Ty Cobb and Coca-Cola: Two American originals

Cobb was often depicted in Coca-Cola ads. After his death in 1961, a special commemorative Coke bottle was issued.

It was perhaps inevitable that two American icons, Ty Cobb and Coca-Cola, would enjoy a long, satisfying relationship. Both were proud products of the state of Georgia, born just a few months and whistle stops apart in 1886, and both grew up to become integral parts of the national experience in the early decades of the 20th century.

Arguably the greatest commercial success in history (the soft drink is consumed hundreds of millions of times around the world each day), Coca-Cola was created on May 8, 1886, when an Atlanta pharmacist, John Smith Pemberton, stirred up a batch of syrup inside a three-legged brass pot in his backyard.Satisfied with the taste, he took a jug of it to the local pharmacy. There it was mixed with carbonated water and placed on sale as soda fountain drink for a nickel a glass.

Pemberton never realized the financial potential of his “soda fizz,” selling off shares of the business until his death two year slater. Atlanta businessman Asa G. Candler, his brother John, and a couple of Pemberton’s original investors (including bookkeeper Frank M. Robinson, who named the drink and penned the now-famous Coca-Cola script logo), made the srup a success. Under their direction the company began its tradition of heavy promotion, with the Coca-Cola trademark showing up on everything from souvenir fans to complimentary calendars. Innovative approaches to advertising included the placement of colorful signs in trolley cars and loans of ornate glass chandeliers to soda shops. After World War I, an investment group headed by Atlanta banker Ernest Woodruff bought the company for $25 million.

Cobb’s first commercial endorsement was a newspaper advertisement in September 1907, just as the 20-year-old Tiger was headed for his first batting title and the team was en route to its first of three straight pennants. The ad showed Cobb at bat inside Bennett Park and proclaiming: “I drink Coca-Cola regularly throughout all seasons of the year.” Cobb did more than drink it; he eventually started investing in it. At the urging of Woodruff’s son, Robert, Ty borrowed $10,800 from Woodruff’s bank in 1918 and bought his first 300 shares at $36 a share. The stock’s value skyrocketed after the company expanded distribution beyond the South in the 1920s, selling the beverage nationally and then overseas. A mushrooming network of regional bottling plants, aided by massive advertising and innovative marketing (the company introduced the contoured bottle in 1916, the six-bottle carry-home carton in 1923, and the metal open-top cooler in 1929), helped account for the sales boom.

As Cobb continued to prosper during the 1920s, drawing annual salaries in the $50,000-to-$80,000 range and earning tens of thousands of dollars more in dividends and endorsements each year, he could afford to purchase additional shares. He gave stock tips to his teammates and urged them to invest for the future, though few had the inclination or resources. “I remember when I first came along as a kid, making $4,000 a year, and he was telling me to buy General Motors and Coca-Cola stock,” said second baseman Charlie Gehringer, who broke in with the Tigers in 1924. “Which was good advice. But you had to live, too, besides buying stock.”

Coca-Cola weathered the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression in good shape, never failing to pay a dividend. Much of the credit for that goes to Robert Woodruff, who became company president in 1923. It was Woodward’s objective to capitalize on the bottle business and place Coke “within an arm’s reach of desire” of everyone. In 1928, Coca-Cola’s bottle sales, including millions at ballparks, finally surpassed fountain sales. (Umpires, however, were not impressed. Bottles were a nuisance. For decades, until owners finally banned bottles from their parks, more than one umpire was knocked unconscious by a glass missile thrown by an irate fan.)

Woodruff, a gruff, competitive man with a passion for the outdoors, got along famously with Cobb. They often hunted together on Woodruff’s 30,000-acre estate in south Georgia, betting on who would bag the most birds. During one hunting trip Ty confided he was considering the Tigers’ managerial job. Woodruff, a good judge of people, advised against it. “You’re too damn mean,” he told Cobb.

Ty’s friendship with the chairman made him privy to insider dope, which he passed on to selected friends and family members. In 1940, Cobb bought a bottling plant in Twin Falls, Idaho, and set up his son Herschel as manager. Another son, Jimmy, also became associated with the plant after World War II. Later, Herschel and his wife acquired additional bottling plants in Oregon and California. During this postwar period the company introduced the Peach to a new generation of sports fans on a set of “All-Time Winners” cardboard posters, first distributed in 1947.

Cobb died in 1961, a multi-millionaire. Estimates of his wealth ranged between $6 million and $12 million. According to The Sporting News, his Coca-Cola stock alone was worth $1.8 million at the time of his death. Twenty years later, the Baltimore Sun determined that a share that had originally cost Cobb $40 would then be worth $8,000. The “real thing,” indeed!

One reply on “Ty Cobb and Coca-Cola: Two American originals

  • Terry Tweedie

    I have in my possession, a Stock Certificate for 5,000 shares of Coca-Cola with the name: Tyrus R. Cobb. It dates back to the year 1947. It is possibly worth as much as $49 Billion. It could be worth even more because of who it belonged to. I need contact information for Tyrus R Cobb’s family. Any help would be appreciated. Thanks.

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