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Mickey Cochrane

Lawrence Richards analyzes the complex character of one of Major League Baseball’s all-time great game-callers: Mickey Cochrane. Cochrane starred on some of the great AL teams of the 1920s and ’30s, including the 1929 A’s and the 1935 Tigers.

By Lawrence Richards, April 11, 2018

Mickey Cochrane’s final at-bat was on May 25, 1937. He hit a home run. That landmark ending concluded a glorious career as a catcher; a singular triumph as player-manager. His baseball tenure was characterized by myriad accomplishments as well as periods of deep depression and physical hardships. He was a man of intense emotional swings, yet regardless of his mental state, he remained an inspirational leader for teammates, a hero and a role model for millions during the Great Depression. Many named their sons, Mickey, including an Oklahoma family fighting the drought; last name Mantle.

We evaluate baseball personnel, past and present, primarily on the basis of stats. Realistically, how else can we make an objective judgment as to achievements, or lack thereof? Make comparisons with others or judge the impact and legacy of a given career? But what is the measure of the man? I knew Mickey Cochrane was a great ballplayer, but his impressive numbers weren’t the stimulus for this essay. It was a photograph that provided the motivation.

Cochrane was literally flying through the air, perpendicular to the ground, arm fully extended with the ball in his hand. He was trying to tag a runner at home plate; his face twisted and his body strained and contorted with supreme effort. It conveyed an instinctual lack of physical concern, all that mattered was making the play. The picture was from a 1933 exhibition game. Whether the guy scored or not was irrelevant; the game meant nothing. I knew then I wanted to write about Mickey Cochrane.

A standout athlete, Mickey Cochrane chose baseball over football after college.

His nickname was “Black Mike,” which exemplified his swarthy appearance, grittiness, and working-class ethic. Of far greater significance, Black Mike also suggested a dark side, a window into his psychological profile. Baseball, or any other sport, involves a delicate balance between physical prowess and a sustained positive attitude. The great ones possess both. With Cochrane the correlation was profound. Here are some observations by several journalists who knew him well:

•      Harry Salsinger: “Unlike any other man who has played baseball.”

•      Sam Greene: “He was prone to mournful tones.”

•      John Kieran: “He was the [real] Man in the Iron Mask.”

•      Malcolm Bingay: “Is taciturn, surly, sullen, or boyishly happy as befits his mood and his feelings.”

Of Scottish heritage, Mickey was one of seven children born to John and Sadie Cochrane. His real name was Gordon, although his parents were the only ones who called him that. To the rest of the family, he was Mike, or “Kid.” Most everyone assumed he was Irish; ergo, Mickey. Growing up in rural Bridgewater, Massachusetts, he loved to hunt and fish, and he was a superb all-around athlete. Most felt his excellence in football and basketball surpassed his baseball talent. Cochrane agreed, but although football was his passion, in the early 20s, pro football was in its infancy; the money wasn’t there.

He was a five-sport varsity athlete at Boston University, and he somehow found time to moonlight under the name of Frank King for Dover, a Class D club in the Eastern Shore League. They needed a catcher; no problem, he started catching. In 1924, he dropped out of BU and joined the Portland Beavers in the high-powered Pacific Coast League. Despite his rudimentary catching skills, his batting average of .333, strong arm, speed, and ability to draw walks caught the attention of the Philadelphia Athletics; they signed him for the 1925 season.

In his rookie year, he made his presence felt immediately. He replaced veteran Cy Perkins, considered one of the league’s best defensive catchers. His .331 batting average and .397 on-base percentage set the table for sluggers Al Simmons and Jimmie Foxx. He was instrumental in the A’s second-place finish. When the 1926 season began, there was already widespread agreement, even after only one year, that Cochrane was special. With the help of Perkins, his catching skills were upgraded, as was his ability to call the game. In 1928 he won the AL MVP Award.

American League President Ernest Barnard sent this letter to Cochrane congratulating him on being selected the 1928 AL Most Valuable Player.

Hall of Famer and battery mate Lefty Grove said, “Hardly ever shook him off, before I’d even look at him, I had in my mind what I was going to pitch, and there’d be Mickey’s signal, just what I was thinking. Like he was reading my mind. That’s the kind of catcher he was. He was the best of them all.”

Manager Connie Mack stated, “I used to call all the pitches from the bench, Mickey would shake off my sign and do as he pleased. He knew the batters as well as I did.”

In 1929 it all came together for the A’s. Handmaidens to the Yankee dynasty, they put together a streak of three straight pennants (1929–31) and two World Series championships (1929 and ’30). In that span Cochrane hit .331, .357, and .349; he averaged 129 games (154-game season) and 87 RBls; and he handled the pitching staff brilliantly. The 1927 Yankees are still considered by many the greatest team ever. Heresy maybe, but I’m not so sure those legendary Yanks were even the greatest team of the 1920s. In a series matchup, those 1929 A’s just might prevail; at the very least they would give those fabled Yanks all they could handle.

Ty Cobb played for the A’s in ’27 and ’28. He greatly affected and enhanced Cochrane’s innate tenacity and sense of responsibility. This was evidenced by the personal blame Mickey expressed when the 1931 Cardinals won the Series. The Cards stole eight bases, and Cochrane took the blame.The fleet Cards stole 8 bases, often due to A’s hurlers not keeping them close. Regardless, Cochrane voluntarily absorbed the heat; “My fault.”

Mickey, shown here with his son Gordon Cochrane Jr. in 1931, played nine seasons with the Athletics before being sent to the Tigers in 1934.

