Ty Cobb (1886-1961)
Early Life and Career
Cobb was born in The Narrows in Banks County, on December 18, 1886, the first of three children. His parents were William Herschel Cobb, an educator and politician, and Amanda Chitwood, the daughter of a banker. While growing up in nearby Royston, Cobb became fascinated by baseball. Taking up the sport, he played for the Royston Rompers and the semi-pro Royston Reds during his early and mid-teens. In 1904, against the wishes of his father, who wanted his son to go into law, medicine, or the military, Cobb successfully tried out for the Augusta Tourists, a minor league club in the fledgling South Atlantic League. He was soon cut from the team but rejoined the Tourists after a brief stint with the Anniston Steelers of the Tennessee-Alabama League. Two months before the end of the 1905 season, Tourists management sold the left-handed hitting and right-handed fielding Cobb to the American League's Detroit Tigers for $750.
Two unfortunate experiences marred Cobb's abbreviated rookie campaign. The first was the accidental shooting death of his father. Mistaking her husband for a prowler, Cobb's mother shot the elder Cobb to death on August 8, 1905. Remembering the incident as the "blackest of days," Cobb became obsessed with making good on his father's decree that he could not come home from baseball a "failure." The second incident was Cobb's hazing by his teammates. Although rookie hazing was customary, Cobb could not endure it in good humor, and he soon became alienated from his teammates. He later attributed his hostile temperament to this experience: "These old-timers turned me into a snarling wildcat."
During his second season a determined Cobb blossomed into one of the game's greatest players, earning him the nickname the Georgia Peach. "Daring to the point of dementia,"
Cobb was also the greatest of his generation on the base paths. Using an aggressive, unconventional fall-away slide, Cobb stole a league-leading forty-nine bases in 1909, the first of his six base-stealing crowns. He stole his personal high, a then-record ninety-six, in 1915. Cobb's career total of 892 steals stood as the all-time mark for nearly half a century. Cobb still holds the record for most steals of home, with more than fifty (the exact total is in dispute). On four occasions, he stole second, third, and home in the same inning, also a record.
Cobb mastered baseball, but he never mastered his temper. During his career he was involved in numerous fights, both on and off the field, and several profanity-laced shouting matches. A racist, Cobb once slapped a black elevator operator for being "uppity." When a black night watchman intervened, Cobb pulled out a knife and stabbed him. (The matter was later settled out of court.) On another occasion he climbed into the stands and savagely beat a spectator who had called him a "half-nigger."
Primarily a center fielder, Cobb played his first twenty-two seasons with the Tigers (1905-26). For the last six of those years he served as the team's player-manager, compiling a mediocre record of 479 wins against 444 losses, although his team did finish as high as second in the standings. Cobb concluded his career with two seasons (1927-28) for the Philadelphia Athletics. Upon retiring he held several major-league score records, ranking number one in hits (4,191), at bats (11,434), games played (3,034), stolen bases (892), runs scored (2,245), and career average (.367). Although many of Cobb's records have fallen (Pete Rose surpassed Cobb's career hit total in 1985), his career batting average will probably never be approached.
An astute investor, Cobb was a millionaire by the time of his retirement. By 1961 his fortune had grown to between six and thirteen million dollars. Cobb enjoyed the luxury of two retirement homes, one in Atherton, California, the other on Lake Tahoe in Nevada. Later he maintained a third residence, an apartment in Cornelia, Georgia. Cobb also used his wealth for philanthropic purposes. In 1945 he donated $100,000 to Royston to establish a hospital in his parents' memory. The hospital was the cornerstone of what is now known as Ty Cobb Healthcare System, an association of hospitals, convalescent centers, and other health care facilities in northeast Georgia. In 1953 Cobb announced the creation of the Cobb Educational Fund and gave $100,000 toward its endowment. Still in existence, the fund annually provides tens of thousands of dollars to needy Georgia residents who wish to attend college.
Although Cobb had some happy moments during his retirement, such as his near unanimous election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936, he was often intensely lonely. He drank heavily, divorced twice, and regularly complained that modern-day players lacked fundamental skills. In December 1959 Cobb fell ill from a degenerative kidney and a cancerous prostate. Over the next year and a half the cancer spread, despite the best efforts of doctors at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. He died on July 17, 1961, and was buried in Royston. In 1963 Cobb was one of the first three professional athletes to be inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, and in 1998 the citizens of Royston opened a museum in his honor.
Prior to his death, Cobb collaborated on an autobiography with the sportswriter Al Stump. Stump relied heavily on Cobb's memory, failing to check the accuracy of Cobb's recall. The book, My Life in Baseball: The True Record, was published just months after Cobb's death. Although filled with factual errors and half-truths, it is considered one of the greatest sports autobiographies. In 1994 Stump wrote his own book, entitled Cobb: A Biography. This time, Stump was more meticulous in his research and filled in some of the details missing from the autobiography. Cobb's work with Stump was the basis for the 1994 movie Cobb, starring Tommy Lee Jones and directed by Ron Shelton.
Charles Alexander, Ty Cobb (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984).
Richard Bak, Ty Cobb: His Tumultuous Life and Times (Dallas, Tex.: Taylor, 1994).
Al Stump, Cobb: A Biography (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin, 1994).
John Paul Hill, University of Georgia
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.