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Are the Rumors True? The Legacy of Ty Cobb.

Updated on August 23, 2020
Ty Cobb.
Ty Cobb.

Tyrus Cobb better known by his nickname “Ty” is one of the greatest baseball players to have ever lived. His knowledge and precision when it came to hitting was unparalleled until Pete Rose. His fielding was some of the best ever seen by an outfielder. However, unlike most greats his works of art in both batting and fielding were never seen by pictures. Cobb though holds more of mysticism than a true reverence. His legacy is both loved and tarnished for his brash behavior that he describes as “Southern.” Today we will examine the career of Ty Cobb, his legacy on the game, and why his current standing in baseball lure has been disputed.

Pre-Professional Days

Cobb swinging for a photograph.
Cobb swinging for a photograph.

Ty Cobb played one of the longest careers as a professional baseball player. He played from 18 years old all the way until he was 41 years old. Literally, half of his life at that point was spent as a professional baseball player. Cobb was born in Narrows, GA in 1886 in a Southern United States that was very different from the one we see today. Cobb’s ancestors fought on the side of the Confederacy during the Civil War but deserted home within the first year of the conflict due to lack of money on their farms. Cobb was born in the post-reconstruction South in which racism was allowed and tolerated. Cobb himself was never considered to be a racist as he made many comments throughout his career encouraging people of color to participate in professional baseball. Cobb’s comments were very surprising because of his arrogant behavior on the field.

In the early 1900s Cobb played in the South Atlantic League in Royston, GA. He was a notable player at 16 years old and showed an “unusual amount of talent for someone so young” according to a local newspaper. Cobb earned $50 a month which believe it or not was a higher salary than the average worker in the United States. Cobb’s talent is believed to have come from his intense focus on hitting the baseball. Cobb is said to have rarely worked on fielding during his playing days. His hitting however always needed work and he was known for tweaking it at almost every at-bat. In 1905, two years after being noticed Cobb received a telegram from the Detroit Tigers of the newly formed Major League Baseball. Cobb’s salary increased to $750 dollars a month which would be around $20,000 today. Cobb was off to a great start with the Tigers in his rookie season. Cobb had been introduced to the Tigers while playing against them in an exhibition several months earlier. The team’s coaches saw Cobb and asked for him to join them immediately. Cobb played 41 games that year and hit .241 which was one of the best amongst his rookie compadres. He was the youngest player in the league at the time as well.

Why did he play the way he did?

Cobb spiking an opposing catcher.
Cobb spiking an opposing catcher.

As a youth Cobb was known for being a tough kid. He would take on the biggest brute and beat him with the one weapon that he knew how to use; trash talk. Cobb would sit on the bases and just talk with the infielders to the point of sheer irritation. After all home games Cobb would return to his hotel room and enjoy a relaxing whisky. Cobb did not officially move to Detroit until 1911, when he had enough to afford a home. This was not the only reason that Cobb took so long to move to Detroit. In 1905, an incident changed his life forever and defined the man that he would become. Cobb was a trash talker by trade but his insults lasted only on the field. They never left the ballpark and at this time he was relatively liked by those he played with. In his rookie year while in Georgia briefly Cobb’s mother shot his father. The incident was considered an accident as Cobb’s father suspected his wife of cheating on him. He decided to attempt to catch her in the act and was shot in the process. Mr. Cobb died in the hospital and Mrs. Cobb was charged with murder. In 1906, she was acquitted and on the grounds that the shot was not intentional. Cobb later said of his father “I did it [Baseball] for my father. He never got to see me play…I will never let him down.” Cobb’s play intensified after this happened. He worked harder than anyone on the team it is said that he was the last person to leave the ballpark after a practice.

