Ty Cobb sent a lot of pitchers to the showers in his career, but he usually did it with his bat. And those pitchers were the enemy. In 1921, he ended the career of a promising rookie pitcher who was his teammate after losing his cool when one of his rivals hit a home run.
In ’21, Cobb had a new job. He still had his old job too, but the new job was earning him a lot of attention. Not only was he the starting center fielder, but beginning that season, Cobb was also the manager of the Detroit Tigers.
In addition to keeping an eye on his team, Cobb was also watching as the game he loved was undergoing a transformation. When Ty entered baseball in 1905 the game was a low-scoring battle frequently decided by a single run. The hit-and-run, double steal, and bunt were paramount. Now, in the early 1920s, runs were being scored in alarming regularity, and baseballs were flying out of playing fields in record numbers.
The chief practitioner of this new style of baseball was George Herman “Babe” Ruth, the star slugger of the New York Yankees. Of course Cobb didn’t see Ruth as a star, he viewed him as a “big-nosed, pot-bellied buffoon” and lots of other names we can’t print here on a family blog.
In 1920, Ruth smacked 54 home runs, which was 24 more than the entire Tiger team hit that season. Ruth was revolutionizing the game, and all of baseball was following his wide path. Cobb, with both of his spikes still firmly planted in the old era, was being dragged into the National Pastime’s new age and he didn’t like it.
In June, Cobb’s “Ty-gers” invaded the Polo Grounds to square off with Ruth’s Yankees in a four-game series. Not only was it a clash between baseball’s star of the Deadball Era and baseball’s star of the Roaring ’20s, it was also a pivotal mid-season match between the 2nd and 3rd place teams in the league. The Tigers were two games back of the Yanks, who were 2 1/2 behind the Indians.
Ruth hit a homer in the first game and the Yankees won in the bottom of the ninth inning on a single by shortstop Roger Peckinpaugh, 7-6. Cobb did all he could to carry his team to victory – getting on base all five times he came to the plate, via two doubles, a single, and two walks. But it wasn’t enough. If the Tiger manager was disappointed by that loss, his mood wouldn’t get any better the following afternoon.
Detroit bolted out to a 2-0 lead in the second game of the series, but the Yankees were too powerful, and in the fifth inning they mounted a seven-run outburst that led Cobb to tantrums. Amid the carnage of that inning, rookie hurler Harvey “Suds” Sutherland faced Ruth with a runner on second. Cobb motioned from his center field post for Sutherland to pitch carefully to his rival. After going to a 3-0 count, it appeared to Ty that Suds would just toss one away and let Ruth waddle his way down to first with a walk. Instead, the right-hander fired his best fastball down the middle, the Babe swung, and the ball soared 40 feet over Cobb’s puzzled head into the right center field stands for a two-run homer. Ruth gamely trotted around the bases and extended the New York advantage to 8-2. Cobb was furious. He stormed to the mound and chewed out his rookie moundsman, giving him a tongue-lashing that would have embarrassed a sailor. Detroit battled back in that game but still lost, 12-8. They lost the next day too as Ruth showed why he was called “The Sultan of Swat,” blasting a pair of home runs. The next day, Ruth hit two more homers off Detroit ace Hooks Dauss as the Bombers swept the four-game series, 9-6. Cobb’s team had been demoralized by the slugging of Ruth and his teammates.
Cobb would have many more battles with Ruth during their career, but that day at the Polo Grounds when he balled out a rookie hurler was probably the peak of his hatred of the great slugger. After that sad series, the Tigers went to Boston and lost four straight, their losing streak ultimately reaching nine. That quickly, Detroit was out of contention for the flag.
For Sutherland it worse than that. He traveled with the team to Boston and Cleveland and returned to Detroit after the road trip, but Cobb did not send him to the mound. Even though the rookie had the best team’s best record before his bad outing against Ruth and the Yanks, Cobb would never again write Sutherland’s name on his lineup card. The pitcher went on several more road trips with the team in ’21, but he simply sat in his uniform hoping to get out of Cobb’s doghouse. But that was a spot that few were ever allowed to exit from.
Sutherland’s rights were sold back to Portland of the Pacific Coast League in 1922, and he pitched five more seasons on the west coast before retiring from professional baseball.
He probably didn’t like the way his big league career ended, but for the rest of his life, Suds had a story to tell of how he turned Ty Cobb’s face beet-red in New York in 1921.