Ty Cobb: The price of glory

Close your eyes and try to imagine another figure in baseball history who so completely combines the unassailable statistical legacy with a mythical quality that rivals any of the figures from ancient literature. Babe Ruth would match Ty Cobb in that regard, continuing a real-life rivalry that helped to define their careers, but probably no one else would nudge up alongside Tyrus Raymond Cobb. Not even that other baseball giant who was even more of a Cobb contemporary than The Babe: Honus Wagner.

But unlike Ruth, who presumably never had anybody confuse him with the William Bendix portrayal in the less-than-stellar 1948 movie “The Babe Ruth Story,” Cobb had an already well-established reputation as one mean sum bitch, a description that was no doubt enhanced by Tommy Lee Jones depiction of a dying Cobb in the movie version.

It’s perhaps the major component of the folklore surrounding Cobb, this dichotomy of perhaps the greatest player in the history of the game being also its meanest; surly, isolated, despised often even by his own teammates, a racist scoundrel who may even have killed a man (probably not) in an aborted mugging attempt in 1912 that did nothing but add to the fascinating story of the game’s most controversial figure.

    But there’s no disputing the hard numbers that are almost as much of the Cobb lore and legend as all the mayhem on the bases, in the dugout and in his personal life. A .367 lifetime batting average, 4,191 hits, 2,245 runs scored, 892 stolen bases, well, you get the idea. At the time of his death in 1961, he held nearly nearly 100 Major League Baseball records, and another half-century after that he still hangs on to many of them, most notably that lifetime .367 average. It’s tricky intimating that this or that record will never be broken, but I have no compunction about making that prognostication about his lifetime batting mark. If anybody ever does challenge the number, it will be so long after my departure from this earthly plane that I’ll have no fear of anybody calling me to account for it.

    There are just as many hobby numbers, too, like $322,500 – the amount paid more than 10 years ago for Cobb’s 1928 Philadelphia A’s signed jersey, or 5, the number of different Ty Cobb cards in the famed T206 White Border set that was as much a part of his hobby profile as those elegant, green ballpoint signatures or that iconic photo of him sliding into third.

   The source of Cobb’s rage is as hotly debated as any of the occasionally apocryphal stories that are sprinkled in with the hard facts, but some of the chief suspects are indisputable. Cobb’s mother fatally shot his father in 1905, his rookie season with the Tigers, supposedly in the wake of infidelity as his father, William, was sneaking past his own bedroom window to catch her in the act, and seeing only his shadow, thought him an intruder and shot and killed him.

   She was initially charged with murder, but ultimately acquitted, but the scars for the 19-year-old rookie would remain. In alluding to his ferocious play on the basepaths, Cobb would be quoted saying, “I did it for my father. He never got to see me play … but I knew he was watching, and I never let him down.”

   Or, the merciless hazing that he took from teammates that rookie season often is ticketed as the reason for the menacing version of himself that often seemed disdainful of friend and foe alike. “These old-timers turned me into a snarling wildcat,” said Cobb.

    His manager, fellow Hall of Famer Hughie Jennings, would concede that the young Cobb had been the subject of much abuse from the veterans, but insisted there had been a method to the apparent madness of letting it persist. “I let this go for awhile because I wanted to satisfy myself that Cobb had as much guts as I thought in the very beginning,” Jennings recalled.

   It may be one of those “Be careful what you wish for moment.” Jennings ultimately told the veterans to lay off, not wanting him to be driven off the club, but the relationship with many of his teammates would be nearly as sour as it was with opponents and even fans.

   Still, the man at the plate and on the field was a force of nature, and he won his first batting title in 1907 at the age of 20, at the time making him the youngest player to ever win the crown. A Tiger player of considerable renown from several generations later, Al Kaline, would edge Cobb for that particular major league record by all of 12 days.

   At the conclusion of his rookie season, he would begin a relationship with the Coca-Cola Co. that would last for the rest of his life, starting right off as a celebrity spokesman for the popular drink that was often alleged to do all kinds of swell things for you even above and beyond just quenching your thrist.

   “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,” the young star solemnly intoned in a 1907 newspaper advertisement.

   That batting title by virtue of a .350 average would be the first of nine in a row, interrupted in 1916 when Tris Speaker would win the only batting title of his sterling career, besting arch-rival Cobb .386 to .371.

   For a guy with a .345 lifetime average, Speaker’s timing at the plate was apparently far better than his timing in neatly matching Cobb’s tenure in the American League. It was the only batting title Speaker would ever win; Cobb would add three more from 1917-19, by which time both were getting a bit long in the tooth.

   That 1907 season also began a streak of three consecutive World Series appearances for the Tigers and their great star: It’s a good hint of just how long ago this was when you point out that they were bested in five games in 1907 and 1908 by none other than the Chicago Cubs, and then lost in seven to the Honus Wagner-led Pirates in 1909. What must have seemed like the beginning of a long stretch of American League dominance ended just that abruptly, and Cobb and the Tigers would never see another World Series. (OK, just Cobb. The Tigers would get back to the Fall Classic by the middle of the Great Depression, a mere 25 years later.)

