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The Jesuit was a Tiger: The short, strange baseball career of Allan Travers, SJ

Allan Travers, SJ, as a pitcher for his one-day career with the Detroit Tigers in 1912.Monday, April 3, was Opening Day of the Major League Baseball season and it might be worth pausing to recollect one of the game’s shortest but more curious careers — that of The Rev. Allan Travers, SJ, who pitched one major league game 105 years ago.

To date, Travers is the only Jesuit and the only Catholic priest ever to play in the big leagues, though the circumstances of his brief tenure far outpace his actual performance.

It could be rightly inferred that this unassuming seminarian — playing his violin one day in the St. Joseph’s College symphony, pitching in a big-league ballgame the next — saved a storied MLB franchise. It all starts with one of the game’s most controversial characters, the legendary Ty Cobb. On May 15, 1912, Cobb and his Detroit Tigers were playing the New York Highlanders (today’s Yankees) at Hilltop Park in Manhattan. Cobb, ever a subject of derision in the American League parks he visited, faced a battery of abuse that day.

As the game entered the late innings, the Tiger outfielder had had enough. He charged into the stands and took aim at the loudest heckler, a man named Claude Lucker who had lost one hand and parts of another in an accident. Cobb thrashed Lucker viciously, even as fans sitting nearby beseeched Cobb to stop, saying the man had no hands with which to defend himself. Cobb viciously retorted, “I don’t care if he doesn’t have any feet!”

American League President Ban Johnson happened to be at Hilltop Park that day and witnessed the brutal incident. He suspended Cobb indefinitely. The next day, the Tigers traveled to Philadelphia to face the Athletics. On May 17, the Detroit regulars, sans Cobb, beat the A’s but, after a team meeting that evening, decided to stage a protest over their star’s expulsion. Though Cobb was a divisive presence on his own club, the Tigers decided they would not play until Cobb was reinstated, arguing Cobb had been justified in attacking Lucker. If Cobb was not allowed to play in the next day’s game, the Tigers would walk off the field with him.

The putative strike left Tigers owner Frank Navin in a bind, as Johnson caught wind of the Tiger players’ intentions and told the owner his club would not only forfeit every game for which it could not field a team but also be hit with a hefty fine for each missed contest. Though Johnson was widely regarded as a blustering, petty martinet, the stakes were clear to Navin and Jennings: the punishment could easily be the death of the Tigers, still part of the evolving order of professional baseball in the early 20th century.

Bidden by Navin to fill out a roster by any means necessary, Detroit manager Hughie Jennings sought help from a friend, Joe Nolan, a reporter for a Philadelphia paper. Leading up to the season, the A’s had played exhibition games against the varsity team from what was then St. Joseph’s College (now University). Nolan contacted the team’s assistant manager, the 20-year-old Travers, then a junior at the school. With just hours to go before first pitch on May 18, Travers said he could likely scrounge up a few recruits off the streets of the North Philly neighborhood where he lived.

The ragtag bunch assembled by Travers included two amateur boxers — including a man named Billy Maharg whose name was later linked to the 1919 Black Sox scandal — and a few sandlot players. Each replacement was promised $25. Nolan had told Travers this squad need not take the field against the A’s and their marmoreal manager Connie Mack — cooler Tiger heads would prevail and the professionals would certainly play.

Arriving to a packed house at Shibe Park, Travers and the other replacements took up seats in the bleachers as the Tiger regulars prepared to take the field. But as Cobb appeared out of the visiting dugout, an umpire saw him and promptly shooed him from the grounds. The rest of Cobb’s teammates followed him off the field — the first players’ strike in the big leagues.

Jennings ordered Travers to round up the replacements. The men dressed in the clubhouse, signed one-day contracts, and went out into the brilliant spring sunshine of the Philadelphia afternoon. Travers, who had never before pitched a game and had rickety credentials as an athlete, generally, agreed to take the mound after Jennings offered to bump his pay to $50.

The Rev. Allan Travers, SJ, in his later career as a priest and educator.Renowned at St. Joseph’s as a gifted musician and thespian, Travers seemed a natural showman. But pitching before a partisan crowd of 20,000 strong, against the defending World Series Champion Athletics — with a roster boasting names like Stuffy McInnis, Bullet Joe Bush, Amos Strunk, and future Hall of Famers Chief Bender, Herb Pennock, Eddie Plank, Frank “Home Run” Baker and Eddie Collins — the future Jesuit may have felt himself doing something akin to punishing performance art.

The A’s trounced the “Tigers,” 24-2. With none of the other replacements willing to stand alone on the hill, Travers was hung out to dry, giving up 26 hits, walking seven and surrendering all the Philadelphia scores — still a dubious American League record, though only 14 of the 24 runs were earned, owing to the ineptitude backing Travers in the field that day. He did manage a lone strikeout.

Outside of an interview with sportswriter Red Smith decades after the 1912 game, Travers rarely spoke about his short professional baseball career. Talking with Smith, Travers remembered Jennings had told him not to throw fastballs, lest the vaunted A’s offense be provided greater exit velocity on their drives.

“He was afraid I might get killed,” Travers said. “I was doing fine until they started bunting. The guy playing third base had never played baseball before. I just didn’t get any support ... No one in the grandstands was safe! I threw a beautiful slow ball and the A’s were just hitting easy flies. Trouble was, no one could catch them.”

Realizing he had been embarrassed — and not for the first or last time in incidents centering on Cobb — Ban Johnson threatened the remonstrating Tigers with lifetime banishments if they did not return to the field for their next contest. Cobb, striking one of the few conciliatory notes in his career, implored his teammates to play on without him. Johnson also ultimately relented on his suspension of Cobb and let the star return to the team after a 10-day expulsion and levying a $50 fine.

Travers graduated St. Joseph’s the next year and entered the Society of Jesus. He was ordained in 1926 at Woodstock College and began teaching at Xavier High School in New York before returning to his alma mater as Dean of Men at St. Joseph’s in 1939. He later taught at the university’s feeder school, St. Joseph’s Preparatory.

Given the one-day career that was foisted upon him, Travers may well have been one of those creatures the late Yale English professor and MLB Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti, PhD, said were “born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion.”

Travers died in Philadelphia on April 19, 1968 at the age of 75, few people realizing he had once had a day in a green field under a Major League sun. The Detroit Tigers, the team he helped pull from a Ty Cobb-ignited fire, won the World Series that year.

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