Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker Are Accused of Fixing Baseball Games Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Major League Baseball superstars Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker abruptly retired from baseball in 1926 after facing accusations that they fixed a game in 1919. A lack of supporting evidence and witnesses, however, as well as the general public’s sympathy with the popular players, led the baseball commissioner to dismiss the case, though vestiges of the scandal remained.

Summary of Event

The baseball world was shocked in November, 1926, when living legends and player-managers Ty Cobb of the Detroit Tigers and Tris Speaker of the Cleveland Indians abruptly retired from professional baseball. It was later revealed that their sudden departures were linked to the allegations of a former Cobb teammate who accused the two of fixing a game in 1919. [kw]Cobb and Tris Speaker Are Accused of Fixing Baseball Games, Ty (Dec. 26, 1926) [kw]Speaker Are Accused of Fixing Baseball Games, Ty Cobb and Tris (Dec. 26, 1926) [kw]Baseball Games, Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker Are Accused of Fixing (Dec. 26, 1926) Baseball;game fixing Landis, Kenesaw Mountain Cobb, Ty Speaker, Tris Leonard, Dutch Baseball;game fixing Landis, Kenesaw Mountain Cobb, Ty Speaker, Tris Leonard, Dutch [g]United States;Dec. 26, 1926: Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker Are Accused of Fixing Baseball Games[00390] [c]Corruption;Dec. 26, 1926: Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker Are Accused of Fixing Baseball Games[00390] [c]Gambling;Dec. 26, 1926: Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker Are Accused of Fixing Baseball Games[00390] [c]Hoaxes, frauds, and charlatanism;Dec. 26, 1926: Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker Are Accused of Fixing Baseball Games[00390] [c]Sports;December 26, 1926: Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker Are Accused of Fixing Baseball Games[00390]

Ty Cobb.

(Library of Congress)

Tris Speaker.

(Library of Congress)

Cobb, whose aggressive style of play on the field and racist behavior off it, was both an idol and a villain to fans. He held several prominent records upon his retirement, including most hits, runs, and steals. Likewise, Speaker, who played the majority of his career for the Boston Red Sox, retired in 1926 with a .345 batting average, nearly 3,500 hits, and with a ranking that placed him among the best defensive center fielders. Speaker and, particularly, Cobb were two of the most iconic players of the era and were ubiquitous as athletes, managers, and representatives of the game well into the 1920’s.

Nevertheless, both players, and Cobb mainly, displayed intolerant, crude, and violent behavior in public. In one episode, Cobb savagely beat a black groundskeeper, then attempted to strangle the man’s wife while his Detroit teammates tried to subdue him. In another episode, Cobb entered the grandstands and beat a one-armed heckler named Claude Lueker after Lueker called Cobb a “half nigger.” Both incidents revealed Cobb’s racism and violent temperament. Although Speaker was not as violent off the field, the native Texan did engage in a number of brawls during games and was at one time affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan.

Given the reputations of the two players, it came as no surprise when former Detroit pitcher Dutch Leonard publicly accused Cobb and Speaker, on December 26, 1926, of fixing a game near the end of the 1919 season. Still, the fallout created quite a shock wave. Leonard, who pitched two no-hitters and held the major-league record for the lowest single-season earned run average, or ERA (0.96 in 1914), had a well-known and longstanding feud with Cobb that emerged after Cobb felt he was intentionally struck by a Leonard pitch during the pitcher’s record-setting year.

The bad blood between Leonard and Cobb continued until it climaxed in 1921, the year Cobb became Leonard’s manager in Detroit. Cobb consistently fined Leonard, who was reputed as something of a night owl, for violating curfew. The two fought over how best to pitch to star players such as Speaker and George Sisler. Cobb also verbally derided Leonard because of his lackluster season on the mound. Although Leonard ultimately quit the team during the 1921 season, the quarrel manifested yet again when he rejoined the club in 1924. The Leonard-Cobb feud pinnacled in 1924 after Leonard accused Cobb of overworking him on the mound. Seemingly motivated by reprisal, Cobb left the pitcher in for an entire game—which was common in 1924—even though Leonard was being badly beaten and was not throwing well. Leonard was subsequently placed on waivers and, when no other team elected to pick him up, his career in major-league baseball effectively came to a close.

