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In defense of Ty Cobb, perhaps the Detroit Tigers’ most infamous and misunderstood ballplayer 

click to enlarge There are a lot of false rumors about Cobb, but his story doesn't need embellishing. - LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, PUBLIC DOMAIN
  • Library of Congress, public domain
  • There are a lot of false rumors about Cobb, but his story doesn't need embellishing.

Tyrus Raymond Cobb's life was a ball of fire and chaos before he ever stepped foot in Detroit.

He was a mixture of intelligence, hypersensitivity and unhinged rage. The personality emerged early. Cobb said he beat up a classmate in the fifth grade who caused the boys to lose to the girls in the school spelling bee.

"I had a terrible temper in my younger days, and it got me into a lot of trouble," he wrote in a 1914 syndicated newspaper memoir.

Trouble there was, although Cobb's status as one of the most famous men in the United States helped him wiggle out of most of the jams he caused. In the long run, though, his reputation didn't get off so easy.

He was born on December 18, 1886, in rural Royston, Georgia. His father was a state senator, school superintendent and newspaper editor, while his mother came from a family of well-to-do landowners.

The baseball bug bit young Tyrus early on, and as he grew into his teens, his hankering for the diamond was a constant source of tension with his father. William Herschel Cobb was dead set against his eldest son choosing a profession that was thought of at the time as being only one step above bank robber. Cobb worshipped his father and wanted to please him — but he wanted to play ball even more.

When the 17-year-old Cobb was offered a tryout by the Augusta Tourists in the South Atlantic League in 1904, his father finally relented and gave his grudging consent for the boy to get it out of his system. He hoped his son would eventually quit baseball, go to college and get a real job.

The tryout went well, and Cobb's professional career was under way. While he was known during his two years in the minor leagues for his wild, sometimes reckless playing style, there are no recorded incidents of the violent episodes that would mark his time in the majors.

During his second season as a pro, Cobb tore up the South Atlantic "Sally" League. He was on his way toward winning his first batting championship, and rumors about a possible sale to a big-league club were circulating when, on August 8, 1905, Cobb's world was blown to smithereens.

Imagine the horror of opening a telegram and reading something along the lines of "COME HOME IMMEDIATELY STOP YOUR MOTHER SHOT YOUR FATHER DEAD STOP."

On the fatal morning, W.H. Cobb had told his wife he was taking a road trip for a few days to visit schools he supervised in the district. That night, he hitched his wagon and shoved off — but he circled back and returned home. Rumor had it that the mister was trying to catch the missus, Amanda Cobb, with her lover.

Whatever the reason for his return, the man known around town as "Professor Cobb" was lurking near his house when, at about 11 p.m., his wife said she heard a rustling sound outside her bedroom window.

"Thinking the man was a robber, she seized [a] pistol from under her pillow and fired twice," The Washington Post reported days after the incident. "The man fell, and then, she says, she learned she had killed her husband."

W.H. Cobb died from two gunshot wounds to the abdomen. His wife was arrested at the funeral while she stood over the open grave and charged with voluntary manslaughter. Bail was set at $7,000.

The case drew national interest, fueled by the rumors of Amanda Cobb's infidelity.

"It developed to-day ... that Cobb had been warned to watch his home," The Washington Post reported. "The senator left town, ostensibly to go to Atlanta, but returned at night to watch. There was a male visitor and the killing of the husband followed. This is the theory of the State, but the name of the visitor to Senator Cobb's home has not been divulged. Mrs. Cobb is a very beautiful woman, and there has been gossip about her for some time." Three weeks after the incident, the Detroit Tigers purchased Cobb's contract from Augusta for $700. His dream had come true, but his beloved father wasn't there to see it.

Cobb reported to Detroit with storm clouds swirling around him.

****

Cobb's arrival in the big city was met with little fanfare. He was considered a stopgap fill-in outfielder after the Tigers were hit by a slew of injuries.

"If he gets away with a .275 mark, he will be satisfying everybody," the Detroit Free Press famously prophesized.

On August 30, 1905, Cobb made his major-league debut against the New York Highlanders, socking a double off future Hall of Fame pitcher Jack Chesbro in his first at-bat. Cobb got into 41 games that year, hitting an unremarkable .240, although even with his family tragedy hanging over him, he showed flashes of his future greatness.

