When the very first Hall of Fame induction ceremony was set to start on June 12, 1939, a host of baseball dignitaries were on hand in Cooperstown, New York.
It was a virtual Who’s Who of the National Pastime. Cy Young was there, as was Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the only commissioner baseball had ever had to that point, and the immortal Babe Ruth was beaming his big smile as he strolled around in a tailored suit. The crowds were buzzing with anticipation for the first induction ceremony and the dedication of the new Museum and Hall of Fame.
But one of the men of honor was missing. Ty Cobb – who had received more votes in the first Hall of Fame election than anyone else, was nowhere to be found.
Cobb was en route with his youngest son, Jimmy from the west coast. Cobb was immensely proud of being elected to the Hall of Fame, and he relished the fact that he had garnered more votes than Ruth, his rival for baseball supremacy. Ruth and Honus Wagner had received 215 votes out of 226 ballots cast, but The Georgia Peach had captured 222 votes. Only four voters failed to vote for Ty. What they were thinking, no one knows.
Cobb’s credentials were eye-popping: a .367 career batting average, a record 4,191 hits, and records for runs scored and stolen bases. In his 24 seasons he won 12 batting titles, topping the .400 mark three times. He was the most daring ballplayer to ever step on the diamond, and though he had made few friends in the game due to his difficult personality and aggressive play, he was respected.
As the officials of the new Hall of Fame, led by founder Stephen C. Clark, flitted about the steps of the Museum on Main Street in Cooperstown, they gathered the group of men who comprised the first set of inductees. Since the first election in 1936, which included the selection of five men, 21 more had been elected. Many were on hand, including Ruth, Wagner, and Walter Johnson: three of the other four original inductees. But Cobb was nowhere in sight.
Officials gathered the living inductees for a photograph: 10 men in all; Ruth seated between famed manager Connie Mack and Eddie Collins; the former pitcher and alcoholic Grover Cleveland “Pete” Alexander standing in the rear; Tris Speaker, Cobb’s best friend in baseball, standing to Alexander’s left. The photo remains a gem of baseball history, but Cobb – perhaps baseball’s greatest player was not present for it.
Jimmy Cobb hustled his father into town about 20 minutes later, after traversing the winding roads of upstate New York in a rented automobile. As Jimmy settled the car into a spot in the park adjacent to the Hall of Fame, his father waved his cap to fans who recognized the famous ballplayer. Ty looked resplendent in a suit and tie, his hair thinned by the years, but his skin tan from the sun at his California home. But why was he late?
Had Cobb orchestrated his tardiness to make a grand late arrival? Did he come in late because he was upset with having been snubbed by four voters? Was he late because he didn’t want to engage his former rivals (especially Ruth) in idle chit-chat?
The answer is far less sinister.
Cobb and his son were late because their train arrived late in Albany. Ever a frugal man, Ty had decided against arriving a day early in Cooperstown and staying a hotel. Instead he and his son booked an overnight train for Albany and rented the car to travel the remaining 40+ miles. He was late because of poor travel planning.
Ty arrived soon enough to climb the steps of the Museum and make a brief statement, which was recorded by movie cameras on hand. He signed autographs for fans who assembled on Main Street, and took a tour of the new Museum, where he was particularly impressed with the exhibit showing a baseball reported to be the first used in a professional ballgame (it wasn’t). He told Hall of Fame officials that he would ship several items from his baseball career to them, so they could put them on display. He also walked across Main Street and visited the Cooperstown post office, which was issuing special stamps that day for the historic occasion. Ty plunked down $1.25 and purchased a book of stamps (they were 3 cents at the time).
Cobb was very happy to see a plaque that hung outside the Museum with the list of inductees. His name – Tyrus Raymond Cobb – was at the top of the list. He was sure that his father, who never got a chance to see him play a professional game, would have been proud of his accomplishments.
In future years, Cobb would travel to Cooperstown nearly every year for the Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and he campaigned for several of his former teammates (most notably Sam Crawford) and players against whom he competed. But he wa slate on theat first day in 1939, and as a result he is missing from one of baseball’s most famous photographs.