“Baseball,” Ty Cobb liked to say, “is something like a war…Baseball is a red-blooded sport for red-blooded men. It’s not pink tea, and mollycoddles had better stay out of it. It’s…a struggle for supremacy, a survival of the fittest” (Ward and Burns 64). Although Ty Cobb was possibly the greatest player in baseball history, many people would consider him its worst person. Tyrus Raymond Cobb was born December 18, 1886 in The Narrows, Georgia. His parents named him after the ancient Phoenician city of Tyre, which stubbornly refused to surrender to Alexander the Great.
From the very beginning, he took after the city and became one of baseball’s most stubborn and hated men. The Georgia Peach, so-called, was a creature of extremes. Ty Cobb is, by bald statistics, measurably the greatest hitter ever; he was, by the reckoning of virtually everyone who met him, personally the most despicable human being ever to grace the National Pastime (Deford 56).
Cobb’s playing career, with the Detroit Tigers and the Philadelphia Athletics, was arguably the best anyone ever had.
He won twelve batting titles in thirteen years, including a record nine in a row. He also holds the records for the most runs scored with 2,245 and the highest lifetime batting average at .367, a number nearly unreachable even in just one season by today’s standards. Other records he set that have since been broken: 3,034 games played, 4,191 hits, 892 stolen bases, 392 outfield assists, 1,136 extra base hits, and 1,961 runs batted in.
He also struck out just 357 times in 11,429 times at bat, a phenomenal achievement. After his career ended, in 1936, he was the leading vote-getter of the first class of the Baseball Hall of Fame, beating even Babe Ruth. However, Cobb’s career was marred with controversy and scandals. He was hated by nearly every player in the league, including his own teammates.
When he was first called up to play with Detroit, he was extremely unpopular with his teammates. They locked him out of the bathroom, tore the crown out of his straw hat and sawed in half the bat that had been especially fashioned for him by his hometown coffin maker. He did not take any of it with good humor and could not bear to be the target of the mildest joke. He fought back with his fists, refused to speak to his tormentors, developed ulcers, took to sleeping with a revolver under his pillow, and soon began to display an obsessive animosity toward blacks. One day when a black groundskeeper tried to shake his hand, Cobb slapped him, chased him into the dugout and then tried to strangle the man’s wife when she came to his aid (Ward and Burns 64).
In 1926 retired pitcher Dutch Leonard told American League president Ban Johnson that near the end of the 1919 season, Leonard and Tiger teammate Cobb, along with two Cleveland Indians, had arranged to throw a game and bet on it. According to Leonard, Cobb was planning to bet $2,000 on the game, but apparently didn’t get his money down on time. Therefore, when Johnson turned the case over to commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Landis exonerated all parties involved, stating the case to be “rather old” and sensing overwhelming public support for Cobb and Tris Speaker, another Hall-of-Famer involved in the incident (“The Cobb Gambling Scandal” 20). One day, after a crippled New York heckler called Cobb “a half-nigger” in 1912, he climbed into the stands and savagely beat the man. When an onlooker pleaded that the heckler had no hands, Cobb replied, “I don’t care if he has no feet” (Wulf 45).
When Cleveland catcher Nig Clarke kidded Cobb that he had once applied a phantom tag to nail him at the plate, Cobb grabbed Clarke’s throat with such fury that it took three men to pull him off (Wulf 45). Before he even reached the majors, Cobb tried to attract interest in himself by writing false pseudonymous letters and postcards to famous sportswriter of the time Grantland Rice, praising himself in an effort to be noticed and get called up to the majors (Wulf 45). Cobb knew he was hated by most players around the league, and on October 9, 1910, he found out just how much.
Cobb and Cleveland’s Nap Lajoie were in a dead-heat tie for the American League batting title. Cobb sat out that day’s doubleheader. His teammates were angry at him, knowing he was just trying to keep his average high by sitting out. Nearly all players in the league were rooting for Lajoie to win. The St. Louis Browns, who were playing Cleveland that day, let every ball hit by Lajoie to fall in for a hit, giving him the title. Afterwards, eight of Cobb’s own teammates sent Lajoie telegrams congratulating him (Kramer 33). Off the field, Cobb was his own worst enemy. On the field, there was no question whose enemy he was anyone who presumed to get in his way.
