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Tyrus Raymond "Ty" Cobb (December 18, 1886 – July 17, 1961), nicknamed "The Georgia Peach," was an American Major League Baseball outfielder. He was born in The Narrows, Georgia, a small rural community of farmers that was not an official city or village at the time. Cobb spent 22 seasons with the Detroit Tigers, the last six as the team's player-manager, and finished his career with the Philadelphia Athletics. In 1936 Cobb received the most votes of any player on the inaugural Baseball Hall of Fame ballot, receiving 222 out of a possible 226 votes.
Cobb is widely credited with setting 90 Major League Baseball records during his career. He still holds several records as of 2013, including the highest career batting average (.366 or .367, depending on source) and most career batting titles with 11 (or 12, depending on source). He retained many other records for almost a half century or more, including most career hits until 1985 (4,189 or 4,191, depending on source), most career runs (2,245 or 2,246 depending on source) until 2001, most career games played (3,035) and at bats (11,429 or 11,434 depending on source) until 1974, and the modern record for most career stolen bases (892) until 1977. He still holds the career record for stealing home (54 times). Cobb committed 271 errors in his career, the most by any American League outfielder.
Cobb's legacy as an athlete has sometimes been overshadowed by his surly temperament and aggressive playing style, which was described by the Detroit Free Press as "daring to the point of dementia." Cobb himself wrote shortly before his death, "In legend I am a sadistic, slashing, swashbuckling despot who waged war in the guise of sport."
Since his death, his legacy (which includes a generous college scholarship fund for Georgia residents, funded by his early investments in Coca-Cola and General Motors) has been tarnished by allegations of racism and violence. But the reputation of Cobb as an extremely violent man was fanned by sportswriter Al Stump, his first biographer, whose veracity has been called into question, while Cobb's views on race evolved later in his life.
Early life and baseball career
Ty Cobb was born in Narrows, Georgia in 1886, the first of three children to William Herschel Cobb and Amanda Chitwood Cobb. He played his first years in organized baseball for the Royston Rompers, the semi-pro Royston Reds, and the Augusta Tourists of the South Atlantic League who released him after only two days. He then tried out for the Anniston Steelers of the semipro Tennessee-Alabama League, with his father's stern admonition ringing in his ears: "Don't come home a failure!" After joining the Steelers for a monthly salary of $50, Cobb promoted himself by sending several postcards written about his talents under different aliases to Grantland Rice, the sports editor of the Atlanta Journal. Eventually, Rice wrote a small note in the Journal that a "young fellow named Cobb seems to be showing an unusual lot of talent." After about three months, Ty returned to the Tourists and finished the season hitting .237 in 35 games. In August 1905, the management of the Tourists sold Cobb to the American League's Detroit Tigers for $750 (equivalent to approximately $19,164 in today's funds).
On August 8, 1905 Ty's mother fatally shot his father, who had suspected her of infidelity and was sneaking past his own bedroom window to catch her in the act; she saw the silhouette of what she presumed to be an intruder and, acting in self-defense, shot and killed her husband. Mrs. Cobb was charged with murder and then released on a $7,000 recognizance bond. She was acquitted on March 31, 1906. Cobb later attributed his ferocious play to his late father, saying, "I did it for my father. He never got to see me play ... but I knew he was watching me, and I never let him down.
Major League career
The early years
Three weeks after his mother killed his father, Cobb debuted in center field for the Detroit Tigers. On August 30, 1905, in his first major league at-bat, he doubled off the New York Highlanders' Jack Chesbro, who had won a record 41 games the previous season. Cobb was 18 years old at the time, the youngest player in the league by almost a year. Although he hit a mere .240 in 41 games, that was apparently enough for a lucrative $1,500 contract from the Tigers for 1906.
Although rookie hazing was customary, Cobb could not endure it in good humor and soon became alienated from his teammates. He later attributed his hostile temperament to this experience: "These old-timers turned me into a snarling wildcat." Tiger manager Hughie Jennings later acknowledged that Cobb was targeted for abuse by veteran players, some of whom sought to force him off the team. "I let this go for a while because I wanted to satisfy myself that Cobb has as much guts as I thought in the very beginning", Jennings recalled. "Well, he proved it to me, and I told the other players to let him alone. He is going to be a great baseball player and I won't allow him to be driven off this club."
The following year, 1906, Cobb became the Tigers' full-time center fielder and hit .316 in 98 games, the second highest batting average ever for a 19-year-old. He would never hit below that mark again. After being moved to right field, he led the Tigers to three consecutive American League pennants in 1907, 1908 & 1909. Detroit would lose each World Series (to the Cubs twice and then the Pirates), however, with Cobb's postseason numbers much below his career standard. He never played on a pennant-winning team again.
