Mark Richardson —
Ty Cobb has long been considered by many to have been the greatest hitter, and possibly the greatest all-around player, in major league baseball history. His tumultuous life both on and off the field has been examined and reexamined, but very few have succeeded in getting to the core of Tyrus Raymond Cobb, “The Georgia Peach.” Rather than examining Cobb himself, the tendency of his chroniclers has been to examine accounts of Cobb presented by earlier biographers. This approach has exacerbated the acceptance of many myths, and has resulted in a one-sided, unflattering image of the great batsman.
Ty Cobb was born in Royston, Georgia in 1886, the son of William Herschel Cobb and his much younger wife, Amanda. Cobb, Sr. had married Amanda when he was 20 years old and she just 12. (Some sources give her Amanda’s age at the time her wedding as 15.) William was a school teacher who was held in high esteem in Royston, eventually becoming the town’s mayor. Known as Professor Cobb, he was regarded as stern but fair, and his young son revered him.
Ty fell in love with the game of baseball at an early age, and, against his father’s wishes, he pursued it endlessly. As a teenager, he mailed anonymous letters to several organized baseball teams praising the play of “a young man named Cobb in Royston,” and encouraging them to take a look at the young “prospect.” Several did so, and Cobb was invited to join the Augusta Tourists in the South Atlantic (Sally) League. Cobb, breaking his father’s heart, left home at age 16 to pursue his dream of being a ballplayer. But his stint with Augusta was short. After just a few weeks, his manager called upon Ty to lay down a bunt. Cobb swung away instead, and after the game, he was given his walking papers. He was then given the opportunity to play for the Anniston, Alabama team in the Tennessee-Alabama League, and it was here that he caught the eye of a scout for the major league Detroit Tigers. His father, by now resigned to the fact that Ty was going to play ball or die trying, gave his consent with the admonition, “Don’t come home a failure.”
As Ty, now 17 years old, prepared to join the Tigers organization, stunning news from home devastated the young man. His father had been shot to death in Royston, and his mother, Amanda, stood charged with the murder. It was discovered that William, suspecting that his young wife was having an affair, left home on a purported business trip, only to return home in the middle of the night in an attempt to catch her in the act. She claimed that when she heard William trying to get into the house she mistook him for a burgler and shot him in defense of herself and her home. The police examination of the crime scene convinced them that a second shot had been fired into William’s body at point blank range as he lay dying on the floor, casting serious doubt on Amanda’s account of the incident. She was arrested and charged with second degree murder.
Ty Cobb, by nature an introspective loner, became, after his father’s death, even more subdued in the company of his teammates than had been the norm. As a young player just up from the bush leagues, he was, as was always the case with newbies, the target of the sarcasm and practical jokes of the veterans on the Tigers. But, naturally awkward and reticent in social situations, Cobb, rather than accepting the joking for what it was, took umbrage at it, and lashed out at his teammates. He was convinced that they hated him because they were jealous of his talent and that they feared his becoming the team’s star (which, of course, is exactly what happened). As his reactions to the jibes of the veterans intensified, so did their antagonism. The resulting hard feelings on both sides lingered for years, in many cases for as long as these players remained in baseball.
But nothing could stop Cobb the ballplayer. From the moment he debuted with the Tigers, he was regarded as the fastest runner in the league. His slashing style of batting, choking up on the bat handle and spacing his hands about two inches apart and then guiding the ball into undefended areas of the outfield, made him a star almost immediately. His baserunning, at first reckless and done with wild abandon, was soon reigned in, and he made few mistakes, though his daring on the basepaths remained fully intact. His outfielding was regarded as stellar. He was a complete player. And he burned with an intensity of desire for success that few had ever encountered previously.
The animosity that his teammates felt toward Cobb in his first two seasons only increased in his third, 1907. He engaged in a loud, long argument with the team’s other true star, fellow outfielder Sam Crawford. The taunting of the kid, which, prior to the Crawford incident, it could be argued, was barbed but rather mild, became openly sinister, with hatred at its core. Ty was alone, without a friend on the team, a situation which would continue for several seasons. But it is interesting to note that, long after the careers of both Cobb and Crawford had ended, with Cobb’s reputation as one of the game’s two greatest players (the other being Babe Ruth) sealed, Ty felt that baseball’s Hall of Fame voters had done Crawford a great injustice by neglecting him, and he (Cobb) campaigned tirelessly, and eventually successfully, for Crawford’s election. A grateful Crawford embraced Cobb, and, putting past differences behind, he thanked his former teammate and antagonist profusely.
