Ty Cobb Biography
Chronology, Awards And Accomplishments, Cobb, Selected Writings By Cobb:, Career Statistics, Further Information
American baseball player
Ty Cobb is arguably the greatest baseball player who ever put on spikes. During his 24-year career, he established records in virtually every area of the offensive game. His .367 lifetime average stands as the best in baseball history, a virtually unattainable goal for hitters. He is also number one among all-time runs scored leaders, number two in hits and triples, number three in stolen bases, and number four in runs batted in, doubles, at bats and games played. Cobb was a dazzling player. Nearly impossible to strike out, he was a batter who could hit to all fields, both for power and average, and he could drop bunts with pinpoint accuracy. He drove opponents to distraction in the base paths, always trying for the extra base and stealing almost at will. His approach to baseball was fierce and unrelenting—every game was a war with the diamond its battlefield. This competitive drive was a symptom of other, deeper character flaws. Possessed of a dangerous temper, a racist disposition and a tendency to brutal violence, Cobb alienated family, friends, opponents, and perfect strangers. Besides being supremely talented as a player, he was also supremely difficult as a person.
Tyrus Raymond Cobb was born on December 18, 1886 in Narrows, Georgia, to William Herschel Cobb and Amanda (Chitwood) Cobb. W.H. Cobb invented Tyrus's name himself after reading about the city of Tyre's stubborn resistance to the besieging armies of Alexander the Great. He could have but little suspected its appropriateness for his impulsive, headstrong son. Cobb's father, a school principal who placed a high premium on learning, hoped Tyrus would become a doctor or lawyer. From the time he was a child, however, the boy was infatuated with the game of baseball. As a teen he became the star player for a local team, the Royston Reds. In 1904, when a regular held out for more money, Cobb got to play with the Augusta Tourists of the South Atlantic (Sally) League. He hit a single and double in four at-bats his first game. Within days, however, the holdout was back and Cobb was released.
With the words of his father—"don't come home a failure"—in his ears, Cobb signed on with a team in Anniston, Alabama. A little later Grantland Rice, the sports editor of the Atlanta Journal, began receiving letters of praise for young Cobb. Impressed, Rice wrote in his column "over in Alabama there's a young fellow named Cobb who seems to be showing an unusual amount of talent." Years later Cobb would admit that he had written all the letters himself, using a variety of handwriting styles. Cobb did well enough at Anniston, however, that the Augusta team asked him to come back for the rest of the 1904 season, and eventually for the 1905 season as well.
The Detroit Tigers got their first look at Cobb during spring training at Augusta in 1905. After witnessing Cobb's antics on the bases—stealing on nearly every pitch, trying to stretch every single to a double, and running from first to third on sacrifice bunts—second baseman Germany Schaefer described Cobb to Tiger management as "the craziest player I ever saw." Cobb's exhibition play impressed the Tigers and in August the team purchased his contract. By then, he was the best player in the Sally League: He won the batting
title with a .326 batting average; he was the first in the league ever to get 100 hits in a season; and his 40 stolen bases was third best in the league. He joined the Tigers for the last month of the season. During the next five years Cobb would single-handedly make Detroit over from the weakest market for baseball to the most lucrative. Cobb's play with the Tigers that year alternated between brilliance, foolhardiness and embarrassment. He lashed hits, ran into foolish outs and interfered with his own fielders. But he brought an element of excitement that few fans had ever experienced in baseball.
Despite being called up to the big leagues, 1905 and 1906 would be among the most difficult years of Cobb's life. In August, when he was preparing to join the Tigers, personal tragedy struck. His father was shot to death, and the killer was Cobb's own mother. Amanda Cobb thought her husband, who was climbing in her bedroom window at night, was a prowler, and in March 1906 she was found not guilty. W.H. Cobb's unexpected death robbed Cobb of the family member he was closest to, and possibly the only one capable of exerting a steadying influence on the headstrong youth. It also denied Cobb the chance to prove to his father that he had made good in baseball.
