Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Maybe the Greatest Baseball Player Ever and a Despicable Son of a Bitch

Classic Ty Cobb, sliding into home plate, sharpened spikes flying.

Ty Cobb is covered in baseball glory.  Revered as one of five original inductees into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, he received more votes than Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, and Walter Johnson.  He earned 98% of the eligible votes cast.  He was simply the greatest all-around player of all time.  Still is.  And everyone knows it.
More astonishing, it is likely that not one of the voters in that historic balloting would have had a good word to say about Cobb as a human being.  He was one of the meanest, most miserable human beings imaginable.  He had admirers.  He was respected.  But he had absolutely no friends.  His own team mates feared and loathed him.
Tyrus Raymond Cobb was born on December 17, 1886 in Narrows, Georgia.  His father, William Herschel Cobb was a stern Calvinist who demanded much of his eldest son yet never offered a kind word or encouragement.  When headstrong you Ty defied his father’s demands that he complete school, go to college, and become a lawyer by running away to join semi-pro  small town teams in his home state, the old man coldly told him, “Don’t come home a failure.”  Yet the young man idolized his father anyway.
Cobb’s mother, Amanda Chitwood Cobb had been only 12 years old when she was married and only 15 when Ty was born.  Shortly before Cobb’s contract was bought by the Detroit Tigers, Amanda shot and killed her husband on August 8, 1905.  She claimed he was skulking by her window and she mistook him for a burglar.  In fact the insanely jealous man was convinced his wife was cheating on her and was spying on her trying to catch her in the act.  She was charged with murder and brought her to trial, but the local jury, knowing about William’s brutal reputation, acquitted her.
Young Ty, however, never forgave her.  He packed his bags for Detroit and was on the field that September determined to make his father proud at all costs.
In the memoirs that he dictated late in life, Cobb claimed that he had joined the Detroit as a nice Sunday School boy but that the customary, if harsh, hazing all rookies then experienced, changed him.  “These old-timers turned me into a snarling wildcat,” he wrote.  Among the taunts he endured was being called the Georgia Peach for the light fuzz on his 18 year old cheek.
But it is doubtful if Cobb was ever a sweet or pleasant young man.  He had been carefully schooled by his father to hate Yankees, Catholics, Jews, the very rich, the poor whites below him, and above all Blacks.  And after the murder, women as well.  Cobb hated everyone who was not exactly like him in every regard and was eager to act physically on that hatred on the slightest of pretenses.
Yet there was no denying his talent, in his first at bat he doubled off of the ace of the New York Highlanders and finished the last 41 games of the season with a respectable .270 batting average. That was enough to get resigned for the full 1906 season for a very hefty $15,000, almost unheard of for a rookie. 
Cobb’s career achievements kept pace with his vicious attacks off the field, and sharpened-spikes-held-high style of sliding into base meant to maim defenders or scare them off the bag.  As the starting center fielder, Cobb .316 in 98 games and never hit below that for the rest of his career. He was in numerous altercations with his team mates and opposing players both on and off the field.
In 1907 he hit .350 becoming at age 20 the youngest player ever to win an American League batting championship.  He also batted in 115 runs and stole 49 bases, including for the first time in his career steeling second, third, and home after getting on base with a hit.  He would duplicate that feat four more times in his career.  During Spring Training that year in Augusta, Georgia he assaulted and nearly beat to death a black groundskeeper and was choking his wife, who came to the rescue of the fallen man, when his teammates pulled him off of her screaming curses and threats.
Those kinds of numbers propelled the Tigers to the AL Pennant.  With Cobb setting the pace they would win again in 1908 and 1909.  They could never win the World Series, however, losing to then Chicago Cubs the first two years and Pittsburg Pirates in 1909.  In each case Cobb’s post season numbers failed to match those during the Pennant races.
In the midst of this steak, Cobb found a woman who would abide him.  In 1908 he married Georgian heiress Charlotte  “Charlie” Marion Lombard. At first they lived on her father’s estate near Augusta until he built a comfortable mansion in town.  During their marriage Cobb was in several brawls over alleged offences to her status as Southern Gentlewoman.
His fortune also improved with a relationship with Atlanta based Coca-Cola.  He endorsed the beverage in print ads and soda shop posters and took part of his pay in company stock.  Eventually he became owner of bottling franchises.  His pay checks, investments, and his wife’s eventual inheritance made him a wealthy man.  But he could have earned many times more money if he were not so universally detested outside of Detroit and Georgia.
Although the Tigers never again won a Pennant, Cobb kept producing year after year piling up accomplishments and baseball records, many of which stand to this day.   