It was also at about this time, during the 1907 season, that a sportswriter tagged Cobb with his most famous nickname, “The Georgia Peach.” It was a moniker that Ty embraced, and he would smile cordially whenever anyone addressed him with it, or, more frequently, with its shortened version “Peach.” It was a name that embodied so much of those things in which Cobb took pride. It reflected his new recognition as one of the game’s finest young players, as well as making reference to his beloved home state. Unlike John J. McGraw and others who despised being called by their press-anointed nicknames, Cobb beamed with pleasure at the use of his. Unfortunately, the press’ attention to Cobb and his skills caused even more difficulty with the other Tigers, whose jealousy over the stardom of the one they most disliked was more than many of them could bear. It has been reported by some biographers that there were fistfights between Cobb and several teammates, and these are backed up by press clippings of the day. Cobb was never one to back down from a challenge, and as he knocked men to the ground and pounced on them, pummelling them in sometimes very bloody altercations, these challenges became fewer and further apart. He gained a reputation for being too tough to tangle with, and most left him alone.
The 1907 season saw a change in the Tigers which would eventually benefit Cobb greatly. The team changed managers, bringing in a baseball legend, Hughie Jennings, to man the helm. Jennings, a rough and tough member of the legendary old Baltimore Orioles, one of the toughest and most successful crews ever to play the game, was something of an anomaly in baseball in the early part of the twentieth century. He was an educated man, with a law degree and an off-season legal practice. He had been, in his playing days, one of the game’s great batsmen, and, despite his reputation for clowning around himself, he brooked no nonsense between his players. He recognized immediately that Cobb was his star, and that the success of his ballclub was going to depend upon the youngster. So he set out to make his players understand that it was Cobb who was going to butter their bread. He made it clear that he sided with Ty in the clubhouse war, and that if the hazing continued, it would not be Cobb who would have to answer for it. Shortly after Jennings took over, two of Cobb’s beloved bats, crafted perfectly to his individual specifications and his prized possessions since his days in Augusta, were found sawed in half. Cobb’s hurt was plain for all to see, and Jennings took the opportunity to make a show to his entire team of his support for Cobb. It was not a practical joke, Hughie told them, but a crass and disgusting act, and if he found out who had done it, they would be off the team and, if he had anything to say about it, out of baseball. Though there were suspicions that the culprit was a particularly virulent Cobb hater named Charley Schmidt, there was never any proof and Schmidt escaped punishment. However, notice had been served, and, with the exception of a few dust-ups here and there (including a fistfight with Schmidt) the life of Ty Cobb took a turn for the better. Jennings approached three of the team’s veterans, those who had shown the least animosity toward the the young player, and asked them to take him to dinner. They did so, and when they reported back that he was a very intelligent kid with a good sense of humor, it became a little bit easier for some of the other northerners to accept him, at least to a degree. From that point forward, although his teammates never embraced him as a friend, they did leave behind them the meanness that they had displayed toward him since he had come to Detroit. For his part, Cobb found that he preferred being ignored by his teammates to being tormented by them.
The less combative, more harmonious atmosphere fostered by Jennings in ’07 paid immediate dividends. Ty Cobb won his first American League batting title, leading his Tigers to the pennant, and into the World Series against the National League champion Chicago Cubs. The Cubs had thoroughly dominated the Senior Circuit, finishing the season with a remarkable 107-45 record, a full 17 games ahead of the second place Pittsburgh Pirates. The whole baseball world anticipated a less than competitive series, and this soon proved to be the case. Despite a decent series from Cobb, the Tigers fell to the mighty Cubs in four straight games. The sweep did not sit well with Cobb and his fellow Bengals, but the losers share of $1,945.00 per player did, as it matched or exceeded the season’s pay for many of them. And it whetted their appetite for what could be with the infighting over and the whole team focused one goal. Ty Cobb was just getting started.
He followed up in 1908 with a batting average of .324, in 1909 with .377, in 1910 with .382, in 1911 with an astronomical .419, with another otherworldly .409 in 1912, and on and on through 1928, never falling below .323, which he accomplished as a 42 year old. No other player in history has ever compiled a record of such sustained excellence for so many years.
