Tyrus Raymond Cobb. The Georgia Peach. Baseball’s ultimate bad apple. Much has been written on the subject of Cobb through the years. He was a terror both on the field and off. He was an unabashed racist, a sociopath masquerading as an American Icon. He bragged to any one who listened that he had killed a man, and would do so again in a heartbeat. My favorite Cobb story involves the 1909 World Series. The Tigers and Cobb were facing off in an epic series, the first to go the full seven games, with Honus Wagner and the Pittsburgh Pirates. The first two games were in Detroit, with game three scheduled for Pittsburgh. While both teams took the train directly from Detroit to Pittsburgh, Cobb and his wife drove northward to Ontario, then through Buffalo and New York State before finally reaching Pittsburgh. It was an oddly circuitous route. Why would Cobb do this during arguably the most important series of his life? Simple, you see. The train route would have taken Cobb through Ohio, where he had a warrant out for his arrest. A year or so prior, he had gotten into a tiff with a hotel nightwatchman, who happened to be black. The whole story is vague from there, lost to the annals of time, but what is certain is Cobb stabbed the man and fled the state before authorities could question him. This is just one of many stories of this kind surrounding Cobb, as controversy seemed to follow him for all of his adult life.
But we’re not here to talk about Cobb’s shortcomings as a human being…as entertaining as that may be. Simply put, he was a transcendent, sublime baseball player. He played with a ferocity only matched by his unparallelled intellect playing the game of baseball. He was never blessed with the most raw talent of any great ballplayer, but he made up for it in daring and savvy. “Wahoo” Sam Crawford, a fellow Detroit outfielder and teammate of Cobb’s for many years, once stated: “Cobb didn’t outhit you or outrun you. He outthought you.” Stories run rampant about the guile and furor Cobb showed on the basepaths, and most are true. He certainly did hone his spikes to a fine razor’s edge so has to put the fear of God in opposing defenders trying to guard against his base swiping prowess. He heckled anyone on the field, and, for that matter, in the dugout or in the stands, if it gave him even one iota of a psychological advantage. And it worked for him. His triple slash lines are absolutely mind blowing considering his prime came in the deadball era: .366/.433/.512. That .366 batting average just pops. Its obscene. Over a 15 year period considered the prime of his career, his lifetime average actually approached .380. .380!!! He led the league in OPS ten times, OPS+ twelve times, batting average twelve times, RBI’s four times, hits eight times, runs scored four times, brawls started 23 times (okay, I made that one up). He retired the all time leader in hits (originally established as 4,191, since reduced to 4,189), runs, total bases, stolen bases, etc, etc. I believe he actually had set something like 40 offensive records by the time he hung his razor spikes up. So he never won a World Series, big deal. The owner of the Tigers, Frank Navin, was a notorious spendthrift who never put the type of capital needed to contend with the big dogs into surrounding Cobb with great talent.
For years after the retirements of both Cobb and Ruth, many considered Cobb, not the Babe, the greatest player in the history of the game. This is reflected in the initial Hall of Fame voting in 1936. Cobb got the highest vote percentage by the BBWAA, not Ruth. It seems, though, through the years that while the Babe has been mythologized, Cobb has been demonized. There is certainly some good reasoning behind that; Cobb was not a nice guy. But Ruth was no saint either. Cobb became somewhat reclusive later in life, appearing occasionally at World Series games to offer his insight into the sport that he dominated so. Unfortunately, like many of his contemporaries, he sneered at how the game was being played, maintaining that his generation played the game better. He amassed a vast fortune with shrewd Wall Street investments, displaying the same pitbull tenacity with stocks as he did on the ballfield. His biggest moneymaker was investing in a fledgling company in the 1910’s that you may have heard of: Coca-Cola.
Ultimately, what most people remember about Cobb was how unrelenting an asshole the man was on and off the field, and that is a fair assessment. But lets not forget just how brilliant a player he was. The glow of his rage was only out shined by the glow of his star on the field, baseball’s curmudgeonly, cranky supernova.
And, for my money, the movie “Cobb” with Tommy Lee Jones is the best baseball biopic ever made.