Ty Cobb as an Indian? It Could Have Happened
Vince Guerrieri | On 21, May 2013
Without a doubt, Ty Cobb is the greatest player to ever don a Tigers’ uniform.
The Georgia Peach, nearly 90 years after his retirement, still holds the record for highest career batting average with .366. At one point, he also held the career record for stolen bases (862) and hits (4,191).
And he could have done it in an Indians uniform.
Cobb broke into the bigs in 1905, starting in center field for the Tigers three weeks after his father William H. Cobb (for whose family the Georgia county is named) was fatally shot by his mother. He was 18 years old, then the youngest player in the major leagues. The following year, he hit .319 as the starting centerfielder for the Tigers.
But Cobb was an angry man. In later years, he made light of it, saying, “In legend I am a sadistic, slashing, swashbuckling despot who waged war in the guise of sport.” But in 1906, he got in a few fights in the clubhouse, and attacked a black groundskeeper in spring training in 1907 in Augusta, Georgia, and even fought the groundskeeper’s wife.
First-year manager Hughie Jennings, fed up with Cobb, contacted Nap Lajoie, manager of the Cleveland American League team that was named for him, and made him an offer. The Tigers would deal Cobb for Elmer Flick.
Flick, a native of Bedford, outside of Cleveland, had bounced around the Buckeye State, playing baseball for minor league teams in Dayton and Youngstown before signing on with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1898. While there, he was not immune to conflict with teammates, throwing down with Lajoie in the clubhouse after a game.
Lajoie jumped to the American League, joining the crosstown Athletics in Philadelphia. After an injunction prevented Lajoie from playing baseball in the state, he left for Cleveland. Ultimately, Flick came too.
Flick won the 1906 batting title with a .308 average (the lowest average by a batting champion until Carl Yastrzemski’s .301 in the year of the pitcher, 1968), and going into the season, had exactly 1,500 hits and a career .318 average.
The Naps passed on the deal. Jennings offered Cobb to the New York Highlanders, who were six years away from renaming themselves the Yankees. They also passed. Jennings realized “Cobb is too good a hitter to let get away,” and he was proven right. That year, Cobb hit .350, the first of nine straight years in which he won the batting title, and the Tigers won the first of three straight pennants. (Although the Tigers got to the World Series first, the Indians won it first, with the 1920 title.)
Flick hit .302 in 1907, but his productivity decreased dramatically after that. A gastrointestinal illness sapped his strength and speed, and he played just 99 more games in the next three seasons before hanging it up. Cobb, of course, went on to baseball immortality, and became one of the charter inductees into the Baseball Hall of Fame. His 98.2 percent vote total stood as a record until Tom Seaver’s induction in 1992.
When Cobb died in 1961, some news accounts reported the trade that never came to pass, sparking interest in Flick’s career. Two years later, he was a Veterans Committee inductee into the Hall of Fame. Elmer Flick died at his home in Bedford on Jan. 9, 1971, two days before his 95th birthday. His final resting place is Crown Hill Cemetery in Twinsburg.
Cobb’s career is associated with the Tigers, but he played for two years for Connie Mack in Philadelphia, and did wear a Cleveland uniform once. On July 24, 1911, the Naps played a team of American League All-Stars in a benefit for the family of Indians pitcher Addie Joss, who had died of meningitis in spring training that year. Cobb played, but his uniform was lost in transit, so he borrowed one from the hometown team.
Photo: AP Photo