Long before the Oscars, Ty Cobb was a movie star

Cleveland's Joe Jackson and Ty Cobb go over their lines for their roles in a stage play to be produced after the 1911 season.

There are people today who are famous for being famous, who are celebrities because they’re celebrities. Movie stars come from every medium: television, stage, music, comedy, the internet, etc.

Back in the prime of Ty Cobb’s career as a center fielder for the Detroit Tigers, athletes were just about as big as it got. Even though it was years before Hollywood would become the center of show business, movies were a big deal in 1917, when Cobb starred in a silent film that was viewed by thousands of adoring fans. Indeed,

At the conclusion of the 1916 season, Cobb sat on top of the baseball world. He had no peer on the diamond. He had won nine consecutive batting titles, won the first most valuable player award in 1911, and had pilfered an incredible 96 bases in a single season. His amazing skill with the bat may have been what earned him respect from baseball insiders, but it was his daring baserunning that made him popular with fans. He did things on the base paths that no other player had ever had the gumption to try. His feet were as marvelous on the dirt as his hands were on a wooden bat.

That off-season, Cobb was approached by the respected sportswriter Grantland Rice with an opportunity. Rice had written a screenplay based on one of his short stories and he wanted the Detroit star to play the lead role in the film. Ever the opportunist when it came to business, Cobb readily agreed after securing a $25,000 salary (more than $400,000 in 2012 money). Filing would take place in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

The film was directed by British-born George Ridgwell, who would later gain fame for his work on a series of Sherlock Holmes films. Ridgwell hired Elsie MacLeod to play the romantic interest for Cobb. Though she was only 23, MacLeod was a veteran of more than two dozen films in that early era of the cinema. With a rookie actor like Cobb as her leading man, MacLeod served as acting coach to the ballplayer.

The plot was childishly simple: Cobb played a banker in rural Georgia who has a talent for the game of baseball.  He earns a contract with the Detroit Tigers, heading north and leaving behind his sweetheart, a teller at the bank (played by MacLeod). After he gains stardom in the game, Cobb returns to Georgia for a game against the local team. But a crooked bank cashier, who also loves MacLeod, kidnaps Cobb to keep him away from the girl and the ballpark. In the climax, Cobb breaks free, fights off the evil cashier, speeds to the diamond, and wins the game for Detroit in triumphant fashion. The final scenes shows him reunited with his adoring sweetheart.

A fantastic formula: boy makes good, boy loses girl, boy returns for girl, boy defeats bad guys, boy wins girl. Hooray!

Filming took less than a week and the 30-minute silent short titled Somewhere in Georgia was set for release during the 1917 baseball season. At the time, Charlie Chaplin was the biggest movie star in the world, having just released his first few silent movies starring his famous character “The Tramp.” Cobb was the biggest sports star in the country, and he wasn’t the first athlete to make the transition to the arts. In fact, back in 1911, Cobb had starred in a stage play, The College Widow, which received lukewarm reviews during a tour of the east coast and midwest.

In mid-June, Somewhere in Georgia was screened in theaters for the first time. Later that month, Cobb viewed the film at a showing in Detroit which was attended by his wife, as well as Frank J. Navin, the owner of the Tigers. By all account, fans were excited about the 30-minute film. For many baseball fans throughout the country, it was their first opportunity to see Cobb play baseball. In an era long before television and even radio coverage, if a baseball fan wanted to see  a game he had to purchase a ticket to the ballpark.

Helped by America’s love of baseball and their growing fascination with movies, the film earned a small profit. Cobb was delighted at earning a large chunk of change while also boosting his profile across the sporting world. It was lampooned by most film critics of the time, but it was never really intended to compete with the top movies of the day.

Had there been an Academy Award in 1917, Somewhere in Georgia wouldn’t have garnered any attention. But for the time, the movie was a popular short that featured the game’s greatest performer on the big screen.

Comments

comments

About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a web producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @thedanholmes or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.