The Great Depression affected everyone and everything. Connie Mack and the Philadelphia Athletics were no exception. Mack couldn’t meet the payroll of his star-studded team, and starting in 1932, he was forced to sell off key players. In 1934, Mack, with great reluctance, sold Cochrane to the Detroit Tigers for $100,000. Immediately, club president, Frank Navin, named him player-manager. The underperforming Tigers’ last best finish was third place in 1923. Yet, well before spring training began, the pressure on Cochrane started to mount, as evidenced by this Sporting News, December 21, 1933, headline: “Cochrane Should Bring Back Scrappy Ways of Ty Cobb.” Still, expectations for the club were not high; it was all on Mickey.

Cochrane had his own expectations. He set about fulfilling them with strategic moves, such as early examples of two-platooning. Aside from his outstanding individual performance as a hitter, he’d also perfected a one-hand catching style, enabling a quicker release and greater protection for his fingers. Results? The Tigers won pennants in ’34 and ’35. The 1934 season marked Detroit’s first pennant in 25 years. Cochrane also won his second MVP Award, over Triple Crown winner, Lou Gehrig. The Tigers beat the Cubs in the ’35 Series, their first world championship since 1909, when their star was Ty Cobb. How did Cochrane impact his club? Two of his players:

•      Hank Greenberg, HOF: “We needed somebody to take over and show us how to win; it’s what Mickey did. He was the greatest fighting spirit on the ball field, he’d go through a brick wall to catch a ball.”

•      Charlie Gehringer, HOF: “Cochrane was a great inspirational leader, he was the hardest loser I ever saw. He set the example himself. Always hustling, always battling. Cochrane was in charge out there.”

In 1935 Mickey Cochrane appeared on the cover of Time magazine. I believe it wasn’t just because of the World Series win or his MVP designation. I think it had to do with his city, Detroit; he was viewed as a civic savior during a time when millions were challenged to buy bread, milk, eggs, let alone cars in the epicenter of the ravaged automobile industry. When it was most needed, he gave Detroiters, buried under the Great Depression, something to cheer for, cheer about. Fans could wear the mantle of their team’s glory, feeling pride, assimilating hope for themselves.

Of the 1934 AL MVP, Tigers second baseman Charlie Gehringer said, “Cochrane was an inspirational leader.”

In 1936, Joe D. and the “new” dominant Yankee regime regained AL supremacy over the Tigers. Multiple injuries certainly didn’t help Detroit’s cause as they wilted in the pennant race. Cochrane’s health was also a critical factor, much of it due to his emotional intensity; the limelight he commanded. In a piece in Sport magazine, he revealed, “When I was a player I worried only about myself. Now I have to worry about everybody. If one eats something that makes them sick, I get sick too.”

Aside from player-manager, in 1936 he also assumed the role of general manager. His meltdown began. He looked awful: eyes hollow, shoulders sagging, near-collapse. He kept going on adrenaline. Doctors advised complete rest; Cochrane refused. He was finally hospitalized with a nervous breakdown.

I reached out to a good friend, Dr. Stanley Teitelbaum, an eminent psychologist, lecturer, and author with particular expertise in sports psychology. He was quite familiar with Mickey Cochrane. Stan offered, “The triggering factor in his nervous breakdown was responsibility overload. He struggled with anxiety and depression, but in those days they called it nervous breakdown. Also worth noting that mental problems were stigmatized back then, and players felt the need to deny emotional issues rather than to acknowledge them as they do today.”

The 1937 season was even worse. His mental state was still in a delicate balance, when in late May he almost died, beaned by a fastball delivered from Yankee pitcher Bump Hadley. His skull was fractured in three places, and he remained unconscious for 10 days. One doctor reported, “The X-rays looked like a road map.” He was never the same. At 34, his playing days were over. He returned as manager of the A’s in 1938 but was fired in early August when Mack’s sons took over the club.

Players gather around an unconscious Mickey Cochrane after the Tigers’ player-manager was struck in the right temple by a pitch by Bump Hadley at Yankee Stadium on May 25, 1937.

Despite his head injury, he volunteered for naval duty, serving from 1942 to 1944. He spent some time in the South Pacific and coached the Great Lakes Training Center baseball team, outside Chicago. In ’47 Cochrane became the first catcher enshrined in the Hall of Fame chosen by the Baseball Writers Association. It should be noted that catchers Buck Ewing (1939), Roger Bresnahan (1945), and Wilbert Robinson (1945) were voted in by the Veterans Committee.

In 1949, during Mack’s last days, Mickey returned to his old club as coach, with a short stint as GM of Minor League Operations. In the early to mid-1950s, he did some scouting for Philly, then for the Yankees, which was his last job in baseball.

In the late 1940s, and post-baseball, Cochrane spent probably some of his happiest days at a ranch he’d purchased near Billings, Montana. It allowed him many opportunities to do the things he loved: being outdoors, spending time with his family, and finding some rare solace and privacy. He turned it into a dude ranch and operated an auto dealership in Billings. He was a most complex man, whose gruff persona masked the fact he was an accomplished ballroom dancer, loved bands, played the saxophone on several offseason vaudeville tours, and had a robust appreciation of Shakespeare. According to his family, he had a terrific sense of humor and was a wonderful storyteller.

He died of lymphatic cancer at the early age of 59. He left his wife, Mary, and daughters, Joan and Sara; his only son, Gordon Jr., was killed in World War II. On June 28, 1962, fiery Mickey Cochrane was finally at peace.

How does he rank in the pantheon of great catchers? From my perspective, within the top three. No matter one’s personal choice(s), I doubt if anyone would disagree that he definitely belongs in the conversation.

 

 

 

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