Cobb, Ty(rus) Raymond

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COBB, Ty(rus) Raymond

(b. 18 December 1886 in The Narrows, Bank County, Georgia; d. 17 July 1961 in Atlanta, Georgia), baseball player and manager for the Detroit Tigers who, upon his retirement from the game at the end of the 1928 season, held forty-three major league seasonal and career records.

Cobb was the eldest of the three children of William Herschel Cobb, an educator, newspaper publisher, landholder, and politician, and Amanda Chitwood, a homemaker. Reared in a strict Baptist family of "position and property," in Cobb's words, he grew up and attended schools in Royston, Georgia, a small town in the Deep South. Distant paternal relatives had been prominent in antebellum North Carolina and Georgia politics, and though not a slave-holder himself, Cobb's paternal grandfather fought with the Confederacy in the Civil War. His maternal grandfather owned substantial cotton lands tilled by African-American tenant farmers. Hard-working and ambitious, Cobb's father taught school; purchased, edited, and did most of the writing for a local newspaper; owned cotton lands; served as Franklin County's first school commissioner; and was elected for one term to the Georgia State Senate.

Living in an age when professional baseball was not a respectable occupation and fearing that the game would lead his son "straight into the devil's arms," Cobb's stern and imperious father sought to dissuade his son from taking up the sport. But when in the end he could not convince his son, he admonished the younger Cobb: "Don't come home a failure." In 1904, at the tender age of seventeen, the left-handed hitting, right-handed throwing, six-foot, one-inch youngster made his professional debut as an outfielder with an Augusta, Georgia, team. Again playing for Augusta in 1905, Cobb led the South Atlantic League in batting. In August 1905 the Detroit Tigers of the American League purchased his contract for $700. For the remaining forty-one games of the season with the Tigers, Cobb hit only .240 and fielded erratically.

Despite this inauspicious beginning, Cobb soon became major league baseball's premier attraction. In his first three full seasons he hit .316, .350, and .324, respectively, thereby helping Detroit win three consecutive American League pennants. In 1907 Cobb, referred to by fans and sportswriters simply as "Ty" or the "Georgia Peach," led the American League in batting average, base hits, runs batted in, and stolen bases. Beginning with that 1907 season Cobb proceeded to dominate the league's offensive statistics as no player had previously in the game's history. Except for 1916, he won every batting title from the 1907 season through the 1919 season. In the same amazing thirteen-season span he led the league in runs scored five times, in hits nine times, in slugging percentage eight times, and in stolen bases six times. Season after season he hit more than a hundred percentage points above the league average. Although Babe Ruth's home run feats stole the limelight from Cobb in the 1920s and other players successfully contested Cobb for the league batting championships, Cobb continued in that decade to be among the league leaders in batting average. Cobb retired from play in 1928. His lifetime batting average was .367, and he won league batting championships twelve times, nine times in succession. Cobb also managed the Tigers from 1921 to 1926, but enjoyed indifferent success. His team posted 479 wins and 444 losses.

Cobb represented far more to baseball than these measurable feats. "Cobb had that terrific fire, that unbelievable drive," recalled Raymond "Rube" Bressler, an American League contemporary. "His determination was fantastic. I never saw anybody like him. It was his base. It was his game. Everything was his." While not blessed with greater natural talent than some of his contemporary players, Cobb drove himself relentlessly to master every facet of the game. "Baseball is not unlike warfare," he said in a remarkably candid autobiography, My Life in Baseball: The True Record, published in 1961. "When I played ball, I didn't play for fun.… It's no pink tea, and mollycoddles had better stay out. It's a contest and everything that implies, a struggle for supremacy, a survival of the fittest." To subdue adversaries in what was then called "inside" or "scientific" baseball, a strategy that in the face of the powerful pitchers of the day called for trying to score one run at a time, Cobb used every weapon at his disposal, including his bat, fists, speed, spikes, and venomous tongue, to intimidate and defeat his opponents. Fans everywhere came out to see the flamboyant and rampaging Cobb, not just in awe of his ability but to taunt him, to have him taunt back, and in hopes of seeing him stymied by the local club or of seeing a brawl in which Cobb would be the victim.

