Cochrane was born in Massachusetts and was a multi-sport athlete at Boston University. After college, he chose baseball over basketball and football. He made his major league debut in 1925, having spent only one season in the minor leagues. He was chosen as the American League (AL) Most Valuable Player in 1928 and he appeared in the World Series from 1929 to 1931. Philadelphia won the first two of those World Series, but Cochrane was criticized for giving up stolen bases when his team lost the series in 1931. Cochrane's career batting average (.320) stood as a record for MLB catchers until 2009.
Cochrane's career ended abruptly after a near-fatal head injury from a pitched ball in 1937. After his baseball career, he served in the United States Navy in World War II and ran an automobile business. Cochrane died of cancer in 1962. In 1999, The Sporting News ranked him 65th on its list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players.
After just one season in the minor leagues, Cochrane was promoted to the major leagues, making his debut with the Philadelphia Athletics on April 14, 1925 at the age of 22. He made an immediate impact by becoming Connie Mack's starting catcher in place of Cy Perkins, who was considered one of the best catchers in the major leagues at the time. A left-handed batter, he ran well enough that manager Mack would occasionally have him bat leadoff. He hit third more often, but whatever his place in the order his primary role was to get on base so that hard-hitting Al Simmons and Jimmie Foxx could drive him in. In May, he tied a twentieth-century major league record by hitting three home runs in a game. He ended his rookie season with a .331 batting average and a .397 on base percentage, helping the Athletics to a second place finish.
By the start of the 1926 season, Cochrane was already considered the best catcher in the major leagues. He won the 1928 American League Most Valuable Player Award, mostly for his leadership and defensive skills, when he led the American League in putouts and hit .293 along with 10 home runs and 58 runs batted in. He was a catalyst in the Athletics' pennant-winning years of 1929, 1930 and 1931 when he hit .331, .357 and .349 respectively. He played in those three World Series, winning the first two, but was sometimes blamed for the loss of the 1931 World Series, when the St. Louis Cardinals, led by Pepper Martin, stole eight bases and the Series. However, in his book The Life of a Baseball Hall of Fame Catcher, author Charlie Bevis cites the Philadelphia pitching staff's carelessness in holding runners as a contributing factor. But notwithstanding this, the blame for the 1931 World Series loss dogged Cochrane for the rest of his life.
Mickey Cochrane in the cover of Time Magazine in 1935
In 1934, Connie Mack started to disassemble his dynasty for financial reasons and sold Cochrane to the Detroit Tigers, who made him player-manager. It was as a Tiger that he cemented his reputation as a team leader. His competitive nature drove the Tigers, who had been picked to finish in fourth or fifth place, to the 1934 American League championship, their first pennant in 25 years. His leadership skills won him the 1934 Most Valuable Player Award, remarkable considering that Lou Gehrig had won the Triple Crown. He followed this by leading the Tigers to another American League pennant in 1935 and earning a victory over the Chicago Cubs in the 1935 World Series. In late 1935, the Detroit Free Press speculated that Cochrane might succeed Frank Navin as the Tigers team president. Due in part to his high-strung nature, however, he suffered a nervous breakdown during the 1936 season.
Cochrane's playing career came to a sudden end on May 25, 1937 when he was hit in the head by a pitch by YankeespitcherBump Hadley. Hospitalized for seven days, the injury nearly killed him. His accident generated a call for protective helmets for batters, but tradition won out at that time.
Cochrane compiled a .320 batting average while hitting 119 home runs over a 13 year playing career. His .320 batting average was the highest career mark for catchers until Joe Mauer surpassed it in 2009. His .419 on-base percentage is among the best in baseball history, and is the highest all-time among catchers. In 1932, he became the first major league catcher to score 100 runs and produce 100 RBI in the same season. He hit for the cycle twice in his career, on July 22, 1932 and August 2, 1933. In his first 11 years, he never caught fewer than 110 games. He led American League catchers six times in putouts and twice each in double playsassists and fielding percentage.
Ordered by doctors not to play baseball again, the 34-year-old Cochrane returned to the dugout to continue managing the Tigers but had lost his competitive fire. He managed for the remainder of the 1937 season, but was replaced midway through the 1938 season. His all-time managerial record was 348-250, for a .582 winning percentage.
Despite his head injury, Cochrane served in the United States Navy during World War II as did Bill Dickey of the Yankees, giving the Navy the two greatest catchers baseball had yet seen; with Yogi Berra also serving but not yet having reached the major leagues, there were actually three possible "greatest catchers ever" in the WWII-era Navy.
Cochrane owned an automobile business after his baseball days; he sold it in the mid-1950s. A heavy smoker, Cochrane was only 59 when he died in 1962 in Lake Forest, Illinois of lymphatic cancer.