Nicknamed “The Georgia Peach,” Ty Cobb was an American Major League Baseball outfielder. He was born in Narrows, Georgia. Cobb spent 22 seasons with the Detroit Tigers, the last six as the team’s player-manager, and finished his career with the Philadelphia Athletics. Cobb is widely regarded as one of the best players of all time. In 1936, Cobb received the most votes of any player on the inaugural Baseball Hall of Fame ballot, receiving 222 out of a possible 226 votes.
Cobb is widely credited with setting 90 Major League Baseball records during his career. He still holds several records as of 2012, including the highest career batting average (.366 or .367, depending on source) and most career batting titles with 11 (or 12, depending on source). He retained many other records for almost a half century or more, including most career hits until 1985 (4,189 or 4,191, depending on source), most career runs (2,245 or 2,246 depending on source) until 2001, most career games played (3,035) and at bats (11,429 or 11,434 depending on source) until 1974, and the modern record for most career stolen bases (892) until 1977. He committed 271 errors in his career, the most by any American League outfielder.
Cobb’s legacy as an athlete has sometimes been overshadowed by his surly temperament, racism, and aggressive playing style, which was described by the Detroit Free Press as “daring to the point of dementia.”
Ty Cobb was born in a farming community called “The Narrows”. There was and is no community in Georgia actually called “Narrows”. The area was called “The Narrows” because it lay in an area where the valley narrowed near a river or stream. There were roughly a dozen homes or homesteads in that small area.
His father, William Herschel Cobb, was an educated man, a school teacher, a state senator and fond of philosophy; his mother came from a prominent family. His father expected Tyrus to become a lawyer or doctor, but he had no interest in studies. Instead, he attended a tryout organized by the Augusta team of the South Atlantic League early in 1904 and made the team, only to be cut after two games. He found a position with a semi-pro team in Anniston, AL, and played well enough to obtain a second chance with Augusta at the end of the year. In 1905, the Detroit Tigers trained in Augusta, and were impressed by the young outfielder. He still had some ways to go, but under the tutelage of manager George Leidy, he became one of the top hitters in the league.
Two momentous events then occured which turned Cobb’s life around in August 1905. First, his father died in tragic circumstances, shot by his mother, who claimed she had mistaken him for a burglar – he was apparently stalking her bedroom as he suspected she was having an affair. Cobb had to go back home for the funeral and to help sort out matters, then returned to Augusta. At that point, the Tigers bought his contract for $ 700 and, still shaken with the recent events, he reported to the American League. He had never been outside the South and was a fairly unsophisticated young man.
When Cobb showed up in Detroit in late August of 1905, he immediately got off on the wrong foot with teammates. He appeared in 41 games over the remainder of the season and hit a modest .240. However, during this period and the beginning of 1906 he was hazed as most rookies were in those days, and took it particularly badly, prompting even more hazing. What made things worse was that his mother was indicted for his father’s shooting death in March 1906, and although she was eventually acquitted of manslaughter, the sad events clearly increased the stress on Cobb. Boss Schmidt and Matty McIntyre were among the leaders of the faction that got on Cobb’s case, and he responded by fighting back, taking his aggression on pitched balls, on the basepaths, and anyone who might stand in his way. One of McIntyre’s ploys was to feint that he would try to catch a fly ball hit between the two, only to stop and let the ball drop, making the rookie Cobb look bad. After one such play, pitcher Ed Siever attacked Cobb in the team’s hotel, accusing him of having lost the game; Cobb knocked down Siever and kept punching him until teammates dragged him away. He was an angry and bitter man, consumed by a passion to excel, but making enemies at every turn. However, in the South, he was portrayed as a gallant defender of the region’s honor against the Yankee hordes and was extremely popular.
He hit very well in 1906, posting a .316 batting average in 98 games as the team’s main centerfielder, then moved to right field in 1907 with Sam Crawford patrolling center field. He almost was traded before the season, as the Tigers had a deal worked out with the Cleveland Naps in return for Elmer Flick, until Naps manager Napoleon Lajoie nixed the trade. That season is when Cobb emerged as a superstar, the best hitter in the American League, winning his first batting title and leading the Tigers to their first pennant. In 1908, he formed the second-best outfield of all-time, according to Win Shares, with Crawford and McIntyre; he would be part of the best outfield ever in 1912, with Bobby Veach replacing McIntyre as the third member. Then in 1909, he won the AL Triple Crown, his only season of leading the league in home runs. However, he was also embroiled in controversy that season, as he spiked the Philadelphia Athletics’ Frank Baker on a close play at third base in August, prompting death threats from A’s fans. He also got into a fight in a Cleveland hotel with an African-American night watchman, and a police warrant was issued for his arrest. Cobb pleaded guilty to assault and battery after the season, paid a $100 fine, and had to settle a civil suit with the man he assaulted.
