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The Firebrand That Was Cobb
Robert W. Creamer
August 19, 1985
Ty Cobb was a great hitter greatly influenced by his father. Familiar?
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August 19, 1985

The Firebrand That Was Cobb

Ty Cobb was a great hitter greatly influenced by his father. Familiar?

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Ed Barrow, the general manager of the Ruth-Gehrig Yankees, who had managed Detroit the year before Cobb joined the club, held that the shocking death of his father was the root cause of Cobb's savage personality on and off the field. But oldtime sportswriter Fred Lieb wrote, "The trouble with this theory is that Cobb was like that before the tragedy occurred."

But he came out of that year hardened and ready. Fully grown at 6'1" and 175 pounds, he became the star of the club, and with his first three batting titles led the Tigers to three consecutive pennants. Legend says he was a bust in World Series competition—the Tigers lost each of the three he played in—particularly in 1909, when he went against Wagner and the Pittsburgh Pirates. But Cobb didn't do all that badly in the World Series. He was stopped cold by Chicago Cub pitching in 1907, but the next year batted .368 against Chicago. In 1909, according to legend, the usually amiable Wagner tagged Cobb in the mouth the first time he tried to steal; the Tiger star was supposedly left bloody and subdued and was never a factor thereafter. But Cobb was not tagged out on the bases in the 1909 World Series, not by Wagner or anyone else. He batted safely in five of the seven games, stole second the only time he tried, also stole home and was safe at second after being caught in a rundown off first base. He led the Tigers in runs batted in and starred in two of Detroit's three victories. Wagner played better than Cobb did in that Series, but not by a whole lot.

Cobb went on playing at a fever pitch to the end of his career, hitting hard, running bases magnificently, squabbling and battling every step of the way. In 1917 he had a celebrated brawl in a hotel room with second baseman Buck Herzog of John McGraw's Giants, and in 1921 he had another bout under the stands with umpire Billy Evans. He became playing manager of the Tigers in 1921, when he was 34, and ran them for six seasons, moving them from seventh place to third and second before they fell back again. He was good with hitters, not so good with pitchers. After he was dismissed as manager, he played his last two seasons with the Philadelphia Athletics.

Along with the fights he had in baseball was a succession of clashes off the field. Several of them were with blacks whose behavior irritated him: He slapped a black groundskeeper in a spring training camp and then grabbed the man's wife by the throat when she protested; he knocked down a black street worker in Detroit when the man yelled at him for walking on freshly laid asphalt; he had a dispute with a black elevator operator in a hotel and knifed the hotel watchman who tried to subdue him with a nightstick; he quarreled with a white butcher about a bill, and when a black assistant carrying a meat cleaver intervened, Cobb hit him with the butt of a revolver, then was arrested and spent the night in jail.

In a famous incident in 1912 he went into the stands in New York after a heckling white spectator who had called him, among other things, a "half nigger." He punched, kicked and stomped the man and had to be dragged off him. Cobb was suspended, leading to a one-game strike in Philadelphia by his Tiger teammates, who, however they felt about him personally, wanted him in the lineup (the Tigers recruited a team of collegians who lost the one game they played 24-2). He had an incendiary temper and wild courage: When he and his wife were held up by three men in Detroit he attacked them, clubbing one man into unconsciousness with his revolver and driving the others away.

Despite his often irrational behavior, he was a man of high intelligence and a clever businessman who became a multimillionaire through shrewd early investments in such companies as General Motors and Coca-Cola. He claimed to have made $155,000 in one year by trading in cotton futures after World War I. When he died on July 17, 1961, he was said to be worth more than $10 million.

Cobb loved big, powerful cars and often drove in races when he was younger, but he also read a great deal and enjoyed good music. When asked once if he didn't think it odd for a man who had spent his life in ball parks to like classical music he said, mildly, "No. Everybody likes Bach." He said he also liked Tchaikovsky, Sibelius and Rimsky-Korsakoff. "I like a lot of them," he explained, "but I like those the best." He could be generous. He set up a college scholarship fund for deserving students. His $100,000 donation helped establish a memorial hospital in his hometown in Georgia. He assisted indigent old teammates, including some he had had differences with. He campaigned vigorously for the election of Sam Crawford to the Hall of Fame, even though he and Crawford had never gotten along.

But he continued to have furious disputes with waitresses, cashiers, customs officials, policemen, even old friends, one of whom sued him for $50,000 for an "unprovoked assault." As an elderly man living in California, he was barred from some golf courses in the Bay Area because of his violent temper. He was married twice and divorced twice, and his relationships with his five children varied from loving attention to sarcastic anger. Two of his sons died before he did, one of a heart attack at 34, the other of cancer at 42.

As an old man, Cobb drank too much and behaved worse than ever when he did, although in calmer moments he occasionally could be gracious and even charming. In his later years he spent a lot of time extolling himself and the players of his era (he called it "setting the record straight"), while disparaging the "modern" game. He attended spring training, oldtimers' games and the annual festivities at Cooperstown and tried to become friendly with old acquaintances in baseball whom he had previously antagonized. Not everyone succumbed. At one affair Cobb jovially approached Joe Dugan, the old Yankee third baseman, who had been one of Babe Ruth's partying pals, and offered to buy him a drink.

"You're 20 years too late," Dugan said, turning away.

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