Cobb's difficulties did not end with his return to the Tigers in spring 1906. At a time when rookie ballplayers were routinely hazed by veteran players, the Tigers' treatment of Cobb was particularly harsh. He was refused his turn at batting practice; he was locked out of bathrooms in the team hotel; he was systematically ignored; his handmade ash bats were sawed in half. Cobb's southern origins did not help among a team of northerners. However, his treatment was exacerbated by his thin skin, hair-trigger temper, well-honed prejudices, and his ability to hold a grudge. By the end of 1906 he was sincerely disliked by most Tiger players. Through his 21 seasons with the team, long after he had established himself as a regular, he was never close to his teammates, who continued to dislike him.
The strain of the hazing eventually took its toll. In July 1906, the nineteen-year-old Cobb suffered a nervous breakdown that took him out of the lineup for nearly two months. He eventually returned to full form on the field, but his confrontations with his teammates continued, frequently concluding in vicious physical brutality on Cobb's part. With so many enemies, both real and imagined, he started a lifelong practice of keeping a loaded pistol nearby at all times. His ball playing performance in his first full season was remarkable. He hit .320—fifth best in the American league—and stole 39 bases. The Tigers as a team had played more disappointingly, finishing in sixth place, with a losing record, 71-78. That would change in 1907, with the first of three consecutive American League championships.
By mid-1907 Cobb was being called "Ty" for the first time in his life. He had developed a recognizable personality on the field too. In the batter's box he swung three bats. Although he threw right-handed, he batted left-handed—he would later say it started him off closer to first base. Playing in the so-called "dead ball" era, when emphasis was on base hits, sacrifice bunts, base running and stealing, Cobb gripped his bat in an unorthodox manner, with his hands about six inches apart, and would slide one hand up or down for better control. On the base paths he was "daring to the point of dementia." His philosophy was the more chances he took, the more likely opponents were to be forced into making an error, and he was usually right.
The 1907 Tigers took the American League pennant with a 92-58 record, before losing the World Series in four games to the Chicago Cubs. Cobb's .350 batting average won him the first of nine consecutive and 12 in total batting titles. He was already recognized around the American League as the finest all-around player in baseball. Secure in his position as one of the game's stars and a genuine box office attraction, Cobb held out for more money in 1908, eventually receiving $4,000 a year from the Tigers. More controversially, he spoke out against the reserve clause, which bound a player to a certain club. Ahead of his time, Cobb proposed an alternative: Limit the term of the reserve to five years, and then let a player freely sell his services to the highest bidder. Predictably, organized baseball considered such propositions radical and dangerous, and did not recognize free agency until the 1970s. Cobb earned his extra pay, winning his second batting title in 1908 and leading the Tigers to their second straight league pennant.
Cobb played with a fervor that has rarely been matched. His rough style on the bases led players, fans, and writers in opposing cities to call him a dirty player. He was accused of deliberately sharpening his spikes to intimidate opposing infielders. Cobb occasionally denied such allegations, but in general he let them stand—they served too well the psychological warfare he practiced on the diamond. Whether or not he sharpened his spikes, Cobb felt no compunction about sliding into base with spikes high, deliberately colliding with a defender to dislodge the baseball. In 1909, for example, Cobb's no-holds-barred play drew him into controversy at the height of a pennant race with the Philadelphia Athletics. Sliding into third, Cobb's spikes caused a small cut in the arm of Athletics third baseman Frank Baker. A fight was averted, but later in the game Cobb knocked over second baseman Eddie Collins. After the Tigers swept the series to take first place from Philadelphia, Connie Mack, the normally soft-spoken Athletics' owner, responded by calling Cobb the dirtiest player in the history of the game. As so often happened during his career, the notoriety Cobb gained from the incident only seemed to inspire him to better play. During that period, he hit at a .640 pace and stole one base or more per game. By the end of the season he had racked up an average of .377, hit 107 RBIs and nine home runs, and stolen 76 bases, leading the league in virtually every offensive category. Detroit finished in first place again but it would be the last time Cobb would play for a pennant winner.
