When he wanted to, Ty Cobb could hit home runs as well as anyone

Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb in 1920, when Ruth was rapidly changing the game in ways that Cobb did not appreciate.

Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb in 1920, when Ruth was rapidly changing the game in ways that Cobb did not appreciate.

By the mid-1920’s, Ty Cobb had long been eclipsed by Babe Ruth as baseball’s brightest star, and biggest drawing card. The Deadball Era was history. It was now the Roaring ‘20’s, the Jazz Age. New York City was the mecca of everything glamorous, the New York Yankees were the game’s mightiest team, and the Sultan of Swat was America’s favorite sporting hero.

If the Bambino was single-handedly responsible for ushering in baseball’s brave new world, then The Georgia Peach was the symbol of scrappy “inside baseball,” the way your granddaddy used to play it. But now, folks came out to the old ballpark to see titanic three-run homers, not well-placed bunts, slap singles, and 1-0 pitching duels. Had the game passed Cobb by?

The greatest player of the Deadball Era disdained the new power game, and clung stubbornly to the old ways. From 1920-1924, while the increase of home runs was redefining baseball strategy, Cobb averaged only seven homers per season for the Detroit Tigers. This was a negligible increase over his 15 seasons prior, when he’d averaged a mere four.

Home runs were simply not part of Cobb’s game. By 1925, now 38 years old and player-manager for the Tigers, Cobb may have lost a step or two, but he was still a magician with the bat in his hands.

His baseball team, however, had limped out of the gate. A 4-14 start had the fans groaning. That is where the Tigers’ record stood on the morning of May 5, 1925. That day, and the next, Ty Cobb put on the finest offensive display in his great career. And he did it with power.

Detroit was in Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, to take on the Browns. The game of the 5th, a Tuesday, Cobb batted six times, with six hits. He also scored four runs and batted in five. But the big surprise was his three home runs. His other extra-base hit that day was a double, giving him 16 total bases, establishing a new modern major league record (the mark has since been tied, and broken, by several players; Shawn Green now holds the big league mark with 19). His three bombs tied him with four other players for the most in a modern-day game (One of the other players was Babe Ruth himself, a fact which must have tickled Cobb to no end.). Incidentally, the Tigers won the game, 14-8.

But Cobb’s hitting spree was far from over. In the next day’s game, also in St. Louis, he went 3-for-6, with two runs scored and six RBIs. He also clouted two more home runs. His five homers in two consecutive games was something that had never been done before, not even by the Bambino. It is a mark that has not been eclipsed to this day, although it has been equaled by 28 players.

Cobb’s two-day output reads thus: nine hits in 12 at-bats (.750), six runs, one double, five homers, 11 RBIs, 25 total bases. His nine hits were made consecutively. On the negative side of the ledger, he was caught stealing once. The Tigers also won the second game by a score of 11-4.

Of course, the footnote to the tale is that, just prior to the first game, Cobb was sitting in the dugout with a reporter and pointed out, “I’ll show you something today. I’m going for home runs for the first time in my career.” Whether the story is apocryphal or not, it makes for a great legend. It also proves that Cobb could indeed hit the long ball when he felt like it.

The next day, however, having proved his point, Cobb went right back to his old style. He did not hit another home run until June 2. He finished with 12 homers in 1925, equaling his career-high. But for at least two days in the middle of the new Home Run Era, Ty Cobb was just as powerful as the great Babe Ruth.

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