What’s the standard image of Ty Cobb? What comes to mind?
For most people, the greatest Tiger of all is a vaguely sinister figure – fiercely competitive, formidably aggressive on the basepaths, probably to be found in his spare time hunched over on the bench and honing his spikes to razor sharpness.
Today, his skills as a hitter, his incredible statistics, his profound understanding of the game all tend to be taken for granted – as revisionist historians gloat over the Georgia Peach’s tendency to be a white supremacist whenever race was an issue.
Yet, from time to time, we are lucky enough to get a less conventional glimpse of our hero.
In the earliest days of his career, Cobb showcased himself wherever he could, and so ended up playing in a variety of exhibition games with the [Flint] Michigan School for the Deaf. He went to Flint initially for his own gain, but, when the attention he gained playing there underscored his attraction in the eyes of the professional club a few miles to the south, he made a point of returning to Flint again and again – in effect “paying his dues” by letting his increasing fame rub off on the Flint team.
He was generous with his assessment of his Flint teammates, too. In those years, the Flint captain was Howard “Dummy” Blodgett, who was, according to Cobb, “one of the finest shortstops and batsmen I ever knew.” Cobb had ample opportunity to judge, as in those exhibitions the two men were as apt to square off against each other as to be assigned to the same team. They remained friends until Blodgett’s death in 1947, and all that time Cobb was adamant that only lack of speech and hearing had kept his friend out of the majors.
Those early trips to Flint were made via the “Polly Ann,” the Pontiac, Oxford, and Northern railway. If Flint offered friendship and good baseball, Oxford offered something even dearer to Cobb’s heart: absolutely great fishing. As a result, Cobb soon became a familiar figure on Oxford streets. In the summer of 1906,
Gent Kessell, manager of the local team [at the turn of the twentieth century, most towns had their own ball clubs] snatched the Tiger off those same streets to play for Oxford. Of all things, Kessell put him at third base. (Hindsight suggests that Kessell must have had regulars at seven other positions, but needed a third-sacker. Cobb, a professional, was presumed to be competent anywhere he played.)
So, Tyrus Raymond Cobb strolled onto the Oxford diamond…and promptly booted two grounders. What would make a man who was earning $3,000 a year just for playing ball (a phenomenal amount of money in the early 1900s), a man who had the distinction of being the youngest (21) and already possibly the best player in the American League, end up playing ball in Oxford on an off-day? And, not only that, play a position utterly foreign to him? Who knew? Certainly not the local newspaper, though its July 6, 1906 issue duly records that initial event.
Just as he became an established visitor to the Michigan School for the Deaf, Cobb’s relationship with Oxford turned out to be an ongoing one. For the remainder of the ’06 season and for part of the next, Cobb continued to lose as many games with his glove for Oxford as he won with his bat. Finally, almost a year to the day from his first exposure to Oxford baseball, Cobb found himself part of a whole procession of baseball notables to the little Michigan town.
The account in the July 26, 1907, Oxford Leader makes it clear what Cobb liked best about the community (or at least talked about most) – and, as a bonus, it lets modern readers in on proof that another baseball legend, Hall of Fame pitcher Rube Waddell, may not have been much brighter than he was reputed to be.
We are getting to be some pumpkins when it comes to entertaining the professional sports. Saturday, Connie Mack sent a delegation here to head off the far-famed “Rube” Waddell, who had come out, inspired by Ty Cobb’s fish stories, to angle for some of those whoppers in nearby lakes. Mack succeeded in getting the “Rube” back to Detroit to pitch the Philadelphia-Detroit game. Sunday, Ty Cobb, who is getting to be a familiar figure on our streets, came out, accompanied by Football Coach Heston and McGugin, stars of the University of Michigan pig skin chasers, the former the greatest football player in the world, the latter the brother-in-law of Hurry-up Yost.
So, Ty Cobb liked Michigan fishin’ – well enough to talk it up to his playing field opponents and to fellow athletes, regardless of sport. Just maybe, Cobb’s batting average, the highest career batting average in the history of baseball, was helped out a little on the days he wore out the opposing pitcher – not by introducing him to the bright lights of the community (as might happen in 2009), but by handing him a can of fishworms.