To baseball fans, Ty Cobb is a legend, to some a villain, to many simply a ghost whose name is sprinkled generously near the top of several of the all-time lists. He’s a plaque in Cooperstown, and the greatest Detroit Tiger of them all.
Not surprisingly, that Cobb achieved greatness on the ballfield and board room was not an accident. He was molded from an early age to be a super-achiever, to strive for something great.
The part of Georgia where Ty Cobb grew up was still scarred by the Civil War, which had concluded just 21 years before his birth in 1886. Most farming families in the deep south were barely surviving, but the Cobb’s lived fairly well, thanks to William Herschel Cobb’s education. While other families in the region who worked as farmers were at the whim of the weather to survive, Ty’s family had steady income and survived the seasonal hardships thanks to the strong will and mind of his father.
After teaching in the small Georgia farming communities of Carnesville, Harmony Grove, and Lavonia, in 1893 Ty’s father moved his family to Royston, Georgia, located in southern Franklin County. In Royston, W.H. Cobb served as principal of the local school, earning distinction for himself and his family. Royston was different than their other stops – more than 500 people lived in the town, and the farmland was fertile and plentiful. Ty’s father purchased 100 acres of land and farmed it in the summer months, when school was out.
Young Ty, as the oldest child, worked with his father, but to say he enjoyed manual would be an exaggeration. Ty would rather have spent time with the other youth of Royston, playing ball games and tramping through the many hills and woods of the area. But his father demanded that Ty work as much as he could, believing that games and idle time would lead his son to trouble.
Cobb’s father was a serious man, who worked hard to provide for his family and believed deeply in education and family. “I believe, and I believe nothing more earnestly,” W.H. Cobb once wrote, “that education is the cornerstone on which we build democracy.”
W.H. Cobb taught Ty the history of the Cobb family, which went back to their ancestors in England, who had come to America in the early 17th century, settling in Virginia. He told Ty about Thomas Willis Cobb, who was the first Cobb to move to Georgia, and who earned the rank of colonel in the Revolutionary War; and of T.W.’s son, Thomas, who served three terms as a U.S. Congressman, was U.S. Senator from 1824-1828, later gained distinction as Superior Court Judge in Georgia, and had a county named for him, not far from Atlanta.
Ty especially enjoyed the stories of Thomas Reade Roots Cobb, a remarkably diverse figure who wrote books on law, founded the Lumpkin Law School at the University of Georgia, served as a delegate to the Confederate Provisional Congress (where he quite possibly penned the Confederate Constitution), raised his own regiment of troops, “Cobb’s Legion,” whom he led into battle, and rose to the rank of general in the Confederate Army. During a fierce exchange of fire with Union troops, Thomas Reade Cobb was killed in action during the Battle of Fredericksburg, in Virginia, in 1862.
To Ty’s father, the Cobb name meant greatness, and it carried a status that each member of the family was meant to uphold. To Ty, the family stories of success and war heroism led him to question his menial jobs behind a mule on his father’s farm.
“I was a Cobb,” he wrote later, “and stuck behind a mule that broke wind when the breeze was the wrong way. I resented it deeply.”
Ty Cobb felt certain he was destined to do something significant. When he left home at the age of 17 to try out for the Augusta Tourists, his father was not happy, but when he encountered some adversity, W.H. told his son, “Don’t come home a failure.”
Cobb didn’t look back. He was in the Detroit outfield at the age of 18, won scores of batting laurels, and made more than a million dollars as a baseball player. He sat on the boards of banks and large companies, built hospitals, and gave away much of his fortune.
The seeds of his success were first planted when he was a boy, learning of the exploits of his Cobb ancestors.