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September 20, 2010
How Ty Cobb, Nap Lajoie, a grudge-holding manager, a clumsy bribe, shoddy record-keeping and a very cool car made the batting title chase a national obsession 100 years ago
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September 20, 2010

The Amazing Race

How Ty Cobb, Nap Lajoie, a grudge-holding manager, a clumsy bribe, shoddy record-keeping and a very cool car made the batting title chase a national obsession 100 years ago

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The 1910 baseball season began with President William Howard Taft throwing out the first pitch, the beginning of a White House tradition that persists to this day. But even with fans across the country fixated on what would happen in St. Louis on the last day of the season, there was no such pageantry there on Sunday, Oct. 9. The miserable Browns were more than 50 games out of first place in the eight-team American League. Still, a mass of 10,000 or so fans—a respectable crowd—ventured to Sportsman's Park, a concrete and steel bandbox in a northern St. Louis neighborhood, a few miles back of the muddy Mississippi.

Men wearing derby hats and women in sundresses, most of them paying a quarter for a seat in the grandstand, showed up for a doubleheader against Cleveland, the league's fifth-place club. Unencumbered by commercials and pitching changes, games tended to last only 90 minutes or so in 1910. But with floodlit stadiums still a quarter century away, contests started early, and the fans streamed into Sportsman's by noon. They came mostly by streetcar—the ballpark was within a few blocks of five different lines—but others walked, bicycled or rode in horse-drawn carriages. A select few arrived in style, piloting this newfangled contraption, the automobile.

It was a mild, 70° day, and, true, you could do worse than pass an afternoon watching a doubleheader on a sun-dappled field. But the crowd wasn't there just to enjoy one of the year's last summery days. The fans had come to see the conclusion of a batting race that had gripped the country that year. By the end of the afternoon they would also witness a (literal) comedy of errors and the climax of a morality tale. And, even if they didn't realize it at the time, they would see an amusing yet ominous illustration of how professional sports could be corrupted and manipulated, and where the nascent national pastime was headed in the century to come.

Later it became known as the Dead Ball era, the interregnum between 1900 and '19, because in the decades predating Babe Ruth, home runs were scarce. But that didn't mean that there weren't players who could smack the hell out of the ball. In many years the top hitters flirted with the .400 mark. Batting average—not home runs, RBIs or a pitcher's wins—was the most important baseball stat.

That being the case, Hugh Chalmers seized on an idea. Today they would call it sports marketing. But a century ago it just seemed like a sensible promotion. In 1910 the U.S. automobile industry was just gaining traction, and Chalmers, a Detroit car magnate, was eager to distinguish his new model from the competition's. The Chalmers Motor Company's 30 Roadster was a durable, open, four-cylinder vehicle that retailed for $2,000 or so—high end, to be sure, but not the most expensive car on the market. This at a time when the automobile was a luxury item, owned by only one in 200 Americans, and the average weekly wage was $15.

Chalmers, who had made his fortune as a cash-register salesman, had always been an incurable sports fan. To help publicize the car, Chalmers figured: Why not associate his product with the burgeoning sport of baseball? After securing the approval of National and American League executives, Chalmers announced before the 1910 season that the player with the highest batting average would receive a new Chalmers 30.

This was welcome news to another heavy hitter in Detroit. Ty Cobb was arguably the best player in baseball, a man so devoted to his craft that when he married in 1908, he took the altar with his black bat at his side. The Tigers outfielder already owned a Chalmers 30, but he thrilled to the prospect of winning another. As he told sportswriters before the season, giving Chalmers precisely the type of publicity the businessman had envisioned, "I am glad that something besides medals and trophies is offered for the championship in batting. I think the offer of a Chalmers 30 is simply great and I hope to be lucky enough to own a new Chalmers next fall."

The 23-year-old Cobb had won the American League batting crown three years running and was the odds-on favorite—and there were odds—to win the car. Inasmuch as Cobb had a rival as the best player in the game, it was Honus Wagner, the Pittsburgh shortstop, who'd won six of the last seven National League batting titles. But within the American League, Cobb's closest peer was Napoleon Lajoie, an athletic second baseman for Cleveland who'd won four batting titles of his own earlier in the century. Lajoie had been Cleveland's player-manager much of the previous five seasons but had resigned his administrative duties because he felt they were exacting a price on his playing. He reckoned that now, at age 35, he could once again channel all of his efforts into doing what he loved.

There was plenty else going on that year. Halley's Comet was visible from earth. Jack Johnson successfully defended his heavyweight boxing title against James J. Jeffries, sparking race riots around the country. Another fledging means of transportation, the airplane, was flown to a one-mile altitude. There were progress reports from Europe about the construction of a massive cruise ship, the Titanic.

But the cultural weight of baseball was growing in America, and few events gripped the national imagination 100 years ago the way the batting race did. By midseason the country (pop. 92 million) was in the thrall of what became known as the Chalmers Race. With Wagner uncharacteristically off his game—he hit only .320 for the season—it became a two-man duel between Cobb and Lajoie, the McGwire-Sosa chase of the Progressive era. At a Detroit social club an ardent Cobb supporter reportedly suffered a fatal heart attack while arguing with a Lajoie backer. In neutral markets fans checked the race in sports sections of newspapers before fixing their gaze on the standings, never mind that due to the spotty record-keeping of the day, the numbers published by many of those papers were comically inaccurate. Nationwide, so-called rooting clubs formed for Cobb and Lajoie. As Cobb recalled years later in his typically self-serving autobiography, written with the help of journalist Al Stump, "The Chalmers contest became a more vital issue than the political rift between President Taft and [former president] Teddy Roosevelt or the crackdown on trusts by the Supreme Court."

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