Tyrus Raymond Cobb was born on December 18, 1886, in Narrows, Georgia. It could hardly be guessed at the time that he would go on to become arguably the greatest professional baseball player ever to live, as baseball in the 1880s was still in its infancy and was scarcely organized, but hey; everybody has a dream. Baseball was Cobb's dream, and anything that interfered with that dream caught a lot of hell.
The Liveliness of the Dead Ball Era
Cobb didn't even start playing baseball until 1904; but when he did, he made an immediate impact, tearing up pitchers as a member of the Columbia Tourists of the Southern Pacific League. He was the first player in that league to collect over 100 hits in a single season. He spent only one year with the Tourists before his contract was purchased by the Detroit Tigers for $700. "The Georgia Peach" (as he came to be known) made his debut for the Tigers on August 30, 1905, at Bennett Park, in a 5-3 win over the New York Yankees. Cobb doubled off future hall-of-famer Jack Chesbro in his first major league at bat.
He finished out the 1905 season with Detroit, but ended up with a batting average of only .240, which turned out to be by far his career low, but then he had only 105 at bats that season. He played about three quarters of the following season, and his .316 BA that season earned him a permanent spot in the Tigers' lineup. Mostly he played center field, but occasionally filled in at most of the infield positions (except catcher and shortstop; yes, that means that the Tigers had a left-handed 3B and 2B once in a while), while batting leadoff. He was a terror on the basepaths, as prior to his career, base-stealing wasn't used too often, but Cobb made it an everyday part of the game, stealing 49 bases during his first full season. He cultivated a reputation of being a self-centered, mean curmudgeon by throwing the occasional elbow or dropkick at opposing fielders (or pitchers that had thrown at him), as well as with his penchant for dispensing verbal abuse and wise-cracking one-liners. More prominent than his arrogance was his desire to win at all costs. He seemed to get along alright with other players who shared his hard-losing attitude, such as Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson, Mickey Cochrane, Harry Heilmann, and Tris Speaker, all future hall-of-famers. It is likely he counted most everybody else as an enemy -- fans, reporters, umpires -- nobody was immune. His skill at playing baseball was undeniable, however, and it earned him the grudging respect of many of the people whom he wouldn't have thought twice about clubbing with a sock full of pennies.
One For The Record Books
Cobb went on to win the major league batting title eight times in a row (1907-15, including the triple crown in 1909), a record which still stands. He hit over .300 in every year of his career in which he played a full season (and some he didn't, like 1926 and 1928), also a record. In fact most of his single-season and career stats were records in their respective categories for a time, though now only his career batting average record (.366) still stands. He never was all that interested in hitting for power, though he did lead the league in home runs once in his career (1909, in which he had 9 during his triple crown season), although once Babe Ruth came along and started mashing every pitch thrown at him, Cobb resented him and his attention-stealing displays (though it is said they eventually became friends), so he once bragged to reporters before one particular game that he could hit for power if he wanted to. He went on to hit three home runs that day, silencing his critics. He wound up with only 117 home runs during his 24-year career, which seems paltry, but realize that nobody else was hitting all that many until Ruth's record-breaking 29 home runs during the 1919 season.
A contract dispute after the 1926 season led him to leave the Tigers and sign with the Philadelphia Athletics, where he finished his playing career in 1928, during which he hit .323 in 95 games, at the age of 41.
While Cobb played for Detroit's American League championship teams in 1907-09, he would never win a World Series title, as a player or a manager (he was the Tigers' manager/centerfielder from 1921-26), although he (along with Ruth, Mathewson, Johnson, and Honus Wagner) was one of the charter members of the Hall of Fame when it opened in 1936. He won his only MVP award in 1911.