From 1907 to 1909, the Tigers won the pennant each year, and Cobb played in three consecutive World Series. However, the results were underwhelming: he hit .262 over 17 games, and the Tigers lost all three series, to the Chicago Cubs in 1907 and 1908, and to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1909. He would never play in the Series afterwards.
From the time he won the Triple Crown until the emergence of Babe Ruth as a power hitter, Ty Cobb was almost universally acknowledged not only as the best player in baseball, but as the greatest man to ever play the game. He would win the batting title year after year, and place among the league leaders in all important hitting categories. However, controversy continued to dodge him. In 1910, he was so unpopular with other players that St. Louis Browns manager Jack O’Connor instructed his third baseman, Red Corriden, to play well back on the last day of the season as his team faced the Cleveland Naps. The Naps’ star Napoleon Lajoie was locked in a tight race with Cobb for the batting title, but thanks to the Browns’ generosity, dropped bunt single after bunt single down the third base line that day, going 6 for 6 on his way to a batting title that is still controversial today.
On May 15, 1912, Cobb got into a fight at New York’s Hilltop Park with heckler Claude Lueker, a disabled man. He went into the stands to attack Lueker. American League President Ban Johnson was appalled when he heard about the incident and suspended Cobb indefinitely. Cobb’s teammates, supported by owner Frank Navin, went on strike to support him. On May 18, Johnson ordered the Tigers to field a team or face massive retribution. Navin obliged by hastily putting together a team of semi-pro players who were destroyed by the Philadelphia Athletics, giving up 26 runs. Fearful that the season would turn into a farce, Johnson relented and reduced Cobb’s suspension to 10 days.
Cobb hit .420 in 1911, then .409 in 1912 and .401 at age 35 in 1922. However, the Tigers were no longer competing for the pennant in those days, in spite of Cobb’s great hitting.
In 1921, he succeeded Hughie Jennings as the team’s manager (Jennings had held the position since 1907). The team improved slightly under his leadership, but never threatened to win the pennant. His greatest contribution may have been to work with the young Harry Heilmann, who became one of the best hitters of the 1920s, and to discover the young Charlie Gehringer. He was much less successful with pitchers however, sending Carl Hubbell back to the minors and trading away Howard Ehmke while he still had a number of good years left in the tank.
Cobb has not much been remembered as a manager, but Fred Haney had this to say about him: “It was Cobb who made Heilmann a great hitter. He made Heinie Manush.”
Cobb’s association with the Tigers came to a crashing end at the end of the 1926 season. He had led them to a respectable 79-75 record that year while hitting .339 in part-time play. However on November 3, the club announced that he was stepping down as manager, soon followed by Cleveland’s player-manager and fellow legend, Tris Speaker. The reason became clear shortly thereafter, when accusations from former pitcher Dutch Leonard were made public, alleging that Cobb, Speaker and Cleveland outfielder Joe Wood had conspired to throw a game between Detroit and Cleveland on September 25, 1919. Leonard produced two letters written by Wood to support his claim, but refused to come to Chicago to testify in person. On January 27, 1927, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis ruled that the players were not guilty, as there was not enough evidence in support of the allegations.
Ty Cobb threatened to sue after the case was dismissed, but then was quieted by a generous salary offer from Connie Mack, owner/manager of the Philadelphia Athletics – for his part, Speaker found work with the Washington Senators. Cobb took well to his new home, batting .357 in 134 games for the A’s in 1927, and following that with a .323 average in 95 games at age 41 in 1928. At that point, he retired and returned to live in Georgia.
Cobb’s brother Paul Cobb played minor league ball from 1907 to 1916. During World War I, Cobb was a Captain under Branch Rickey’s CWS Chemical Warfare unit; he never saw action although he did make the trip to France. He was in Army’s Gas and Flame Division.
He made a fortune by investing in Coca-Cola and a company that would become part of General Motors. He was a personal friend of the Woodruff family, who were the principal owners of the Coca Cola Company and, like Cobb, native Georgians. Cobb’s endorsements of their product helped to hone his own business acumen.
Cobb had a brief career as an actor, both on stage and in movies. After the 1911 season, he toured around the United States for ten weeks in a production of The College Widow in which he played the leading man. He received fairly good reviews for his performance, but did not like the grind of touring, thinking it would detract from its preparations for the next baseball season. After the 1916 season, he was hired to star in the silent movie Somewhere in Georgia, based on a story by sportswriter Grantland Rice. The film, of which no copy remains, received only limited distribution, and mixed reviews. He made a few cameo appearances in other films in later years, including in Angels in the Outfield in 1951.
