Ty Cobb and the automobile: two Detroit originals

Ty Cobb sits in a touring car from Grant Motor Co. (Findlay, OH), at Navin Field in Detroit.

Just as Detroit was taking its first steps to becoming The Motor City, a blonde-haired teenager arrived from the south and changed the baseball team too. Together, the auto industry and Ty Cobb ushered in an exciting new era for Detroit.

In 1905 when Cobb made his first trip north of the Mason-Dixon Line, there were more than a dozen automobile manufacturers in Detroit. One of the youngest of those was Ford Motor Company, which introduced the Model T in 1908, the same year the Tigers won their second consecutive pennant. The Model T became the most successful car in history. At one point, nearly 40 percent of all cars on the road were a Model T.

Henry Ford became immensely wealthy and powerful in the city, at one point he employed one out of every twelve people in Detroit. The Ford plant in Dearborn had its own river, police and fire departments, steel mill, and electricity plant. It was essentially the third largest city in the state of Michigan.

Cobb was not only the best baseball player in the game, he was the biggest star in Detroit as the city grew into its role as the wheels of America. And like everyone else in the city, Ty was enamored with the new machines zooming across the city on burgeoning roads. He got into the act himself.

In 1910 Cobb won a new car from the Chalmers Automobile Company, a small manufacturer in Detroit who made a handsome touring car. Cobb loved driving the car and he later asked the company for a streamlined racing vehicle. It was in that same car that Ty was assaulted by a group of thieves in the streets of Detroit.

Cobb stabbed while driving in Detroit

On August 11, 1912, Cobb was driving his Chalmers to the train station in downtown Detroit on Third and Jefferson about one block from the Detroit River. Cobb was accompanied by his wife Charlotte, known as “Charlie.” At some point Cobb came upon another automobile that was disabled on the side of the street. Three men standing nearby waved Ty to stop and he did. Cobb exited his car and started talking with the men, but soon after the men attacked Cobb in an attempt to rob him off his wallet. One of them men brandished a knife and stabbed Cobb in the back, but Ty was able to get to the pistol he always carried and chased the men away. According to Cobb, he pistol-whipped one of the burglars and left him in a pool of blood in an alley. Remarkably, Cobb returned to Charlie and drove on to the train station. The next day the attack was reported in Detroit newspapers and Cobb played in an exhibition game in Syracuse with bloody bandages covering his stab wounds. He hit a double and stole a base.

In 1913, Cobb participated in a race series from Detroit to Chicago to drum up support of the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916. At that time there was no highway between the two cities, and Cobb’s trip took 14 hours including publicity stops and breakdowns.

Making millions with General Motors

While automobiles had always been somewhat of a folly for Cobb, in the 1920s his relationship with the industry became serious. Early in his career Cobb had recognized the importance of saving his money. He invested his salary in various ventures, including copper mines, real estate, and cotton. His close friendship with the founder of Coca-Cola led to Cobb becoming one of the primary shareholders in the beverage company from his home state of Georgia. Given his status in Detroit, it was only a matter of time before Ty poured money into the auto industry.

In the early 1920s when he was both a star player and manager for the Tigers, Cobb was approached to appear in newspaper advertisements for United Motors Co. He was paid $25,000, all of which Cobb used to purchase stock in the company. A few years later the company was bought by General Motors and Cobb’s shares soared in value. He kept buying General Motors, eventually accumulating shares worth more than half a million dollars. Just as much as he was a genius on a baseball diamond, Ty was a genius at making money. He became the first multi-millionaire ballplayer.

The primary owner of General Motors was a man named William C. Durant, known as “Billy”. Durant was a prominent but controversial figure in the early history of automobiles in Detroit. He co-founded GM and also co-founded Chevrolet. He was a master at buying smaller companies to acquire new technology and manufacturing facilities. He competed head to head with his rival Henry Ford, a man he could not stand. Durant became a friend to Cobb, the two men shared an appreciation for the stock market and making money.

But Durant’s later years were not comfortable. He started a new company, Durant Motors, even coaxed his friends to invest in it. The company was meant to build higher-end automobiles for the wealthy, but it failed to compete well with Packard and Cadillac. Durant Motors failed in the 1930s, and after he lost millions in the Crash of 1929, Durant was forced to live on his pension. Luckily for Cobb, Ty had resisted Billy’s offers to buy stock in doomed Durant Motor Co.

Whether he was sitting behind the wheel of his Chalmers, which he won as MVP of the American League in 1910, racing one of his custom-designed coupes, offering his name to hawk cars in the 1920s, or gobbling up GM stock during the Great Depression, Ty Cobb was linked to the automobile industry. And why shouldn’t he have been? Both the car and Ty Cobb were great Detroit institutions.

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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.