Five times in his career, and for the first time in 1907, Cobb reached first and then stole second, third and home. He finished the 1907 season with a league-leading .350 batting average, 212 hits, 49 steals and 119 runs batted in (RBI). At age 20, he was the youngest player to win a batting championship and held this record until 1955, when fellow Detroit Tiger Al Kaline won the batting title twelve days younger than Cobb when he did it. Reflecting on his career in 1930, two years after retiring, he told Grantland Rice, "The biggest thrill I ever got came in a game against the Athletics in 1907 on September 30... The Athletics had us beaten, with Rube Waddell pitching. They were two runs ahead in the 9th inning, when I happened to hit a home run that tied the score. This game went 17 innings to a tie, and a few days later, we clinched our first pennant. You can understand what it meant for a 20-year-old country boy to hit a home run off the great Rube, in a pennant-winning game with two outs in the ninth."
Despite great success on the field, Cobb was no stranger to controversy off it. As described in Smithsonian Magazine, "In 1907 during spring training in Augusta, Georgia, a black groundskeeper named Bungy, whom Cobb had known for years, attempted to shake Cobb’s hand or pat him on the shoulder." The "overly familiar greeting infuriated" Cobb, who attacked Bungy. When Bungy's wife tried to defend him, Cobb choked her. The assault was only stopped when catcher Charles "Boss" Schmidt knocked Cobb out. In 1908, Cobb attacked a black laborer in Detroit who complained when Cobb stepped into freshly poured asphalt; Cobb was found guilty of battery but the sentence was suspended.
On days when we are playing a doubleheader, I always find that a drink of Coca-Cola between the games refreshes me to such an extent that I can start the second game feeling as if I had not been exercising at all, in spite of my exertions in the first.—Ty Cobb in a 1907 Coca-Cola newspaper ad
In September 1907, Cobb began a relationship with The Coca-Cola Company that would last the remainder of his life. By the time he died, he owned over 20,000 shares of stock and three bottling plants (in Santa Maria, California; Twin Falls, Idaho; and Bend, Oregon). He was also a celebrity spokesman for the product.
In the off-season between 1907 & 1908, Cobb negotiated with Clemson Agricultural College of South Carolina, offering to coach baseball there "for $250 a month, provided that he did not sign with Detroit that season." This did not come to pass, however.
The following season, the Tigers finished ahead of the Chicago White Sox for the pennant. Cobb again won the batting title with a .324 average. Despite another loss in the Series, he had something to celebrate. In August 1908, he married Charlotte ("Charlie") Marion Lombard, the daughter of prominent Augustan Roswell Lombard. In the offseason, the couple lived on her father's Augusta estate, The Oaks, until they moved into their own house on Williams Street in November 1913.
The Tigers won the American League pennant again in 1909. During the Series, Cobb stole home in the second game, igniting a three-run rally, but that was the high point for him, finishing with a lowly .231 in his last World Series as the Tigers lost to Honus Wagner and the powerful Pirates in seven games. Although he performed poorly in the postseason, he won the Triple Crown by hitting .377 with 107 RBI and nine home runs, all inside the park, thus becoming the only player of the modern era to lead his league in home runs in a season without hitting a ball over the fence.
It was also in 1909 that Charles M. Conlon snapped the famous photograph of a grimacing Cobb sliding into third base amid a cloud of dirt, which visually captured the grit and ferocity of his playing style.
1910: Chalmers Award controversy
Going into the final days of the 1910 season, Cobb had an .004 lead on Nap Lajoie for the American League batting title. The prize for the winner of the title was a Chalmers automobile. Cobb sat out the final games to preserve his average. Lajoie hit safely eight times in a doubleheader, but six of those hits were bunt singles. This later came under scrutiny since it was rumored that the opposing manager had instructed his third baseman to play extra-deep to allow Lajoie intentionally to win the batting race over the generally-disliked Cobb. Although Cobb was credited with a higher batting average, it was later discovered that one game was counted twice so that Cobb actually lost to Lajoie.
As a result of the incident, American League president Ban Johnson was forced to arbitrate the situation. He declared Cobb the rightful owner of the title, but car company president Hugh Chalmers chose to award one to both Cobb and Lajoie.
1911 season and onward
Cobb regarded baseball as "something like a war," future Tiger second baseman Charlie Gehringer said. "Every time at bat for him was a crusade." Baseball historian John Thorn has said, "He is testament to how far you can get simply through will... Cobb was pursued by demons."
