Tormented by personal demons that once drove him into a sanitarium, Ty Cobb played the game of baseball with an anger and contentiousness never manifested by any other player in the history of the sport. Cobb’s sense of purpose and will to excel made him the greatest player of his era. However, his combativeness and surly disposition also made him the most hated man in baseball for more than two decades.
Tyrus Raymond Cobb was born in Narrows, Georgia on December 18, 1886, the first of three children to Amanda Chitwood Cobb and William Herschel Cobb. He made his major league debut in centerfield for the Detroit Tigers at the age of 18 on August 30, 1905, just three weeks after his mother shot and killed his father in an apparent case of mistaken identity.
Cobb’s mother claimed at her subsequent murder trial that she was home alone late one evening when she heard strange noises emanating from the porch of her private home. Rushing to the window, she shot the intruder once in the stomach, and again in the face. The victim of the shooting turned out to be Cobb’s father, who it later surfaced intended to surprise his wife since he suspected her of infidelity. Cobb later attributed his ferocious style of play to the death of his domineering father, who told his son when he first elected to make baseball his chosen profession: “Don’t come home a failure.” Cobb explained his actions on the ballfield by saying, “I did it for my father. He never got to see me play…but I knew he was watching me, and I never let him down.”
Cobb struggled in his first year with the Tigers, batting just .240 in his 41 games with the team in 1905. However, he hit .316 over the first four months of the 1906 campaign, before finally succumbing to the enormous pressures that were thrust upon him at such an early age. With the weight of his father’s death and the subsequent murder trial of his mother already exacting a major toll on his psyche as the season progressed, the 19-year-old’s emotional strength was further tested by the brutal hazing he received at the hands of his Detroit teammates, who resented his arrogance and boastful nature. Cobb believed himself to be the most talented player in the game, and he let everyone else around him know exactly how he felt. He also considered anyone who disagreed with him to be his adversary, be it opponent or teammate. Feeling that they needed to keep the pugnacious youngster in his place, Cobb’s Tiger teammates took every possible opportunity to abuse him, both mentally and physically. One player was even assigned the task of “roughing him up” occasionally to keep him in line. No longer able to cope with the daily stress, Cobb was forced to spend the final six weeks of the season in a sanitarium. He later recalled that the treatment he received from his teammates during the early stages of his career turned him into “a snarling wildcat.”
Cobb described the war-like attitude he brought with him to the baseball diamond when he said, “Baseball is a red-blooded sport for red-blooded men. It’s no pink tea, and mollycoddles had better stay out. It’s a struggle for supremacy, a survival of the fittest.”
He added, “I had to fight all my life to survive. They were all against me, but I beat the bastards and left them in the ditch.”
Even though they resented their young teammate, the other members of the Tigers benefited greatly from the passion with which Cobb played the game when he returned to the team in 1907. Displaying an aggressive style of play that the Detroit Free Press once described as “daring to the point of dementia,” Cobb captured the first of three consecutive batting titles, leading the league with a .350 batting average. He also finished first with 119 runs batted in, 212 hits, 49 stolen bases, and a .468 slugging percentage, in leading Detroit to the first of three straight American League pennants. Cobb’s numbers slipped somewhat in 1908, but he still led the league with a .324 batting average, 108 runs batted in, 20 triples, 36 doubles, and 188 hits. If there still remained a doubt in anyone’s mind as to who was the game’s greatest player, Cobb removed it in 1909 by leading the league in virtually every major statistical category. In addition to capturing the triple crown by finishing first in home runs (9), runs batted in (107), and batting average (.377), Cobb topped the circuit with 116 runs scored, 216 hits, 76 stolen bases, a .431 on-base percentage, and a .517 slugging percentage.
The only blemishes on Cobb’s record during those three seasons were Detroit’s three World Series losses and The Georgia Peach’s personal failures in the Fall Classic. Cobb batted a combined .262 in his only three World Series appearances, with no home runs, nine runs batted in, and just seven runs scored.
Cobb’s image was also tainted by his involvement in several unfortunate incidents. One such incident occurred in Spring Training in 1907. Well-known for his racial intolerance, Cobb complained to a black groundskeeper about the condition of the Tigers’ field in Augusta, Georgia. Not satisfield with the response he received, Cobb physically attacked the terrified man. He then began to choke the man’s wife when she attempted to intervene.
Another horrific episode took place on May 15, 1912, at Hilltop Park in Manhattan, during a game between Cobb’s Tigers and the New York Highlanders. A heckling fan had been shouting insults at Cobb from the stands the entire game. When he finally yelled at Cobb that he was a “half-nigger”, Cobb vaulted the fence and began stomping and kicking the fan with his spikes. When fans began yelling that the man was helpless because he had no hands, Cobb replied, “I don’t care if he doesn’t have any feet”, and kept kicking him until park police eventually pulled him away.
