When the very first Hall of Fame induction ceremony was set to start on June 12, 1939, a host of baseball dignitaries were on hand in Cooperstown, New York.
It was a virtual Who’s Who of the National Pastime. Cy Young was there, as was Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the only commissioner baseball had ever had to that point, and the immortal Babe Ruth was beaming his big smile as he strolled around in a tailored suit. The crowds were buzzing with anticipation for the first induction ceremony and the dedication of the new Museum and Hall of Fame.
But one of the men of honor was missing. Ty Cobb – who had received more votes in the first Hall of Fame election than anyone else, was nowhere to be found.
Cobb was en route with his youngest son, Jimmy from the west coast. Cobb was immensely proud of being elected to the Hall of Fame, and he relished the fact that he had garnered more votes than Ruth, his rival for baseball supremacy. Ruth and Honus Wagner had received 215 votes out of 226 ballots cast, but The Georgia Peach had captured 222 votes. Only four voters failed to vote for Ty. What they were thinking, no one knows.
Cobb’s credentials were eye-popping: a .367 career batting average, a record 4,191 hits, and records for runs scored and stolen bases. In his 24 seasons he won 12 batting titles, topping the .400 mark three times. He was the most daring ballplayer to ever step on the diamond, and though he had made few friends in the game due to his difficult personality and aggressive play, he was respected.
As the officials of the new Hall of Fame, led by founder Stephen C. Clark, flitted about the steps of the Museum on Main Street in Cooperstown, they gathered the group of men who comprised the first set of inductees. Since the first election in 1936, which included the selection of five men, 21 more had been elected. Many were on hand, including Ruth, Wagner, and Walter Johnson: three of the other four original inductees. But Cobb was nowhere in sight.
Officials gathered the living inductees for a photograph: 10 men in all; Ruth seated between famed manager Connie Mack and Eddie Collins; the former pitcher and alcoholic Grover Cleveland “Pete” Alexander standing in the rear; Tris Speaker, Cobb’s best friend in baseball, standing to Alexander’s left. The photo remains a gem of baseball history, but Cobb – perhaps baseball’s greatest player was not present for it.
Jimmy Cobb hustled his father into town about 20 minutes later, after traversing the winding roads of upstate New York in a rented automobile. As Jimmy settled the car into a spot in the park adjacent to the Hall of Fame, his father waved his cap to fans who recognized the famous ballplayer. Ty looked resplendent in a suit and tie, his hair thinned by the years, but his skin tan from the sun at his California home. But why was he late?
Had Cobb orchestrated his tardiness to make a grand late arrival? Did he come in late because he was upset with having been snubbed by four voters? Was he late because he didn’t want to engage his former rivals (especially Ruth) in idle chit-chat?
The answer is far less sinister.
Cobb and his son were late because their train arrived late in Albany. Ever a frugal man, Ty had decided against arriving a day early in Cooperstown and staying a hotel. Instead he and his son booked an overnight train for Albany and rented the car to travel the remaining 40+ miles. He was late because of poor travel planning.
Ty arrived soon enough to climb the steps of the Museum and make a brief statement, which was recorded by movie cameras on hand. He signed autographs for fans who assembled on Main Street, and took a tour of the new Museum, where he was particularly impressed with the exhibit showing a baseball reported to be the first used in a professional ballgame (it wasn’t). He told Hall of Fame officials that he would ship several items from his baseball career to them, so they could put them on display. He also walked across Main Street and visited the Cooperstown post office, which was issuing special stamps that day for the historic occasion. Ty plunked down $1.25 and purchased a book of stamps (they were 3 cents at the time).
Cobb was very happy to see a plaque that hung outside the Museum with the list of inductees. His name – Tyrus Raymond Cobb – was at the top of the list. He was sure that his father, who never got a chance to see him play a professional game, would have been proud of his accomplishments.
In future years, Cobb would travel to Cooperstown nearly every year for the Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and he campaigned for several of his former teammates (most notably Sam Crawford) and players against whom he competed. But he wa slate on theat first day in 1939, and as a result he is missing from one of baseball’s most famous photographs.
