Five myths about Ty Cobb

Often a difficult and cantankerous man, and an aggressive competitor on the diamond, there’s no one left to speak up for Ty Cobb’s good qualities or dispel the myths surrounding his character.

Are you the type of person who believes everything you read in a book or see in a movie? Or are you willing to believe that there’s fact and fiction and often the two are very different?

When it comes to Ty Cobb, the greatest Detroit Tiger of them all- and possibly the greatest player to ever step on a diamond – the list of myths is long and scurrilous.

Many of the things that fans think are true about Cobb stem from the dastardly lies of one man – sportswriter Al Stump – who was commissioned by Ty to help write his autobiography. Stump abused the access he was given by Cobb, stealing personal property from the baseball legend, secretly writing a “tell-all” diary of a sick old man, and making up stuff. It wasn’t until the 1990s that much of what Stump wrote was shown to be absolute BS. Yet, thanks to a movie that was made based on Stump’s months with Cobb, the lies are taken as truths by many, including Tiger fans who seem to want to apologize for Cobb’s greatness instead of seeking the truth.

Ty Cobb wasn’t perfect. He was a difficult man, often self-centered and impatient. He had a temper that helped ruin his marriages and alienate his children from him. He was so centrally driven by the need to be great that he often forgot to be kind to those people closest to him. But that’s a story that’s common among greatness and certainly no reason to demonize a man. Especially one who can’t defend himself.

Cobb was also a southern gentleman who wrote respectful (and often unsolicited) letters to other ballplayers and old teammates, often with $25 tucked inside to help them out. He loved sport and art and he had a strong sense of family honor, though he unfortunately never had the close relationships with his children that he may have desired. Cobb was an unyielding force who parlayed his athletic achievements into financial success, which he used to help do good for tens of thousands of people in Georgia. His legacy as a philanthropist continues today more than 50 years after his death.

But what most people know about Cobb besides his amazing baseball statistics are the “bad” things – and that’s unfortunate because much of that is either exaggerated or simply untrue. It’s probably too late to resurrect the reputation of a man dead more than half a century, a man who has almost become a cartoon character, but someone has to try because otherwise the myth clouds the real story of a complicated, flawed, but still great man. To celebrate the 107th anniversary of Cobb’s first big league game, I’d like to dispel five myths about the baseball legend.

Myth #1: Cobb was the dirtiest player in baseball

Baseball in the early 1900s was a much different battle than it is today. The rules were essentially the same, but the way the game was played was markedly different. First, runs were at a premium. Most games were 2-1 or 3-2 affairs. The same ball was usually used the entire game. It was dark and hard to see, it was bruised and didn’t travel far. Few home runs were hit. Few balls were even hit over an outfielder’s head. Most extra-base hits were hit in the gap. When a runner reached base (often via bunt or infield hit or an error because the fields were atrocious) he had to advance any way he could. Base stealing was an art and running the bases was one of the most important facets of ballplaying. Cobb dropped down well-placed bunts, barreled down the basepaths, stole bases, collided with fielders, and ran over catchers – but so did almost everyone! Nap Lajoie, a Hall of Famer himself, once spiked three fielders in one inning. Most players at one time or another had fights – either during or after games. And that extended to fans as well. Babe Ruth and Rogers Hornsby each fought fans under the stands or in the stands in their careers. Most teams had factions on them that hated each other – it wasn’t just Cobb and his teammates, Cobb was the BEST player during his era and he elevated the style of the play of his era to an art form. In many ways he’s the poster boy for a rough-and-tumble era that he had no part in creating. Read some stories about the 1890s – the game was even tougher then! Was Cobb a saint? No. But he was playing the game as it was played at that time. Better than anyone else.

Myth #2: Cobb sharpened his spikes in order to inflict damage on opposing players

Several baseball historians and Cobb biographers have attempted to locate the source for this story. But to no avail. The practice of filing down rusty or dull edges on spikes had been around since the 19th century, not only in baseball but in other sports like American football, soccer, and rugby. Athletes didn’t sharpen the spikes to wound others – they did it so their spikes would catch better and provide better traction. Cobb WAS an aggressive baserunner, but to say that he was a bloody practitioner of feet-first spike wounds is grossly unfair. There is a famous photo of Cobb leaping feet first into a catcher, which has been used by some to show that Cobb was a dirty player. The fact is that the photo shows a catcher blocking the plate without the ball, and the slide technique that Ty is employing was the way ballplayers were taught to slide in that era. It’s a glimpse into an era when things were done much differently. Just like if you watched video of Sal Maglie or Bob Gibson knocking down batters with chin-high pitches in the 1950s and 1960s.

Myth #3: Ty Cobb killed a man

Almost everything that was depicted in the movie Cobb (starring Tommy Lee Jones) was false. The murder “confession” in that movie is made up. Conjured up out of thin air. It never happened, and there’s absolutely no evidence that Cobb killed a man in Detroit. Cobb WAS assaulted by some men in Detroit in the 1910s and he did chase the men away after he brandished a pistol, but there was no wrongdoing on Cobb’s part, and certainly had there been a dead body found in a back alley in Detroit and/or someone missing, there would have been some news about it. This myth is pure fantasy designed by Al Stump and the film maker Ron Shelton to make Cobb seem more dangerous and mysterious. It adds drama to the legend.

Myth #4: Only two people from baseball attended Cobb’s funeral

True, Cobb’s family had a private funeral service at which just a small handful of former players attended, but it wasn’t because no one wanted to be there, it was because it was intimate. Major League Baseball sent representatives, as did the Dertroit Tigers. There were so many flowers and cards sent that extra assistance was needed to attend to them all.

Myth #5: Ty Cobb hated black people

Ty had his prejudices toward minorities, having grown up in the south he inherited the plantation mentality that blacks had their place in society and it wasn’t the same as the place for whites. That’s deplorable, but it was essentially the de facto attitude among most whites in the south and many in America at the time. It’s important to note that Woodrow Wilson was president and had the exact same attitude toward minorities. It was an institutionalized concept in many ways. Cobb didn’t hate all blacks, however. He had several friends who were African American, and he helped many blacks in Georgia by paying their hospital bills and college tuition. He was an admirer of Jackie Robinson and Don Newcombe. Unfortunately, Cobb has been held up as the ultimate racist of the early 20th century, when many, many Americans, including many athletes, held his same views. Hall of Fame outfielder Tris Speaker, for example, was a member of the KKK. Cap Anson’s racist views towards blacks are credited by some historians as being one of the main reasons minorities were unable to integrate major league baseball sooner. I’m not apologizing for Cobb’s attitude toward minorities, nor for the handful of incidents in which he accosted African Americans, but it’s important to put them in context to better understand them

Cobb will never be able to shake the black cloud that hangs over his character. It was largely formed in the last few months of his life and years after his death. But shedding light on some of these untruths can hopefully help resuscitate his legacy.

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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.