Does Ty Cobb live up to his reputation?
He is often referred to as one of greatest baseball players of all time, but was Ty Cobb, the Georgia Peach, rotten to the core? Was his professional greatness mirrored by personal repugnance? As is so often the case, Cobb’s soiled reputation was mostly the product of a bad biography and reporters repeating old rumors. Let’s play ball, Buzzkillers, and don’t forget to sharpen your spikes!
Let’s start with those spikes. Spikes worn on baseball shoes were metal until well into the 1980s. Ty Cobb, the supposedly fearsome outfielder for the Detroit Tigers from 1905-1928, allegedly sharpened his spikes in order to injure opposing players while sliding into a base. The problem with this story, Buzzkillers, is that there’s no evidence that Cobb sharpened his spikes to hurt players intentionally. All players sharpened spikes to knock rust off and to create a better “grip” on the ground, and the reports of Cobb deliberately spiking players are rarer than Chicago Cubs World Series Championships.
Was Cobb basically a dirty player? This is one of the most persistent myths in baseball. Cobb was certainly a vigorous player. He played hard and certainly ran hard, but this was the deadball era, Buzzkillers. Getting on base as the result of a good hit was hard to do. Players had to run and slide hard in the hope that infielders would commit an error or drop the ball. The most that any balanced baseball historian can say about the evidence of Cobb’s play was that it was in line with the style at the time.
Was Ty Cobb a racist, especially when it came to African Americans playing baseball along with whites? This is a much more difficult thing to assess. Buzzkill Institute historians have been able to determine that Cobb was certainly prejudiced towards most minorities, and that his views about African Americans were racist. At least when he was a young man, Cobb appears to have held the same sorts of attitudes towards race that most Americans, and certainly most of his fellow Southerners, held at the time. It’s often pointed out that other famous and heralded baseball players had worse racial views, but that’s certainly not an excuse. What may have distinguished Ty Cobb, however, was how far his attitudes toward race, especially race and baseball, evolved over the years. He was a great admirer of Jackie Robinson and other players who broke the color-line in baseball. By the 1940s and 1950s, Cobb was open, vocal, and public in supporting the removal of race barriers in baseball and in society. He clearly had grown as a man and as a human being.
And isn’t that what we want?
Charles C. Alexander, Ty Cobb (1984)
Ty Cobb with Al Stump, My Life in Baseball—the True Record (1961)
Gilbert King, The Knife in Ty Cobb’s Back, Smithsonian Magazine: August 2011