Cobb was having a tremendous year in 1911, which included a 40-game hitting streak. Still, "Shoeless" Joe Jackson led him by .009 point in the batting race late in the season. What happened next is discussed in Cobb's autobiography. Near the end of the season, Cobb’s Tigers had a long series against Jackson's Cleveland Naps. Fellow Southerners Cobb and Jackson were personally friendly both on and off the field. Cobb used that friendship for his advantage. Whenever Jackson said anything to him, he would ignore him. When Jackson persisted, Cobb snapped angrily back at him, making him wonder what he could have done to enrage Cobb, who felt that it was these mind games that caused Jackson to "fall off" to a final average of .408, twelve points lower than Cobb's .420, a twentieth-century record which stood until George Sisler tied it and Rogers Hornsby surpassed it with .424, the record since then except for Hugh Duffy's .438 in the nineteenth century.
"I often tried plays that looked recklessly daring, maybe even silly. But I never tried anything foolish when a game was at stake, only when we were far ahead or far behind. I did it to study how the other team reacted, filing away in my mind any observations for future use."
—Ty Cobb in The New York Times
Cobb led the AL that year in numerous categories besides batting average, including 248 hits, 147 runs scored, 127 RBI, 83 stolen bases, 47 doubles, 24 triples and a .621 slugging percentage. The only major offensive category in which Cobb did not finish first was home runs, where Frank Baker (J. Franklin "Home Run" Baker of the Philadelphia Athletics) hit eleven to Cobb's eight. He was awarded another Chalmers car, this time for being voted the AL MVP by the Baseball Writers Association of America.
A game that illustrates Cobb's unique combination of skill and cunning occurred on May 12, 1911. Playing against the New York Highlanders, he scored from first base on a single to right field, then scored another run from second base on a wild pitch. In the seventh inning, he tied the game with a two-run double. The Highlander catcher vehemently argued the safe call at second base with the umpire in question, going on at such length that the other Highlander infielders gathered nearby to watch. Realizing that no one on the Highlanders had called time, Cobb strolled unobserved to third base, and then casually walked towards home plate as if to get a better view of the argument. He then suddenly broke into a run and slid into home plate for the eventual winning run. It was performances like this that led Branch Rickey to say later that Cobb "had brains in his feet."
While taking advantage of the moment, Cobb would also have his eye on the long view. Describing his strategy in 1930, he said, "My system was all offense. I believed in putting up a mental hazard for the other fellow. If we were five or six runs ahead, I'd try some wild play, such as going from first to home on a single. This helped to make the other side hurry the play in a close game later on. I worked out all the angles I could think of, to keep them guessing and hurrying." In the same interview, Cobb talked about having noticed a throwing tendency of first baseman Hal Chase, but having to wait two full years until the opportunity came to exploit it. By unexpectedly altering his own baserunning tendencies, he was able to surprise Chase and score the winning run of the game in question.
On May 15, 1912, Cobb assaulted a heckler, Claude Lueker, in the stands in New York's Polo Grounds where his Tigers were playing the Highlanders. Lueker and Cobb had traded insults with each other through the first three innings, and the situation climaxed when Lueker called Cobb a "half-nigger." Cobb, in his discussion of the incident in the Holmes biography, avoided such explicit words but alluded to Lueker's epithet by saying he was "reflecting on my mother's color and morals." He went on to state that he warned Highlander manager Harry Wolverton that if something wasn't done about that man, there would be trouble. No action was taken. At the end of the sixth inning, after being challenged by teammates Sam Crawford and Jim Delahanty to do something about it, Cobb climbed into the stands and attacked Lueker, who it turns out was handicapped (he had lost all of one hand and three fingers on his other hand in an industrial accident). When onlookers shouted at him to stop because the man had no hands, he reportedly retorted, "I don't care if he got no feet!"
The league suspended him, and his teammates, though not fond of Cobb, went on strike to protest the suspension, and the lack of protection of players from abusive fans, before the May 18 game in Philadelphia. For that one game, Detroit fielded a replacement team made up of hastily recruited college and sandlot players plus two Tiger coaches and (not surprisingly) lost, 24–2, thereby setting some of Major League Baseball's modern-era (post-1900) negative records, notably the 26 hits in a nine-inning game allowed by Allan Travers, who pitched one of the sport's most unlikely complete games. The pre-1901 record for the most hits and runs given up in a game is held by the Cleveland Blues' Dave Rowe. Primarily an outfielder, Rowe pitched a complete game on July 24, 1882, giving up 35 runs on 29 hits. The current post-1900 record for most hits in a nine-inning game is 31, set in 1992 by the Milwaukee Brewers against Toronto; however, the Blue Jays used six pitchers.
