Cochrane, Gordon Stanley ("Mickey")

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COCHRANE, Gordon Stanley ("Mickey")

(b. 6 April 1903 in Bridgewater, Massachusetts; d. 28 June 1962 in Lake Forest, Illinois), major-league baseball catcher and manager, who was the best catcher of his era and was the American League Most Valuable Player for 1928 and 1934.

Cochrane used his great athletic ability and quick mind to earn entrance to Boston University in 1920, where he became a sports star. He not only was a running back for the school's football team, he played quarterback and was the kicker. Cochrane also starred in basketball, track, and baseball.

After graduating from college in 1923, Cochrane played minor-league baseball in Dover, Delaware. His team demanded $50,000 when the Portland, Oregon, team of the Pacific Coast League tried to buy his contract, but Portland could not afford the price. Connie Mack of the Philadelphia (Pennsylvania) Athletics spotted Cochrane and recognized his talent. Mack bought an interest in the Portland ball club for $150,000 (one account says $132,000) and then bought Cochrane's contract, letting him play as a catcher for Portland before bringing him to the Athletics.

In 1925 Mack was rebuilding his team; he used the rookie Cochrane as a centerpiece for creating one of the best teams in baseball history. Cochrane was smart and was unsurpassed in his ability to motivate pitchers. He was also a true student of the game and learned the strengths and weaknesses of every hitter his team faced. Blessed with a good arm, good foot speed, and outstanding agility, he enhanced his physical gifts with his intelligence and terrific intensity. He was a proponent of a one-handed catching style, often emulated, that helped his throwing hand remain free of injuries.

By 1929 "Black Mike" Cochrane was at the peak of his game. Catchers usually run slowly because of the exceptional strain catching puts on their legs, but Cochrane was fast, sometimes batting in the lead-off spot, although he more usually batted third, a testament to his ability to drive in runs. He also could score, earning more than 100 runs per season four times. For his magnificent leadership, he was voted the league's Most Valuable Player (MVP) in 1928. The following three years he batted .331 (1929), .357 (1930), and .349 (1931). With Cochrane's continued leadership, Philadelphia won three straight American League pennants and the World Series titles in 1929 and 1930. Some baseball historians regard these Athletic teams as better than the 1927 Yankees.

Cochrane had a generous heart, and when other ball players were deeply hurt by the stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression, he helped them by cosigning for loans. In 1931 the stocks of banks declined more than 30 percent in value, and Cochrane's investment in Franklin Trust went belly up. The loans he had cosigned came due, no one had the money to repay them, and Cochrane lost $80,000. The stress this caused may have started the decline in his mental health.

Cochrane's 1932 season, however, was one for the ages—he turned in one of the greatest defensive performances by any catcher in history, with 118 runs scored and 112 RBI (runs batted in). At that time Mack still owned a wonderful team, chock full of future Hall of Famers, but the crowds at home were small. To save the Athletics he began selling the contracts of his best players. After the 1933 season he sold Cochrane's contract to the Detroit Tigers for $100,000.

In 1934 the Tigers made Cochrane the team's manager as well as its starting catcher. In that year he was regarded as the best catcher in baseball for his combination of defense and offense and again was voted the MVP, receiving the award for leading his new team to the American League pennant. The Tigers took the pennant again in 1935. Cochrane had the moment he considered the best of his career when he scored the winning run in Game Six of the 1935 World Series to secure the series victory over the Chicago Cubs.

In 1936 a finger injury cost Cochrane most of his playing time, the first period in his career that he did not catch most of his team's games. He had been made the general manager as well as the manager of the Tigers, a testament to his exceptional knowledge of the players, but the stress he had felt for years was becoming too much to bear. In June 1936 Cochrane checked into a hospital, then visited his ranch in Wyoming, near Billings, Montana, to rest. He returned to the Tigers but had a complete nervous breakdown in July.

Cochrane returned to the Tigers for the 1937 season and played very well; at age thirty-four, he appeared to still be in his prime. Then, on 25 May 1937, in a game versus the Yankees, he was beaned by the pitcher Bump Hadley, perhaps as retaliation for having homered in his previous at bat, and Cochrane nearly died. The second baseman Charlie Gehringer said Cochrane dropped as if he had been hit in the head with an axe. He was in a coma for ten days and never fully recovered. A tough man, Cochrane resumed managing the Tigers later in the season, but by August 1938 it was clear that he needed rest, and he was fired.

Cochrane spent several years at his ranch, the place where he was happiest, before enlisting in the U.S. Navy in 1942 to support the war effort. At nearly thirty-nine years old, he was assigned to the Great Lakes Naval Training Base, where he coached athletics and led a team that beat the Cleveland Indians in an exhibition game. Later he was transferred to the Pacific theater. During World War II, his son was killed in battle in Europe.

After his discharge in 1945, Cochrane returned to his ranch, where he and his wife and their two daughters had happy times. In 1947 he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, the first catcher to be voted in by the Baseball Writers of America. Cochrane's friend and teammate Lefty Grove also was voted in that year.

In 1950 Cochrane was made the general manager of the Athletics, serving only for the year. He became a scout and a coach whose baseball acumen was highly valued. In 1961 he was named as a vice president for the Tigers. This work was cut short by the discovery that Cochrane had lymphosarcoma, a cancerous tumor. He died of the disease on 28 June 1962 and was cremated; his ashes were spread over Lake Michigan.

Cochrane was the prototype for modern catchers. In an era in which catchers were not expected to play in much over half their team's games, he caught at least 120 games in a season for eleven straight seasons, demonstrating the durability expected of catchers of the modern era. His studying of opposition batters and going over them with his pitchers became the standard for all catchers and pitchers, and his perfecting of one-handed catching to protect his throwing hand was imitated by Johnny Bench and many later catchers.

Cochrane's book Baseball: The Fan's Game (1939), offers his views on the nature and appeal of baseball. For a sensitive, deep account of the catcher's life see Charlie Bevis, Mickey Cochrane: The Life of a Baseball Hall of Fame Catcher (1998), which captures the color of Cochrane's era. For a look into Cochrane's career statistics see A. W. Laird, Ranking Baseball's Elite: An Analysis Derived from Player Statistics, 1893–1987 (1990). Cochrane's career is placed in the context of the history of catching in Milton J. Shapiro, Heroes Behind the Mask: America's Greatest Catchers (1968). For a cogent summary of Cochrane's achievements see Donald Honig, The Greatest Catchers of All Time (1991). An obituary in the New York Times (28 June 1962) summarizes Cochrane's baseball career.

Kirk H. Beetz