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But the scholarly life just didn't fit his compulsively aggressive nature. A boyhood friend said, "He was always driving and pushing. You saw it the moment you set eyes on him. He just seemed to think quicker and run faster." Sports and games in which he could drive, push, run and think, became his passion, and of these baseball suited him best.
At 17 he was a star of the local team in Royston, Ga., and he wrote letters without his father's knowledge to clubs in the South Atlantic League, asking for a try-out. The Augusta Tourists responded, inviting him to spring training—at his own expense. He didn't play in any spring games, but when the season began he was in the starting lineup in centerfield. The reason was simple: One of the regular players was temporarily unavailable, and the manager needed a body. Cobb played well in his debut—he had two hits and scored two runs—and he played again the next day. Then the missing player returned, and the manager told Cobb he didn't need him anymore.
Stunned and hurt, Cobb didn't know what to do. Someone told him of a semipro team in Anniston, Ala. that needed an outfielder. Cobb went to Anniston, played well and in midsummer rejoined Augusta. He batted only .237 but showed enough to be kept with the club the following year, 1905. He was 18 then, 5'11" and 155 pounds and insatiably aggressive on the field. The Detroit Tigers, who trained in Augusta that spring, couldn't help but notice him racing after fly balls and dashing around the bases.
Cobb batted .326 and was leading the league in hitting in Augusta when he learned that the Tigers, short of outfielders, were buying him from the Augusta club. At that point the most traumatic event of his life occurred. On Aug. 9 he received a telegram from Royston informing him that his father had been killed in a shooting accident. The news he got on returning to Royston was even worse. His mother had done the shooting.
The story, as told in Royston, was that Professor Cobb suspected that his young wife, still in her early 30s, had a lover. He told her he was going out of town on business for a couple of days, but returned after midnight, carrying a revolver in his pocket, and climbed onto the porch roof outside his wife's bedroom. Mrs. Cobb saw the shadowy figure on the roof, took a shotgun that was always in the bedroom and fired it through the window. A moment later she fired again. Neighbors rushing to the house found Professor Cobb dying of gaping wounds in his abdomen and head.
A coroner's jury ordered Mrs. Cobb's arrest on a charge of voluntary manslaughter (released on $7,000 bail, she was acquitted the following spring). Cobb spent several days at home and then on Aug. 16 returned to the ball club. Little more than a week after that he was called up by the Tigers, and after a long train trip arrived in Detroit late at night. The next afternoon, Wednesday, Aug. 30, 1905, three weeks to the day after his mother killed his father, the 18-year-old boy was in centerfield for the Tigers, playing his first major league game.
In the five or so weeks remaining in the 1905 season, Cobb played in 41 games, batted .240 and irritated some of his teammates with his extravagant style of play. The following spring, when the Tigers trained again at Augusta, the irritation grew into outright dislike. He was unmercifully hazed, as so many rookies were in that day, and he reacted angrily. He was only 19, five years younger than the youngest of the other regular players, and he was the only one from the Deep South.
Sam Crawford, the Hall of Fame outfielder who played with Cobb for more than a dozen years, told Larry Ritter, "He came up with an antagonistic attitude...any little razzing [was turned] into a life-or-death struggle. He was still fighting the Civil War. We were all damn Yankees before he even met us." And, "Every rookie gets a little hazing, but most of them just take it and laugh. Cobb took it the wrong way." Davy Jones, another old teammate, who felt he was Cobb's closest friend on the ball club, said, "Ty didn't have a sense of humor, see. Especially he could never laugh at himself."
And the youthful Cobb, edgy at the best of times, must have been severely distracted that spring by the prospect of his mother's trial, which the other Tiger players didn't know about but which took place before the end of spring training. A man as proud and sensitive as Cobb must have burned with anxiety lest news of that become part of his hazing.
In any case, it was a terrible time for him. He was ostracized. His bats were sawed in half. He had two fights with Detroit catcher Charlie Schmidt (who broke Cobb's nose in one of them), another with a pitcher named Ed Siever, whom he knocked down and kicked. He had a running feud with leftfielder Matty McIntyre that got so bad he was eventually shifted from centerfield to right so that he and McIntyre would not have to play side by side.