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100 Years Ago, Ty Cobb Had A Very Modern Holdout

It's not about money, it's about the principle. Or, No one player is bigger than the game. Sound familiar? Ty Cobb's holdout, over a matter of a few thousand dollars, was reported exactly 100 years ago to the day, in nearly the exact same language you'd hear in a modern contract dispute. Baseball truly is timeless.

For a 1912 season in which he batted .409, drove in 83 runs, and stole 61 bases, Cobb was paid $10,000. Cobb asked for a raise to $15,000. Tigers owner Frank Navin refused. Cobb sat out. Navin did what any owner, deprived of his best player, would do: he took the fight to the press.


Reader Ben stumbled across the April 16, 1913 edition of the Evening World (banner headline: Pope Pius X Near Death), which contained a front page story on Cobb's holdout. The sides were $3,500 apart, it was reported. And Navin attempted to stake out the moral high ground, while smearing Cobb. Some quotes:

"Mr. Cobb did not make baseball; baseball made him. A player cannot be bigger than the game which creates him. To give in to Mr. Cobb now in his present attitude would be to concede that he is greater than the game itself, for he has set all its laws at defiance.

"If Mr. Cobb doesn't like a room a hotel clerk gives him he quits the club for a week. If he doesn't like what a silly man in the grandstand yells at him he punches his face and is again out of the game...If he doesn't feel like practicing he stays away from the park. He has ground to believe that his greatness precludes his being subject to club discipline. I think Mr. Cobb eventually will recognize his fault—until he does there can be no understanding between us."

(There is a sidebar story in which the owner of the Highlanders—soon to become properly known as the Yankees—denies that Cobb is on his way to New York.)

Despite the issues of principle, Cobb and the Tigers would reach an agreement just a few days into the season. He'd get paid $12,000, the highest salary in the game. But his brief holdout would have long-lasting effects: it spurred the first government notice of baseball's reserve clause, which tied players to their teams with no recourse. An antitrust exemption would follow later in the decade, with the reserve clause not struck down until 1975.


The full Evening World article:

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