On June 28, 1962, Mickey Cochrane died. In honor of his passing, Richard looks back on the man known as “Black Mike.”
For those of you who have been following the awkwardly named “Richard Learns More About Hall of Famers He Should Know More About” series, you will be pleased to know that it has been renamed—with a tip of the hat to the brilliant Stephen Colbert—“Better Know a Hall of Famer.” In this week’s first edition under the new name, we profile Mickey Cochrane, maybe the most underrated truly great player of all time.
After attending Boston University—it will surely not shock you to learn that Cochrane is the best Terrier to play in the majors—Cochrane played in the minors in 1923 and 1924, hitting over .320 both times—including .333 in ’24—and made his debut for the Philadelphia Athletics the next season.
(The nickname, like many in baseball history, has some unpleasant undertones. Despite a Scottish heritage, Cochrane was assumed to be Irish when he signed with the Pacific Coast League and was hence “Mick,” later to evolve into “Mickey.” The nickname was not all bad, however, as its legacy is in Mickey Mantle, who was named for Cochrane.)
Cochrane’s initial time with the A’s was rough. The rookie could obviously hit, batting .331 as a 22-year-old rookie with enough control of the strike zone and power to make him easily the strongest hitting catcher in the American League. But whether he could stay behind the plate seemed a question; by Cochrane’s own admission he arrived in the league as a weak defensive player. He would go so far as to say in a little interview that he was “terrible back there.”
The A’s apparently considered moving Cochrane to third, only to discover that while he may not have been much of a defensive catcher, he was even less of a third baseman. Compounding matters, they already had Sammy Hale—in the midst of a season in which he would bat .345—at third base, making the move an unlikely possibility. Working with veteran Cy Perkins, Cochrane improved his skills, and he would play just one game anywhere but catcher for the rest of his career.
|Mickey Cochrane, leading the Tigers in 1934 (Charles Colon/TSN/Icon SMI)|
Cochrane suffered a rough 1926 season, the only one of his career in which he posted an OPS worse than league average. After that it became clear that so long as Cochrane could handle being behind the plate without embarrassing himself or the team, he would stick. Cochrane could flat out hit, and stay on the field, in a way that few catchers before him had managed.
Prior to Cochrane hitting his prime in 1927, there had been just three seasons when a catcher had played in 130 or more games while posting an OPS+ of 133 or better. Two of those, Art Wilson and Ted Easterly in 1914, came in the Federal League, while Roger Bresnahan did it in 1908 for John McGraw and the Giants.
From 1927 through 1934 those numbers would represent Cochrane’s average season. He never played in fewer than 122 games or put up less than a 117 OPS+, especially impressive numbers given the shorter seasons in that time period.
To say that Cochrane was the best hitting catcher of those years barely covers it. Only 16 men even caught so many as 500 games, and just five had a league-average or better OPS. Cochrane led catchers in hits, runs, doubles, triples, RBIs, walks, batting average, OBP and SLG. Only Gabby Hartnett’s lead in home runs prevented Cochrane from owning the top spot in every meaningful batting category.
Despite being limited by being a catcher, Cochrane’s 253 doubles ranked him 10th during the ’27-’34 period among those players with 1,000 games, while only Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and Mel Ott drew more walks.
Cochrane won two MVPs award during his prime, first in 1928 and then again in 1934. Oddly, these are arguably among Cochrane’s lesser seasons during the time. During what were probably the two best years of his career, 1931 and 1933, Cochrane finished ninth and 15th, respectively, in the MVP vote.
Cochrane was fortunate to play much of his career for the Philadelphia A’s during a time when Connie Mack was relatively successful financially. The A’s won three consecutive pennants from 1929 through 1931, taking the World Series in the first two of those years. The 1929 Athletics in particular were a strong club, winning 104 games and earning a 1996 Sports Illustrated cover story touting them as perhaps “the greatest baseball club ever assembled.”
When the Great Depression began to take hold on Mack’s budget, Cochrane was dispatched to Detroit as a player-manager, where his presence was so much of a story that he made the cover of Time magazine. Cochrane led the Tigers to two World Series in his own right (winning his second MVP with the ’34 club) and won the 1935 title.
Managing proved stressful on Cochrane, whose “Black Mike” nickname came from what one biographer described as Cochrane’s “difficult time coping with stressful situations where failure seemed imminent,” which led to several breakdowns that forced him to absent himself from the game for brief periods.
In a cruel bit of fate, it would be Cochrane’s head that drove him from the game, but it was a physical injury that ended his career rather than a mental one. During a 1937 game with the Yankees, Cochrane was struck in the head by pitcher Bump Hadley—accidentally, it appears—and at least one source describes his injuries as multiple skull fractures.
Cochrane served as a physical education instructor during the Second World War, including running the Great Lakes Naval Station’s baseball team in the mid-1940s. That experience was the last of his hands-on managing; though he would briefly serve as the A’s general manager and later a scout for the Yankees and Tigers, Cochrane was largely out of baseball for the rest of his life.
Elected to the Hall of Fame in 1947—the first catcher so honored by the BBWAA—Cochrane spent much of his post-baseball career operating a “dude ranch” in Montana. He died in 1962 after a battle with lymphatic cancer. His obituary described him as “one of baseball’s great figures.”