motor city champs

Reviewed by by Mark Noe, Pennsylvania College of Technology (Retired)

18 february 2019       archive

For two straight seasons in the 1930s, Mickey Cochrane led the Detroit Tigers to the World Series. The Tigers had been mired in the middle of the American League pack for years before Cochrane's arrival; his first seasons as player-manager saw the team's surprising rise to a brief reign atop the standings. The first of their two appearances in the World Series was a heart-breaking loss in seven games; the second found them champions in six. Scott Ferkovich chronicles their wonderful run of success in Motor City Champs, an entertaining narrative of the times and the sport and the participants.

The Tigers hadn't won as many as 80 games in a season since 1927. Over the next six years, they'd been mostly sub-.500. Bucky Harris had managed them the bulk of that time, and owners Frank Navin and Walter Briggs were ready to make a change. At the end of the 1933 season, the Philadelphia A's owner and manager Connie Mack needed to pay some substantial bills and decided his best option would be to sell off the better parts of his team. He knew that Navin had tried and failed to convince Babe Ruth to leave the Yankees and become his player-manager, and he knew that Navin's second choice for the job was A's catcher Mickey Cochrane. For $100,000 and a rookie catcher, Mack got his cash and Navin got the man he needed to lead the Tigers out of their doldrums.

It was a steal. Cochrane's Tigers would become champions. He molded his new team into winners, altering the fundamentals of how they prepared for, thought about, and played the game. From their spring training regimen to their game tactics, he created a new dynamic that drove the individual players toward success. As so often happens, innovative leadership made all the difference.

Of course, he had the advantage of being dropped into a situation in which a couple of cosmic forces came together. One was the wearing out of several powerhouse teams, especially the Yankees, but including Washington and Philadelphia, thus opening the top of the league to competition. The other was a collection of players suddenly ready to hit the peaks of their careers simultaneously. Bingo.

That first year wasn't perfect, and in the World Series they came up against a Cardinals team that had enjoyed a similar cosmic convergence. But the next year, against the Cubs, Cochrane's crew won it all, and convincingly.

Much of Ferkovich's narrative involves a close look at many of the players—Schoolboy Rowe, Hank Greenberg, Goose Goslin, Charlie Gehringer, Tommy Bridges, Eldon Auker, and all the others—as they grew into the roles Cochrane gave them. After watching them blossom in game after game, we readers learn their strengths and weaknesses, seeing them finally as more complete ballplayers than as just their cold statistical records. The people are very much the great part of this book.

Ferkovich's method is a good one: he doesn't bury us in the minutiae of every game, but instead balances just enough detail with a well-paced transit of each season to help us understand the development of the team and its success. The book does have its troubles. One is the frequent failure to integrate contemporary history into the baseball narrative—the blend is often clunky. Another is his tendency to overuse baseball cliché, sometimes coming across as the stereotype of a sportswriter. Both are easy enough to tune out, though, or at least to gloss over. Such problems are minor.

The basic story of two great years of Detroit baseball, in contrast, comes across clearly. These were not necessarily great teams; they were good teams achieving great results. Those results came about because of Mickey Cochrane, a great player, who it turns out was also a great manager—for a couple of seasons anyway. Motor City Champs is an entertaining romp through two exciting seasons with a bunch of engaging, talented players and a manager who pulled it all together. Recommended reading.

Ferkovich, Scott. Motor City Champs: Mickey Cochrane and the 1934-1935 Detroit Tigers. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2018. 246pp, illus.

Copyright © 2019 by Mark Noe

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