In the years following Leonard’s retirement, rumors began to swirl that Leonard had some sort of knowledge about Cobb that could be used to blackmail him. According to Cobb biographer Al Stump, Leonard was heard on more than one occasion wanting to publicly disgrace Cobb. In 1926, Leonard gave baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis detailed information that implicated Cobb and Speaker in fixing a game in 1919. Leonard alleged that Cobb and Speaker, who was a player-manager for the Indians at the time, conspired to fix the September 24 game between the Tigers and Indians. Detroit, the home team, won the game 9-5. Leonard also produced an ample amount of evidence to corroborate his claim. Two letters in particular, one written by Cobb and another by retired Red Sox pitcher Smokey Joe Wood, referred to gambling and game fixing.

Moreover, baseball commissioner Landis revealed that league president, former baseball commissioner, and longtime Landis adversary Ban Johnson permitted Cobb and Speaker to resign rather than risk the type of fallout that came from the 1919 “Black Black Sox scandal Sox” scandal. Allegedly, Johnson had found the charges against Cobb, Speaker, and Wood so damning and likely to lead to convictions that he paid Leonard twenty thousand dollars to suppress the evidence. Landis’s revelation of Johnson’s intentions later factored into claims that the commissioner was using the Cobb-Speaker scandal as a personal publicity stunt.

A veritable firestorm erupted when Landis made the information public, in part to prevent reporters from picking up on the information first and exacerbating the indignity. Surprising to many, Landis’s decision to go public with the accusations produced the opposite effect. Fans and many in the baseball community, fueled by the newspaper syndicate, claimed Landis’s announcement was one of shameful self-advertisement intended to gain cheap exposure. However, had a newspaper rather than Landis broken the story, it is likely that fans would have accused baseball authorities of lacking the nerve to expose, denounce, and discipline its own stars. In hindsight, Landis probably made the right decision by disclosing the case himself rather than risking media exposure. Still, in 1926, the disreputable specter of game fixing still loomed large over baseball. That such prominent names as Cobb and Speaker could be deeply involved in such a scandal was threatening to both the business of baseball and the faith of the American public.

After being confronted with the charges, Cobb and Speaker immediately defended themselves. Most important, the public ultimately believed the two stars. Cobb implied that Leonard was traitorous by nature and that Leonard had publicly debased his own reputation. Cobb also claimed that Leonard’s evidence had been misinterpreted and that the monetary figures he was referring to were business investments.

Ultimately, Landis dropped the case against Cobb and Speaker, in part because of Leonard’s lack of cooperation (Landis refused to face the players and testify in court purportedly because he feared a beating from Cobb). A lack of further evidence or witnesses sealed the dismissal.

Impact

Many sportswriters and those within baseball continued to believe that Cobb’s and Speaker’s stardom and public stature, and not insufficient evidence or Leonard’s abnormal behavior, played chief roles in their exonerations. Still, the general public refused to believe that outstanding players such as Cobb and Speaker could have been cheating.

Cobb and Speaker resumed their playing careers with the Philadelphia Athletics after being reinstated by the commissioner, but both retired permanently after the 1928 season. After retirement, Leonard went on to become a successful fruit farmer and winemaker in California. Personal and public grudges against Landis and Leonard never mended. For his part, Landis used the episode to strengthen baseball’s policy on gambling: Those involved with Major League Baseball who are found guilty of fixing a game are banned from the game for life. Still, the 1926 gambling scandal, coupled with the 1919 Black Black Sox scandal Sox case, was a negative mark on professional baseball and remained so for years. Baseball;game fixing Landis, Kenesaw Mountain Cobb, Ty Speaker, Tris Leonard, Dutch

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alexander, Charles C. Ty Cobb. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984. A solid and fairly comprehensive Cobb biography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gay, Timothy M. Tris Speaker: The Rough-and-Tumble Life of a Baseball Legend. New York: Lyons Press, 2007. An insightful study of Speaker and his impact on professional baseball.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ginsberg, Daniel E. The Fix Is In: A History of Baseball Gambling and Game Fixing Scandals. New York: McFarland, 2004. A valuable overview of a neglected component of baseball history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">West, Mark D. Secrets, Sex, and Spectacle: The Rules of Scandal in Japan and the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. Pages 211-217 examine sports scandals in the United States (and Japan).

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