Four thousand is a big number. Huge, actually, at least when it comes to base hits. Only two men among the tens of thousands who have played major league ball have ever reached that number in their career. When Pete Rose, then playing for Montreal, doubled off Philadelphia’s Jerry Koosman on April 13, 1984 for his 4,000th big-league hit, it was treated as an historic milestone – one attended by the usual anticipation and celebration. However, 57 years earlier, when Ty Cobb became the founding member of the 4,000 Hit Club, the press and public treated the accomplishment with a collective yawn.
Cobb’s hit came on July 18, 1927, at Navin Field. The irony is that the Peach did it wearing the uniform of the visiting team. After spending 22 seasons with the Tigers, he had signed a contract with Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics. Although now technically the enemy, Cobb was greeted warmly each time the A’s visited Detroit. On this particular Monday afternoon, the park was less than full as Cobb – playing right field and batting third – came to the plate in the first inning to face right-hander Sam Gibson.
As Harry Salsinger wrote in the next day’s Detroit News, “Cobb hit a line drive into right field and [Harry] Heilmann, trying for a one-handed catch, got his glove on the ball but it bounced out and gave Cobb a scratch two-bagger.” Harry Bullion of the Detroit Free Press described Cobb’s hit as “a lucky double [that] slid off Heilmann’s gloved hand and helped in the making of two runs.” The 2-0 lead didn’t last long as Detroit countered with three runs in the bottom of the first off Lefty Grove.
Despite his usual iron-glove performance in the outfield, Heilmann grabbed most of the headlines. Ol’ Slug, who would wind up winning the last of his four batting titles in 1927, went 4 for 4 with a pair of doubles and a home run as the Tigers beat Philadelphia, 5-3.
Significantly, the game was not held up to acknowledge the historic base hit and Cobb didn’t ask for the ball. In fact, Cobb’s accomplishment was scarcely acknowledged in the next day’s papers. One reason is that little emphasis was put on such arcane records then. Another is that it was considered just another ho-hum day at the office for the 40-year-old Cobb, a hitting machine who seemed likely to go on forever. Who was to say that he wouldn’t reach 5,000 hits someday? The same attitude prevailed at the end of the summer when Babe Ruth clouted his 60th home run, breaking his own record. Like 4,000 hits, 60 home runs made for a nice round number, but many observers figured the Yankees’ slugger might one day hit 65 or 70, so why get too excited?
The Free Press ran a column of notes with the headline: “Bengals In Third Place; Ty Cobb Gets 4,000th Hit.” Bullion wrote: “When Cobb made his fluke double in the first inning, it was his 4,000th major league safety. He’s so far ahead of all records of other batsmen that he will never be beaten or tied.”
Of course, Bullion was wrong, as Rose would one day overhaul Cobb’s 4,191 career hits. But that’s another story, one that – unlike the Peach’s 4,000th hit – would occur in an era of media saturation.