Tyrus Raymond Cobb, better known as Ty Cobb (1886-1961), was most probably the greatest all-around baseball player who ever lived and also universally acknowledged as the "most hated man in baseball."
Ty was born on December 18, 1886, in Narrows, Banks County, Georgia, to William Herschel Cobb, a school administrator and state senator, and Amanda Chitwood. Cobb grew up in Royston, Georgia, and began playing sandlot ball as soon as he could swing a bat. Over his family's objections he signed with the Augusta baseball team of the South Atlantic League in 1904 and soon attracted notice. Grantland Rice, the famous sportswriter, saw him play for Augusta and named him the "Georgia Peach," a title that Cobb wore proudly.
At a time when pitchers dominated the game and batting averages were low, Cobb was a brilliant exception, hitting .326 in his last season in the minors before joining the Detroit Tigers of the American League on August 27, 1905. In 1906 Cobb hit .320, the fifth best average in the league and 35 points ahead of the nearest Tiger. The next year he won the American League batting championship, hitting .350 and leading Detroit to the World Series. He quickly became the biggest gate attraction in baseball and would hit .300 or better for 23 straight years. During that time he hit over .400 in three different seasons, his all-time high being .420 in 1911. Cobb led the league in hitting 12 times, nine of them in a row. During his peak years, 1909-1919, he so dominated baseball that historians refer to it as the era of the "Cobbian game."
In 1909, for example, he had the best year of any baseball player to that date, leading both leagues in hitting with an average of .377 and leading the American League in hits, runs, stolen bases, runs batted in, total bases, and home runs. Once again he led the Tigers to a pennant, though as usual they lost the World Series. As most of his teammates were markedly less talented than Cobb, he would never be on a world championship team, about the only honor available to a ball player that he did not win. This remained so even during his years as a player-manager for Detroit from 1921 to 1926, when the team never finished better than second place.
In addition to his peerless batting skills, amazing fielding, and audacity as a base runner, Cobb was the fiercest competitor in baseball. Not satisfied with simply winning, he had to run up the highest possible score and therefore put unrelenting pressure on the opposition until the last man was out. The terror of pitchers as a hitter and base runner, he was also the terror of infielders and catchers as he stormed down the base paths. A perfectionist in an era of what was called "inside baseball," which emphasized hit-and-run plays, base stealing, and bunting, he mastered every aspect of his craft. Cobb was also a supremely intelligent player, a kind of baseball genius. "Know thy enemy" was his guiding rule, and his thorough knowledge of every competitor enabled him to "read" the opposition as no one else could.
Why his brains were so much admired in his playing days can be seen in his autobiography. The chapter on hitting is a brilliant essay on how to keep the opposition off balance by never doing the same thing twice. "I tried to be all things to all pitchers," Cobb wrote, summing up his teachings nicely. If this chapter is all about technique, the next one, "Waging War on the Base Paths," is all about psychology. To Cobb base stealing was largely a matter of deceiving and demoralizing the enemy. Once Cobb, annoyed by a catcher who was always telling journalists that Cobb's reputation was overblown, performed an astonishing feat. On stepping up to the plate he told the catcher that he was going to steal every base. After singling to first, Cobb then stole second, third, and home on four straight pitches. Cobb's explanation of how he accomplished this is itself a masterpiece.
Cobb remained a star after 1920 when the rise of Babe Ruth and the introduction of a livelier ball changed the game to one in which sheer batting power mattered more than finesse and guile. But the new "Ruthian game" was not to Cobb's taste, and, although he remained a skillful batter, his legs began to give out. In 1927 Cobb signed with the Philadelphia Athletics, but, though he averaged .357 at the plate, it was clear that his days as a player were numbered. He spent most of 1928 on the bench and retired at season's end. When he left baseball Cobb held 43 records. Although all but one have since been broken, his fantastic lifetime batting average of .367 appears safe. That he was the best all-around player who ever lived was recognized in 1936 when he led everyone in votes for the first group of Baseball Hall of Fame inductees, coming in ahead of Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, and Walter Johnson—the other four original selectees.
As a player Cobb was godlike, but as a man he had little to offer. Angry, abrasive, touchy, a loner, he was hated by his teammates at first for what one called his "rotten disposition" and was tolerated only after his phenomenal value became evident. A brawler and bully on the field, Cobb was the same off it. In a racist age he was notably abusive to African Americans. Cobb was a poor husband and father too. Both his marriages ended in divorce and, though he had five children by his first wife, his relations with them were not close. As sometimes happens, he did better as a grandfather.
Like many ex-athletes Cobb was restless in retirement, living simply despite his wealth—much of which he gave away. In 1953 he founded the Cobb Educational Foundation, which awarded college fellowships to needy Georgia students. Among his other charitable endeavors was the hospital Cobb built in Royston as a memorial to his parents. This was a defiant act in part, as his mother had shot his father to death in 1905 under suspicious circumstances—although a jury found her not guilty of manslaughter. Cobb died in Atlanta, Georgia, on July 17, 1961, widely admired but not loved, unlike his great counterpart Babe Ruth.
The best biography is Ty Cobb (1984) by Charles C. Alexander. Must reading is My Life in Baseball (1961, paperback 1993) by Ty Cobb with Al Stump, a unique mixture of score-settling, revisionist self-history, and outstanding baseball analysis. The movie Cobb (1994) starring Tommy Lee Jones was based on Stamp's biography.