   While parity would come to the American League at large, it wouldn’t extend to competition for the batting crown. The next season, 1910, Cobb would find himself in the middle of the closest batting race, this time with Nap Lajoie, and it ultimately would become one of the mainstays of that delicious hybrid of historical fact and equal parts lore and legend.

   With a coveted Chalmers automobile now being offered as the prize for winning the crown – and Cobb, holding a narrow three-point edge as the final days approached, sat out the last two games thinking it was a done deal.

   At that point even the historical record gets fuzzy, as the SABR guys and other serious baseball scholars will point out that record keeping – especially the day-to-day variety, wasn’t quite as precise as it would eventually become. Whatever shenanigans might have been involved – and there’s plenty of misty historical fog to make absolutes difficult or impossible – Lajoie got eight hits in a final doubleheader against the St. Louis Browns.

   Amid much uproar – some of which would last for decades – Cobb was still awarded the batting title with a .385 mark to Lajoie’s .384. Chalmers awarded two automobiles and historians would squabble for decades about the odd finish, with one alleging about two phantom hits that had been awarded to Tyrus, meaning Lajoie would have been the actual winner. A century later, Cobb still has his title.

   And history suggests that Ty himself employed a bit of psychological chicanery the next year in nailing down Title No. 5. Locked in an epic battle with yet another Cleveland player, this time a young Joe Jackson playing his first full season as a regular, Cobb reportedly did a bit of a psych job on Jackson, with whom he had been friendly.

   In a long series near the end of the season, Cobb suddenly gave his friend the cold shoulder upon the occasion of an innocuous meeting on the field, and this is pointed to as a factor in Shoeless Joe’s stumbling a bit at the end, finishing at a nonetheless remarkable .408. Cobb, for his part, ended at .420, the highest average he ever recorded, aided no doubt by a nifty 40-game hitting streak earlier in the campaign.

   Once the season had ended, Cobb went right back to being sociable with his friend, the fruits of his stratagem already salted away. Jackson would never win an American League batting title, his second-best lifetime mark of .356 notwithstanding, his timing in planning his career path apparently no better than Speaker’s.

   For Cobb, there was always more news to be made than just another batting title added to his imposing pile. In 1912, he assaulted a heckler who had been nearly as vicious in the stands as his target was thought to be on the ballfield.
   After enduring several innings of abuse (among the epithets, calling the ballplayer a “half nigger”), Cobb charged into the stands in New York and assaulted the man, who turned out to be handicapped, having lost one hand entirely and three fingers of the other in an industrial accident.

   The league suspended Cobb, and though he was hardly beloved by his teammate, they went on strike to protest the suspension. After one game where a ragtag group of college and sandlot players subbed for the Tigers (and lost, 24-2), Cobb urged his teammates to go back to work, and according to Cobb’s autobiography, the incident led to the formation of an early version of what might be termed a players union, the “Ballplayers’ Fraternity.”

Alluding to his fraternal leanings was no small feat for a man who ended up in countless fights with teammates, fans and even umpires. He had fought with a black groundskeeper about the condition of the turf in spring training in August, Ga., even choking the man’s wife when she intervened. In another incident, he slapped a black elevator operator for being “uppity,” reportedly stabbing the man’s wife when she tried to pull them apart.

   And in yet another well-publicized event, challenged legendary umpire Billy Evans to a fight, with the fisticuffs arranged for after the game under the grandstand. With both teams surrounding the combatants – and presumably cheering for the umpire, in a nice bit of counter-intuitive baseball lore – broke it up once Cobb knocked the umpire to the ground and began choking him.

   “Sure, I fought,” Cobb would offer later in a quote that in no way resembled anything close to an apology. “I had to fight all my life just to survive. They were all against me. Tried every dirty trick to cut me down, but I beat the bastards and left them in the ditch.”

   As Cobb approached his mid-30’s in 1920, another figure had begun to make noise on the Major League Baseball scene that would eventually outdistance even the exploits of the noisy, cantankerous Cobb. After two 20th-century decades of the “inside baseball” strategic domination of timely hitting, pitching and fielding being the order of the day, Babe Ruth came along and started whacking the once-discounted home run with stunning regularity, and the game of baseball would never be the same.

   The status of Ty Cobb as the game’s greatest practitioner would ultimately be challenged as well. In a most telling account as Ruth was grabbing headlines and a legion of fans with his monstrous home runs, Cobb supposedly announced in the spring of 1925 that he was just as capable of hitting the long ball as anyone, and that his reliance on extra-base hits, the timely single and the stolen base were tactical weapons of choice and not out of any inability to go deep.

   After telling a reporter that for the first time in his career he was going to swing for the fences, Cobb hit 6-for-6 that day, with two singles, a double and three home runs. The 16 total bases was a record; he followed that display up the next day with three more hits, including two more home runs. His point apparently made, he went back to his traditional game for the rest of the season.

   For his part, Cobb’s new rival was typically sanguine when the question would arise about the efficacy of the home run vs. “inside baseball.” Said Ruth, “I could have had a lifetime .600 average, but I would had to him them singles. The people were paying to see me hit home runs.”

