What happens at a baseball game when one team falls behind by 12 runs? Just about everybody heads for the exits. Even the thought of overcoming a deficit like that is crazy. That would’ve been like seeing Joe Frazier get off the canvas to knock out George Foreman after being knocked down six times in the first two rounds. That fight was stopped. If ever there was a tie to wave the white flag in baseball, this was it. When a team is down by that far, they’re dead. You don’t call 9-1-1, you call the coroner. No team had ever come back from a deficit like that before, and none has broken it since. As Free Press writer E.A. Batchelor put it in the next morning’s paper, “There never was a struggle like it before, and there never will be another.” He was right.
The Tigers were off to one of the greatest starts in the history of the franchise. Entering the game this day, they were 37-18, but sat just two games up on the eventual world champion Philadelphia Athletics. The Tigers had an outstanding team. Ty Cobb batted .420, the highest average of his career. Sam Crawford hit .378 and Jim Delahanty batted .339. They stole 226 bases as a team. It was a prototypical collection of talent for the dead ball era.
May 9, 1911: Tigers beat the New York Highlanders 10-0 to improve to 21-2 pic.twitter.com/PXjXgpHKnm
— Tigers History (@TigersHistory) May 9, 2019
Ed Summers took the mound for the Tigers against the White Sox on this day. Summers was an average pitcher for the Tigers at the time. After going an incredible 24-12 with a 1.64 ERA in his rookie year of 1908, he went 19-9 in 1909, but then tailed off rapidly. In 1911 he went 11-11. After just four full years in the majors, his career was over. Summers got rocked early in this one. He gave up four hits and two walks to go with two errors. With five runs in and the bases loaded, Hughie Jennings had seen enough. Ralph Works came in and gave up two more runs before finally getting out of the inning. Twelve White Sox hitters came to the plate. Before the Tigers had even come to bat, they were already down 7-0.
The Tigers got one back in the second, but in the middle innings, the White Sox started hammering Summers. He gave up three runs in both the fourth and fifth, and the Tigers were down 13-1. Much of the Bennett Park crowd had left. Sox starter Doc White began to tire in the fifth. The Tigers scored four times that inning to cut it to 13-5. White Sox manager Hugh Duffy left White in for the sixth. The Tigers scored three more to cut it to 13-8. It looked like the tables were turning on the Sox. The Tigers had scored seven runs in two innings to get back in the game, but still trailed by five. The Sox, however, responded in the seventh. With Tex Covington now on the mound for the Tigers, the Sox scored two more to make it a 15-8 game. This seemed to deflate the Tigers. Fred Olmstead took over for Doc White. Olmstead set down the Tigers without a run to give his team a huge lift.
The breaks started to go the Tigers’ way in the eighth. After Clarence Mitchell set down the Sox in the top half, the Tigers came up still trailing by seven runs. Catcher Joe Casey led off the inning by hitting a hard grounder to shortstop Rollie Zeider. The ball bounced up and off Zeider’s head and into center field for a hit. Then Mitchell hit a shot toward third. The ball bounced off the bag and back toward the diamond, and both runners were safe. It was the start of a five-run rally for the Tigers that cut the lead to 15-13.
Hall-of-Famer Ed Walsh tried to hold down the Tigers in the ninth. The Sox were clinging to a two-run lead. It wasn’t looking promising for the Tigers. Walsh struck out pinch-hitter Chuck Lathers to open the inning. Lathers was the 18th Tiger to play in the game. Davy Jones then followed with a single. Donie Bush was the next batter, representing the tying run. He popped one behind third base and it fell in no man’s land for a double. This put the tying runs in scoring position with one out for Ty Cobb. By this time, Cobb had four hits on the day. In his final at bat, he hit a hard shot to third. Harry Lord made a great play to knock it down but threw high to first baseman Shano Collins. Cobb was charging down the line and slid into Collins at first, hitting him hard enough to knock over a cement wall. As Collins looked for the ball, Cobb went to second. Both runners scored, and the game was tied at 15. Down 12 runs just four innings earlier, the Tigers had tied it. They’d come all the way back, and now it was time to finish the job. Crawford was now the hitter. On the first pitch from Walsh, Crawford crushed it. The blast went deep into center field and hit the wall. Cobb easily scored and it was over. Final score: Tigers 16, White Sox 15.
The Sox were furious after the loss. Duffy tried to protest, saying he counted 46 Tigers in action in the game. Duffy said, “It would’ve been all right if they hadn’t put in Trainer Tuthill to run for (pinch hitter George) Mullin. I’m willing to be reasonable, but I consider this an imposition.” Sox catcher Fred Payne said there must have been 16 pinch hitters he’d never met.
— Tigers History (@TigersHistory) June 18, 2019
In the decades since, this comeback has only been equaled twice. On June 15, 1925, the Philadelphia Athletics came from 12 down to beat the Cleveland Indians. On August 15, 2001, the Indians trailed the Seattle Mariners 14-2 when they came back to win it. The record has been tied twice, but no one has ever topped it.
This is an excerpt from The Perfect Season: How the Detroit Tigers Go 162-0 and Sweep Their Way to a World Series Championship! Used by permission of the author. You can buy the book here.
Image at top: Detroit Free Press sports front page, June 19, 1911 View
The Perfect Season: How the Detroit Tigers Go 162-0 and Sweep Their Way to a World Series Championship!
By Matt Wentworth
Foreword by Dan Dickerson
For this book, I researched every win in the history of the Detroit Tigers franchise, from 1901-2007. From this research, I put together the greatest season’s worth of games in team history. So I start with the greatest opening day ever, then the greatest second game ever, and so on, until they go 162-0 and sweep their way to a World Series championship.
If you love Tiger baseball, you’ll love this book.