Even those of us who haven’t read James Thurber’s classic short story about a drab little man named Walter who rises to fame and glory within the confines of his own imagination can relate to the deep-seated feeling that no matter how mundane and uneventful our lives are, if presented with the opportunity to do something extraordinary we would rise to the occasion, and get that shit done in the most spectacular fashion possible. This is the story of one man who did exactly that.
Allan Travers Becomes a Baseball Star
Allan Travers would never have gotten his moment in the sun were it not for the fact that Ty Cobb was the biggest asshole ever to play Major League Baseball, or any kind of baseball at all, or even stickball in the abandoned lot full of trash out back of the Alco plant for that matter. When he laced up his blood-stained cleats, pulled on his Detroit Tigers jersey and stepped out onto the field in New York one fateful day in May, 1912, Cobb was already known as the man who had beaten and choked a husband and wife team of groundskeepers who hadn’t raked the infield to his liking. Later, he shanked a security guard who “looked at him funny.” Given this history, you would think that a young fan of the home team would have known better than to spend the best part of six innings heckling Cobb from the comfort of the stands, throwing peanuts at him, calling his mother a dirty whore, and implying that Cobb, who was shockingly racist even for 1912, was half black.
Just before the seventh inning stretch, one of Cobb’s teammates asked incredulously if he was going to stand for that shit, and the notoriously violent and aggressive Cobb decided that no, he was not – and then proceeded to climb up over the outfield wall like an angry wolverine and beat the terrified man within an inch of his life. He continued even as horrified onlookers pointed out that his victim had no hands, having lost them in some stereotypically horrible 19th century industrial accident. “I don’t care if he’s got no feet!” screamed Cobb as he rained blow after blow, before eventually being pulled off by the cops or some shit.
Astonishingly, public opinion was strongly supportive of Cobb – including even the New York papers – but American League president Ban Johnson saw things differently and banned him from baseball indefinitely. The rest of the Tigers, shocked that they’d finally seen the day when a man could be kicked out of baseball for something as trivial as the attempted murder of a fan during the course of a game, immediately went on strike, leaving the Tigers’ owner, Frank Navin, with the prospect of a $5,000 fine for every game forfeited.
The Tigers’ next game was three days later, in Philadelphia, and like any MLB owner worth his salt, Navin wasn’t about to concede an inch to the players’ union. Instead, he told Tigers Manager Hughie Jennings to “figure something out.” Short on time, Jennings apparently just wandered the streets of Philly, walking up to random strangers like a high school JV coach out for prospects, asking them if they liked to play baseball. He was eventually able to scrape up enough dregs to field a team by playing first base himself and putting his assistant coach behind home plate. The players came mostly from local amateur and college teams, but on the pitcher’s mound was 20 year-old violinist and divinity student Allan Travers.
Travers had previously tried out for the St. Joseph’s College baseball team and been rejected, then relegated to the outright humiliating position of assistant manager – basically a water boy /cub reporter whose main responsibility was to keep track of the actual players’ stats for the yearbook. The conversation between him and Jennings when he was recruited has been lost to history, so I’m going to go ahead and baselessly speculate that Jennings walked into a bar and asked a couple of sweaty guys in baseball uniforms if they’d like to play for the Detroit Tigers. Being fans of the local team, they respectfully declined, but then pointed over to their assistant manager, gently nursing a glass of warm milk in a back booth, and quietly let slip that the man was a god damn pitching machine. Jennings couldn’t believe his luck, walked over to the astonished Travers with a check for $25 and hustled him out before he or anyone else had a chance to speak up.
The day of the big game – May 18th – dawned, and I would love to be able to tell you that the Tigers’ crew of loveable misfits won the game and shortly thereafter the Philadelphia team moved to Oakland, unable to live down the shame of it all. Alas, it was not the case.
Sometime before the national anthem started – and possibly around the time that Travers showed up with a catcher’s mitt and tee-ball bat – 43 year-old veteran coach Hughie Jennings became aware that his starting and only pitcher might need a little inspirational coaching. Looking the kid over, his mind was filled with horrible visions of Travers being hit by a line drive Charlie Brown style and winding up dead ten minutes into the first inning – costing the Tigers their $5,000 forfeit fee. “For god’s sakes, kid,” Jennings rasped, “don’t throw any fastballs.” And with that, the May 18th 1912 Detroit Tigers trotted onto the diamond and Allan Travers had his moment of glory.
The astonishing thing about what happened next is that the Tigers played as well as they did, losing the game 24-2, with Travers allowing 26 hits and finishing his first and only complete game with a 15.75 ERA. For comparison, in holding their opponents to a mere 22-run lead, the Tigers fared no worse than the 2004 New York Yankees did against the Cleveland Indians in one of the most spectacular shut outs of all time. Travers threw mostly slow curveballs, which the pro players were unaccustomed to, and awesomely managed to strike one guy out, giving him the lifetime ability to one-up any bar braggart in America. He walked off the field with his head held high. The Tigers may not have won the game, but by god he got the job done.
That evening, Johnson called the real Tigers together and told them that this time he was god damned serious, and that if they didn’t knock this bullshit off right now, they’d all be banned from baseball for the rest of eternity, so help him. Cobb, his blood lust temporarily sated, encouraged them to comply and submitted to a ten-day suspension. With that, Allan Travers’ career as a Major League pitcher came to an end.
“I was doing fine until they started bunting. The guy playing third base had never played baseball before.”
— Allan Travers