It may be every man’s destiny, near the end of his life, to fret over his legacy, to question whether what he leaves behind will one day be forgotten.
It’s been more than fifty years since Ty Cobb, one of baseball’s immortals, passed away. Numerous biographies have been written about the Georgia native, some discounting aspects of his life that others claim factual. The weapon used in the shooting death of his father at the hands of his mother was, for years, thought to be a shotgun; recent research shows this to be fabricated and that the actual weapon had been a pistol.
Ron Shelton’s 1994 film, Cobb, based on Al Stump’s questionable second biography and starring Tommy Lee Jones in the title role, embellished the shooting, first depicting the death of William H. Cobb at the hands of his wife, Amanda, and later at the hands of her lover. The truth is, with all the principal players of that night in 1905 long deceased, we will likely never know the truth.
Even Cobb’s aggressive brand of baseball has been hyped—that he sharpened his spikes, sent more basemen to the hospital than any other player, that he once heckled Honus Wagner and tried to spike him while sliding into second base, and that Wagner had, after tagging him out, jammed the ball into Cobb’s mouth, necessitating stitches … the list goes on. In Cobb’s own words: “In legend, I am a sadistic, slashing, swashbuckling despot who waged war in the guise of sport.”
He’s been labeled a racist; but so were a lot of people’s grandfathers and many other people from that era. It doesn’t make it right, but even Major League Baseball segregated its game by color until 1947, when Jackie Robinson first trotted onto a major league ball field, more than a decade after Cobb had been enshrined into the Hall of Fame.
Cobb remains an enigma, a complex man whose complexity has only been compounded by the passage of time. We may never know how much of what has been attributed to his behavior on and, especially, off the field is true. All we can go on are the numbers.
In his twenty-two seasons with Detroit, Cobb set ninety Major League Baseball records. As of 2012, he still holds the highest career batting average (.366 or .367, depending on the source) and most career batting titles with 11 (or 12, depending on the source). He retained many other records for a half century or more, including most career hits until 1985 (4,189 or 4,191, depending on the source), most career runs (2,245 or 2,246 depending on the source) until 2001, most career games played (3,035) and at bats (11,429 or 11,434 depending on the source) until 1974, and the modern record for most career stolen bases (892) until 1977. He still holds the career record for stealing home—fifty-four. It’s likely no one will ever retire with a higher average or acquire more batting titles.
Cobb was instrumental in forming the Ballplayers’ Fraternity, the forerunner of what is now called the Major League Baseball Players Association.
In 1936, Cobb received the most votes (222 out of a possible 226) of any player on the inaugural Baseball Hall of Fame ballot. Inductees that year included Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson.
In truth, Cobb revolutionized the game of baseball. He brought the fans a brand of the game they had never before seen.
Sources differ on the greatest ballplayer of all-time: The Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) lists Cobb at number seven; while The Sporting News ranks him at number three.
The measure of a man can be debated — who he was, or what he was. The what is one of the greatest ballplayers of any era. Who he was was a man who, with a fortune acquired mostly through shrewd investments in real estate, General Motors and Coca Cola, donated $100,000 in his parents’ name for his hometown to build a 24-bed hospital, Cobb Memorial Hospital, now part of the Ty Cobb Healthcare System. He also established, in 1953, the Cobb Educational Fund, which awards scholarships to needy Georgia students bound for college, endowing it with a $100,000 donation.
It’s safe to say that Ty Cobb will never be forgotten — not as a ballplayer or a humanitarian.