In 1911 had a 40 game hitting streak and he hit for his top average, an astonishing .420 narrowly beating out Shoeless Joe Jackson of the Cleveland Naps for the batting crown.  Jackson was a fellow southerner and as close to a personal friend as Cobb had in baseball.  Cobb “psyched him out” by shunning him on and off the field.  Cobb claimed in his memoirs that Jackson’s anguish at the unexplained rejection sent his batting into a tail spin. 
But he was always in trouble. In an early season game in 1912 against the Highlanders at the Polo Grounds Cobb charged into the stands and beat a heckler,  Claude Lueker who had allegedly called Cobb a “half-nigger.”  Lueker was missing one hand and several fingers on the other due to an industrial accident.  As fans tried desperately to call Cobb off pleading that his victim had no hands, he snarled, “I don’t care if he has not feet.”  Cobb was suspended and heavily fined by the League.  But his teammates swallowed their person distaste for Cobb and went out on strike in his defense claiming that the League had not acted to protect the player from an abusive fan.  Because Detroit was once again in a Pennant race, ownership actually made some concessions and the players returned to work.  The Fraternity of Professional Baseball Players of America, an early incarnation of what is now the Major League Baseball Players Association, grew out of this episode, although Cobb himself was bitterly anti-union.
There were other incidents almost too numerous to mention.  He challenged umpire Billy Evans to settle thing in a post-game fight under the stands.  Members of both teams attended the event at which eye-gouging and kicking Cobb quickly had the upper hand.  He pinned the ump and was choking him when he was finally dragged off.
In another incident, Cobb slapped a Black elevator operator for “being uppity” and stabbed a Black janitor who came to his aid with the switch blade he always carried.  This case was hushed up by Detroit management which paid the victims to go away and keep quietly.
Year after year he produced.  He won the batting championship eight of nine years and racked up records for stolen bases. 
Baseball was suspended for the 1918 season.  Cobb and several other major leaguers including Christy Mathewson enlisted in the U.S. Army Chemical Corps and served in France under Major Branch Rickey, the St. Louis Cardinals President.  They trained men in gas mask usage and exposed them to gas in special chambers.  Cobb was made a captain.  After oversees duty of 67 days, the war ended and he was honorably discharged and returned to the states.
When play resumed in 1919, Cobb was back playing furiously as always, racking up hits and flashing along the base paths, maybe a touch slower, but every bit as fearsome.  In August of  the ’21 season he got his 3000th hit, at 36 the youngest man ever to accomplish that and he did it in the fewest at bats—8,093.
That same year the baseball world was shocked when he was named to replace the beloved Hughie Jennings as Detroit manager.  Although naming a long time star as a player manager was still a common occurrence in the major leagues, Cobb was so disliked by his team mates that no one thought it would work out.  Although in his five years at the helm he earned a winning record of 479 wins and 444 losses, he was never able to pilot his team to higher than third place in the American League.  He blamed parsimonious ownership which would not invest in the top players he tried to recruit and on the “softness” of his squads.  His unremitting harshness and martinet style of leadership led to understandably poor team moral.
But his biggest problem was the rise of Babe Ruth who had abandoned a career as an ace pitcher for the Boston Red Sox to become a new kind of slugger hero for the suddenly powerful New York Yankees—the formerly undistinguished Highlanders.  Cobb hated everything about Ruth.  He resented the emphasis on homeruns, which he though sullied the “beautiful” game of baseball.  Even worse, Ruth was a beer swilling, hot dog munching, skirt chasing fat guy with a happy-go-lucky outlook on life, the antithesis of Cobb’s insistence of puritanical self-denial, discipline, and seriousness.  Worse yet was the ascension of New York, which he regarded as a vipers nest of Jews, Catholics, Wets, and Communists.
Not only were Ruth and the Bronx Bombers winning, they became fan favorites, eclipsing Cobb’s personal glory and demanding a change in the way the game was played.
In 1925, Cobb got fed up.  On May 5 he told reporters that he could do anything Ruth could do and would prove it by swinging for the fences.  In that game he went 6 for 6 at the plate with three homers, a double, and two singles.  The next day he clobbered two more homers and added another single.  Not even Ruth had ever slammed five round trippers in two days.  The total of 16 bases in two days was a record that lasted until this last May when Josh Hamilton of the Texas Rangers hit four home runs and a double for a total of 18 bases.  Having proved his point, Cobb returned to his old hit, run, steal kind of play with a high batting average and lofty Runs Batted In (RBI) count.
For his part, Ruth was generally generous to his rival, but later did say “I could have a lifetime .600 average, but I would have had to hit them singles. The people were paying to see me hit home runs.”
