Ty Cobb was one of the game's true legends - books have been written about him and films made of his life story. If you don't know about him, you don't know about baseball - he was the aggressive, spikes-sharpening, hard-sliding leader of the Detroit Tigers in the early part of the century. So dominant was he that he 12 batting titles in 13 years (based on the re-written history books, it actually seems that he improperly won one of those) and 9 in a row, including hitting over .400 on 3 separate occasions. He led the league in slugging percentage 9 times and in on-base average 7 times.
At the age of 20 years and 9 months, he became the youngest player to win a batting title. Shoeless Joe Jackson had three great years, hitting .408, .395 and .373 from 1911 to 1913, but each time was overshadowed by Cobb and lost the batting crown to him.
Cobb's career records of 4,191 base hits and 892 steals each stood for about 60 years, and his single-season mark of 96 steals in 1915 withstood the assault of base runners for almost 50 years. He was such a great base thief that often, after stealing second, he would proceed directly to third as the throw came in behind him and gain an extra base (similar stories are told of Cool Papa Bell in the Negro Leagues). A young catcher once asked a veteran backstop what he should do when Cobb broke for second - "Throw to third," came the deadpan reply.
Cobb's .366 lifetime batting average remains the highest career average ever. Yet, for all that, his reputation as a great hitter may be overshadowed by his reputation as a fierce competitor and the meanest man ever to play the game. He was vitriolic to his opponents - he would ceremoniously and prominently sharpen his spikes, in full view of suddenly nervous opposing infielders, before he hit. Like Cap Anson before him, Cobb was a cruel bench jockey and unabashed racist.
In 1912, a fan was riding Cobb mercilessly from behind the dugout; when Cobb could take no more, he charged into the stands and beat the fan senseless - Cobb was suspended, and his Detroit Tigers refused to take the field until he ws reinstated (baseball's first strike).
His arrogance knew no bounds - my favorite anecdote about him (perhaps apocryphal) is about an interview he allegedly gave in the late 1950s. The reporter asked him how he would hit under "modern" conditions, i.e. with night games, relief pitching, etc., and Cobb replied, "Oh, I'd hit .310 or .315." The startled reporter protested, "But, Mr. Cobb, you hit over .400 three times! Why would you only hit .300 now?" Without missing a beat, Cobb replied, "Well, you have to remember. I'm 72 years old now."
The players hated Cobb. In 1910, the year auto maker Chalmers decided to award the batting champ in each league with a new car, Cobb had a slight lead over Nap Lajoie of the Cleveland Indians. On the last game of the season, with Cobb sidelined for the final game of the season, Lajoie was in St. Louis for a double-header and needed a perfect day to win the title from Cobb.
The Cardinals did everything they could to help Lajoie. On his first at-bat, Lajoie got a triple when his fly ball was "lost in the sun." On his second at-bat, he hit a clean single. After that, Browns manager Jack O'Connor ordered third baseman Red Corrigan to play deep on the outfield grass - the swift Lajoie exploited the alignment with six straight bunt singles.
The final figures gave Cobb the title, .38415 to .38411, but Chalmers gave both players cars. Later on, the Browns fired O'Connor and Browns coach Henry Howell; ironically, later research revealed that record-keeping errors had denied Lajoie the title.
Despite the fact that he was a hated player, he was elected to the Hall of Fame in the 1936 inaugural class, along with Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, and Walter Johnson. Cobb had 222 of the 226 ballots, more than any of the other four (Ruth and Wagner had 215, Mathewson had 205 and Johnson had 189.
"Cobb is a prick. But he sure can hit. God Almighty, that man can hit."
Babe Ruth, on Ty Cobb
"Every time I hear of this guy again, I wonder how he was possible."
"The Babe was a great ballplayer, sure, but Cobb was even greater. Babe could knock your
brains out, but Cobb would drive you crazy."
- Tris Speaker
"Few names have left a firmer imprint upon the stages of the history of American times than
that of Ty Cobb. For a quarter of a century his aggressive exploits on the diamond, while
inviting opposition as well as acclaim, brought high drama. This great athlete seems to have
understood from early in his professional career that the competition of baseball, just
as in war, defensive strategy never has produced ultimate victory."
General Douglas MacArthur
"Baseball is a sport. It's never been a business."
"Baseball is a red-blooded sport for red-blooded men. It's no pink tea, and mollycoddles had better stay out.
It's a struggle for supremacy, a survival of the fittest."
"Speed is a great asset; but it's greater when it's combined with quickness - and there's a big difference."
"That Goddamned Dutchman is the only man in the game I can't scare"
Ty Cobb, on Honus Wagner
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