There is a famous story in circulation that on the way to the park in Detroit one day, Cobb was attacked by a couple of men. He fought them off and chased them away. He caught one and beat him into such a bloody pulp that the man’s face was impossible to distinguish and he was having trouble breathing. Cobb went to the park, and, despite a knife wound in the back, played that game and got a few hits. Shortly after, the badly beaten body of a John Doe was found not far from the park. Cobb later told a sportswriter that he believed he killed that man.
This story is not completely correct, and it continues to circulate and tarnish Cobb’s image. The co-author of Cobb’s autobiography, Al Stump, first reported it but never bothered to investigate the claim. Here’s what is known: in 1912, after Cobb’s infamous run-in with heckler Claude Lucker in New York, which resulted in the Tigers going on strike, Cobb and his wife were ambushed by three men in Detroit. They were not going to the ballpark in Detroit, but were driving to the train station so Cobb could travel to Syracuse to play an exhibition game. The men acted as if their automobile was broken down, and waved down Cobb. When Cobb got out of his car, the men attacked him. Cobb brandished a gun and chased one of the men who was fleeing. According to Stump, Cobb claimed in 1961, that he killed that man in an alley. This is highly unlikely, since no bodies were found in Detroit during this period that match that story. Most likely, though we’ll never know; Cobb fought the three men, chased one down and may have pistol-whipped him. But he almost certainly didn’t kill a man, although it is possible that Cobb, who was in a diminished mental state when he spoke to Stump, could have made such a claim. The attack was reported in the papers and the Tiger trainer stitched Cobb up on the train, so it would have been news if a body had been found in an alley or a street in Detroit that matched a murder by beating at the same time. Cobb did play in the exhibition game and performed well. That part of the story is true.
In an Old Timer’s Game at Yankee Stadium, between former Yankees and other former major leaguers, Cobb told the catcher to “stay back, I don’t know how well I can hold on to the bat,” then proceeded to bunt down the third base line. Despite the tactic, Cobb was still thrown out at first and was slightly miffed about it, at least for a few seconds.
In spite of his accumulated riches, his later life was not particularly happy. He was divorced twice and had a strained relationship with his five children. He was famously known for refusing autograph requests (the story usually told is that if the autograph seekers sent him a self-addressed stamped envelope, he would steam off the stamp to re-use it and throw the envelope away) and turning back any admirers who wanted to pay hommage or meet him. He was an alcoholic who railed against the fact that his growing reputation as a nasty man meant that his playing exploits were becoming less and less appreciated. It is true that his reputation took a fall in the 1950s and 1960s, because of his relative lack of home runs and his poor personal reputation, but more recent statistical studies have contributed to restoring his reputation as a player, by demonstrating that his offensive contribution was phenomenal in the context in which he played. His reputation as a man, though, still suffers.
His son, Tyrus Cobb, played in the minor leagues.
Cobb stole home a record 50 times. He also held the record for career stolen bases (892) until passed by Lou Brock in 1977 (Rickey Henderson now holds the record). In 2001, Henderson also overtook Cobb’s record for most career runs scored, with 2245; Cobb was the first player to score more than 2000 runs.
He holds the major league record for most hits with one club. He had 3900 hits as a member of the Detroit Tigers. Cobb also had 289 hits for the Philadelphia Athletics. He also held the career hit record until passed by Pete Rose in 1985 and was the first player to collect 4000 hits.
He has the highest career batting average in major league baseball history for a long-time player. That average was for many years believed to be .367, and many a schoolchild grew up memorizing .367. However, when researchers discovered a mistake, his average was corrected to .366. This angered many fans who had grown up associating Ty Cobb with the number 367. He hit over .300 for 23 years in a row. In fact, from 1940 to 2000, only 13 times has a player maintained a higher single-season batting average than Cobb’s career average.
Cobb was rarely recognized for his power but he led the league in Slugging Percentage 8 times, was in the top 5 in Home Runs 7 times, led the league in home runs in 1909 with 9, and led the league in RBIs 4 times. In later life, he sneered at the new breed of power hitters claiming that he could have hit a bunch of home runs if he had wanted to but that he preferred a more scientific approach to the game any way . This boast was part of his furious rivalry with Babe Ruth, who threatened to take away from him the title of “greatest baseball player ever”. On May 5, 1925, he hit three home runs in one game, reputedly to prove to reporters that he was indeed serious about this boast. It is also true that despite his excellent power, he was an outstanding bunter, and made defenses pay if they tried to play him back.
He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on February 2, 1936 by the Baseball Writers Association of America. He received more votes in the first election to the Hall than Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner, who were his main contenders for title of greatest baseball player of all-time at that point.