Cobb career as a manager came to an abrupt stop when he announced his retirement in November of 1926 at age 39 after 22 years as a Tiger.  The news stunned baseball, as did the nearly simultaneous announcement of the retirement of another player manager and baseball legend, Tris Speaker of the Cleveland Indians.  Both had been forced into retirement because of allegations that they had been involved in rigging a Detroit win in a 1911 game between the two squads.  The charges were leveled by a former Tiger pitcher Dutch Leonard, angered that Cobb had benched him.  He produced two semi-incriminating telegrams which Cobb and Speaker insisted concerned a horse racing wager, not a baseball game.  Leonard refused to testify in court and no charges were filed.  Baseball Commissioner Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis held a secret hearing into the affair, then cleared both men and allowed them to return to their teams.
Both teams, having moved on with younger players and new leadership allowed the two aging stars to become free agents.  Cobb went to Philadelphia Athletics, a hot young team in 1927.  Speaker went to Washington, but joined Cobb for the ’28 season.  He collected his 4,000 hit back in his hold stomping ground in Detroit in July.  The young team finished second to the most famous and successful of Yankee teams.
Cobb was back the next year but beginning to feel his age.  And with so many young players he was used sparingly as a fill in, utility player, and pinch hitter.  Still Cobb hit over 300 again in ’28 for the 22nd time, one of those baseball records that will probably never be broken.  He collected his last hit doubling as a pinch hitter against the Senators on September 3 and retired for good after the end of the season.
Although extremely wealthy through his ownership of stock in Coca-Cola and General Motors as well as other securities speculations and real estate deals, Retirement did not sit well with Cobb.  He tried travel with his family to Europe, and especially to Scotland.  He hunted, fished, played polo, and took up golf.  And the former proponent of “clean living” began drinking and smoking heavily.
His family life was in a shambles.  In 1930 he moved to a mansion outside San Francisco while his wife and children stayed behind in Augusta and she filed the first of several divorce actions made and withdrawn over the next few years.  They finally split for good in 1941. 
His relationships with his children were cool, especially with his sons, on whom he made the same, lofty and inflexible demands as his father had of him.  After his son Ty Jr. failed at Princeton, his father drove across country to whip him.  The young man re-enrolled at Yale, but later dropped out causing a permanent rift between them.  Them the younger Ty did eventually return to school and became a successful pediatrician who died at age 42 of brain cancer essentially un-reconciled with his father.  The younger brother experienced similar, if not as severe problems.
The 1937 Hall of Fame Election and 1938 induction were the highlights of his retirement.  He occasionally socialized with the few old timers who would speak with him.  Sports writer Grantland Rice, a golfing buddy, was a close to a real friend that he had.  He sometimes tried to befriend and mentor young players of promise.  He helped Joe DiMaggio negotiate his first contract.  But another notoriously prickly personality, Ted Williams found himself shut out of Cobb’s life for simply suggesting that Rogers Hornsby may have been as good a hitter.
In 1949 Cobb married for a second time to 40-year-old Frances Fairbairn Cass, a divorcee.  Their childless and unhappy marriage lasted until 1956.
That year he began work on the first of two memoirs written with professional reporters.  The Tiger Wore Spikes: An Informal Biography of Ty Cobb by John D. McCallum.  This book combined a pep talk for young players with a flattering appraisal of his career glossing over the harder edges.  The book was a success and Cobb had enjoyed the experience.
Without a writer to talk to and his family estranged, he grew lonely, especially after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure and Bright’s Disease in 1959.  He spent his time crisscrossing the country in search of a medical miracle and in unexpected charity as he tried to secure a legacy.  He endowed a 24 bed hospital in Royston, Georgia in honor of his parents and endowed a Georgia scholarship fund for needy college bound students.
But mostly he poured his heart out to Al Stump, hired to ghost a new biography, in which he was defiant and unapologetic.  Stump claimed he was also personally abusive to him.  My Life in Baseball: The True Record was published shortly after Cobb died on July 17, 1961, at Emory University Hospital.  Cobb had arrived at the hospital weeks earlier in bad condition and carrying a paper bag with $1 million in cash and a pistol.  His one surviving son, three daughters, and first wife were with him at his death.  One said they just wanted to make sure he was dead.
Cobb was buried in the elaborate mausoleum he built for his parents in Royston.
Nearly ten years after Cobb’s death, Stump released a new book purporting to be even more frank and unflattering.  It became the basis for Cobb, a 1994 biopic starring Tommy Lee Jones.
Maybe Cobb summed up his life best “In legend I am a sadistic, slashing, swashbuckling despot who waged war in the guise of sport,” he told Stump.

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