Ty Cobb, the greatest Tiger of them all

Ty Cobb signs his contract as Tigers owner Frank Navin looks on. The contract came after a bitter holdout by Cobb following his second season in the major leagues.Cobb, who had made $2,400 in his second season, was on the verge of quitting baseball when the Tigers finally caved in and signed him for $5,000.

Tyrus Raymond Cobb was not an easy man to like. No player in Detroit Tigers baseball history, and perhaps in the game itself, created more controversy and raw emotion than the “Georgia Peach.”

His unbelievable baseball talents were at times overshadowed by his mean spirited, “don’t give a rat’s ass” and “take no prisoners” mentality. He was cunning, calculating, intense, competitive, and combative. You either loved or hated him, but the fans couldn’t remain indifferent on this guy.

Cobb certainly ruled that period of baseball history known as the dead-ball era. A left handed batter, he could send the ball anywhere he wanted it to go. E. A. Batchelor, a longtime Detroit sports writer, once wrote, “Unlike some of the home-run sluggers of today, who have to wait for a pitch particularly to their liking, Ty could hit any ball that he could reach, pulling to right field, slicing to left, or driving through the middle as the case might be.”

Despite his fearsome reputation, Cobb spent a lot of time with kids.

      He was also a master bunter and got a lot of hits by legging out slow grounders. (Visiting teams complained that Cobb had the groundskeeper at Navin Field soak the area in front of home plate prior to each game so that Cobb’s bunts would die in the swamp and fielders would slip on the wet grass trying to field them.) He excelled at running bases where he used his speed and his spikes to intimidate opoposing basemen.

Cobb was blessed with a superb body, wiry, muscled and coordinated, and maintained a playing weight of 190 pounds. His lightning reflexes and ability to size up any game situation gave him the advantage in almost any situation. Recalled Walter Johnson in the Sporting News in 1940, “He could do everthing better than any player I ever saw. He was always the first one to detect weakness or mistakes by the opposition and benefit by the same.”

Cobb was by far the greatest gate attraction that the Detroit Tigers ever had and he shares with Babe Ruth the honor of being one of the greatest players in the history of the game. Cobb, with his flying spikes and his determination to succeed, epitomized the spirit of Detroit which was so often erroneously described as a drab workingman’s town. Talented and controversial, Cobb helped put the city in the national limelight.

Cobb signs autographs prior to a game at Navin Field in 1925.

      When he retired in 1928 at age 42 he owned an incredible 90 all-time records. He held 12 American League batting titles, nine of them consecutive; a .366 career batting average and 2,245 runs scored still rank at the top. His 892 stolen bases and 4,191 hits remain a baseball legend. Cobb was considered an accomplished right fielder with a solid throwing arm.

While his talents on the field won him the begrudging respect of his teammates and opposing players on and off the field, he remained distant and aloof, choosing to dine and room alone, a solitary ‘tiger’.

Tyrus Raymond Cobb came to Detroit the night of August 29, 1905, an unknown talent fresh from the minor league. Said Cobb of his Detroit arrival: “I don’t believe I looked, or felt, like too much of a rube.” The Cobb family enjoyed position and property in the South. “I knew which fork to use and I wore a presentable dark suit and new bow tie. Baptist reared, I neither smoked nor drank, or chased women…..Awed? No I wasn’t that. Apprehensive, yes. I’d started playing baseball orignally because I loved the competition, the matching of muscle and wits. It was a joust and a challenge, and although my father — a state senator as well as a teacher — had me scheduled for West Point, somehow the military life seemed like total bondage. Going against my father came hard. But I had a burning zeal in me to find out what I could do on my own. And all at once this game I’d only been experimenting with had caught me up and propelled me far above the Mason-Dixon — my first time out of the South.”

Battling for a starting roll on the team, Cobb made few friendships with his teammates and many enemies. It was a war of nerves. His only early support came from pitcher Wild Bill Donovan and a few others who urged him to “stick up for your rights. If it comes to a showdown, we’ll back you up.”

With his abrasive personality, Cobb was a special target of the veteran players on the Tigers roster. Manager Bill Armour did little to stop the hazing, a routine hazard for rookies.

It was traditional on Labor Day for gentlemen in the stands to toss their straw hats onto the field to mark the end of the summer and the baseball season. Cobb would collect the hats and take them back to his Georgia farm for his mules to wear.

      But the social ostracism isolated him. Cobb found himself eating alone, cold shouldered in the clubhouse and unable to find a roommate. Detroit News sports columnist Joe Falls wrote of Cobb’s lack of social skills: “It is easy to understand why so many people despised Cobb. He knew he was good and he let everyone else know it. He was forever showing up people both on and off the field.”

Unlike most athletes of the era, Cobb was a shrewd businessman. The same attributes that allowed him to size up the situation in a ball game were applied to the world of finance. Even in his early days with the Tigers, he would watch his pennies.