Cobb's racism attracted regular, if unwanted, public attention. He instigated nasty fights with blacks. In 1907, for example, he started a slapping match with a black groundskeeper, and then choked the man's wife when she shouted at Cobb to stop. Not long after the Philadelphia incidents, Cobb got into a fight with a black night watchman at a hotel in Cleveland, trying to stab the man with his knife. A warrant was sworn out for Cobb's arrest in Cleveland, and the rest of the season, Cobb had to travel apart from the rest of the Tigers whenever they passed through the city.
Cobb's most infamous instance of ruffianism, one also tinged by his racist prejudice, occurred on May 15, 1912 in New York. Claude Lucker, a spectator behind the Tiger bench, targeted a stream of abuse at Cobb that lasted most of the game. Cobb requested that the man be removed from the park, in vain. When Lucker directed at Cobb a racial epithet normally reserved for blacks, Cobb lost control, charged up into the stands, and commenced to kicking and stomping Lucker, who was little able to defend himself, having lost a hand and three fingers in an industrial accident. The resulting publicity was highly critical of Cobb and the American League suspended him for ten games. Surprisingly, the Tiger players forgot their past animosities with Cobb and supported him, staging a strike that forced the Tiger management to field a team of semi-pros for one game.
Cobb dominated baseball to such an extent between 1910 and 1920 that the period came to be known as the "Cobbian" era, in distinction to the "Ruthian" era of home runs that would follow the First World War (named for baseball great Babe Ruth). Between 1910 and 1919, Cobb would win the batting title every year except 1916, including a squeaker over Napoleon Lajoie in 1910 that is still disputed by some fans. In 1911 he hit.420, the second highest season average in modern baseball history. He led the league in stolen bases four times, including 1915 when he stole 96 bases, a record that stood until Maury Wills shattered it in the 1960s. Cobb's presence was felt off the diamond in those years as well. In the winter of 1912 he appeared in a stage play, The College Widow, that toured the South, the Midwest and the eastern seaboard. In 1916 he was the first pro athlete to star in a movie, Somewhere in Georgia. He counted among his friends presidents William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, and later Warren G. Harding. Beginning in 1915 his $20,000 a year from the Tigers made him the highest paid player in baseball. By that time he hardly needed the money. He had invested shrewdly in real estate ventures and had gotten in on the ground floor with new companies such as General Motors and Coca-Cola that would help make him a millionaire well before his playing days had ended.
By the 1920s, as the home run ball was replacing the era of inside baseball, years of unfettered base-running and abandoned slides had taken their toll on Cobb's legs and knees. He could no longer run like he used to, but he still hit with the best, with a 1920 average of.334. That winter, following the resignation of longtime Tiger manager Hughey Jennings, Cobb was offered the managership of the team. Cobb had reservations about accepting the job, but it was difficult to resist $35,000 a year, a sum that made him the highest paid player or manager in baseball, except for John McGraw. Cobb vowed to bring a new style to managing the Tigers. Rather than the sarcasm and invective that Jennings relied on, Cobb intended to use encouragement and advice. It was a promise that the quick-tempered, demanding Cobb was ill-equipped to keep. Before long, he was belittling and demeaning players who did not play the game his way. He fomented feuds between players. He benched good players against whom he held some grudge. In the end, despite strong hitting by the Tigers, they only finished in sixth place under Cobb. They improved in 1922, finishing third, and second in 1923. That was the best Cobb could achieve in five years as manager. By his last season in 1926, the Tigers were back in sixth place. The fault was not entirely Cobb's though. He was hampered by a poor pitching staff and an owner who refused to spend money to get better players. When he resigned, he quit both as a manager as a player. Ty Cobb said he had played his last game.