Still, in spite of his many transgressions, Cobb remained baseball’s greatest player.
After failing to win the batting title despite posting a mark of .383 in 1910, Cobb led the league in hitting in each of the next five seasons, compiling averages of .420, .409, .390, .368, and .369, respectively. He also led the league in runs scored, hits, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage three times each during that period, and he stole 96 bases in 1915 to establish a single-season record that stood for 47 years. Cobb had his greatest season, though, in 1911 when he topped the circuit with a career-high .420 batting average en route to earning A.L. MVP honors. He also led the league with 127 runs batted in, 147 runs scored, 248 hits, 83 stolen bases, 24 triples, 47 doubles, and a .621 slugging percentage. Cobb compiled a 40-game hitting streak at one point during the campaign.
Cobb continued to terrorize American League pitchers until he finally retired in 1928, at the age of 42. He was particularly effective in 1916, 1917, and 1922. In the first of those years, Cobb batted .371, compiled 201 hits, and led the league with 113 runs scored and 68 stolen bases. He led the league with a .383 batting average, 225 hits, 24 triples, 44 doubles, 55 stolen bases, and a .570 slugging percentage the following year. Then, at the age of 36 in 1922, Cobb batted .401. He also collected 211 hits, 16 triples, and 42 doubles.
Cobb served as player-manager for the Tigers from 1921 to 1926, before spending his
final two years with Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics. When he retired at the conclusion of the 1928 season, Cobb was credited with holding 90 different major league records, many of which have since been broken. He was first on the all-time list with 1,937 runs batted in, 2,246 runs scored, and 4,189 hits. He was also near the top of the rankings with 891 stolen bases, 295 triples, and 724 doubles. Cobb still possesses the highest lifetime batting average in baseball history, with a mark of .367. He batted over .400 three times during his career, and he topped the .300-mark in 23 of his 24 seasons. He also surpassed 200 hits nine times, scored more than 100 runs 11 times, drove in more than 100 runs on seven separate occasions, topped 60 stolen bases six times, and surpassed 20 triples and 40 doubles four times each. Four times in his career, Cobb reached first base, then proceeded to steal second, third, and home in the same inning. He led the league in batting 11 times, hits and slugging percentage eight times each, stolen bases and on-base percentage six times each, runs scored five times, runs batted in and triples four times each, and doubles three times. 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.
Shirley Povich, longtime sports columnist and reporter for the Washington Post, stated emphatically during a 1990s television interview, “If Babe Ruth isn’t the greatest baseball player who ever lived, then Ty Cobb is, by far!”
Ruth, himself, once praised his bitter rival for his playing ability when he said, “Cobb is a prick. But he sure can hit. God Almighty, that man can hit.”
Hall of Fame outfielder Tris Speaker, who competed against both Ruth and Cobb, had this to say: “The Babe was a great ballplayer, sure, but Cobb was even greater. Babe could knock your brains out, but Cobb would drive you crazy.”
Casey Stengel paid Cobb the ultimate tribute, saying, “I never saw anyone like Ty Cobb. No one even close to him. He was the greatest all time ballplayer. That guy was superhuman, amazing.”
George Sisler spent most of his career playing against Cobb as a member of the St. Louis Browns. The Hall of Fame first baseman said, “The greatness of Ty Cobb was something that had to be seen, and to see him was to remember him forever.”
Yet, in spite of his greatness as a ballplayer, Cobb was disliked by virtually everyone in the sport. When Cleveland’s Napoleon Lajoie edged out Cobb for the American League batting title on the final day of the 1910 season, Tiger outfielder Sam Crawford displayed the disdain he felt towards his teammate by sending Lajoie a congratulatory telegram.
Crawford, who played alongside Cobb in the Detroit outfield for 13 seasons, provided some insight into his former teammate’s psyche when he suggested, “He (Cobb) was still fighting the Civil War, and as far as he was concerned, we were all damn Yankees. But who knows, if he hadn’t had that terrible persecution complex, he never would have been about the best ballplayer who ever lived.”
Cobb said later in life that he regretted some of his earlier actions. He stated that he made some mistakes and that he likely would do some things differently if he had the chance to live his life again. He said, “I would have had more friends.”
Some 150 friends and relatives attended a brief funeral service in Cornelia, Georgia after Cobb lost a long battle with cancer on July 17, 1961. Only three former players attended his funeral – Ray Schalk, Mickey Cochrane, and Nap Rucker.