The strike ended when Cobb urged his teammates to return to the field. According to him, this incident led to the formation of a players' union, the "Ballplayers' Fraternity" (formally, the Fraternity of Professional Baseball Players of America), an early version of what is now called the Major League Baseball Players Association, which garnered some concessions from the owners. Cobb, during his career, was involved in numerous other fights, both on and off the field, and several profanity-laced shouting matches. For example, Cobb and umpire Billy Evans arranged to settle their in-game differences through fisticuffs under the grandstand after the game. Members of both teams were spectators, and broke up the scuffle after Cobb had knocked Evans down, pinned him and began choking him. He once slapped a black elevator operator for being "uppity." When a black night watchman intervened, he pulled out a knife and stabbed him. The matter was later settled out of court.
In 1915, Cobb set the single-season record for stolen bases with 96, which stood until Dodger Maury Wills broke it in 1962. Cobb’s streak of five batting titles (believed at the time to be nine straight) ended the following year when he finished second with .371 to Tris Speaker’s .386.
In 1917, Cobb hit in 35 consecutive games, still the only player with two 35-game hitting streaks (including his 40-game streak in 1911). He had six hitting streaks of at least 20 games in his career, second only to Pete Rose's seven.
Also in 1917, Cobb starred in the motion picture Somewhere in Georgia for a sum of $25,000 plus expenses (equivalent to approximately $447,987 today). Based on a story by sports columnist Grantland Rice, the film casts Cobb as "himself", a small-town Georgian bank clerk with a talent for baseball. Broadway critic Ward Morehouse called the movie "absolutely the worst flicker I ever saw, pure hokum."
In October 1918, Cobb enlisted in the Chemical Corps branch of the United States Army and was sent to the Allied Expeditionary Forces headquarters in Chaumont, France. He served approximately 67 days overseas before receiving an honorable discharge and returning to the United States. He was given the rank of captain underneath the command of Major Branch Rickey, the president of the St. Louis Cardinals. Other baseball players serving in this unit included Captain Christy Mathewson and Lieutenant George Sisler. All of these men were assigned to the Gas and Flame Division, where they trained soldiers in preparation for chemical attacks by exposing them to gas chambers in a controlled environment, which was eventually responsible for Mathewson's contracting tuberculosis which led to his premature death on the eve of the 1924 World Series.
On August 19, 1921, in the second game of a doubleheader against Elmer Myers of the Boston Red Sox, Cobb collected his 3,000th hit. Aged 34 at the time, he is still the youngest ballplayer to reach that milestone, and in the fewest at-bats (8,093).
By 1920, Babe Ruth, newly sold to the newly named New York Yankees from the Boston Red Sox, had established himself as a power hitter, something Cobb was not considered to be. When his Tigers showed up in New York to play the Yankees for the first time that season, writers billed it as a showdown between two stars of competing styles of play. Ruth hit two homers and a triple during the series, compared to Cobb's one single.
As Ruth's popularity grew, Cobb became increasingly hostile toward him. He saw the Babe not only as a threat to his style of play, but also to his style of life. While Cobb preached ascetic self-denial, Ruth gorged on hot dogs, beer and women. Perhaps what angered him the most about Ruth was that despite Babe's total disregard for his physical condition and traditional baseball, he was still an overwhelming success and brought fans to the ballparks in record numbers to see him challenge his own slugging records.
After enduring several years of seeing his fame and notoriety usurped by Ruth, Cobb decided that he was going to show that swinging for the fences was no challenge for a top hitter. On May 5, 1925, he began a two-game hitting spree better than any even Ruth had unleashed. Sitting in the Tiger dugout, he told a reporter that, for the first time in his career, he was going to swing for the fences. That day, he went 6 for 6, with two singles, a double and three home runs. The 16 total bases set a new AL record, which stood until May 8, 2012 when Josh Hamilton of the Texas Rangers hit four home runs and a double for a total of 18 bases. The next day he had three more hits, two of which were home runs. The single his first time up gave him nine consecutive hits over three games. His five homers in two games tied the record set by Cap Anson of the old Chicago NL team in 1884. Cobb wanted to show that he could hit home runs when he wanted, but simply chose not to do so. At the end of the series, the 38-year-old veteran superstar had gone 12 for 19 with 29 total bases and then went happily back to his usual bunting and hitting-and-running. For his part, Ruth's attitude was that "I could have had a lifetime .600 average, but I would have had to hit them singles. The people were paying to see me hit home runs."
