Ty Cobb

Cobb has the highest career batting average in baseball history. When he retired after the 1928 season, he held 90 major league records. But his skill as a hitter is almost overshadowed by his reputation as the fiercest competitor ever, a reputation he encouraged. He would ceremoniously pick out a prominent location in the dugout and start sharpening his spikes in full view of suddenly nervous opposing infielders.

One of the most vivid Cobb anecdotes is the half-true story of an interview that supposedly took place in the late 1950s. Cobb was asked how he would hit under “modern” conditions. Cobb answered, “Oh, I’d hit .310, .315.” The interviewer was shocked. “But Mr. Cobb,” he protested, “you hit over .400 three times! Why would you only hit .300 now?” Deadpan, Cobb replied, “Well, you have to remember. I’m 72 years old now.” The other apocryphal stories about Cobb, a natural righthander who taught himself to hit lefthanded so he could be closer to first base, aren’t as dubious. For instance: By mid-1925, he had finally had enough of reporters asking him about Babe Ruth‘s awesome home run prowess. Cobb, who had a split-handed grip that gave him more bat control but less power, had a well-known disdain for the long ball and the boisterous Babe, and told reporters that hitting home runs didn’t take any special skill. To prove his point, he slid his hands down to the knob of the bat, Ruthian style, then hit three HR in that day’s game against the Browns (5/5/25). To pound the point home, he hit two more the next day.

When the scrawny 18-year-old rookie joined the veteran Tigers in 1905, he was harassed regularly. Although the determined youngster doubled off Jack Chesbro in his first at-bat, he didn’t hit well as a rookie. But in 1907 he became the youngest player ever to win a batting title. Cobb’s own favorite moment came late in the 1907 season. The Tigers were only percentage points ahead over the Athletics for the league lead when the two teams met in Philadelphia on September 30. The A’s took an 8-6 lead into the ninth, when Cobb smacked a two-run homer to tie the score. The two teams played 17 innings to a 9-9 tie, mathematically eliminating the A’s and giving the Tigers their first pennant.

Cobb’s batting title in 1907 was the first of 12, still a record, and first of nine in a row, also a record. He also established himself as a fine fielder. Cobb had 30 outfield assists in 1907, led the league in assists in 1908, and finished his career second all-time in assists and double plays among outfielders.

The Tigers took a third straight AL pennant in 1909, again stealing it from the A’s, again with Cobb in the middle of things. In the first game of a three-game set against the A’s in Detroit on August 24, Cobb’s sharpened spikes opened up an ugly gash in third baseman Frank Baker’s arm. Although the popular Baker finished the game, the Tigers swept the series to take first place and A’s fans were incensed. The two teams met again in Philadelphia near the end of the season. Cobb had received telegraphed death threats that many, but not he, took seriously. Cobb got a police escort to and from the ballpark. Policemen ringed the field and plainclothesmen wandered the stands, but the only thing aimed at the hated Cobb was Philadelphia invective. The Tigers claimed their third pennant, and Cobb won his only Triple Crown, leading the league with 9 HR, 107 RBI, and a .377 average. The 1909 Series against the Pirates pitted AL batting champ Cobb against the NL’s greatest star and batting champ, shortstop Honus Wagner. In the second game, after scoring the Tigers’ first run on a steal of home, Cobb found himself on first. He yelled down at Wagner, “Watch out, Krauthead, I’m comin’ down on the next pitch!” Sure enough, he took off. The 200-lb Wagner calmly took the throw and applied a none-too-gentle tag right in Cobb’s mouth. The Tigers lost their third straight Series, the first and only time a team has dropped three consecutive World Series.

It looked as if Cobb would win a fifth straight batting title in 1910, the year auto maker Chalmers decided to award the batting champ in each league with a new car. Cobb had a comfortable lead over the Indians’ Nap Lajoie, but was sidelined the final game of the season. Lajoie was in St. Louis for a doubleheader, needing a perfect day to take the batting title. The Browns, like everyone else, wanted Lajoie to beat out the hated Cobb, and did all they could do to help Lajoie. In his first at-bat, Lajoie got a triple when his fly ball was “lost in the sun.” Lajoie lined a clean single his next time up. Browns manager Jack O’Connor then ordered rookie third baseman Red Corrigan to play deep on the outfield grass, and the swift Lajoie exploited the alignment with six straight bunt singles. The final figures gave Cobb the title, .38415 to .38411, but Chalmers gave both players cars. O’Connor and Browns coach Henry Howell were later fired by the Browns. Ironically, later research revealed that record-keeping errors had denied Lajoie the title.