Cobb reentered baseball, just months later after being implicated in the biggest scandal of his career. In spring 1926, Dutch Leonard, a former Detroit pitcher, had told league officials that during a Cleveland-Detroit series in September 1919, Indians manager Tris Speaker had arranged with Cobb to deliberately lose a game with the Tigers to help Detroit finish in third place. Moreover, according to Leonard, they arranged to place bets on the game's outcome. At the time of Leonard's allegations, baseball was still reeling from revelations that members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox had conspired with gamblers to fix the outcome of the 1919 World Series. The Tigers had indeed won the game in question, but questions lingered about whether it was fixed. Cobb had been unable to get a hit, while Speaker hit two triples. Further complicating the matter, it turned out Leonard secretly held Cobb and Speaker responsible for ending his career in the majors. In the fall of 1926, Ban Johnson, the president of the American League, quietly told Cobb and Speaker to leave baseball. Meanwhile the affair came to the attention of the imperious commissioner of baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who publicly opened his own investigation. Cobb acknowledged writing a letter to Leonard that connected him with bets on the game. However, he insisted that he was only an intermediary, he had not wagered on the game himself. He also insisted that Speaker was not connected with the affair at all. The scandal unleashed a wave of national publicity arguing the comparative merits of Cobb vs. Leonard. Most observers agreed that whatever Cobb's faults as a man, he was not dishonest and he had no history as a gambler. In January 1927, Judge Landis announced that Cobb and Speaker had been completely exonerated, and were restored to the active rosters of their former teams.
When the Tigers released him, Cobb accepted an offer estimated at $70,000 a year to play for Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics in 1927. By that time he didn't need the money, but it was certainly an incentive—it made him the highest paid player in the game once again. Above and beyond the money, he was anxious to play with a club that was a pennant contender. He also considered his comeback as a means of vindicating
his name in the public eye. Lastly, however, baseball had been the central focus of his life since he could lift a bat. Despite his aging legs and accruing injuries, it would have been difficult for him to walk away from the game. His comeback was a total success. In 134 games, Cobb batted a resounding .357, including 32 doubles and 5 home runs. He even managed to steal 22 bases. In 1928, his last year as a player, Cobb hit a respectable .323. He stole only 5 bases, but one was a steal of home, an exploit he had specialized in as a young player. Despite his high hopes, however, the Athletics did not win the American League pennant while Cobb was on their roster.
When Cobb left baseball for good after the 1928 season he had the credentials to demonstrate irrefutably that he had been the greatest all-around player in baseball up to that time. He had the highest lifetime average of any player in history, had more hits, the most runs batted in, the most runs scored, the most stolen bases, the most steals of home, and the season high for stolen bases. He was second in all-time doubles and triples. He had an extremely low strikeout rate, only 357 in 11,429 at bats. These remarkable achievements, together with the excitement he had generated, led the nation's baseball writers to name him, nearly unanimously, as the first player elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936.
Ty Cobb's life after baseball was restless and apparently unhappy. Already a millionaire, he did not have to work. He refused offers to become a ball club executive or manager, and opportunities to purchase clubs fell through. He used part of his fortune for philanthropic purposes in his home state of Georgia, funding the construction of the Cobb Memorial Hospital in Royston to perpetuate his parents' names. He also established the Cobb Educational Fund, to provide scholarships-nonathletic scholarships-to worthy Georgia students.
Cobb's relations with his family were less than ideal. He was a strict, demanding, anger-prone husband and father. He was estranged from his first son for most of Tyrus Jr.'s short life—he died of a brain tumor in 1951. After filing for divorce on several occasions, Cobb's wife, Charlie, finally went through with it in 1947. His second marriage in 1949 to Frances Fairburn foundered seven years later, thanks to Cobb's abusive temper, which was fueled by his excessive drinking.
By January 1960, Ty Cobb's health was in rapid decline. He had been diagnosed with diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, degenerative kidney disease, and prostate cancer. His last days were spent in loneliness, traveling from hospital to hospital with an envelope containing millions of dollars in negotiable securities and a loaded Luger pistol. His one frequent companion was Al Stump, a writer whom Cobb had contracted to work with him on his autobiography. Stump completed his research just months before Cobb passed away on July 17, 1961 in Atlanta, Georgia. Three ex-ballplayers and a Hall of Fame official were baseball's only representatives at the funeral of the greatest ball player who ever lived.
Sketch by Gerald E. Brennan
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