18 replies on “The story behind Ty Cobb’s tardy arrival to his Hall of Fame induction“
Christy Mathewson wasn’t there, he died in 1925.
Would have been nice if ALL the players were identified in the picture.
I’ve seen the above picture hundreds of times and always wondered why Cobb wasn’t in the picture. Now I know! Thanks Dan.
Adam – you’re correct. Christy Mathewson died due to complications from exposure to nerve gas in World War I.
Gary – thanks for reading.
The back row (L to R) is Honus Wagner, Pete Alexander, Tris Speaker, Nap Lajoie, George Sisler, Walter Johnson. The front row is Eddie Collins, Babe Ruth Connie Mack, and Cy Young.
My son and I had visited HOF in Cooperstown every year and I had seen that picture on that wall in the museum without Ty Cobb sitting with rest of these guys. Now, I knew why. Thanks for an article.
Thanks for reading our blog, Chuck.
I have a page from a book of this picture. What book would it have been published in? And could any surface that have all the autographs?
John A. Bardelli
Nice story and believable. However, the story, as written, revises baseball history.
The well documented historical reason that Ty Cobb arrived late was his contempt and spite of Kenesaw Mountain Landis and not wanting to be part of introductory ceremonies in which Landis was a participant.
The basis for Cobb’s contempt of Landis revolved, in part, due to Landis’ investigation of both Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker for allegedly having thrown season games during the 1920s, a “crime” akin to that of the 1919 White Sox players, including Cobb’s southern friend, Shoeless Joe Jackson, who were outright barred from baseball by Landis. Jackson was acquitted of criminal charges but that didn’t matter to Landis who, himself, was a federal judge.
So much for “due process of law” being either recognized or applied by the tyrannical Landis. When Speaker and Cobb then came under the Landis scope, Cobb had every reason to fear, distrust, and never want again to have anything to do with Landis nor his ilk.
Cobb’s lateness was a silent but open and defiant protest of Landis’ intermingling with, not only, himself but the greats of the game who had achieved their status of greatness on the green diamond, itself, not isolated as a co-conspirator amongst the tyrannical baseball owners.
Thanks for reading the article and for taking the time to comment. I stand by my story. In my research for “Ty Cobb: A Biography”, published in 2004, I found several sources to explain Cobb’s tardiness to the Hall of Fame ceremony. The most impressive was the interview with his grandson and also contemporary accounts from several newspapers, quoting his son at the time. I also was able to read Cobb’s diary, which is partially in the collection of the Hall of Fame.
What are the “well-documented” sources you mention that verify your theory? Might it be the biographies of Cobb, written by Al Stump and later Charles Alexander? Neither claim a source for their theory, they simply assume Cobb arrived late to stick it to Landis. There’s no evidence for that.
John A. Bardelli
Hello Dan …
Thanks for your response. However, there is nothing included, therein, which leads me to believe that Cobb’s lateness at the ceremony was other than what he revealed to Al Stump, i.e., that he had utter contempt for Landis and he did not want to be photographed or come within a handshake distance of Landis. The source is Ty Cobb, himself, as he revealed to his biographer, Al Stump.
You place more credence in Ty Cobb’s grandson and Cobb’s son in terms of the basis for his delayed appearance while denigrating Al Stump to the ash heap of history. Explain, if you can, why Cobb’s revelations to Stump were not credible? Both My Life in Baseball by Ty Cobb, ghosted by Stump shortly prior to Cobb’s death in 1961, and Ty Cobb, The Meanest Man in Baseball, written prior to Stump’s own death in 1993, were well researched books and presented the life of a baseball player beyond what transpired merely on the diamond.
I was able to find only one contemporary paper providing an explanation as to why Cobb arrived late for the HOF ceremonies, namely, that “Cobb was sick.” Consider that Landis was still a powerful figure in 1939 and Cobb knew better than to parade his contempt throughout the news media.