Even so, when asked in 1930 by Grantland Rice to name the best hitter he'd ever seen, Cobb answered, "You can't beat the Babe. Ruth is one of the few who can take a terrific swing and still meet the ball solidly. His timing is perfect. No one has the combined power and eye of Ruth."
Cobb as player/manager
Tiger owner Frank Navin tapped Cobb to take over for Hughie Jennings as manager for the 1921 season, a deal he signed on his 34th birthday for $32,500 (equivalent to approximately $418,316 in today's funds). The signing surprised the baseball world. Although Cobb was a legendary player, he was disliked throughout the baseball community, even by his own teammates; and he expected as much from his players since he set a standard most players couldn't meet.
The closest Cobb came to winning another pennant was in 1924, when the Tigers finished in third place, six games behind the pennant-winning Washington Senators. The Tigers had also finished third in 1922, but 16 games behind the Yankees.
Cobb blamed his lackluster managerial record (479 wins against 444 losses) on Navin, who was arguably even more frugal than he was, passing up a number of quality players Cobb wanted to add to the team. In fact, he had saved money by hiring Cobb to both play and manage.
In 1922, Cobb tied a batting record set by Wee Willie Keeler, with four five-hit games in a season. This has since been matched by Stan Musial, Tony Gwynn and Ichiro Suzuki.
On May 10, 1924, Cobb was honored at ceremonies before a game in Washington, D.C., by more than 100 dignitaries and legislators. He received 21 books, one for each year of service in professional baseball.
At the end of 1925 Cobb was once again embroiled in a batting title race, this time with one of his teammates and players, Harry Heilmann. In a doubleheader against the St. Louis Browns on October 4, 1925, Heilmann got six hits to lead the Tigers to a sweep of the doubleheader and beat Cobb for the batting crown, .393 to .389. Cobb and Brownie player-manager George Sisler each pitched in the final game, Cobb pitching a perfect inning. Also that season (see also above), on May 5–6, he tied a major league record hitting five home runs over two games, a feat also achieved by Cap Anson in 1884, which not even Babe Ruth ever managed.
Move to Philadelphia
Cobb finally called it quits after a 22-year career as a Tiger, in November 1926. He announced his retirement and headed home to Augusta, Georgia. Shortly thereafter, Tris Speaker also retired as player-manager of the Cleveland Indians. The retirement of two great players at the same time sparked some interest, and it turned out that the two were coerced into retirement because of allegations of game-fixing brought about by Dutch Leonard, a former pitcher managed by Cobb.
Leonard accused former pitcher and outfielder Smoky Joe Wood and Cobb of betting on a Tiger-Indian game played in Detroit on September 25, 1919, in which they allegedly orchestrated a Tiger victory to win the bet. Leonard claimed proof existed in letters written to him by Cobb and Wood. Commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis held a secret hearing with Cobb, Speaker and Wood. A second secret meeting among the AL directors led to the unpublicized resignations of Cobb and Speaker; however, rumors of the scandal led Judge Landis to hold additional hearings in which Leonard subsequently refused to participate. Cobb and Wood admitted to writing the letters, but claimed that a horse-racing bet was involved and that Leonard's accusations were in retaliation for Cobb's having released him from the Tigers, thereby demoting him to the minor leagues. Speaker denied any wrongdoing.
On January 27, 1927, Judge Landis cleared Cobb and Speaker of any wrongdoing because of Leonard's refusal to appear at the hearings. Landis allowed both Cobb and Speaker to return to their original teams, but each team let them know that they were free agents and could sign with any club they wanted. Speaker signed with the Washington Senators for 1927, and Cobb with the Philadelphia Athletics. Speaker then joined Cobb in Philadelphia for the 1928 season. Cobb said he had come back only to seek vindication and say he left baseball on his own terms.
Cobb played regularly in 1927 for a young and talented team that finished second to one of the greatest teams of all time, the 110–44 1927 Yankees, returning to Detroit to a tumultuous welcome on May 11 and doubling his time up to the cheers of Tiger fans. On July 18, Cobb became the first member of the 4000 hit club when he doubled off former teammate Sam Gibson, still pitching for the Tigers, at Navin Field.
1927 was also the final season of Washington Senators pitcher Walter Johnson's career. With their careers largely overlapping, Cobb faced Johnson more times than any other batter-pitcher matchup in baseball history. Cobb also got the first hit ever allowed by Johnson. After Johnson hit Detroit's Ossie Vitt with a pitch in August 1915, seriously injuring him, Cobb realized that Johnson was fearful of hitting opponents. He used this knowledge to his advantage by standing closer to the plate.
