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Tyrus Raymond Cobb (1886-1961)

[In the absence of a game today, here's something for your pleasure. Regular commentor Wimb wrote an essay on Ty Cobb for a course, and was kind enough to send me a copy for the site. I'm getting interested in the history of baseball these days. Not having grown up with baseball, it's an area I don't know much about, but I got a book on the Hall of Fame for my birthday, and look forward to learning about the characters from the past. Anyway, over to Wimb...]

Tyrus Raymond Cobb, or Ty Cobb as he is more widely referred, is perhaps the best known player of the early twentieth century, of America's `National Pastime' baseball, setting many Major League records that still stand today. Cobb became one of professional sports first ever superstars, and pioneered the combination of the role sportsman with commercial affiliation. Cobb is remembered not only as one of the most gifted outfielders of his generation, but also as a ferocious competitor who entertained the masses of fans who flocked to see him in Detroit and Philadelphia. Throughout Cobb's life, baseball grew from an informal pastime of the working classes, to become one of the great pastimes of the American people during the early 20th century.

Just as America grew into an industrial powerhouse, so Baseball and professional sport grew. As one author argues, `Baseball is central to modern American experience.... particularly during the half century from 1870-1920 which was the crucible for modern industry and modern sports alike. Ty Cobb's life was a product of these changes, his skill and entertainment value were key reasons why fans continued to flock to the ballparks and spend their hard earned money sitting around a patch of grass deep within the urban jungle day after day. The story of Ty Cobb reflects many of the issues of the time, from the strains placed on the working classes who paid to watch him, to his alleged racist and anti Semitic attitudes, to his capitalist ideals that allowed him to make a fortune.

Tyrus Raymond Cobb was born on December 18th 1886 in Narrows, Bank County, Georgia as the eldest of three children. Cobb was born into a family that were a comfortable middle class Southern family, Ty's father owned land and was a professor and schoolmaster covering several local towns, and his grandfather had been a respected member of the community before him. This Cobb himself admits, gave the family `status' in a largely rural community whose economy, based on cotton and corn, was still being rebuilt after the Civil War. After working various small part time jobs whilst growing up, such as helping to plough neighbours fields, Cobb began to play baseball, showing considerable ability from an early age.

However, Cobb's father wanted his son to focus on a more traditional career, appealing for his son to go into the army or to become a doctor, warning his son that baseball would only lead him astray. Despite this, Cobb was determined to make it into professional baseball, with his father's fierce warning of `Don't come back a failure' These words would stay with Cobb for the rest of his life. After starting his career at semi professional team the Royston Rompers, by 1905 Cobb had been bought by Major League side the Detroit Tigers in the recently formed American League, a professional baseball league set up to rival the National League.

Baseball had been played in various guises since the settlers first came to America, and had developed itself as a leisure pursuit for many of the working class who used the game as a basis to socialise, drink and gamble. The game was played by all sections of society, from immigrants to naturalised Americans and African Americans, who played the game in streets, fields, or any patch of land they could find. It was only in 1842 that rules were codified and was another 40 before a fully professional league would be formed. In the wake of the civil war, and after the trials of reconstruction, baseball played a key role in inspiring Americans to be patriotic and something to inspire good values As transport technology became cheaper and cross country travel became possible via the railroads. Suddenly Baseball could be a national sport, with teams from New York taking on teams such as Cobb's Detroit.

Subsequently, by the time Cobb came up to the `big leagues' in 1905 baseball had become the `National Pastime' thanks largely to a group of entrepreneurs who saw the potential to turn a leisure pursuit into a multi million-dollar industry that symbolised `American progressive values that reached beyond class and age'. Cobb epitomised these values, his speed determination, precision and heart represented all that was seen as good about America.. Albert Spalding a former pitcher in the 1880's, was particularly keen to promote baseball as being `singularly suited to the American character' as a means of drawing fans to the organised sport. However as Cobb's life shows, Baseball would still be blighted by controversy, discrimination and violence. He suffered great tragedy in 1905 when his Dad was shot dead accidentally by his wife who thought Ty's father was an intruder. The incident deeply affected Ty and was an event he `didn't get over' and he never forgave his mother for it, not even attending her funeral.

Nevertheless, the tragedy didn't affect Ty Cobb's amazing baseball career. Cobb was fortunate having come from a comfortable background to not need to move into the city looking for work. Instead, Cobb found himself in Detroit after being offered a professional contract which earned him around $1500 a year, a far higher wage then a factory worker could expect, now for the first time a professional baseball player, being paid to perform day and night doing what he loved. Detroit was typical of America's changing urban landscape, as Cobb settled in the city, the skyline was a representative of the new, modern city. Buildings were growing taller, to dwarf the downtown area, and the population of the city had grown from around 116,340 in 1880, to 317,591 in 1904, the year before Cobb arrived in the city. The fledgling motor industry had a base in Detroit, with men such as Henry Ford producing ever cheaper motor vehicles. Elsewhere, workers found themselves working in other factories and warehouses, helping supply an ever growing American an International market.

Some nine thousand or so of these Detroit citizens saw Ty make his debut on August 30th 1905, just three weeks after his fathers tragic death, seeing him double off of New York Highlanders pitcher Jack Chesbro. In the rest of the year Cobb went on to hit just .240, but he impressed enough to earn a spot on the roster for the following season. That next year Cobb would begin to establish himself as one of the games most exciting young stars, hitting .320 and impressing all with his pure desire to succeed and most of all, win. In the next few years, with Cobb in the team, the Tigers enjoyed one of the most successful periods in their history. The team won American League Pennants in 1907, 1908 and 1909, with Cobb batting above .320 in each year. However, despite his success and the teams, Cobb was never a popular member of the clubhouse, a former team mate Davy Jones tells how Cobb had a `rotten disposition', whilst another long time team mate Sam Crawford described how Cobb always had a mentality that people were ganging up on him. On the other hand, Crawford muses that perhaps it was this mentality that led him to be the great ballplayer that he was. This so called ` Winning is the only' ethic would lead Cobb to success but would also lead him to suffer problems with team mates, opponents and even fans.