In 1911 Cobb set an AL record by hitting in 41 straight games, but Shoeless Joe Jackson was challenging Cobb for the batting title when the Tigers visited Jackson’s Indians for a six-game set late in the season, the occasion of another apocryphal story. The young Jackson, batting over .400, was a great admirer of Cobb and tried hard to be friendly, but Cobb purposely ignored him. The slight supposedly flustered Jackson and affected his hitting. Cobb went on to win the title with a .420 average, while Jackson finished at .408. In 1912 Cobb was the unwitting catalyst to baseball’s first strike. In a May 15 game against the Highlanders, Cobb’s ears were burning from the continuous insults of a fan sitting behind the dugout. When Cobb could take no more, he charged into the stands and beat the fan senseless. Cobb was immediately suspended. The Tigers declared they would not play again until Cobb was reinstated. They were scheduled to play in Philadelphia the next day, and Tiger owner Frank Navin was notified he would be fined $5,000 if he didn’t field a team. The players refused to play, so Navin and manager Hughie Jennings rounded up a group of amateurs to fill in. Needless to say, the ersatz Tigers were pounded 24-2. Cobb persuaded his teammates to go back before the next game. Jackson hit .395 that year, but Cobb ended up with his second straight .400 season, finishing at .410, which prompted the frustrated Jackson to publicly ponder just what it took to win a batting title.

Cobb’s batting eye was certainly keen, but his baserunning won just as many games. Until Lou Brock half-a-century later, he was the career steal leader. He would steal second, then proceed directly to third as the throw came in behind him. A young catcher asked a veteran what to do when Cobb broke for second. “Throw to third,” came the deadpan reply.

Cobb’s batting reign finally ended in 1916, when Tris Speaker hit .386 to Cobb’s .378, but Cobb won the next three years. In 1921 he was named player-manager of the Tigers, and responded with a career-high 12 HR. He got a taste of his own medicine in 1922, losing the batting title despite a .401 average when George Sisler batted .420.

Despite five straight winning seasons as manager, Cobb, followed a week later by Indians player-manager Speaker, suddenly retired after the 1926 season. The day after Christmas in 1926, the public found out why: Dutch Leonard, a disgruntled former player who had been released by both managers, accused Cobb and Speaker of fixing a game on September 24, 1919. Both stars, plus Cleveland outfielder Smokey Joe Wood, had allegedly agreed to let Detroit win the game to give the Tigers third place. Upon hearing the allegations, American League president Ban Johnson forced the two stars to quit. But Commissioner Kenesaw Landis cleared and reinstated both players when Leonard refused to leave California to testify. Cobb ended up in Philadelphia with Connie Mack, who defended the hated Cobb during the ordeal, and Cobb played two more years before retiring for good after a .328 season in 1928.

During his playing days, Cobb invested astutely in real estate, automobiles, and cotton, and bought a good-sized block of Coca-Cola stock at rock-bottom prices. By the time he retired, Coca-Cola had made Cobb one of the richest players in the game.

In 1936, despite an enduring reputation as the meanest player in the game, Cobb became the leading vote-getter among the first to be elected into the brand-new Hall of Fame. He received 222 of a possible 226 votes, seven ahead of Ruth and Wagner. Retirement didn’t dull his competitive spirit, however. In 1941 Cobb beat Ruth in a well-publicized golf duel. In a 1947 old-timers game in Yankee Stadium, Cobb warned catcher Benny Bengough to move back since he hadn’t swung a bat in almost 20 years. Bengough stepped back to avoid getting smacked by Cobb’s unpracticed backswing. Cobb then laid a perfect bunt down in front of the plate, and easily beat the throw from a huffing and embarrassed Bengough.

The wealthy Cobb tried to clean up his image in his later years with philanthropy. In 1948 Cobb contributed $100,000 to a new hospital in his hometown of Royston, Georgia. He was the first witness in the 1951 congressional hearing on the reserve clause, testifying in favor of it. “Baseball,” the fiery Cobb asserted, “is a sport. It’s never been a business.”