Cobb returned for the 1928 season, but played less frequently due to his age and the blossoming abilities of the young A's, who were again in a pennant race with the Yankees. On September 3, Ty Cobb pinch-hit in the ninth inning of the first game of a doubleheader against the Senators and doubled off Bump Hadley for his last career hit although his last at-bat wasn't until September 11 against the Yankees, popping out off Hank Johnson and grounding out to shortstop Mark Koenig. He then announced his retirement, effective the end of the season, after batting .300 or higher in 23 consecutive seasons (the only season under .300 being his rookie season), a major league record not likely to be broken.
He also ended his career with a rather dubious record. When Cobb retired, he led AL outfielders for most errors all-time with 271, which still stands today. (Nineteenth-century player Tom Brown holds the major league record with 490 errors committed as an outfielder, while the National League record is held by nineteenth-century player George Gore with 346 errors. Cobb ranks 14th on the all-time list for errors committed by an outfielder.
Post professional career
Cobb retired a very rich and successful man. He toured Europe with his family, went to Scotland for some time and then returned to his farm in Georgia. He spent his retirement pursuing his off-season avocations of hunting, golfing, polo and fishing. His other pastime was trading stocks and bonds, increasing his immense personal wealth. Among his other holdings he was a major stockholder in the Coca-Cola Corporation, which by itself would have made him wealthy.
In the winter of 1930, Cobb moved into a Spanish ranch estate on Spencer Lane in the millionaires' community of Atherton outside San Francisco, California. At the same time, his wife Charlie filed the first of several divorce suits; but withdrew that suit shortly thereafter, finally divorcing him in 1947 after 39 years of marriage, the last few of which she lived in nearby Menlo Park. The couple had three sons and two daughters: Tyrus Raymond Jr, Shirley Marion, Herschel Roswell, James Howell and Beverly.
Cobb never had an easy time as husband and father. His children found him to be demanding, yet also capable of kindness and extreme warmth. He expected his sons to be exceptional athletes in general and baseball players in particular. Tyrus Raymond Jr flunked out of Princeton (where he had played on the varsity tennis team), much to his father's dismay. The elder Cobb subsequently traveled to the Princeton campus and beat his son with a whip to ensure against future academic failure. Tyrus Raymond Jr. then entered Yale University and became captain of the tennis team while improving his academics, but was then arrested twice in 1930 for drunkenness and left Yale without graduating. Cobb helped his son deal with his pending legal problems, but then permanently broke off with him. Even though Tyrus Raymond Jr finally reformed and eventually earned an M.D. from the Medical College of South Carolina and practiced obstetrics and gynecology in Dublin, Georgia until his premature death at 42 on September 9, 1952 from a brain tumor, his father remained distant.
In February 1936, when the first Hall of Fame election results were announced, Cobb had been named on 222 of 226 ballots, outdistancing Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson, the only others to earn the necessary 75% of votes to be elected that first year. His 98.2 percentage stood as the record until Tom Seaver received 98.8% of the vote in 1992 . Those incredible results show that although many people disliked him personally, they respected the way he had played and what he had accomplished. In 1998, The Sporting News ranked him as third on the list of 100 Greatest Baseball Players.
By the time he was elected to the Hall of Fame, Cobb had become a heavy smoker and drinker, and spent a great deal of time complaining about modern-day players' lack of fundamental skills. He had positive things to say about Stan Musial, Phil Rizzuto and Jackie Robinson, but few others. Even so, he was known to help out young players. He was instrumental in helping Joe DiMaggio negotiate his rookie contract with the New York Yankees.
Cobb's competitive fires continued to burn after retirement. In 1941, he faced Babe Ruth in a series of charity golf matches at courses outside New York, Boston and Detroit and won them all. At the 1947 Old Timers' Game in Yankee Stadium, he warned catcher Benny Bengough to move back, claiming he was rusty and hadn't swung a bat in almost 20 years. Bengough accordingly stepped back to avoid being struck by Cobb's backswing. Having repositioned the catcher, Cobb cannily laid down a perfect bunt in front of the plate and easily beat the throw from a surprised Bengough.
Another bittersweet moment in Cobb's life reportedly came in the late 1940s, when he and sportswriter Grantland Rice were returning from the Masters golf tournament. Stopping at a Greenville, South Carolina liquor store, Cobb noticed that the man behind the counter was none other than "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, who had been banned from baseball almost 30 years earlier following the Black Sox scandal. But Jackson did not appear to recognize him, and finally Cobb asked, "Don't you know me, Joe?" "Sure I know you, Ty," replied Jackson, "but I wasn't sure you wanted to know me. A lot of them don't."
