Eddie Wells played with Cobb and Ruth

Eddie Wells won 68 games in 11 seasons for Detroit, the Yankees, and the St. Louis Browns.

Eddie Wells won 68 games in 11 seasons for Detroit, the Yankees, and the St. Louis Browns.

It’s one of those eternal arguments, at least among those who enjoy their baseball history: Who would you rather have on your team, Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth? For those who love “inside baseball,” or “small ball,” Cobb was the man. For those in awe of pure bashing, nobody surpassed the Babe.

Ohio farm boy Eddie Wells grew up to enjoy a unique perspective of the 20th century’s two greatest players. The hard-throwing left-hander pitched five seasons (1923-27) with Detroit and four (1929-32) with New York, making him one of a handful of big leaguers to have played with both men.

Wells was attending Bethany College in West Virginia when a Detroit scout signed him. After school let out in June 1923, he reported to the Tigers in Boston. Cobb was the player-manager. “I hit Boston about 6:30 in the morning, at the New Brunswick Hotel where the Detroit club was,” Wells remembered. “And the first thing I did, I called Cobb on the phone! He was sound asleep. Got him out of bed. Man, I didn’t know ballplayers didn’t get out of bed ‘til 9 or 10 in the morning. I was just a farm boy, I didn’t have no sense.”

Instead of biting the rookie’s head off, Cobb invited him to breakfast. They spent the entire morning talking baseball. That afternoon, the newcomer got his baptism of fire at Fenway Park.

“Ira Flagstead was the first batter I faced,” Wells recalled. “Never will forget it. He hit a line drive right at my face and I threw up my glove and caught it. Pitched one inning. Didn’t get one hit. That’s my initiation into the big leagues. I was just about scared to death. Anyone who tells you they’re not scared their first game is full of bull.”

The club left immediately for New York. George “Hooks” Dauss showed up drunk at game time. Cobb, livid, had Dauss take the mound anyway. Wells remembered that the Yankees “got seven runs before you could shake a stick at him.” Midway through the blowout, Cobb sent Wells to the bullpen to warm up.

“By the start of the sixth inning I was in the ball game,” Wells said. “And Babe Ruth is the first man up.”

Catcher Johnny Bassler came to the mound and asked the rookie what he wanted to throw Ruth.

“I told him, ‘Nothin’,” Wells said. “He looked at me and I said, ‘I ain’t throwin’ him nothin’.’ I had a whale of a slow curveball. And that’s what I threw him. Struck him out. They didn’t get no hits in three innings off me.” Wells, who would also face Ruth as a member of the St. Louis Browns in the last two seasons of his 11-year big-league career, never surrendered a home run to the Babe.

Wells considered Cobb “the hustling-est player of all time.” “The opposition hated Cobb,” he said. “I mean, he was a hustler and he’d spike you to get that base. A lot of the players on that Detroit club didn’t like him because he was tough. Harry Heilmann didn’t think much of him, and neither did [pitchers] Ken Holloway or George Dauss. But me and Cobb always got along great. Always did. I thought a lot of him and he thought a lot of me.”

Wells’ best season with the Tigers was 1926, Cobb’s last in Detroit. He won a dozen games and tossed a league-high four shutouts. “I remember during my playing days in Detroit a lot of ballplayers would be talking about how we’d like to be Yankees ourselves,” he said. “Man, we were always in awe when we met the Yankees. There was just a certain air about them, like they were different from other ball clubs. We looked at them as being double big-leaguers.”

Wells, whose Detroit career was sideswiped by a sore arm in 1927, got his wish. After returning to the minors and winning 25 games for Birmingham in 1928, his contract was sold to the Yankees for $30,000. His locker for the next four years was next to the Babe’s.

“That ol’ Babe,” Wells said with obvious affection. “Man, oh man, he was something. We had a lot of fun. He’d give you the shirt off his back. I never saw a man with the constitution like the Babe had. He could put away that whiskey and beer. But listen, he could have a rough night and go out and hit those home runs like nobody’s business. He swung a 42-ounce bat. Sure did. We called it a wagon tongue.”

Wells racked up a composite 25-12 record his first two seasons with the Yanks. He was at Wrigley Field when Babe hit his famous “called shot” home run against the Cubs during the 1932 World Series.

“The Yankees had sold Mark Koenig, our shortstop, to the Cubs the latter part of the season,” he said. “Koenig was a fine fellow, but we thought the Cubs had shorted him in the World Series shares. We rode them something terrible about that. When we hit Chicago and went to the Edgewater Beach Hotel, we really got a blast from the street fans. Babe was mainly their target.

“Anyway, come the third game and Charlie Root is pitchin’ for Chicago. All the Cub players were out on the bench railing, really riding Babe. Root pitched a strike and Babe stepped out of the batter’s box and held up one finger. Root pitched another strike and Babe held up two fingers for two strikes. Then Babe motioned with his arm to the center-field bleachers, that he was going to hit the next pitch there for a home run, see.

“Well, the Cubs really gave Babe the hah-hah. Root pitched the ball and—dad-gone!—Babe got hold of it and hit it into the center-field bleachers! That’s right. I saw it. Well, the Yankee bench went wild, and when Babe rounded third he tipped his cap to the Cubs’ bench. Man, it was like a turtle had just pulled its head back into its shell, that’s how quiet that Chicago bench got. In the locker room, Babe just broke down and cried. That’s how happy he was.”

Two diamond legends, too men with a flair for the dramatic. So, who was greater—Cobb or Ruth? I put that question to Wells a few years before his death in 1986.

“Now listen, those are two different characters all together,” he answered. “Now, Cobb was a dynamic ballplayer. He was always one thought ahead of everyone else on the field. Smart as the devil. They’d boo the devil out of Cobb, but he’d just eat it up. He liked it. If they didn’t boo him he’d think something was wrong.”

OK, I said. So you’d pick Cobb?

“Now, wait a minute,” Wells responded. “Babe won a lot of ball games for me. And Cobb managed me, and he won me a couple ball games, too. They’re just two different kinds of ballplayers. It’s hard to say which one is the best. Cobb was a great man with Detroit. Good Lord! And Babe was a great man with the Yankees.”

OK, I said. So Babe’s your choice?

“I’d say it’s about a tie,” Wells said. “That’s what I think.”

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About Richard Bak

Richard Bak grew up on Detroit's west side doing poor imitations of Dick McAuliffe's batting stance and Denny McLain's leg kick. He is a contributing writer to Hour Detroit magazine and the author of nearly 30 books, including biographies of Ty Cobb and Joe Louis. Bak's most recent books are The Big Jump, the story of Charles Lindbergh and the great New York-to-Paris air race of the 1920s, and Detroitland, a collection of his history pieces. He currently is finishing two more books of history: Soldier of Misfortune: The Execution of Private Eddie Slovik and Its Aftermath (DaCapo) and When Lions Were Kings: The Detroit Lions and the Fabulous Fifties (Wayne State University Press), both of which will be published in 2015.