Opening Day 1920: They Don’t Write ‘Em Like That Anymore

NEW YORK - 1928. Harry Heilmann, outfielder for the Detroit Tigers, poses for a batting portrait while in New York for a series with New York Giants at Yankee Stadium in 1928. (Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images)
NEW YORK - 1928. Harry Heilmann, outfielder for the Detroit Tigers, poses for a batting portrait while in New York for a series with New York Giants at Yankee Stadium in 1928. (Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images) /

The Detroit Tigers and their major league brethren will begin the 2020s later than expected. Jumping back 100 years, coverage of how the Tigers began the 1920s brought to mind a lyric from an obscure hit by The Greg Kihn Band, “they don’t write ’em like that anymore”. Sportswriters of that era were often more colorful than their modern day counterparts. Read on. Opening Day 1920 awaits.

On a Wednesday afternoon in Chicago on April 14, veteran manager Hughie Jennings led his fourteenth Tigers team into action against the White Sox at the original Comiskey Park to begin a brand new decade of baseball.

The Sox were the defending American League champions. The Tigers finished fourth in 1919, eight games back, but some observers saw potential for much more as the new season approached. Writer Robert W. Maxwell was among those helming the hype machine. In a Brooklyn Daily Eagle series previewing all sixteen major league teams, he wrote,

"“…As far back as 1916, it was a common belief that this baseball club representing Detroit consisted of Tyrus Cobb and several other persons who comprised minor parts. In fact, some of the slangily inclined critics nicknamed the ball club the ‘Tygers’, which meant all that the name implied.But they put on a new record recently, and there has been an entire change of scenery. Instead of one leading man and a gang of Shubert athletes, the most recent cast consists of a galaxy of stars, or words to that effect.”"

Maxwell was rolling hard with his showbiz metaphors. The Shubert Organization, one of the country’s oldest professional theatre companies, built a number of the Broadway theatres that emerged in that era. Maxwell’s local readers would’ve understood the shot that he took at Cobb’s past Tiger teammates in implying that they were merely portraying ballplayers. He continued,

"“Mr. Cobb and a couple dozen highly accomplished young athletes are in the 1920 revue, and this gang has nothing on its mind except grabbing, copping, annexing, and otherwise swiping a pennant…That’s all they care about this year. If there are any other honors, they are perfectly satisfied to let the other seven (American League) clubs fight it out among themselves…The Detroit baseball club has announced its intention of winning the Johnsonian banner, and take it from us, they should be taken seriously.”"

“Johnsonian” was a reference to AL President Ban Johnson, a man who had reportedly been involved in the orchestration of a possible transfer of the Detroit franchise to Pittsburgh after the 1902 season. Take a moment to give thanks that such an infernal deal never materialized.

As one would expect in the Midwest in April, there was a possibility that Mother Nature wouldn’t cooperate with the Tigers’ Opening Day plans. Detroit Free Press writer Harry Bullion didn’t paint an encouraging picture of Chicago’s weather for readers back home. The night before, he wrote,

"“The elements are far more suitable for an ice carnival. Frost oozes from the untenanted portions of the city, and snow piles decorate the playgrounds of the American League champions.”"

Chicago Tribune writer James Crusinberry confirmed that there were still a few shovelfuls of snow that needed to be removed the night before the game. He seemed to be more optimistic than Bullion that the game would be played, however. He speculated,

"“…With the help of Old Sol, a squad of groundskeepers, and a couple barrels of gasoline, it can be fitted up to perfection. Barring any more rain or another blizzard, there will be no trouble along those lines.”"

Presumably, “Old Sol” was a reference to the sun, which translates to “sol” in Spanish. Gasoline? It would be interesting to hear what Comerica Park’s head groundskeeper Heather Nabozny thinks of such an extreme idea. Luckily, weather conditions were favorable on game day, and the 1920 season began as scheduled for the Tigers and White Sox.