Cobb was equally truculent off the field. Quick-tempered and prone to try to resolve conflicts physically, he fought with fans, bystanders, service personnel, and members of his own family year after year. On one occasion he even climbed into the stands and assaulted a taunting fan who happened to be physically handicapped. In 1904, pulling the revolver he almost always carried, he demanded an apology from a local Detroit butcher whom he believed had insulted his wife. The butcher complied, but his young assistant challenged Cobb to a fistfight; Cobb beat the boy insensate. He was especially prone to provoke fights with African Americans. On at least two occasions he struck black women whom he thought had not paid him proper deference. He had five children with Charlie Marion Lombard, whom he married in 1908, but his relationship with his wife and his children was distant and tempestuous. After a long separation, the couple divorced in 1947. In 1949 Cobb married Frances Fairburn Cass, but in 1956 that marriage ended in divorce. They had no children.

A set of special circumstances apparently contributed to Cobb's lifelong pugnacity. By his own admission, he desperately hungered for the attention and approval of a demanding father. "I did it [played baseball with a demonic ferocity] for my father, who was an exalted man," he recalled many years later. "They killed him when he was still young. But I knew he was watching me and I never let him down." The mysterious "they" was Cobb's own mother, who, apparently mistaking her husband for an intruder climbing through her bedroom window, fired two shotgun blasts into his stomach. Although his mother was acquitted of voluntary manslaughter charges in late March 1906, locals gossiped that the senior Cobb had been shot while attempting to catch his wife with a lover. Success on the ball field seemed not only to have been for Cobb a source of self-worth but also a means of vindicating his family's tarnished reputation in Georgia.

Having since childhood been shaped by notions of manly honor and finding himself in the North among many Roman Catholic players, Cobb was acutely sensitive about his Southern, Protestant origins. When he was a rookie, the veteran Detroit players hazed him unmercifully. Apart from verbal insults, they nicknamed him "Rebel," hid his clothes, broke his favorite bats, locked him in hotel bathrooms, and shouldered him away from the plate during batting practice. Cobb fought back, both with his fists and with his tongue. His teammates soon wanted nothing to do with him. He roomed alone, usually ate alone, and spent his spare time alone. "I had to fight all my life to survive," he later said, "but I beat the bastards and left them in the ditch." Cobb, like many other white Southerners, felt honor could never be taken for granted; it had to be displayed and asserted in face-to-face encounters. Even the slightest affront had to be rectified, otherwise it carried great shame. Of anyone who challenged him in what he considered "matters of honor," Cobb demanded an apology, and if it was not forthcoming, he employed physical force to "put the fear of God" into them.

In his retirement Cobb was equally obstreperous. Although he accumulated a substantial fortune from astute investments, including as an early investor in Coca-Cola, he found little satisfaction in money making, family life, playing golf, modest philanthropic projects in Georgia, or remembrances of his past glories. Estranged from family members, living alone, and drinking heavily, he died from cancer at age seventy-four. At the end he remained unloved. Only three people from organized baseball attended his funeral.

Yet as a legendary figure in baseball history, no player except Babe Ruth occupies a larger place than Cobb. He was the quintessential hero of the pre-Ruth age of baseball, when success in the sport, as Cobb himself put it, depended more on "brains rather than brawn," on the "hit-and-run, the steal and the double-steal, the bunt in all its varieties, the squeeze, the ball hit to the opposite field and the ball punched through openings in the defense for the single." The only quality missing from Cobb's list was opportunistic aggressiveness, which he possessed in unalloyed abundance. In recognition of his preeminence in early twentieth-century baseball, Cobb in 1936 received more votes as a charter member of the newly established Hall of Fame than any other player in the game, including the mighty Ruth.

Both the National Baseball Library in Cooperstown, New York, and the archives of the Sporting News in St. Louis, Missouri, contain substantial clippings files on Cobb. Cobb's posthumously published autobiography with Al Stump, My Life in Baseball: The True Record (1961; 1993), is unusually revealing, as is Charles C. Alexander, Ty Cobb (1984), a splendid biography. Obituaries are in the New York Times (10 Dec. 1965) and Sporting News (25 Dec. 1965).

Benjamin G. Rader