Cobb was mentioned in the poem "Line-Up for Yesterday" by Ogden Nash:
Line-Up for Yesterday
C is for Cobb,
Who grew spikes and not corn,
And made all the basemen
Wish they weren't born.
— Ogden Nash, Sport magazine (January 1949)
At 62, Cobb married a second time in 1949. His new wife was 40-year-old Frances Fairbairn Cass, a divorcee from Buffalo, New York. Their childless marriage also failed, ending with a divorce in 1956.
When two of his three sons died young, Cobb was left alone with few remaining friends. He became generous with his wealth, donating $100,000 in his parents' name for his hometown to build a modern 24-bed hospital, Cobb Memorial Hospital, which is now part of the Ty Cobb Healthcare System. He also established the Cobb Educational Fund, which awarded scholarships to needy Georgia students bound for college, by endowing it with a $100,000 donation in 1953 (equivalent to approximately $858,085 in today's funds).
He knew that another way he could share his wealth was by having biographies written that would both set the record straight on him and teach young players how to play. John McCallum spent some time with Cobb to write a combination how-to and biography titled The Tiger Wore Spikes: An Informal Biography of Ty Cobb that was published in 1956. But after McCallum had completed his research for the book, Cobb was again alone and had a longing to return to Georgia. In December 1959, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure and Bright's disease. He did not trust his initial diagnosis, however, so he went to Georgia to seek advice from doctors he knew who confirmed that his prostate was indeed cancerous. They removed it at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, but that did little to help Cobb. From this point until the end of his life he criss-crossed the country, from his lodge in Tahoe on the northern-California-Nevada border to the hospital in Georgia.
It was also during his final years that Cobb began work on his autobiography, My Life in Baseball: The True Record, with writer Al Stump. Their collaboration was contentious, and after Cobb's death Stump gave his side of the story in some of his other works, including the film Cobb. In 2010, an article by William R. "Ron" Cobb (no relation to Ty) in The National Pastime, official publication of the Society for American Baseball Research, accused Stump of extensive forgeries of Cobb-related documents and diaries. The article further accused Stump of numerous false statements about Cobb in his last years, most of which were sensationalistic in nature and intended to cast Cobb in an unflattering light.
In his last days, Cobb spent some time with the old movie comedian Joe E. Brown, talking about the choices he had made in his life. He told Brown that he felt that he had made mistakes, and that he would do things differently if he could. He had played hard and lived hard all his life, had no friends to show for it at the end, and regretted it. Publicly, however, he claimed to have no regrets: "I've been lucky. I have no right to be regretful of what I did."
He checked into Emory Hospital for the last time in June 1961, bringing with him a paper bag with over $1 million in negotiable bonds and a Colt .45 caliber pistol. His first wife, Charlie, his son Jimmy and other family members came to be with him for his final days. He died a month later, on July 17, 1961, at Emory University Hospital.
"...the most sensational player of all the players I have seen in all my life..."
—Casey Stengel, The New York Times, July 18, 1961 regarding Ty Cobb shortly after Cobb's death
Approximately 150 friends and relatives attended a brief service in Cornelia, Georgia, and drove to the Cobb family mausoleum in Royston for the burial. Baseball's only representatives at his funeral were three old-time players, Ray Schalk, Mickey Cochrane and Nap Rucker, along with Sid Keener, the director of the Baseball Hall of Fame, but messages of condolences numbered in the hundreds. Family in attendance included Cobb's former wife Charlie, his two daughters, his surviving son Jimmy, his two sons-in-law, his daughter-in-law Mary Dunn Cobb and her two children.
At the time of his death, Cobb's estate was reported to be worth at least $11.780 million (equivalent to $90.5 million today), including $10 million worth of General Motors stock and $1.78 million in The Coca-Cola Company stock. His will left a quarter of his estate to the Cobb Educational Fund, and distributed the rest among his children and grandchildren. Cobb is interred in the Rose Hill Cemetery in Royston, Georgia. As of 2005, the Ty Cobb Educational Foundation has distributed nearly $11 million in scholarships to needy Georgians.
"The greatness of Ty Cobb was something that had to be seen, and to see him was to remember him forever."
He is regarded by some historians and journalists as the best player of the dead-ball era, and is generally seen as one of the greatest players of all time.