   Cobb was still reasonably content with “them singles,” though it should also be noted that he did slug a remarkable 724 doubles and 297 triples to go with his own 118 home runs. And he even led the American League in homers once, though the total was a decidedly unRuthian 9, and not a single one of them ever left the park. Still, it got him into the Triple Crown club, as he led the American League in RBI that season in 1909, one of four times he managed that maneuver.

   And then handed the managerial reins
   Tigers owner Frank Navin signed his star player to a player/manager role for the 1921 season, a complex post that Cobb would hold for six seasons. While such arrangements were quite common in the first half of the 20th century, especially with stars of extraordinary stature, the results were often disappointing.

   The irascible Cobb may have been one of the first cases where a great star wasn’t quite able to translate his own intensity into a later generation of young players, in this case many of whom actively disliked him already. Cobb was grousing about young whippersnappers decades before anybody invented the word, and the notion that his young charges would be unable to play up to his exacting standards was not a difficult one to imagine.

   Cobb called it quits after the 1926 season, announcing his retirement and heading back to Augusta. Shortly thereafter, Speaker announced that he, too, would be stepping away from his post as Cleveland’s player/manager.

   What might have seemed like just a notable bit of serendipity as two giants of the game stepped away from the game at the same moment. It wouldn’t take long before it became clear that the pair had been shoved out by Commissioner Landis, who was trying to cope with allegations of game-fixing brought against the pair by Dutch Leonard, a former pitcher of Cobb’s.

  What they had originally hoped to do quietly leaked out, and Landis, now only a half dozen years removed from having barred eight players for life because of the Black Sox Scandal, was confronted with Leonard insisting that Cobb and Speaker had thrown a September 1919 game in order to win a bet. With Landis cornered into holding expanded hearings, Leonard refused to travel from California to testify, and in January of 1927 Lanids cleared the two stars and deemed them eligible to return to their former clubs.

   Speaker signed with the Washington Senators for 1927, and Cobb played two final seasons in 1927-28. It was those two seasons that brought forth the jersey that Halper owned, all $332,500 worth of it. Cobb, who lived another 30-plus years as a business mogul and wealthy stockholder, might certainly have liked to have a piece of that kind of action.
   The Shoeless Joe postscript
   There was yet another bittersweet story that surrounded Cobb and another of his great rivals, Joe Jackson. Returning from a Masters golf tourament in the late 1940s and traveling with the legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice, Cobb is said to have stopped at a Greenville, S.C., liquor store.

   As the story goes, Cobb noticed that the man behind the counter was Shoeless Joe Jackson, his old rival who by then had been banned from the game for nearly three decades. But Jackson didn’t seem to recognize his old nemesis, until Cobb finally said, “Don’t you know me, Joe?”

   “Sure, I know you, Ty,” Jackson is said to have replied. “But I wasn’t sure you wanted to know me. A lot of them don’t.”

   A lot of “them” apparently had enough ambivalence about Cobb that only three former players turned up at Cobb’s funeral in July of 1961. Ray Schalk, Mickey Cochrane, whom Cobb had helped financially over the years, and Nap Rucker. The director of the Baseball Hall of Fame, Sid Keener, also attended; messages of condolences numbered into the hundreds.

   The estate left behind was thought to approach $12 million, largely from General Electric stock and nearly $2 million-worth of Coke stock.

   A hobby powerhouse
   As the adjacent article by autograph expert Ron Keurajian makes clear, few players in the history of the game command the kind of hobby clout that Cobb wields still  to this day.

   Serendipity placed him front and center in the most elegant and collectible baseball card issues of the period, maybe ever: Turkey Red, T206 White Borders, T205 Gold Borders, Cracker Jacks, Sporting News, Sporting Life, Triple Folders, Sporting Life, Caramels, etc., the list of turn of the century sets that include Cobb is staggering, as would be any attempt to put together a Ty Cobb single-player collection.

   As mentioned earlier, his Philadelphia A’s jersey wowed perhaps the most elite group ever to attend a big-time sports auction, but as the adjacent list of recent auction prices illustrate, it barely scratched the surface of a mountain of Cobb artifacts that fans have treasured for 100 years or more.

   Even having said that, Cobb himself donated hundreds of items to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, where, thankfully, the greatest star of his era is as well represented as any player in the history of the game.

   One of the great curiosities at that famous 1999 sale at Sotheby’s in New York City was the several thousand dollars ponied up for Cobb’s dentures. There’s probably something deeply symbolic about such an intrinsically personal item finding its way to the auction block and delivering thousands of dollars in the process.

   For a man who often finds the adjective snarling preceding his name, he presumably might have gotten a kick out of such a memento. Halper also owned the shotgun that had been used by his mother to kill his father. That sad artifact was not in that record-setting $22-million sale in 1999, nor was it included in subsequent smaller auctions of Halper material that took place several years later.

   It is often suggested that just about anything connected with a truly famous person’s life – and death – can be suitable fodder for the auction block, but under the circumstances something like that seems better suited for a museum.  


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