An integral part of any hitter’s success is his choice of weapon. Ty Cobb broke into the majors in 1905 using homemade bats that he and Joe Cunningham – his next-door neighbor in Royston, Georgia – had turned on a lathe in the Cunninghams’ tool shed. These were small, heavy clubs made of ash. These favorites, some of which had accompanied the teenager’s travels up through the minor leagues in Alabama and Georgia, were sawed in half by malicious Detroit teammates early in the 1906 season.
Although Cobb later claimed to have switched to Louisville Sluggers, the famous bats manufactured by the Hillerich & Bradsby Company of Louisville, Kentucky, and used them “exclusively” throughout the rest of his career, he probably experimented with a mix of factory-made bats between 1906 and 1908, winning his first two batting championships in the process. There were, after all, any number of bat manufacturers happy to donate their products for field testing by the budding star. Any Sluggers that Ty did swing during his first four big-league summers probably were either unsigned (that is, with no player’s signature on the barrel) or Nap Lajoie models.
On October 13, 1908, Cobb became just the fourth major leaguer to have his decal pasted to the barrel of a Louisville Slugger. The terms of his contract, however, were different from those of his predecessors. Instead of accepting the standard $75 endorsement fee (“a chunk of real money,” Cobb said), he exchanged the use of his name for a bin of specially constructed bats.
Specifically, Ty wanted his bats made of prime ash harvested from Kentucky and Tennessee forests, considering it a stronger wood than the popular hickory and hackberry. He also wanted the wood to have a straight and fine grain, not a heavy grain. “And try to find wood with small whirly knots in it,” he instructed. As he explained, this was “indicative of trees that have had a long, slow growth, producing the most resilient and stoutest timber.” On his regular trips to the factory Ty would whack each of his finished bats against the ground. “If it rang tenor,” he said, “I’d put that one aside to keep. If I got a dull ‘thump,’ that one I discarded.”
Some have argued that in the case of a naturally gifted hitter like Cobb, the effect of a custom-made bat was more psychological than anything else. But in 1909, the first season Ty used his own autograph-model Louisville Slugger, he led all big leaguers in base hits, batting average, total bases, and slugging percentage. He also won the American League’s triple crown. In 1921, H & B began offering Louisville Sluggers to the general public. Advertising, coupled with Cobb’s dozen batting titles, made the Ty Cobb model 40Tc bat the company’s most popular model through the 1920s.
The Peach used the same model from 1911 to 1924. It featured a medium-sized barrel that gradually tapered to a medium handle and knob. (Nobody wore batting gloves during Cobb’s era. Because Ty disdained the sticky feel of resin on his hands, all of his bats throughout his career had several twists of tape wrapped about 8 to 10 inches up the handle to improve his grip.) The length was 34.5 inches and the weight, which ranged from 40 to 44 ounces, was evenly distributed. This created a large hitting surface – not that Cobb needed it. Years after Ty retired, an old H & B lathe hand brought out a bat that showed the Peach’s “sweet spot,” the place where hitters try to consistently hit the ball. “Sure enough,” one H & B executive recalled, “there was this place on the bat that was a well-worn hollow that showed how Cobb had met the ball squarely over and over.”
In May 1924, Cobb ordered a new model. The style was the same, except that this bat was slightly smaller and, at 35 ounces, lighter than his old model. Later that summer he returned to a 38-ounce version of his original stick. The following June he placed another order. Again it was similar in style to the 1911 bat, only this time the barrel was slightly smaller and the end was sawed. The effect was a nearly squared-end bat that was a quarter-inch shorter. Cobb used this 34-inch, 40-ounce club for a while, then switched to his lighter 1924 model for the balance of his career in Detroit. He returned to his 1911 bat after he signed with Philadelphia in 1927, typically employing 37- and 38-ounce versions of it his final two years in the majors.
While many modern ballplayers go through hundreds of bats each season, the less profligate players of Cobb’s era could make a batch of bats last for years. Ty did everything he could to keep his favorite clubs in tip-top condition. To “set” the seams in a bat, he would soak it in neat’s-foot oil or chewing tobacco, then clamp it in a vise and rub it with a large hollowed-out steer bone. “My own favorite prescription was a chewing tobacco called Navy Nerve-Cut, the juiciest kind I ever discovered,” he recalled. “Using the steer bone, I rubbed in Navy by the hour.”
Such loving care paid off, as the Peach finished his career in 1928 using a Louisville Slugger that, based on the long discontinued trademark it bore, was judged to be at least 13 years old!