Ty Cobb had pale blue eyes that glittered. They had the odd faculty of appearing narrowed and wide open at the same time, as though he were guarding himself while keeping a sharp watch on everyone else. He didn't trust people, was touchy, took offense at any real or imagined slight. Although he played baseball with a confidence and an arrogance no one else approached until Jackie Robinson came along decades later, he was so insecure that, as he once said, "I always went armed. I kept a weapon of a lethal nature close by me at all times, and I had eyes in the back of my head."
Cobb was the most disliked ballplayer of his generation—and the most admired. The most disparaging comment that antagonistic oldtimers could make about him as a player was that he was not the greatest ever but, with Honus Wagner (a decade older) and Babe Ruth (a decade younger), only one of the three greatest. He dominated. He reigned as the best player in the American League for more than a dozen years, from 1907 until after World War I. Even then, when Ruth changed the game's emphasis from base hits and base running to the long ball, Cobb, with 15 seasons behind him, continued as one of the top players in the league for nearly another decade. In 1927, at 40, in his second to last season, he batted .357, scored more than 100 runs and stole 22 bases, three of them home (he stole home 35 times in his career). When he retired with 4,191 base hits at the end of the 1928 season, his closest rival, Tris Speaker, was almost 700 hits behind him.
Cobb won the American League batting championship in his first full season, kept on winning it for the next eight seasons, finished second once, then won it three more times. He was first or second in batting 15 times in 16 years. His lifetime batting average for 24 seasons was .367, and he hit over .400 three times. He led in runs batted in four times, in runs scored five times, in total bases six times, in slugging average eight times. He even led the majors in home runs one year (with nine) and near the end of his career hit a record-equaling five homers in two games. He set stolen-base records that lasted half a century.
Beyond the numbers was the sheer excitement he created ( Casey Stengel called him the most sensational player he had ever seen). But it was at bat, not in the field. An outfielder, he was a useful glove man, but his defensive skills could not compare with those of a Tris Speaker, a Joe DiMaggio, a Willie Mays. It was on offense that Cobb was a genius. He did more than just hit for average and steal bases. Almost contemptuously, Cobb bunted his way on base, poked hits through the infield, forced errors, drew walks, slashed line drives...and then audaciously raced into the no-man's-land between bases, challenging his opponents to stop him if they dared. He would go from first to third on a bunt, from second to home on an infield out; not every time, but often enough to keep rival infielders on edge. If he singled with a teammate on second base, he would routinely round first and head for second himself, trying to draw the throw to him instead of to the runner heading for home.
He seemed to relish being hung up between bases, feeling that his reflexes, his almost superhuman quickness as he dodged back and forth, would force his opponents to make mistakes. His National League base-stealing counterpart, Max Carey, who one year stole 53 bases in 55 attempts ( Cobb was thrown out 31 times when he stole 96 in 1915), said, " Cobb ran much wilder than I did. His idea was not only to get the extra bases but to destroy the morale of the pitcher, the catcher, the entire infield. He upset defenses and gave everyone the jitters. Often, he made hopeless attempts, just to keep them guessing. He was the best."
Cobb eschewed the headfirst slide, preferring to stay on his feet driving toward the base until he was almost on it, then dropping into a sudden, slashing slide to one side or the other, hooking the base with his toe or grabbing it with a hand as he hurtled past. An oft-told tale to the contrary, he didn't file his spikes to razor sharpness and he didn't go out of his way to spike opponents, but he was a hard, harsh base runner who believed passionately, almost fanatically, that "the base path was mine."
"Infielders didn't know what the hell he'd do next," Rube Bressler, another oldtime ballplayer, told Lawrence Ritter in The Glory of Their Times, "and neither did he until the last split second. You couldn't figure Cobb. It was impossible. And Cobb had that terrific fire, that unbelievable drive.... I never saw anybody like him. It was his base. It was his game. Everything was his."
Cobb was born on Dec. 18, 1886 in the hamlet of Narrows in northern Georgia. His father, William Herschel Cobb, taught school, farmed, ran a weekly newspaper, became mayor of his town, was elected to the Georgia state senate and served as county commissioner of schools. Reserved and dignified. Professor Cobb, as he was called, liked to think of himself as a member of the Cobb family of Georgia that had produced two Confederate generals and for whom a county had been named. Author Charles Alexander, in his carefully researched biography
, says they were no more than "potato patch kin," but Professor Cobb's sense of family was picked up by his son, who would often refer to how "a Cobb" acts and the way "a Cobb" feels.
It is not too surprising that when William Cobb was teaching school in north Georgia in his early 20s he courted the daughter of the most prominent citizen of the area, a man named Caleb Chitwood, who had been a captain in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. What is surprising, even startling, is that in 1883, when William Cobb married Amanda Chitwood, she was 12 years old.
Their first child was born three years later and named Tyrus by his erudite father after the ancient city of Tyre, which had resisted Alexander the Great. As the oldest child (a brother and a sister followed), he was the focus of his father's attention, and while there were few actual flare-ups between the hyperactive, hot-tempered son and the quietly demanding father, young Cobb was acutely aware that his father expected him to go to college and follow a career of distinction, such as medicine or the law.