Cobb, Ty (1886-1961)

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Cobb, Ty (1886-1961)

The most fear-inspiring presence in baseball history, Ty Cobb was unmatched as a performer during his 24-year career in the major leagues. Cobb set statistical marks that, on the eve of the twenty first century, no major-leaguer has equaled. His.367 lifetime batting average is 23 points higher than Ted Williams' second best mark. Cobb's 2,244 runs scored put him well ahead of Babe Ruth. His feat of leading his league in batting average 12 times easily tops Honus Wagner's eight, and his 37 steals of home plate may never be broken. But Cobb is equally well known for his violent style of play and his ferocious temper. Lou Gehrig, angered one day when Cobb brutally spiked a Yankee pitcher on a play at first base, complained that "Cobb is about as welcome to American League parks as a rattlesnake." He was so hated by his teammates that for much of his career he carried a gun in a shoulder strap just in case a group of them jumped him. Cobb's career began at a time when baseball's rules were still in flux, and spanned the "dead-ball" and "rabbit-ball" eras of the first two decades of the twentieth century.

Tyrus Raymond Cobb was born on December 18, 1886 in an area of Georgia known as the Narrows, near Banks County. His mother, Amanda Chitwood, had been a child bride of only 12 years of age in 1883 when she married William Herschel Cobb, then a 20-year-old schoolteacher. Despite these modest beginnings in poor rural Georgia, Ty Cobb was the latest in a long roster of prominent ancestors. The Cobb tribe dated back to Joseph Cobb, who emigrated from England in 1611 and who eventually became a Virginia tobacco tycoon. Thomas Willis Cobb was a colonel in the Revolutionary War and an aide to General Washington. Thomas Reade Rootes Cobb died as a Confederate brigadier general at Fredericksburg and Howell Cobb, who served as Georgia's Governor in 1851, was captured by the Federals at Macon in 1865.

Cobb's father impressed upon him the need to uphold the family tradition by either entering a profession, such as medicine or the law, or by attending West Point. Cobb, however, showed little interest in these potential futures. In 1901, at the age of 15, Cobb became aware of major league baseball. He learned, to his astonishment, that in the game he and his friends played with a flat board and a homemade twine ball major league celebrities could earn up to $8,000 per season.

In 1902, against his father's wishes, Cobb joined the Royston Reds, a semi-pro team that toured Northeastern Georgia. Semi-pro "town-ball" was tough stuff. At this time one of the rules held over from the game's pioneer forms was "soaking," in which base runners could be put out not only by throws to a bag and by hand, but by throwing to hit them anywhere on the body. Hitting the runner in the skull was preferable, because it might take a star opponent out of the lineup. On more than one occasion Cobb was put out by a "soaker" to the ear, which did little to endear baseball to his father.

In 1904 Cobb succeeded in making the roster of the class "C" Augusta Tourists, a league that drew scouts from the major leagues. At Augusta Cobb began to develop his distinctive playing style.Rather than pull pitches to his natural direction of right field, the left-handed Cobb stood deep in the batter's box, choked up on his 38 ounce bat with a split hands grip, and opened his stance as the pitcher fired the ball. His trademark was to chop grounders and slice line-drives through third-base gaps and into an often unguarded left-field. The Cobb-style bunt, destined to become one of the most deadly weapons since Willie Keeler's "Baltimore Chop," took shape when Cobb retracted his bat and punched the ball to a selected spot between the third baseman and the pitcher, just out of reach. He also began to pull bunts for base hits and once on base he ran with wild abandon, stealing when he wished and running through the stop signs of base coaches, always using his great speed to wreak havoc with opposing defenses. Included in his techniques was a kick slide, in which he would kick his lead leg at the last minute in an effort to dislodge the ball, the glove, and perhaps even the hand of a middle infielder waiting to tag him out. This would, at the major league level, develop into the dreaded "Cobb Kiss," in which Cobb would slide, or often leap, feet first into infielders and catchers with sharpened spikes slashing and cutting. Unique among players of his era, Cobb kept notebooks filled with intelligence on opposing pitchers and defenses. He studied the geometry and angles of the baseball field, and through his hitting and base running strategies engaged in what he called "scientific baseball," a style that would revolutionize the game in the so-called "dead-ball" era before Babe Ruth.

But although he could outrun everybody, had a rifle arm in center field, and hit sizzling singles and doubles to all fields, already at Augusta Cobb was hated by his teammates. He was a loner who early in his career did not drink or chase women, and preferred to read histories and biographies in his room. He constantly fought with his manager, whose signs he regularly ignored. Eventually, none of his teammates would room with him, especially after he severely beat pitcher George Napoleon "Nap" Rucker, a roommate of Cobb's for a short time. Rucker's "crime" had been taking the first hot bath in their room after a game. Cobb's explanation to a bloodied Rucker was "I've got to be first at everything—all the time!" Rucker and the other Tourists considered Cobb mentally unbalanced and dangerous if provoked.