The following season, the trouble that would mark Cobb's tumultuous career began. His teammates, who had basically ignored him during the previous year's stint, began brutally hazing him in the 1906 spring training camp. It was common to razz young players in those days, but the Tigers were particularly cruel to Cobb. They sawed his bats in two, flattened his hats, threw wet newspapers at his head during train trips and locked him out of the shower after games. On top of that, the team's burly catcher repeatedly beat him up.

Longtime Detroit Free Press baseball writer E.A. Batchelor wrote that Cobb's teammates were jealous of the highbrowed rookie. While the other Tigers spent their time after road games getting hammered in bars or watching tawdry vaudeville shows, Cobb toured museums and libraries.

"That Ty came from a higher social plane than had spawned the bullies made them all the more determined to drive him off the squad," Batchelor wrote.

Tigers catcher Charlie "Boss" Schmidt, a former professional wrestler who according to legend used his bare fists to drive spikes into the Tigers clubhouse's wood floor, fought with Cobb twice that year. Schmidt reportedly whipped the younger man both times. There would be more vicious fights between the two the following season, with Cobb on the losing end.

Between the bullying and his mother's manslaughter charges, Cobb must have been under tremendous pressure. Toward the end of spring training, he left the team to attend his mother's trial, which lasted only two days. On March 30, 1906, the jury deliberated just an hour before finding Amanda Cobb not guilty.

Once the season began, it became clear that Cobb was one of baseball's rising stars, which seemed to fuel his teammates' resentment. In July, it all seemed to come to a head when Cobb left the team. Tigers officials told reporters that their young outfielder had gone to the hospital for an unspecified operation, although baseball historians generally conclude that Cobb's 44-day absence likely was spent in a sanatorium recovering from a nervous breakdown.

Cobb returned to the Tigers in September. A few weeks later, he got into a dustup with a fellow Tiger in St. Louis. Cobb's teammates were upset because he and outfielder Matty McIntyre, who despised the Georgian, had allowed a ball to fall between them during a game against the Browns. Tigers pitcher Eddie Siever, McIntyre's close friend, blamed Cobb for the misplay. Later, in the Planters' Hotel, Cobb tangled with Siever and tore him to pieces. "Cobb was standing in the lobby, leaning against one of the columns ... when Siever passed and, it is said, called him an ugly name," the Free Press reported. "Quick as a flash, Cobb sent out his right fist, catching Siever under the chin and flooring him. Cobb followed the blow with several others, and kicked Siever in the face after he had fallen to the floor.

"Other players finally separated the combatants, after Siever's face was a mass of bruises," the Free Press said. "Cobb walked calmly out of the hotel, and physicians were called to care for the wounded pitcher. No arrests were made, as the team left St. Louis a short time after the fight."

The fight resulted in "severe disfigurement of Siever's face," the Free Press reported. "Cobb was not scratched."

Despite all the distractions, Cobb ended his first full season with a solid .316 batting average, good for sixth in the American League.

****

Cobb's menacing side emerged in 1907, during one of the most combative spring training camps in baseball history.

During the first week of training in Augusta's Warren Park, as Cobb walked to afternoon practice, he assaulted Henry "Bungy" Cummings, the ballpark's 25-year-old groundskeeper, who was Black — a fact played up by the Free Press, which started as a pro-slavery paper and was overtly racist well into the 20th century.

"The negro stepped up to the Georgia boy, held out his hand, and said 'Hello, Ty, old boy,'" the Free Press reported the day after the March 16, 1907 incident. "Being a southerner, Cobb considered the action of the negro in putting himself on an equal footing with a white man an insult. He drew back the hand that the negro had reached out for and, instead of extending it for a handshake, drove it forward, hitting the man with a hard blow. He chased the negro off the playing lot and into the club house."

Schmidt, who already had attacked Cobb at least twice, told reporters that Cobb had also tried to strangle the groundskeeper's wife. "[Cummings's wife] went to the rescue of the man, applying an epithet to Cobb," the Free Press said. "The latter at once turned his attention to the woman, grabbing her and choking her."

Cobb disputed the allegation, and none of Detroit's other newspapers mentioned Bungy's wife being assaulted.