Consider, if you will, that there are perhaps only two photos ever taken of Ty Cobb and Kenesaw Mountain Landis, together and they were snapped in Detroit in 1921, following the 1919 Black Sox episode when Cobb had assumed player-manager status with the Tigers. I offer you to provide me with any photos beyond that date and, more importantly, beyond the date when Landis finally announced that he would not pursue charges against either Speaker or Cobb, such announcement coming in January/February of 1927. There is no doubt that Cobb and Speaker both suffered humiliation and great anxiety as they awaited their fate from Landis after having been put through the crucible of depositions and interviews before that decision was announced.
You’ve undoubtedly been caught up in the revisionism emanating out of Georgia where Ty Cobb image is being cleansed and, in so doing, there is a concerted effort by many to ridicule and chastise Al Stump for his “indiscretions” in revealing what was told to him by Ty Cobb. He has been called a liar, an opportunist, a thief, and worse in an effort to create the rebirth of a lily white Ty Cobb.
I’ve more to add and will do so in due course. I personally consider The Georgia Peach to be the greatest baseball player of all time. I hope to read your biography of Cobb, as well, but I hope it does not detract from the way Ty Cobb did play baseball, i.e., as though it were, in fact, war on the diamond, simply because that is, in fact, the way Cobb learned to play the game of baseball.
Take care and if you have more data than what you’ve provided to try to convince myself or a considerable body of Ty Cobb advocates, otherwise, I shall be more than happy to entertain what you throw at us.
John A. Bardelli
Do you have further comments to Mr. Bardelli’s comments. Is it your intention to burnish the image of Ty Cobb and turn him into a nice southern gentleman?
My intention isn’t to alter the image of Cobb in any way. The intent of this article was to tell the story of Cobb’s appearance at the first Hall of Fame ceremony in 1939.
I worked at the Baseball Hall of Fame for several years. I was fortunate enough to see all of Cobb’s items in the collection, including a diary and other papers and news articles, not to mention personal items that belonged to him. when I wrote my biography of Cobb I spoke with any living members of the Cobb family who would cooperate.
I can only go by the facts as they present themselves. There’s no evidence that Cobb was late on purpose to show his displeasure with Judge Landis. That came from one source — Al Stump. The mistake John is making is assuming that because Stump was working with Cobb on his autobiography that everything Stump later wrote is TRUE and came from Cobb. Stump’s character has already been brought into serious question as other facts in his own book are fabricated (the murder in Detroit). Also, several personal items of Cobb were later circulated in the memorabilia industry and found to be fakes. They were based on items that Stump took from Cobb’s estate and replicated.
I don’t want Cobb to be seen as a simple racist or a simple southern gentleman. I want him to be seen as a full person with flaws and positive traits. That’s the way all of us are. Stump’s article in True magazine that came out shortly after Cobb’s death was a sensationalized account of the final few months of a dying man’s life. A man who entrusted Stump with the intimate details of his life. Stump went for the jugular and wrote a tabloid piece on Cobb, fabricating or creating stories from thin air. I don’t respect that as a journalist. I’m not alone, Stump has been vilified among the baseball industry and taken to task by many for his hatchet job on Cobb. Ron Shelton’s movie starring Tommy Lee Jones only furthered the myth of Cobb as a monster, which isn’t surprising considering it was based on Stump’s unauthorized accounts of his time with Cobb.
I don’t want Cobb to be glossed over, but the truth is that Cobb was far from a monster. He was a complicated man and a bad husband and distant father, yes. He flashed a violent temper at times during his life. But he never killed a man, nor was he a psychopath.
Thanks for reading.
Denis the Tap Dancing Ukrainian
The story I heard as a lad growing up in Kiev is that Cobb was running late because he had to stop at a gas station and take a horrible dump. When asked about it later, the Peach replied, “Shit happens.”
At least that is the story young children in Ukraine are told about the great Georgia Peach (“Грузія персик” in Ukrainian, BTW).
Landis overruled Ban Johnson and restored Cobb and Speaker to the AL after the Dutch Leonard incident. Seems like Cobb would have more issue with Johnson than Landis.
I have a reprint of the 1939 hof dedication ceremony
Is it worth anything
I would love to be able to travel back in time to that induction. As a member for over 20 years I have been to 2 induction ceremonies. I always have a great time in
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