The cruelty of Cobb’s style fascinated the multitudes and made him baseball’s first true superstar. He played in a climate of hostility, friendless by choice in a violent world he populated with enemies….But not even his disagreeable character could destroy the image of his greatness as a ballplayer (Ward and Burns 64). Cobb was famous for his style of sliding into a base, “steel showing” as he called it. He would come in full speed and put his spikes, which he was rumored to have sharpened especially for the occasion prior to each game, high enough to bloody the opposing player up. The player had two options: either tag Cobb out and take the punishment or get out of the way and allow Cobb to reach the base safely. More took the latter option than not.
However, more than a few fights were ignited when the opposing player would choose to tag Cobb out and cry foul when he did get injured. Many people thought of Cobb as a conniving cheater with his way of intimidating opponents, but he just shrugged off his critics, believing that he did nothing wrong. “I just play hard,” Cobb said, “and if playing hard means getting a little rough sometimes, then I’m sorry, but I can’t help you” (Montville 63). At least part of Cobb’s ugly torment may be explained that, although he revered his schoolmaster father above all men, the father disapproved of baseball, thinking it too frivolous for his son. Unfortunately, the boy’s determination to prove his worth to his father ended at age 18, when the elder Cobb was shot dead…by his wife, Ty’s mother (Deford 56).
“William Herschel Cobb was shot twice, once in the stomach and once in the head,” said Eugene Phillips, who is the unofficial historian of Cobb’s hometown, Royston, Georgia. “Amanda Chitwood Cobb’s explanation was that she had heard a noise, saw someone trying to get in her house and used the gun that her husband had given her for protection. A terrible case of mistaken identity. This explanation was believed by a jury and Amanda was acquitted. It has never been believed in Royston” (Montville 63). Residents of Royston over the years have devised several theories as to the nature of the shooting.
The most commonly accepted story is that because Ty’s father was out of town on business about five days a week, his mother had been having an affair for years. The father had suspected it, so went he went away this time he came back early to check on his wife and came in secretly. Then it becomes fuzzy as to who actually shot William Cobb. Many believe that Amanda’s lover actually killed him, others believe Amanda did (Montville 63). The complexity and mystery of this tragic incident continued to have an enormous effect on Ty’s life until his dying day. “My own father had his head blown off when I was 18 years old by a member of my own family,” Cobb told a writer in the latter years of his life. “I didn’t get over that. I’ve never gotten over it” (Ward and Burns 64).
Cobb became the first millionaire athlete, although baseball was not the primary reason for his wealth. He was a smart investor in business. In 1908, he invested in a small Georgia soda company. No one outside of Georgia had yet heard of Coca-Cola, but Ty liked its taste. When Coke became America’s favorite soda, Ty became a millionaire (Kramer 28). He made other investments throughout his lifetime that made him even wealthier. Cobb, although worth millions late in his life, was as cheap with them as he was dangerous with his spikes during his playing days. He was outraged at having to pay twelve dollars a year after a Cornelia, Georgia, Kiwanis Club asked him to be a member (Wulf 45).
Sydell Kramer describes the extent of Cobb’s cheapness in his biography of Cobb. “Money was extremely important to Ty. It was a way of showing off his success. But even though he was rich, he was very cheap. When he got older, he used candles instead of electric lights. He wouldn’t pay for a telephone, or buy firewood if it was cold. At times, Ty burned his fan mail for heat” (Kramer 31). As with all bad boys, there was a good side to Ty Cobb, although few ever saw it. Despite his inability to spend money on himself, he did give a lot to others. He gave money to needy retired ballplayers, helped build a new hospital in Royston, and started a fund for poor college students (Kramer 44).
While giving money, Cobb still felt unliked and remained virtually alone for the rest of his life. What money he did spend on himself was almost exclusively towards the use of alcohol, which he became heavily dependent on. He said he would have given up his money if only he could change the way players felt about him. He knew nobody forgot how nasty he always could be in his playing days (Kramer 45). Cobb died of cancer July 17, 1961, a sad and lonely man. Only 400 people, most of them little-leaguers who only knew him as a name from baseball’s past, showed up at his funeral. Just three ballplayers from his era bothered to attend. Near the end of his life, Cobb commented to a caller that if he had his life to live over again, “I would have done things a little different…I would have had more friends” (Ward and Burns, 65).