop, who flied out to Pepper Martin.

Cochrane wound up batting a miserable .160 for the Series with only 4 hits in 25 at bats. The $3,028 check for a loser’s share of the World Series pot was to be of small consolation to him. He was getting paid for a poor performance, an idea that never sat well with Cochrane.

 

Mickey’s tribulations with Martin’s stolen bases dogged him the rest of his life. It really rankled him that the blame was placed 100% on his shoulders by most baseball fans, writers, and even his own teammates. Although he received support from the Philadelphia press following the conclusion of the Series, which implied the writers knew of his real troubles, others were not as understanding.

“Mickey failed in the series so far as results go, but in failing he showed more courage than he did in victories,” Ed Pollack commented in the Public Ledger.

“I do not see why they make Mickey Cochrane the ‘goat’ of the series,” the Philadelphia Bulletin reported of Mack’s comments. “Mickey has been ailing for several months. He entered the series battered and bruised. His mental attitude was all wrong and only his grit enabled him to play through seven games.”

At the New York baseball writers’ show that winter, one of the writers, wearing a Cardinal uniform, sang to the tune of “Good Night, Sweetheart”:

 

                        Good-bye, Mickey, this is Pepper Martin,

                        I'm on first base and I must get startin’,

                        The way I feel, there’s nothing I won’t steal,

                        So, good-bye Mickey, good-bye.

 

The song was a terrific hit at the dinner, but when he heard about it, “it seared Cochrane to his soul” as one writer put it. Few seemed to understand that the fault fell squarely on the arms of the Philadelphia pitchers.

“I couldn’t have shot him down with a gun,” Cochrane repeatedly said later with a tinge of bitterness. “How could I when the pitchers couldn’t hold him on base? The best baserunners will tell you they don’t steal on the catcher, they steal on the pitcher. Nobody in our league ever had run on our pitchers like that, so they’d never learned to hold a runner on. The only pitcher who knew how to hold up a runner was Hoyt. Martin didn’t run on him. But he wasn’t in there long enough to make any difference.”

Said Martin later on, “Oh, everybody knows I didn’t steal on Mickey. I was stealing on Grove and Earnshaw. They said I even stole Mickey’s shinpads. Something about those pitchers would give me a signal: ‘Go’. I never knew what it was. I ran on instinct.”

“Pepper was stealing on the pitchers, most stolen bases are stolen on the pitcher,” Hallahan told later. “He stole against Grove and Earnshaw because those fellows just didn’t hold a runner on very well. You give a catcher like Cochrane a chance to throw you out and he's going to do it. Nobody can outrun a ball.”

Perhaps what was worst for Cochrane was that his pitchers didn’t back him up on this front. But Mack did. “Some of the pitchers felt he wasn’t supporting them properly,” Mack said years later. “Earnshaw poured salt in his wounds with a suggestion that young Joe Palmisano, rookie substitute catcher, catch him in his next game. It burned Cochrane up.”

“My three championship teams had the softest pitchers in the world to steal on, but not many bases were stolen with Cochrane catching,” Mack acknowledged. “The Cardinals beat Earnshaw by running wild on him, he couldn't keep men on base. Even Grove, though a left hander, had a deliberate delivery that gave the runner an edge.”

“The fans don’t know it was the pitchers,” Mike always lamented. “They’ll always remember me as the catcher Pepper Martin ran wild on.”

Unfortunately, it would always be a cross to bear for Cochrane.


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