Cobb’s father was only a part of Cobb’s athletic psychology. Playing like he had a chip on his shoulder Cobb credited this to playing alongside older Tigers players. He was frequently hazed as a rookie and Cobb being a gentleman did not feel that his presence was not appreciated. He called his behavior “having guts” but others saw it as an asinine attempt to prove himself in the league. He soon became a “snarling wildcat” and did not participate in hazing ever even when he was a manager. Cobb was a stoic figure in the locker room, keeping to himself and almost never wanting to talk to the press. Often though, he was known for his on the field brawls which he usually started. Cobb was known as a “dirty” player; he spiked, spit on, kicked dirt, and in some cases brutally punched players in wanting to steal bases and scoring runs. Evermore, his trash talking behavior was not well liked by those that he faced. His teammates were aware of his temper and often worked on angering him as when he was moody he would play better. Playing the game angry was Cobb’s greatest strength but the worst quality of his legacy. Cobb’s legacy gets run through the mill because of this. All he did was “be angry and if you did not play that way he hated you” one reporter wrote.

Detroit Tigers (1905-1926)

Cobb attempting a catch.
Cobb attempting a catch.

As he grew up in Detroit his stats improved. In 1911, he had 248 hits, a league high which also was succeeded by a batting average of .419 which was the highest of his career. His Tigers as a result of his play were always in the running for winning the relatively new championship in baseball, the World Series. However, Cobb’s setbacks on the field in the playoffs always proved that he may never win a championship. In 1909, Cobb hit the Triple Crown not only being the best batter in the American League but also the National League. Cobb belongs to a club of 15 other players as the most recent Batting Triple Crown came in 2012, 103 years later. The Detroit Tigers appeared in the World Series three years in a row, the Pirates and Cubs (2x). However, their 3 years stretch made them one of the best teams in MLB history. They were also one of the first teams to form a preemptive union which they referred to as “The Ballplayers Fraternity.” Cobb was adamant that players should take action when not being afforded certain rights by their employers. Cobb’s teammates although not fond of him felt that he was just in asking for this. The Tigers liked Cobb so much that in 1913, they signed him to a $12,000 a year contract which made him the highest paid player in the game and the first player to ever have a five-figure salary.

Off the field Cobb earned praise from those in the press despite not enjoying talking with them. He was afforded the luxury of endorsements that previous players never had and still managed to play at an all-star level despite these distractions. In 1917, Cobb starred in the film Somewhere in Georgia (1917) which casts Cobb as a banker in a small Georgia town who had a talent for baseball. Although the movie earned awful reviews Cobb took home a check for $25,000. Cobb was the “Babe Ruth” figure of baseball before Babe Ruth ever took a step onto the field. Things changed though in 1918 as America entered into World War I. Cobb served in the US Army and was shipped out in October of 1918 to the Western Front. There he was assigned a unit of his own, promoted to Captain and served diligently in several US campaigns. Alongside him where two future Hall of Famers in Branch Rickey, who served as his commanding officer and Christy Matthewson who was also a Captain. Matthewson though would later die in 1925, it is believed to be due to gas exposure during his time in France. By 1919 though Cobb had been replaced as the prodigal son of baseball. In a trade that would haunt Boston Red Sox fans forever “Babe” Ruth was traded by Boston to the New York Yankees and as a result the Yankees would win 20 World Championships until Boston broke the curse in 2004. Babe Ruth became the new face of baseball in Cobb’s absence. Cobb made it publicly known that he did not like Ruth because of the comparisons that were being made between Ruth and he but also Ruth had stolen Cobb’s spotlight. It was no use though because Babe Ruth was younger and more of a power hitter than Cobb ever was. Cobb hit 117 Home runs in his career and Babe Ruth hit 714 during his. That is a ratio just north of 3:1. Ruth was not a superior hitter though as Cobb outnumbered him in singles, doubles and triples. Cobb played small ball but Ruth played beyond the ballpark.

