This is a Baseball Chronology entry for November 29, 1910, describing the Detroit Tigers’ visit to Havana that fall:
It’s the Cuban’s turn today as Cuban ace Jose Mendez shuts out the Tigers‚ 3-0. On steal attempts‚ Ty Cobb is thrown out three times by Bruce Petway‚ who played last year for the Chicago Leland Giants‚ and Gervasio “Strike” Gonzales. On his last attempt‚ Cobb argues that the bag is three inches too far. When measured‚ Cobb is proved correct‚ but is still out stealing. A frustrated Cobb will cut short the tour and return to the U.S. The Tigers will end their Cuban swing at 7-4‚ with a tie. This is a reversal of last year’s 4-8 record‚ when they played the Cuban teams without Cobb and Sam Crawford. The champion A’s also played in Havana at the same time‚ finishing with a 4-6 record.
Nearly everything in the first five sentences is wrong:
--There were games played on November 27 and 28, but not on November 29. Detroit indeed won on November 27, 4-0 over José Muñoz and Almendares.
--On November 28 Habana, with Luis González (not José Méndez, who played for Almendares) on the mound, defeated the Tigers 3-0.
--Bruce Petway and Gervasio González were not on the same team, as this implies. Petway caught for Habana, González for Almendares.
--Cobb was not thrown out stealing three times in the November 28 game against Habana (see below).
--The tape measurement incident did not happen at all, as far as I can tell (also see below).
--Cobb did not cut the tour short in frustration. He arrived late, after his teammates had already played seven games, going 3-3-1. With Cobb, the Tigers won four of five games, and became the first major league team to win a series in Cuba since Brooklyn swept its four games in 1900. “Taken all in all,” La Lucha said, “the Detroit bunch is going away well pleased” (December 6, 1910).
To expand on two points:
First, Cobb’s basestealing troubles in the series, specifically the November 28 loss to Habana. In that game, Cobb tried to bunt his way on with two outs in the first, but Petway pounced on the ball and tossed him out. And in the fourth inning Cobb walked, then Petway cut him down at second (the account doesn’t say who took the throw). In his other two plate appearances he rolled out to the pitcher, Luis González, and popped up to second baseman Home Run Johnson. So Petway did, in fact, throw him out twice in the game, but only once on a steal attempt. Here is La Lucha’s English page on Cobb’s (and John Henry Lloyd’s) performance in this game:
La Lucha printed play-by-play accounts for three of Cobb’s five games; in those games, the only other incident on the basepaths involving Cobb occurred on November 27 game against Almendares, when Cobb tried to score from first on a hit by Sam Crawford, but was out at home (manned by González). The accounts I have don’t give the play’s details, so I don’t know who threw him out.
It’s quite possible Cobb tried to steal unsuccessfully in the two games that lack play-by-play accounts. In the 3-2 Tigers win over Almendares on December 1, Cobb went 1 for 5, and González had three assists. And in the Tigers’ 12-4 trouncing of Habana on December 4, Cobb went 2 for 5 with three runs scored, while Petway had two assists. But if Cobb tried to steal in these games, there is no indication of it in any of the game stories I have.
Second, there’s nothing in Diario de la Marina or La Lucha (including the English-language page) about Cobb stopping the game to have the base path measured. Billy Evans, who was the umpire for the series, wrote several articles about it for American newspapers, and didn’t mention the incident at all. It doesn’t appear in any of the Cobb biographies, or in Cobb’s own memoir in 1961 (which, as far as I can tell, makes no mention of his Cuba trip whatsoever). Aside from The Baseball Chronology, which was originally published in 1991, the earliest English-language source I’ve been able to find for this story is Michael and Mary Oleksak’s El Béisbol: Latin Americans and the Grand Old Game, published in the same year (p. 21):
Cobb’s visit is remembered in Cuba not for his outstanding play, but for his wily twist of an umpire’s arm. In one of the games, Bruce Petway threw Cobb out on a steal attempt. Cobb protested that second base was implanted farther than the standard 90 feet from first base. Cobb insisted that the umpire measure the base path. Cobb was proved correct when the tape measured 90 feet, 3 inches. The story lived on for years in Cuba, a famous footnote to the major league barnstorming tours.
This anecdote, unfortunately, isn’t footnoted. At best, then, we have an oral tradition of unknown provenance surfacing some eighty years after the fact. I’d be very interested if anyone knows of an earlier appearance for this story, especially in Cuban sources.
By the way: Ty Cobb, as it happens, did give thought to the advantage a few inches could represent—for him. In his chapter on base-stealing in My Life in Baseball he (or Al Stump) wrote (p. 171):
The base itself, for instance, often wasn’t strapped down tight. The writers used to mention my “superstitious” habit of kicking the bag after I’d arrived at a base. Others thought it a nervous habit. What they didn’t know [was] that with each kick, I moved that bag a few inches closer to me, after I’d taken my lead-off. If I had to dive back, that inch or two could be the difference. Never overlook the smallest percentage.
UPDATE 10:58 p.m. I forgot to mention that I also discussed the 1910 Detroit Tigers series in this post on Carlos Morán.