The Tigers tabbed reliable righthander George “Hooks” Dauss for his first Opening Day starting assignment. He got the nickname thanks to his excellent curveball. A 21-game winner in 1919, Dauss was beginning his eighth full season as a Tiger. He’d become well-regarded around the circuit, earning eccentric descriptions ranging from “one of the wise birds of the American League in artistic slabbing” to “a gent who has been through the mill and not subject to stage fright”.

A nice scouting report on Dauss from that era was found in, of all places, a North Carolina newspaper, which may have come from a wire service. In a profile that ran in the Salisbury Evening Post, an unnamed analyst observed,

"“Dauss is a well balanced pitcher. He has a good deal of everything; speed, slow ball, curves, confidence, and control. Besides all these physical and mental accomplishments, Dauss knows how to pitch and what to pitch. Anytime he serves a ball, it is with a studied purpose and not a take-a-chance twirling. No pitcher is quicker to detect the weakness of a batter and take advantage of it.”"

Dauss stuck around through 1926. His 223 wins are still a franchise record. Only three other pitchers, George Mullin, Mickey Lolich, and Hal Newhouser, won at least 200 games as a Tiger.

So how did Opening Day go for the Tigers in 1920? Spoiler alert: they lost 3-2. In the Free Press‘ front page account of the game, Bullion shared news of the disappointing outcome with an eloquent lede.

"“Claude Williams, the ‘goat’ of the last world’s series, set the Men of Jennings back in the inaugural game of the season this afternoon by the slenderest margin on which a ball game can be won.”"

Back when “goat” was short for “scapegoat” (and not an acronym for “greatest of all time”), Williams was called the goat of 1919 World Series for good reason. “Lefty”, as he was also known, faced five batters in the first inning of the decisive eighth game of the rare best-of-nine series. He gave up four hits before being pulled and was charged with four runs in Chicago’s 10-5 loss. It was later revealed that Williams was one of the “Black Sox” that conspired to throw the World Series in exchange for a cash reward from gamblers.

As the 1920 opener against the Tigers got underway, Williams, a 23-game winner in 1919, reverted back to the effectiveness he showed prior to his tainted October. Per Crusinberry’s coverage, he “fed his left handed benders to the Jennings crew with deadly effect”. Williams struck out the first two Tigers he faced, shortstop Donie Bush and second baseman Ralph “Pep” Young.

That brought up Ty Cobb. The Tigers’ star center fielder had reported to the team only four days earlier. Jennings had allowed “The Georgia Peach” to work out at his home in Augusta during spring training, even though the Tigers were training in Macon (nearly 120 miles to the west). Cobb joined the team just in time to play a couple exhibition games in Indianapolis. Retired pitcher Christy Mathewson, defended his fellow future Hall of Famer’s missed time. In a syndicated column, Matty wrote,

"“Cobb is the sort of player who does not need the spring grind. He does not take on weight in the winter, and he is active during the offseason. He spends most of his time hunting. I’ll leave it to the American League pitchers whether his batting eye requires a spring workout.”"

After shaking hands with White Sox catcher Ray Schalk and home plate umpire Brick Owens in a fine display of sportsmanship, Cobb was ready to begin his 1920 season. His single showed that his batting eye did not require a spring workout. Neither did his base running acumen, as he promptly stole second. Left fielder Bobby Veach then walked. First baseman Harry Heilmann, an eventual four-time American League batting champion who had topped the .300 mark for the first time in 1919, stepped up to the plate. Bullion reported,

"“(He) pelted the leather with all his weight behind the blow. The ball sailed out in the general direction of Cleveland. (Center fielder Happy) Felsch and (right fielder Nemo) Leibold started for the flying pellet, but it outraced the center fielder, and everybody in the stands gave it up for lost when Leibold, cutting across lots, made connection just as the agate was about to drop into the bleachers.”"

The Tigers’ threat ended, and the teams matched zeros until the sixth, when the White Sox launched what Crusinberry called their “main attack” against Dauss. (The following descriptions in quotation marks are his.)