According to all accounts of the incident, Schmidt jumped on Cobb, and the two men scuffled before teammates broke it up.

The assault is often used as an example of Cobb's racism, but the newspapers — chiefly, the Free Press — made a bigger deal out of Cummings's skin color than Cobb did. For all his faults, Cobb's extensive, well-documented record shows no evidence of racial bigotry, other than what appear to be a few contemporary columnists' uncorroborated flights of fancy. But that reputation stuck for years, with well-respected historians repeating falsehoods as fact until researchers recently pored over the record and debunked most of the anecdotes about Cobb's supposed racial bigotry.

Cobb likely didn't learn to be a racist from his father, who, as a politician in the antebellum Deep South, openly advocated for African Americans' rights and once stopped a lynching by standing up to a riotous crowd. During the younger Cobb's baseball career, he often visited Negro League games and hung out with Black ballplayers. After Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947, Cobb praised Black players joining the big leagues, at a time when many in baseball circles openly opposed it. When Cobb died, at least one African American newspaper lauded him for endorsing Blacks in the majors. A Black employee named his son after Cobb.

If Cobb was as racist as he's been made out to be, there's no record of him ever revealing it in hundreds of interviews, even though during his era he could have done so with no repercussions. Tris Speaker, probably the American League's second-best player during Cobb's era, was an openly racist KKK member and got no flak for it. And although Cobb was never shy about speaking his mind, he was never quoted saying anything but positive things about Blacks.

Cobb's first recorded statement on race came in 1952, when he told The Sporting News: "The Negro should be accepted wholeheartedly and not grudgingly into baseball. The Negro has the right to play professional sports, and who's to say he has not?"

But whether or not Cobb's Warren Park skirmish with the groundskeeper was racially motivated, it serves as an example of his violent, uncontrollable temper. There were more dustups during the trouble-filled spring training of 1907, including another fight between Cobb and Schmidt in Meridian, Mississippi, as the Tigers barnstormed northward to Detroit. Again, Schmidt soundly thrashed the younger player. The incident made national headlines, and it prompted Tigers management to contemplate trading Cobb to Cleveland straight up for outfielder Elmer Flick, who was winding down his Hall of Fame career.

After the 1907 season started, however, the Tigers would thank the heavens they didn't pull the trigger on that trade, as Cobb quickly established himself as the most exciting player in baseball, and the fighting with teammates ceased.

In the future, most of Tyrus's roiling fury would be unleashed on the rest of the world, not on fellow Tigers.

click to enlarge Cobb slides into third base for a triple against the Washington Senators at Griffith Stadium, Aug. 16, 1924. - LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, PUBLIC DOMAIN
  • Library of Congress, public domain
  • Cobb slides into third base for a triple against the Washington Senators at Griffith Stadium, Aug. 16, 1924.

***

Cobb and Tigers first baseman Claude Rossman were strolling out of the Pontchartrain Hotel in downtown Detroit on their way to a game at Bennett Park the afternoon of June 6, 1908, when they came upon Fred Collins, a Black employee of the Detroit United Railway who was spreading asphalt outside the hotel. According to newspaper reports, Cobb took offense when Collins told him to walk around the wet patch of sidewalk, so Cobb handled the dispute like he often did — by hauling off and punching the man.

The Free Press again made race a central issue, with cringeworthy coverage of the fight.

The headline quipped: "Cobb Increases His Batting Average by Battering Up a Negro Wearing Spectacles." A cartoon accompanying the story depicts an ape-like figure with absurdly huge lips fighting with Cobb, while three similar dark caricatures wielding rakes and hoes rush to join in. The next panel shows a cop gripping both men by the shoulders, looking at their blackened faces and asking: "Which one of youse is Ty Cobb?"

The Free Press story told how Cobb became belligerent when Collins told another man he couldn't walk on the freshly poured asphalt.

"Cobb evidently thought that Collins spoke to him, and turned sharply on the negro, demanding: 'What the - - - have you got to say about it, nigger?' The negro evidently didn't treat Cobb with the deference the colored brother extends to the white man down in dear old Georgia and Cobb was seen to shove his face within two inches of the shiny continence of the Ethiopian.

