Back in November, I was asked to contribute to the MSP Tigers Annual 2011. My job was to write a story on the 1911 Tigers which turned into an interesting project for me. Well before the deadline, Kurt dropped me a note asking about my progress and he told me a few of his pieces went over their page limit so he had to cut something. Since I was only about 1/3 of the way through my piece (and because historical pieces aren’t as timely, I volunteered to pull my piece. Ironically, it’s the second time this has happened with this publication, but that’s another story. The Annual looks like a quality publication and it hits newsstands on March 1.
So, I’ll be posting the story here. Here’s part one….
If I asked you which Detroit Tigers’ team had the best start after 20 games, the knee jerk reaction would be 1984. If that was your guess, you’d be partly right because the 1984 Tigers weren’t the first in the franshise’s history to start out 18-2. Many people’s next guess would be one of the seasons where the Tigers won 100 games like 1968, 1961 or 1934. Those would all be incorrect. The other team to do it was the 1911 Tigers. A year removed from their third straight American League pennant, the 1911 Tigers, led by Hall of Fame outfielder Ty Cobb, took the baseball world by storm with an impressive start. Of course we all know the Tigers didn’t win in 1911, so their finish turned out to be equally unimpressive.
The Tigers won their first five games to open the season at Bennett Park and made it six in a row with a road win against the Chicago White Sox at Comiskey Park before finally losing their first game. Then they won six more in a row before losing a road game to the St. Louis Browns. This was followed up by a nine game winning streak that put the Tigers at 21-2 with an eight game lead over the Boston Red Sox. The Tigers didn’t lose their first home game until May 10, 1911 when they hosted the New York Highlanders almost a full month into the season. The Tigers then put together another five game winning streak later in the month and on May 19, 1911, the Tigers sat nine and a half games ahead of the second place Chicago White Sox at 27-5.
While both of those marks are impressive, unfortunately it was the Tigers peak. They played nearly .500 ball the rest of the way (62-60) and their lead in the American League was never larger. Still, while the 1911 Tigers didn’t get it done, they certainly have their share of stories.
At the top of the list is Ty Cobb. When one of the greatest players of all time has one of his greatest seasons then it definitely bears mentioning. He set four new American League records with 248 hits, 147 runs, 127 RBIs and 367 total bases. On top of that, he hit a mind boggling .420, a number that’s been surpassed twice in the past 100 years. All five of those marks were career bests for the player with the highest batting average of all time and the second most hits ever. It was also Cobb’s fourth batting title of his career, not that he didn’t have competition. A 21 year old Shoeless Joe Jackson (then with the Cleveland Naps) gave Cobb a run for the batting title with a .408 batting average. That’s the highest second place finish ever in the American League.
Cobb also got headlines when he began to put together a historic hitting streak. From May 15 through July 2, 1911, Cobb got a hit in forty straight games. Only George Sisler (41), Pete Rose (44) and Joe DiMaggio (56) have had longer hitting streaks since 1901. Cobb also won the first (and his only) American League MVP award.
Overall, the Tigers offense was top notch. The third best offense in the American League was the Chicago White Sox with 718 runs. The Tigers scored more then 100 more runs then the White Sox with 831. Unfortunately the pennant winning Philadelphia Athletics were just as dominating and they finished with 861 runs. The Tigers did lead the American League in hits (1544), stolen bases (276) and triples (96).
Longtime Tiger and fellow Hall of Famer Sam Crawford also had the best season of his career. While he didn’t lead the league in a single category (mostly due to Cobb’s season), Crawford’s numbers are impressive none the less. He had a career best .378 batting average (his next closest season was .335) and that was the third highest mark in the American League. He finished tied for second in the American League in RBIs with 115. Even his 109 runs put him in the top five (though he was third on the Tigers). He also finished with a career best 217 hits.
Then there was Donie Bush. The only switch hitter in the Tigers starting lineup, Bush was 23 in 1911 and he already two full seasons under his belt as the Tigers starting shortstop. Bush hit for little power throughout his career and his career batting average was nothing to write home about (.250) but one thing he could do is draw a walk. In his first full season in 1909, Bush led the league with 88 walks. In 1910, he led the league in walks again with 78 and in 1911, he didn’t stop and he finished with an American League best 99 walks despite hitting just .232 and with the help of Cobb and Crawford, Bush crossed home plate 126 times.
In fact, Donie Bush’s 1911 season was historic. There’s only been one other season where a player had a lower batting average yet still finished with more then 100 runs and that season also belongs to Bush. In 1912, Bush hit .231 and finished with 107 runs.