Efforts to create a Ty Cobb Memorial in Royston initially failed, primarily because most of the artifacts from his life were sent to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York and the Georgia town was viewed as too remote to make a memorial worthwhile. But ultimately, on July 17, 1998, the 37th anniversary of Cobb's death, the Ty Cobb Museum and the Franklin County Sports Hall of Fame opened its doors in Royston. On that day, Cobb was one of the first members to be inducted into the Franklin County Sports Hall of Fame.
On August 30, 2005, his hometown hosted a 1905 baseball game to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Cobb's first major league game. Players in the game included many of Cobb's descendants as well as many citizens from his hometown of Royston. Another early-20th-century baseball game was played in his hometown at Cobb Field on September 30, 2006, with Cobb's descendants and Roystonians again playing. Cobb's personal batboy from his major league years was also in attendance, and threw out the first pitch.
Ty Cobb's legacy also includes legions of collectors of his early tobacco card issues, as well as game used memorabilia and autographs. Perhaps the most curious item is a 1909 Ty Cobb Cigarettes pack, leaving some to believe Cobb either had, or attempted to have, his own brand of cigarettes. Very little about the card is known other than its similarity to the 1909 T206 Red Portrait card published by the American Tobacco Company, and until 2005 only a handful were known to exist. That year, a sizable cache of the cards was brought to auction by the family of a Royston, Georgia man who had stored them in a book for almost 100 years. The new baseball stadium at Hampden-Sydney College is named Ty Cobb Ballpark.
Rivalry with Sam Crawford
Sam Crawford and Ty Cobb were teammates for parts of thirteen seasons. They played beside each other in right and center field, and Crawford followed Cobb in the batting order year after year. Despite the physical closeness, the two had a complicated relationship.
Initially, they had a student-teacher relationship. Crawford was an established star when Cobb arrived, and Cobb eagerly sought his advice. In interviews with Al Stump, Cobb told of studying Crawford's base stealing technique and of how Crawford would teach him about pursuing fly balls and throwing out base runners. Cobb told Stump he would always remember Crawford's kindness.
The student-teacher relationship gradually changed to one of jealous rivals. Cobb was not popular with his teammates, and as Cobb became the biggest star in baseball, Crawford was unhappy with the preferential treatment given to Cobb. Cobb was allowed to show up late for spring training and was given private quarters on the road – perks not offered to Crawford. The competition between the two was intense. Crawford recalled that, if he went three for four on a day when Cobb went hitless, Cobb would turn red and sometimes walk out of the park with the game still on. When it was initially (and erroneously) reported that Nap Lajoie had won the batting title, Crawford was alleged to have been one of several Tigers who sent a telegram to Lajoie congratulating him on beating Cobb.
In retirement, Cobb wrote a letter to a writer for The Sporting News accusing Crawford of not helping in the outfield and of intentionally fouling off balls when Cobb was stealing a base. Crawford learned about the letter in 1946 and accused Cobb of being a "cheapskate" who never helped his teammates. He said that Cobb had not been a very good fielder, "so he blamed me." Crawford denied intentionally trying to deprive Cobb of stolen bases, insisting that Cobb had "dreamed that up."
When asked about the feud, Cobb attributed it to jealousy. He felt that Crawford was "a hell of a good player," but he was "second best" on the Tigers and "hated to be an also ran." Cobb biographer Richard Bak noted that the two "only barely tolerated each other" and agreed with Cobb that Crawford’s attitude was driven by Cobb’s having stolen Crawford's thunder.
Although they may not have spoken to each other, Cobb and Crawford developed an uncanny ability to communicate non-verbally with looks and nods on the base paths. They became one of the most successful double steal pairings in baseball history.
After Cobb died, a reporter found hundreds of letters in Cobb's home that Cobb had written to influential people lobbying for Crawford's induction into the Hall of Fame. Crawford was reportedly unaware of Cobb's efforts until after Cobb had died. Crawford was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1957, four years before Cobb's death.
Reputed violence and racism
As the Smithsonian Magazine has stated, "Violent confrontations were a recurring theme in Cobb’s life" while "stories of Cobb’s racial intolerance were well-documented." In recent decades these facts have tarnished his reputation. However, the reputation of Cobb as an extremely violent man was fanned by sportswriter Al Stump, his first biographer, whose veracity has been called into question. Stump greatly exaggerated or outright lied about the violence Cobb had committed.
And while Cobb was often "painted a racist" during his baseball career, and engaged in a number of well-documented fights with African-Americans, after he retired from baseball Cobb's views changed. In 1952, he publicly supported blacks and whites playing baseball together, adding "Let me say also that no white man has the right to be less of a gentleman than a colored man, in my book that goes not only for baseball but in all walks of life."