With one out, Williams “started the fuss with a clean blow to right”. He advanced to third when Leibold singled by sending “a bullet drive down the first base line, the ball nearly tearing an arm off Heilmann”. Third baseman Buck Weaver’s single drove Williams in, however Leibold overran second and “was shot dead by a throw” from Tigers right fielder Ira Flagstead. Weaver stole second and scored on a double by second baseman Eddie Collins. Dauss got out of the jam by striking out left fielder “Shoeless” Joe Jackson.

Collins was one of the Sox players that played it clean in the 1919 World Series. A premier second baseman of the day, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1939. Although Jackson, one of the game’s outstanding hitters, played well in the World Series, he had accepted dirty money. He would become one of the eight “Black Sox” later banned by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, tarnishing what might otherwise have been a Hall of Fame career.

After falling behind in the sixth, the Tigers attempted to claw back in the seventh. Cobb led off with a single. Williams struck out Veach on a called third strike, another “bender”, according to Crusinberry, who described the second out as a “ferocious blast” off Heilmann’s bat that was caught by Leibold in right.

Next up was Flagstead. On what Crusinberry called a “healthy swat”, Flagstead’s double to right drove Cobb in with the Tigers’ first run. It’s not a heralded moment in franchise history, but Flagstead became the first ever Tigers hitter to be officially credited with a run batted in. Prior to 1920, the RBI had not been recognized as an official statistic.

With two out in the ninth and still down a run, Heilmann was the Tigers’ last hope. According to Bullion, Heilmann “made the ball scream for mercy all afternoon”, despite being hitless to that point, and Crusinberry also noted that the Tigers’ future Hall of Famer “had been threatening all afternoon to knock down a concrete wall or two”. Primed and ready to deliver, Heilmann launched a home run to left that tied the game 2-2.

That brought Flagstead up again. Bullion’s colorful reporting set the stage for what happened next. He wrote,

"“The stubby right fielder took a toe hold and clubbed one of Williams’ fast ones straight for the bleachers in center field. Again Felsch was outstripped by the ball, but he gave a dying leap and, throwing up his gloved hand, came to earth with the ball.”"

The Chicago Tribune‘s game notes reported that Felsch had been running at top speed toward the scoreboard when he made his grab. If he hadn’t made what would’ve likely been an ESPN “Web Gem” today, Flagstead might have ended up giving the Tigers a lead with an inside-the-park home run. Bullion surmised,

"“Once (it gets) by the center fielder, and half a dozen arms of the Speaker variety could not have relayed the ball back in time to flag Ira at the plate.”"

That was quite a comparison to make. Tris Speaker, who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1939, was regarded as one of the best center fielders of the day. Donie Bush, the Tigers’ leadoff hitter that day, once claimed that Speaker could throw a strike to the plate from anywhere in the outfield. That’s how strong and accurate his arm was said to be. Felsch’s play clearly made a huge difference to Bullion, who observed,

"“Williams would have folded up in the final regulation round holding the bag instead of floating away on the wings of victory.”"

The wings of victory hadn’t been cleared for takeoff, however, and the game continued. The Tigers caught a break in the bottom of the ninth, thanks to some confusion about a new rule that had been implemented before the season. According to the rule, if a ball inadvertently hit the bat of a batter trying to avoid to being hit by a pitch, the ball was supposed to be ruled dead.

As Happy Felsch was trying to duck out of the way of one of Dauss’ pitches, the ball caromed off his bat into foul territory before slowly rolling fair. Tigers second baseman Ralph Young fielded it and touched first base. Home plate umpire Owens called Felsch out. Felsch hadn’t run. Both he and White Sox manager Kid Gleason claimed the ball was dead. Owens’ ruling was that Felsch had taken a partial swing.

Collins had been on second at the time and advanced to third. One uncredited writer guessed that if the rule hadn’t been in effect, Collins might have been able to catch an “unprepared” Tigers infield by surprise and could’ve scored the winning run. The writer began his article with a scathing critique, stating,

"“Right away the new baseball rules rise up and smite their makers in the face.”"