The Harvesting of the Peach
After his career ended, Cobb became a frequent attraction for sportswriters, and was interviewed for various newspapers and magazines hundreds of times. Toward the end of his life, he confessed to sportswriter Al Stump (owner of the name that most epitomizes early 20th century naming conventions) to having killed a man at an unspecified time in his life, although this has never been validated. (Stump was writing a biography on Cobb at the time, the subject of which would go on to become a film entitled Cobb in 1994, with Tommy Lee Jones in the title role and Robert Wuhl as Stump.) He was also a noted racist and misogynist (not uncommon for his time), having grown up in the post-Civil War American south, and opposed baseball's drive for racial integration in the 1940s. Despite his personality faults, he was a seemingly honest man, playing baseball because he enjoyed doing so, although a number of early celebrity endorsements (mostly for baseball equipment) and various investments (GM, Coca Cola) lead him to become one of baseball's first millionaires. He married Charlotte Lombard in 1906, and had five children with her (Tyrus Jr., Shirley Marion, Herschel, Howell, and Beverly), although they divorced in 1947, with Cobb promptly remarrying Frances Cass a little over a year later. He greatly admired his father, William, while growing up, but William was apparently an extremely strict, hard-driving man, which is likely what gave little Ty his mean streak. His mother, Amanda, allegedly shot and killed William in 1905, reportedly mistaking him for a burglar. This incident stayed with Ty and gave him a hugely contemptuous attitude towards her, and possibly struck up his misogynistic tendencies. An interesting and rarely-mentioned footnote to Cobb's early life is that he had a nervous breakdown following his father's death while playing for the Tourists in early 1905, and was briefly institutionalized. This also may have contributed to his histrionic behaviour.
Ty's hobby was Civil War trivia, and he was considered an authoritative historian on the subject. He also had a hand in writing fiction and acting; one of his stories, "Lady of the Orchids," was made into an episode of the TV show Four Star Playhouse in the early 1950s, around which time he also appeared as himself in the baseball movie Angels in the Outfield. He had also appeared in an early motion picture entitled Somewhere in Georgia in 1916.
Most people who are not all that familiar with baseball have heard of Ty Cobb. His name is synonymous with the sport; it's difficult to talk about baseball records without mentioning something he did at one time or another. Although what he did and the completeness he offered as a player can probably never be completely equaled in modern times, his stature as a baseball player and his massive reputation will never be forgotten as long as baseball is still played.
Ty Cobb's career batting statistics:
G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG TB SH SF IBB HBP GDP
3035 11434 2246 4189 724 295 117 1937 892 178 1249 357 .366 .433 .512 5854 295 -- --- 94 ---
CS, SF, IBB, and GDP were not counted as stats during all the years Cobb played (in fact only CS was, but only for the latter half of his career), so consider those stats incomplete.
Cobb also pitched in a few games, though the stats he racked up during those games are largely inconsequential. (He did record one save, applied retroactively after the introduction of the save stat, but never got a single strikeout or a single win.)
As of 2008, Cobb ranks in the top 10 career records for the following stats: batting average (.366, #1), on-base percentage (.433, #9), games played (3035, #5), at bats (11434, #5), runs (2246, #2), hits (4189, #2), total bases (5854, #4), doubles (724, #4), triples (295, #2), RBI (1937, #6), stolen bases (892, #4), extra-base hits (1136, #9), and times on base (5532, #2). Most of the slugging-related records he once held were broken in the modern era (post-dead ball era), and most of the hitting-related records were broken shortly after his career, in what is known as the lively ball era. Only a few (hits, stolen bases) were broken in the current era (which doesn't have a name), most famously by Lou Brock (stolen bases) and Pete Rose (hits). He also holds the career record for a number of more obscure stats, such as stealing home (54, #1).
Cobb's Hall of Fame plaque, dedicated at the HoF's inaugeral ceremony in 1936, has him wearing a Detroit Tigers hat.
Throughout his life, Cobb was a hard-living kind of guy, often going to physical extremes while exercising and while playing, even into his 40s. This took its toll on his body after his playing days were done, and the last 10-12 years of his life were spent suffering through cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. He died of his illnesses on July 17, 1961, in Atlanta, Georgia. He was 74 years old at the time. His grave can be found in Royston, Georgia, in a southern "oven-style" above-ground plot.
Hall of Fame
<< Roberto Clemente — Ty Cobb — Mickey Cochrane >>