In the years that followed, Cobb established himself as the game’s greatest player. Year after year, he outhit and outran all the others. He was aggressive both at the plate and on the bases. He once said that playing baseball was “something like a war,” and that is the way he approached it. He gained a reputation as a player who used a file to hone his spikes before games and then sliding with his feet held high in order to cut defenders as he slid into base. He denied this throughout his life, and there were only two documented instances of him spiking infielders, no more than other players, but it was reported in the papers and it was believed. He piled up base hits, set a record for doubles, and even won a Triple Crown one year, leading the league in all three major categories–batting average, home runs and runs batted in. Until Babe Ruth, who had come to the Boston Red Sox in 1914 and soon established himself as the American League’s top left-handed pitcher, switched to the outfield full time in 1920, by which time Cobb was 34 years old, Ty was unchallenged as baseball’s top player.
That 1907 batting championship was the first of twelve such titles Peach would win over the course of his career, a record that no one else has approached. His stolen base crowns began stacking up as well. By the time he retired, he had swiped a total of 892 sacks. This record would stand until 1982, when it was surpassed by future Hall of Famer Lou Brock. Cobb’s career total of 4,189 hits remained the big league standard until Pete Rose collected his 4,189th on September 11, 1989. Ty’s .367 career batting average appears as though it is safe forever as the highest in history. Cobb played in the majors for 22 seasons He also managed for almost 6 years, compiling a won-loss record of 479-444. Like many of the game’s greats who later managed, he was a harsh taskmaster, seemingly unable to understand that his players talents did not match his own. For a man who had so much difficulty getting along with others, it is little wonder that his players did not like him. When he finally retired from all aspects of the game, it was with some bitterness. Nonetheless, he remained close to the sport, and when the Hall of Fame opened its doors in 1939, Ty was not only in the inaugural class of electees, he was the top vote-getter.
No discussion of Ty Cobb would be complete without addressing his racism. Prior to Al Stump’s biography, published in the 1960s, there had been little or no mention of this aspect of Cobb’s character in books or articles about him. The Stump book, which served as the basis of the terrible, inaccurate 1994 biopic starring Tommy Lee Jones as the Georgia Peach, became the point of reference for all the writers who came after, and each book that came along seemed to emphasize this more than the last. Was Cobb a racist? Yes. There were incidents that lead to the conclusion that he was. But what seems somewhat unfair in singling him out this way is that in America, particularly in the first two decades of the twentieth century, most whites were racists. And it can be argued that many, many ball players took their dislike of blacks to a much greater extreme than did Cobb. Hall of Famers Cap Anson, Eddie Collins, Shoeless Joe Jackson and others did not disguise their feelings about African Americans, and it was, in fact, due in large part to this pervasive feeling that blacks were not allowed to play major league baseball between 1889 and 1947. In an unfortunate incident that occurred in 1915, a fan sat in the stands calling Cobb a “nigger.” Cobb leapt into the stands and beat the fan up quite badly. Many biographers have pointed to this incident as proof of his racism, and it is. However, no writers have pointed out that the fan’s racism is what spurred Cobb’s reaction. The fan thought that this was the worst thing he could call a white person. But he has been treated by writer after writer as a poor victim, while Cobb has been vilified. And when Cobb was suspended by the league office the next day for an undetermined time period, his teammates, many, in fact most, of whom did not like him, went on strike refusing to play. They defended him, with one of them telling reporters that Cobb had been correct in attacking the fan. “What else could he do?” the player asked. “Did you hear what that guy called him?” So there was abundant racism in the game and in the country. That a man who was born and reared in the deep south in the 1800s and early 1900s would be a racist should surprise no one. But to pretend that Cobb was a racist while the rest of baseball and America were fair minded, tolerant and accepting of blacks, the way so many writers have done, is dishonest, to say the least. Cobb was a racist…it was a characteristic he shared with white America.
Has Cobb been unfairly portrayed in the histories that have been compiled? Yes and no. He was a sometimes mean, cantankerous individual. He was married and divorced three times, and he was estranged from his children. He was a racist. But these things plagued many other players of the time, and few of them are defined by such things, or even remembered for them. Was he the greatest all-around player to ever play the game? Yes, many say he was. Asked once as an old man what would be different if he could go back and start his career anew as a youngster, he answered, “I would have done it differently. I would have had more friends.”
Charles Alexander, Ty Cobb, Southern Methodist University Press, 2006.
William Cobb (ed.), Ty Cobb: My Twenty Years in Baseball, Dover Press, 2002.
Tim Hornbaker, War on the Basepaths: The Definitive Biography of Ty Cobb, Sports Publishing, 2015.
Don Rhodes, Ty Cobb: Safe At Home, Lyons Press, 2008.
Al Stump, Cobb: A Biography, Algonquin Books, 1960.
Tom Stanton, Ty and the Babe, St. Martin’s Press, 2007.