"Half way through the fight, as Cobb was driving the negro towards the curb, five burly negroes, fellow-workers of Collins, advanced toward the fighters with upraised ironers, weighing 75 pounds each, and a sixth negro flourished a rake," the Free Press reported. "The two struggling men were whirling and fighting so fast that the negroes did not get a chance to let the deadly weapons down on Cobb's head. They evidently feared they might hit the negro by mistake.

"Just as the negroes' weapons seemed sure to fall, white men rushed to the assistance of Cobb," the Free Press said. "They grabbed the big iron bludgeons and rake, and pushed the negroes back."

Did the Free Press quote Cobb accurately? Did he hurl that racial slur at Collins? Did the Free Press reporter witness the fight, or did he invent details, as was common in those days? Definitive answers are lost to history, although coverage of the fight by The Detroit News and the Detroit Times doesn't mention a racial element, other than the fact that Collins was a "Negro."

Independent of any racial animus, Cobb did assault the man, and the ballplayer was issued a summons to appear in municipal court the next day. Police court justice Edward J. Jeffries Sr., whose son Edward Jr. would serve as Detroit mayor in the 1940s, said Cobb's status as a ballplayer cut no ice with him.

"If you are guilty you will pay a fine," Jeffries told Cobb. "Your batting average won't save you." The judge set a court date for the following week, but before the hearing could take place, Cobb settled with Collins for seventy-five dollars.

Cobb later told reporters: "When a man is insulted, it is worth $75 to get satisfaction. I would have done the same thing to any man."

If Cobb felt insulted by a Black man giving him orders, as the Free Press claimed, no newspaper ever quoted him as such. Conversely, his statement "I would have done the same thing to any man" suggests that perhaps race didn't play a role in the skirmish.

Cobb could be a dangerous man with a hair-trigger temper, and the record shows he'd fight anyone, Black or white, at the drop of a hat.

****

Cobb's fury on the diamond continued until his retirement in 1928, although his off-field violence abated after World War I, in which he served as a captain in a poison gas unit.

Although he'd mellowed a bit after the "War to End All Wars," his old anger resurfaced from time to time. On September 24, 1921, Cobb had one of his most vicious fights, a knockdown drag-out with Billy Evans, the American League's chief umpire, in front of about 50 fans at Washington's Griffith Stadium. According to reports, Cobb won.

The animosity was sparked in the fifth inning, when Evans called Cobb out on an attempted steal of second base. Cobb — by now managing the Tigers — got in the umpire's face, threatening to beat him up right on the field. Cooler heads prevailed, and the game continued. But after the Tigers' 5–1 loss to the Senators, as Cobb and Evans passed each other on the way to their respective locker rooms, they went at it, while dozens of fans looked on. The News gave a blow-by-blow description: "Evans suffered a cut lip where Cobb's mighty fist landed, and his neck was cut from cinders in which both men rolled before the eyes of a half a hundred delighted fans. Clinching, they went to the cinders and were rolling around when park officials succeeded in separating them. It was officially announced afterwards that they shook hands and agreed to call it quits."

Both combatants reportedly agreed not to tell league officials about the fight — a meaningless pact, since the incident had been witnessed by so many fans and was covered by newspapers across the country. American League president Ban Johnson suspended Cobb for one game. Evans umpired the next few games wearing bandages. If Ty Cobb played today, he likely wouldn't get away with half the things he did, although there certainly are modern examples of sports stars getting free passes for abhorrent behavior.

Cobb's legacy is violence, although there's much more to the story. He gave generously to charity, building a hospital in his native Royston, Georgia, and setting up a scholarship for medical students. Cobb, a sharp stock market manipulator who invested heavily in budding stocks like Coca-Cola and General Motors, was known to quietly give money to old ballplayers who'd fallen on hard times.

There are a lot of false rumors about Cobb, but his story doesn't need embellishing. It's fascinating enough as is.

Reprinted from Detroit Tigers Gone Wild: Mischief, Crimes and Hard Time by George Hunter (The History Press, 2020).

George Hunter has covered crime for The Detroit News for more than 20 years. He's familiar with the subject; he grew up in the Cass Corridor, one of Detroit's most impoverished, crime-ridden neighborhoods, and three of his siblings were Detroit cops. Hunter is also a lifelong Detroit Tigers fan, having attended his first game at Tiger Stadium in 1970.

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