Despite his wonderful talents on the field, Cobb's legacy is tainted by his violent tendencies and openly racist attitude, as one academic notied, `Cobb mastered baseball but he never mastered his temper'. Cobb's career is full of incidents, which unfortunately are just as well remembered as his exploits on the field. As early as 1907, Cobb was involved in an incident at the Tigers spring training ground, when he fought a black grounds keeper over the condition of the playing field. Worst still, when the grounds keepers wife tried to intervene, Cobb assaulted her too. However, perhaps the most famous came during a league game in New York in 1912, when Cobb assaulted a fan in the stands. The incident occurred when a regular heckler who was to known to Cobb, heckled him relentlessly during a game. Despite attempts to avoid confronting the fan, Cobb was driven to verbally abuse the fan, and in the argument, the fan Claude Leuker allegedly called Cobb a `half nigger', a particular insult for a man who allegedly believed that African Americans were inferior to their white counterparts. In response to the racial insult from Claude Leuker insult, Cobb vaulted into the stands, and ran up twelve rows of seats to assault Leuker punching him repeatedly until stewards restrained him.

In the aftermath of the incident Cobb was banned indefinitely by the head of the American League, a move that sparked furious protests from his Detroit team mates. In a show of solidarity, the Tigers players refused to play the next day, earning themselves $100 fines for their trouble. In the end Cobb served a ten day suspension and returned to the Detroit line-up Such an attitude was prevalent amongst American society at the times, particularly in the South, where many so called `Jim Crow' laws were being passed to segregate African Americans from white Americans. This segregation included professional baseball, and until Jackie Robinson broke the so called `colour barrier' in 1947, the most gifted of black baseball players were forced to play in the Negro Leagues, as one writer aptly states, Negroes were ignored and barred, even though they could have made money for club owners. Therefore baseball not only represented the best of American values, but Cobb and the officials of the league demonstrated some of the worst traits of American attitudes of the time.

Nonetheless owners of teams made massive profits, largely due to the fact that they had total monopoly over the sport and were given massive control beyond that of which a normal employer or union would have over its players. As baseball grew in popularity, so the potential for profit grew. Just as corporations were monopolising many American industries, such as the railroad and banking, so the clubs in the National and American leagues developed the monopoly needed to ensure continuous profit. In fact, Congress and the Courts ignored baseballs antitrust nature simply because of the unique place it held in American society. For these team owners money was key, and to earn that money, players like Ty Cobb were vital.

In the same year that Cobb attacked Claude Leuker, the Detroit Tigers built a new ballpark, `Navin Field', later known as Tiger Stadium, which had the potential to hold 10,000 more paying spectators then the park Cobb had first played in Bennett Park. The new stadium was made of steel and concrete utilising the latest in construction techniques, and a symbol of a growing trend in American architecture, just as the Brooklyn Bridge and the Flat Iron building had utilised techniques in New York, ballparks such as Ebbets Field in Brooklyn and Fenway Park in Boston were being constructed to take baseball to into the modern era. The new stadium may have brought in additional revenue for those who governed the game, yet it did not bring the Tigers success. Cobb himself continued to break records, hitting over 300 every years and stealing dozens of bases to keep his side in the hunt for the pennant

Unfortunately, despite his own success, Cobb would never again make the World Series, as a player, but in 1921 he became player manager of the Tigers, charged with leading them to glory for an annual salary of $35,000, more then 20 times his original salary. Yet even management could not bring him World Series Glory, and Cobb eventually quit the franchise in November 1926, initially announcing retirement announce allegations of match fixing, of which he was later acquitted. Yet Cobb came back to play for Philadelphia for 2 seasons before retiring for good in 1928 aged 42 flying out in his final at bat, yet still averaging over 300 for the season. Cobb retired with records for average and hits, his record of 4191 careers hits only broken by Pete Rose 57 years later.

Yet whilst Cobb was hailed as a fantastic success on the playing field, the first man elected into the baseball hall of fame, he became highly successful off the field, with various business interests bringing Cobb millions of dollars. Cobb himself said that off the field he loved to pit himself against the financial world, which he considered far more difficult then getting a base hit. Cobb invested in the motor industry and then most famously, invested in a small known soft drink, Coca Cola. Cobb's association with the product extended to advertisements helping both him and the company in the process. By the time of his retirement Baseball highlights could be seen at cinema's,, heard nationally on the radio and Cobb was a national celebrity.

Ty Cobb died in July of 1961, a vastly wealthy man and a holder of several Major League Baseball records that still stand today and are unlikely to ever be broken. Cobb played the game of baseball in an era where the game, much like America was thrust into the modern world. Cobb saw his team move into a new stadium, saw salaries rocket, players earn commercial endorsements, and entrepreneurs and players alike make millions of dollars on the back of the `National Pastime' Cobb entertained the thousands of fans who saw him across the country throughout his long career, his desire to win and commitment to the game bringing success to both the team and himself over many years.

On the other hand his value on the field has been tainted in recent years by his violent and racist attitudes, a factor that means Cobb cannot be hailed with the same reverence as other men such as Babe Ruth. However, Cobb remains an important part of American history. Cobb is a symbol of baseball and America's entry into modernity, with sport and its sportsmen now commodities who were connected to both fans and business alike. Cobb was able to both entertain, and gain financially from his amazing talents, and his off field misdemeanours aside, deserves to be remembered as one of baseball's true greats.