Collins was left stranded on third. Both Williams and Dauss pitched a scoreless tenth, and “Lefty” kept the Tigers off the board in the eleventh. “Hooks” wasn’t able to match him, however. The trouble began with one out, when Weaver, looking for his fourth hit of the day, bucked again. Crusinberry wrote,

"“Weaver, who had been ripping things up during the entire battle, scratched a single on a dizzy grounder down to the first baseman.”"

Everything about the situation seemed to rub Bullion the wrong way. He called it a “fluke single” and added,

"“(Weaver) had been given a life on an effort that Heilmann messed up and on which the official scorer generously credited Buck with a safety. Weaver should have been the second out…”"

Weaver stole second for the second time in the game, and the end was near. Bullion’s description of the Tigers’ downfall was simply poetic. He lamented,

"“When the shades of night commenced to darken the air and one man was out in the eleventh inning, Eddie Collins’ trusty bat crushed a curve ball that George Dauss served him for a double that registered Weaver from second base…”"

Imagine going to an afternoon game these days and being worried about the shades of night darkening the air as the game ebbs toward the early evening hours. That was a common problem in that era, but not one that White Sox fans needed to worry about anymore after lights were installed at Comiskey Park in 1939. (Of course, fans in Detroit wouldn’t get to watch a game underneath stadium lights until 1948.)

It was a tough loss for the Tigers, but they had their chances. As Bullion summarized,

"“Had not fate made the Bengals the butt of its jests on two occasions, Williams wouldn’t have heard the plaudits of 25,000 fans ringing in his ears when the curtain dropped on the drama…He could not have survived but for a pair of catches that will be recorded as two of the very best ever witnessed in the classic stadium of the White Sox.”"

Crusinberry didn’t quite agree with Bullion’s report of the attendance. He humorously countered,

"“24,998 rooters went home happy. Two guys in the balcony were rooting for Detroit.”"

Detroit’s rooters didn’t actually have much to root for in 1920. The Tigers got off to an astonishingly ugly 0-13 start. With the exception of a 2-2 October, there wasn’t a single month in which they even played .500 ball. The Tigers were outscored 829-652. Only a worse Philadelphia A’s team (48-106) kept the 61-93 Tigers from occupying the American League cellar.

Cobb’s .334/.416/.451 was his weakest since 1908. His 132 OPS+ was his lowest since 1906. He was lost for much of June after tearing ligaments in his left knee in an outfield collision with Flagstead. Not long after returning, Cobb reaggravated the injury and missed two weeks in the latter half of July.

The rest of the offense struggled overall, as Veach and Heilmann were the only other Tigers regulars to hit above .300 and put up an OPS+ above 100. Without much run support, the pitching staff wasn’t able to generate a winning effort. Dauss went from a 21-game winner in 1919 to a 21-game loser in 1920.

The Tigers’ once ebullient manager Hughie Jennings, who’d become a fixture in Detroit, resigned two weeks after the season ended. In a sharply pointed analysis of the situation (which probably could’ve been copied and pasted a number of times regarding outgoing Tigers managers over the next ten decades), Bullion reported,

"“There is no doubt that Jennings’ resignation was inspired by the poor work of the Tigers this year and subsequent rebuke heaped upon him by the fans, who overlooking or not knowing the real conditions on the club, thrust the blame wholly on the manager…Hughie stood a lot that no other manager would have tolerated from members of the Tigers, and took it without grumbling. But when fans rode him without mercy during the final weeks of the season, it was too much…It was simply a case where Jennings outlived his usefulness here. In a measure, he lost his grip on the players (and) discipline didn’t exist…He fought in vain to inspire them, and a club that was the most colorful in the league became the most colorless.”"

Although Jennings’ successor, none other than Ty Cobb himself, would lead the Tigers to winning records during five of the six seasons in which he served as player-manager, the Tigers stayed fairly quiet during the “Roaring ’20s”, which were dominated by the New York Yankees. Fans in Detroit would have to wait until the next decade for another pennant-winning Tigers team to come along.