Wednesday, 30 April 2008

This just in: Cobb in "cheat" accusations

Well, as can probably be expected, I didn't watch last night's series opener in Baltimore, but I shall be doing so this evening and thus have no idea what happened. So rather than talking about all things Rays, and having enjoyed last week's look back so much, I thought that I would bring you the second installment of what may or may not become a recurring feature, 'Baseball history from across the pond'. That's a catchy name isn't it?!

Today we are winding back the clock to April 30, 1922, and revisiting Navin Field, home of the Detroit Tigers and player-manager Ty Cobb. For once, on this day 86 years ago, it seems that Cobb wasn't the target of the cheating accusations, but rather the chief accuser. So what was the accusation? As reported on May 2 by the NY Times -

"There were intimations that Robertson had tampered with the ball, it being hinted that oil was used to make the ball hop freakishly. Ty Cobb, manager of the Detroit team, wrote a letter to (American League) President Ban Johnson regarding the matter."

In fact, there were more than intimations. One of the games umpires, presumably at the request of the Tigers, had presented two of the balls used during the contest to President Johnson for examination. His verdict? "I consider Robertson one of the cleanest pitchers in organized baseball today."

So why were Cobb and the Tigers so up in arms over the performance of Robertson? Ok, so the spitball, and many other foreign substance-related deliveries had been banned two years previously, but I'm sure that its elimination wasn't yet universal in 1922. (Some would argue that that remains the case even today...).

Might it have something to do with the games result, a result only seen four times previously in Major League Baseball (and two of them under outdated rules), and only 12 times since? Very probably. Because, in just his fourth Major League start, Charlie Robertson of the Chicago White Sox was perfect. 27 batters up, 27 batters down. 0 runs, 0 hits, 0 errors, 0 walks, 0 hit by pitches, 0 missed third strikes, 0 catchers interference, and 0 any other ways of getting to first that I might have overlooked.

The 26-year-old righty was joining some fairly impressive names with his achievement. You might have heard of the two people before him to have thrown perfect games under modern rules. Cy Young and Addie Joss. Hall of Famers both.

I know its hardly a revelation, but I love the perfect game. It has to be the best 'inidividual' achievement in baseball. Ok, so you need a lot of help with it, but 17 times in 100+ years tells you something. But even compared to those other perfectos, Robertson's is quite an achievement. Consider that he had only made three previous starts (one of those three years previously). He would finish the season with a 14-15 record - which would turn out to be his best ever season in the majors. His lifetime win total (49) and win percentage (.380) are the lowest among all of those who achieved perfection. And apparently (though I haven't checked this) his was statistically the most unlikely - the opposition Tigers got on base at a rate of .369 in 1922 - best among all victim teams.

So maybe Cobb's accusations of cheating were understandable, if not justified. Though, and maybe this is just me, if you were accused of cheating by Cobb, the words pot, kettle and black would leap quickly to mind.

Robertson's effort is worth noting for one other reason - the length of time that would pass before the feat would be repeated. If you couldn't name Robertson as one of the authors of a perfecto, I'm willing to bet that you could name the next man who did it. 34 years, 5 months and 8 days later. Don Larsen.

Normal service should be resumed tomorrow. Who knows, maybe last night the name of Jason Hammel was added to the list of seventeen. Ok, well you know already. I don't. Don't tell me in the meantime. You wouldn't want to be the one to ruin that surprise would you?!

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