On August 8, 1905 William Cobb was killed by a shotgun blast, fired by his young wife Amanda. Although eventually cleared of charges of voluntary manslaughter, rumors of marital infidelity and premeditated murder continued to swirl around Cobb's mother. The violent death of his father, who had never seen Cobb play but who had softened toward his son's career choice shortly before his death, made Cobb's volatile nature even worse. As Cobb later observed of himself during this period, "I was like a steel spring with a growing and dangerous flaw in it. If it is wound too tight or has the slightest weak point, the spring will fly apart and then is done for."

Late in the 1905 season, a Detroit Tiger team weakened by injuries needed cheap replacements and purchased Cobb's contract. Cobb joined major league baseball during a period in which the game was reshaping itself. In 1901 the foul-strike rule had been adopted, whereby the first and second foul balls off the bat counted as strikes. But of greater importance were the actions of Byron "Ban" Johnson, who changed the name of his minor Western League to the American League and began signing major league players in direct competition with the National League. By 1903 bifurcated baseball and the modern World Series were born, leading to a boom in baseball's popularity as Cobb joined the Tigers.

Cobb impressed from his first at bat, when he clubbed a double off of "Happy" Jack Chesbro, a 41 game winner in 1904. His aggressive style won over the fans immediately, but from the beginning his Tiger teammates despised Cobb. Most of the Tigers were northerners and mid-westerners, and Cobb, with his pronounced southern drawl and stiff, formal way of addressing people stood out. But more importantly, his sometimes spectacular play as a rookie indicated that he might be a threat to the established outfield corps, and in the hardscrabble game of the turn of the twentieth century such rookies faced intense hazing. Cobb fought back against the veterans and took to carrying a snub-nosed Frontier Colt pistol on his person for protection. The tension led to a mental breakdown for Cobb in mid-summer 1906, leading to a 44 day stay in a sanatorium. Upon his release, Cobb returned to the Tigers with an even greater determination to succeed. "When I got back I was going to show them some ballplaying like the fans hadn't seen in some time," Cobb later recalled.

Cobb fulfilled his promise. He lead Detroit to the World Series in 1907, 1908, and 1909, hitting a combined.361 in those seasons with a remarkable 164 stolen bases. Although Detroit faded as a contender after that, Cobb's star status continued to rise. In 1911 he hit.420 with 83 stolen bases and 144 RBIs (runs batted in). In 1912 he hit.410 with 61 steals and 90 RBIs. He batted over.300, the traditional benchmark for batting excellence, in 23 consecutive seasons, including a.323 mark in 1928, his final season, at the age of 42. But while Cobb remained remarkably consistent, the game of baseball changed around him. In 1919 the Boston Red Sox sold their star player, Babe Ruth, to the New York Yankees. In 1920 Ruth hit 54 Home Runs, and in 1921 he hit 59. The "dead-ball" era and scientific baseball was replaced by the "rabbit-ball" era and big bang baseball. Cobb felt that Ruth was "unfinished" and that major league pitchers would soon adjust to his style; they did not. Cobb never adjusted or changed his style. "The home run could wreck baseball," he warned. "It throws out a lot of strategy and makes it fence-ball." As player-manager late in his career, Cobb tried to match the Yankee's "fence-ball" with his own "scientific ball"—and he failed miserably.

Along the way, Cobb initiated a move toward player emancipation by agitating in Congress for an investigation of baseball's reserve clause that tied a player to one team for life. He took the lead in forming the Ball Players Fraternity, a nascent player's union. In retirement he spent some of his estimated $12 million fortune, compiled mainly through shrewd stock market investments, in supporting destitute ex-ballplayers and their families. But he also burned all fan mail that reached him and ended long-term relationships with friends such as Ted Williams over minor disputes. When he died in 1961, just three men from major league baseball attended his funeral, one of which was old "Nap" Rucker from his Augusta days. Not a single official representative of major league baseball attended the funeral of the most inventive, detested, and talented player in baseball history.

—Todd Anthony Rosa

Further Reading:

Alexander, Charles. Ty Cobb. New York, Oxford University Press, 1984.

Astor, Gerald, and Joe Falls. The Detroit Tigers. New York, Walker& Company, 1989.

Cobb, Ty, with Al Stump. My Life in Baseball: The True Record. Garden City, New York, Doubleday, 1961.

Seymour, Harold. Baseball: The Early Years. New York, Oxford University Press, 1960.

——. Baseball: The Golden Age. New York, Oxford University Press, 1971.

Stump, Al. Cobb: A Biography. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Algonquin Books, 1994.

Ward, Geoffrey C. Baseball: An Illustrated History. New York, A.A.Knopf, 1994.