Cobb’s final years in Detroit were spent as a player/manger. He began in 1921 and signed a contract worth $32,000. This came as a surprise because Cobb was no liked by anyone that he played with. Teammates felt that Cobb could not transition from player to manager because Cobb played the game differently than anyone before and in some cases after him. He proved them wrong because despite being aged, he still held the league high in hits and batting average. He again fell short though as a manager of the ultimate prize. In 1924 the Tigers came within 6 games of the Washington Senators to play in the World Series. There were no playoffs at the time so the best record went to the World Series. Cobb was a lackluster manager but still a terrific player. He won 479 games and lost 444 and still managed to have a regularly popular World Series contender. In 1926, Cobb left Detroit and remains the longest tenured Detroit Tiger ever. He moved back to Augusta, Georgia before being picked up by the Philadelphia Athletics in 1927. He lasted until 1928 and officially retired at the age of 41.

Retirement, Hall of Fame

Statue of Cobb outside of Comerica Park, Detroit.
Statue of Cobb outside of Comerica Park, Detroit.

Ty Cobb left baseball behind it seemed permanently. He disappeared and went his own way. The game had been his entire life and he felt that it was time for a break from it. He spent some time in Scotland but soon returned home to Georgia. Cobb was married during his playing days to a woman named Charlie who he later divorced in 1947. He had several children with her but his relationship with them was like his relationship with baseball. His children felt that his strict parenting was harmful to their relationship with them. He pushed them to pursue athletics but they disappointed him. Cobb’s namesake Tyrus Jr. flunked out of Princeton, but made up for it by graduating from Yale. Their relationship never healed even after Tyrus Jr. died in 1952 of a brain tumor.

Although his legacy was tarnished in his personal life he was beloved by baseball forever as he was voted to be an inaugural member of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936. The Hall of Fame class that he entered in with also had Christy Matthewson, Walter Johnson, and Babe Ruth. Cobb still not fond of Ruth decided to put the beef to bed at the event proclaiming that Ruth had earned his spot to be enshrined. After this, Cobb again disappeared into history but a particular incident during his retirement changed the way he was to be presented for the remainder of his life. Cobb, had made a stop in Greenville, South Carolina after leaving the Masters Golf Tournament in Augusta, Georgia. While there he stopped as a liquor store and was served by former baseball player “Shoeless Joe” Jackson who had been banned for life and will never enter the Hall of Fame. Jackson and Cobb did not speak to each other while Cobb was checking out but then as Cobb was leaving he commented “You don’ know me Joe.” Jackson replied, “I know you but I wasn’t sure that you wanted to speak to me like the others.” It was the last time they would speak to each other ever as Jackson would die not long after. The story was reported and Cobb’s legacy was changed as a result. Cobb in his post-baseball life showed remorse for the way he acted as a player and in doing so replaced his legacy.

"A Player Fans Loved to Hate."

Cobb posing for a picture.
Cobb posing for a picture.

Cobb spent the rest of his life in a state of solitude. He remarried in 1949 and this marriage failed just like his first one. At the time of his death Cobb was worth roughly $11 million. He made his money as a result of investments in Coca-Cola and General Motors, not baseball. He created the Cobb Educational Fund in his will after his death in 1961 and it has gone on to help hundreds of thousands of students in Georgia. Cobb’s death was not seen as loving figure afterwards and none of his children attended his funeral. Since his death many historians have come to his defense and regarded his portrayal in popular culture. This came to light in 1994 when a movie documenting his life was written; Cobb was portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones. The movie received mediocre reviews but was later discredited as Cobb was in fact never considered a racist. Cobb spoke lovingly of the African-American people and felt that despite what Southern culture had taught him that they deserved to be treated like human beings. Many films which included Cobb being mentioned in Field of Dreams (1987) gave a sting to Cobb’s legacy.

Most of his records in baseball stood for longer than he was alive. He held the hits record that was broken by Pete Rose, the Single-game hits record which was tied by Josh Hamilton, the stolen bases record broken by Rickey Henderson amongst many others. Cobb is regarded as the greatest player of his generation and one of the best players in the Dead-Ball Era prior to Babe Ruth. He was one of the last player/managers ever. In modern baseball Cobb is forgotten and most of those who saw him play are no longer alive. All we have to go on is what he/she said about him which makes it difficult to know exactly what Ty Cobb was like.

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