Teammates told how Cobb would pick up the small pieces of soap left in the team’s shower rooms to take home to Augusta after the season ended. He also collected straw hats that men in the stands would throw down on the field during the Labor Day baseball game, a custom symbolizing the end of summer and the baseball season. He would cart the hats home to the family farm to shade the heads of donkeys working in his fields.

His contract negotiations with the Tigers made front page headlines. In one battle with owner Frank Navin, Cobb recounts how he almost quit the game of baseball. “I felt strongly that Frank Navin, the operator of the Detroit Baseball & Amusement Company, owed me a good sized salary hike for 1908. Having led the league at nineteen, I reasoned if I don’t ask for and get recognition now, I’ll have shown myself a poor businessman and Navin will have me over a barrel in our future dealings.”

“Who does Cobb think he is?” retorted Navin to the press. “Our other stars, Sam Crawford and Bill Donovan have signed their contracts at reasonable figures without a murmur, but Cobb seems to think he deserves special treatment. Well, the creation cannot be greater than the creator — Cobb is not bigger than baseball.”

Tigers, American League and city officials in 1908 stretch out the American League Pennant the Tigers won that year.

      After two years of working for Navin at $1,800 and $2,400, Cobb decided to hold out rather than “be pushed around any longer.” He eventually got a $5,000 contract after a bitter dispute that was played out in the sporting sections of the nation’s newspapers. Said Cobb of the negotiations: “Navin not only failed to pressure me into abandoning my hold-out, he came within a hair of causing me to quit baseball permanently. My people were college-bred, they looked down on baseball as a low-life occupation and pleaded with me to chuck it all and enroll at a Southern university in medicine or law. And for many weeks, while Navin pulled one nefarious trick after another, I seriously thought about taking their advice.”

Though he made few friends among his teammates, Cobb did develop one strong relationship with his personal assistant and team mascot, Alexander George Washington Rivers.

One of the few lasting relationships Cobb established during his career with the Tiger was with Alexander George Washington Rivers, his personal “batman” and team mascot.

Rivers spent 18 seasons as Cobb’s bat man, chauffeur, general handyman and loyal admirer. Rivers even named his first born Ty Cobb Rivers. “Even if it had been a gal, Ah woulda named her the same,” Rivers often told his friends.

Rivers once told The Detroit News of the first time he met Cobb. The Tigers were playing an exhibition game in New Orleans at Tulane University. It was the first time he had ever seen Cobb, “except in a picture.”

“Mr. Ty asks me how would I like to come up North with him. I says, No it’s too cold up there…. So what happens? I come and I stay 38 years.”

Rivers lived on Elizabeth Street near Hastings in Detroit’s Black Bottom for 32 years, where he raised a family of three sons and one daughter.

Baseball players are a superstitous lot, and one of Rivers’ chief duties was to massage good luck into the Tiger bats. Rivers himself had many quirky superstitions and he made every effort to teach them to the players. He refused to allow peanuts in the dugout. He warned the players not to eat from a broken plate or drink out of a broken cup.

He instilled in the players the importance of picking up a pin with the point toward the player for good luck and guarding oneself on Mondays from cross-eyed persons. “If a cross-eyed man or woman dared look at Mr. Cobb on Monday, he would have dead bad luck all week” explained Rivers.

Years after Cobb had retired from the game and moved back home, Rivers took a job with the city widening Woodward Avenue. During this period he struck up a friendship with Mayor Frank Murphy, who later made Rivers his personal messenger after his election as Governor of Michigan.

In a 1948 interview with the Detroit News, Rivers fondly recalled his days as “batman” for Cobb and the Tigers. He never changed his opinion that Cobb was the greatest player who ever lived and when Cobb left Detroit after 21 seasons, Rivers shifted his allegiance to the Philadelphia Athletics.

“I wasn’t exactly agin’ the Tigers,” he said, “but I still had to be for Mr. Ty.”

An early portrait of Ty Cob.

The same year of the News interview, Rivers inherited 986 acres of land near Woodville, Miss., and files in the Detroit News Morgue show no later information on him.

His former employer also amassed a large fortune based on General Motors and Coca-Cola stocks. Cobb’s net worth at the time of his death was reported to be $11 million. When he entered Emory Hospital in Atlanta near death, he brought with him more than $1 million in negotiable bonds and placed them on the nightstand next to a loaded pistol.

Cobb died July 17, 1961 at the age of 74.

The next day the Detroit News editorial read:

“Old timers knew when he was laid in the ground that they’d never see his like again.

“Different in the measure of his superiority above all others in his field of endeavor was Ty Cobb. Let the statistics tell their own story; they are but half of it. No numbers reflecting speed on the base paths, power at the plate or skill afield do justice to that flaming spirit, the limitless daring, the drive to do the upsetting and the unexpected.”

Only two baseball players attended his funeral — Mickey Cochrane and Ray Schalk.

The years go on, the years slip by,The heroes rise, the heroes die,
There’ll come a day, not far away,A day of fans that knew not Ty

Throughout the early years of Bennett Park and Navin Field, fans outside the limits of the ballpark would set up “wildcat’ fences and bleachers to watch the games.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News.)By Patricia Zacharias / The Detroit News