Tyrus Raymond Cobb was born in the Narrows area of Georgia on December 18, 1886, and grew up working on a farm in Royston, Georgia. His father was a teacher, principal, and politician. He taught Ty the value of hard work and perseverance. Ty’s grandfather taught him to hunt and appreciate the outdoors. One day, Ty leaned his .22 rifle against a tree; it fell, went off, and shot him in the shoulder. That slug was embedded in his shoulder for the rest of his life because doctors couldn’t find it. Despite this mishap, Ty was a lifelong hunter. Ty was bright but didn’t have much interest in schoolwork. He was very competitive and would stop at nothing to win. Ty’s first team was the Royston Rompers. When he was older, he played for the semi-pro Royston Reds. His nickname was the “Georgia Peach.”
In 1904, he played in the minor leagues and was signed by the Detroit Tigers in 1905. Ty played for the Detroit Tigers from 1905-1926, and for the Philadelphia Athletics from 1927–1928. Ty’s career batting average was .367 with 4,191 hits, 723 doubles, 297 triples, 117 home runs, and 1,938 tuns batted in. His on-base percentage was .433, and his slugging percentage was .512. He played in 3,035 games and had 11,429 at bats in his career. He had 892 stolen bases (fourth highest in Major League Baseball history) and 1,249 walks. He stole home 54 times, which stands today as the all-time record. Ty had 23 seasons where he hit over .300 and three seasons where he hit over .400. He won the 1909 American League batting Triple Crown, and he won nine consecutive batting titles (1907–1915). His best batting average for a season was .420 in 1911. He held the record for most hits for 60 years. Pete Rose is the only player with more (4,256). His .367 career batting average is the highest ever recorded by a Major League player. With 2,246 career runs scored, he is second only to Rickey Henderson who had 2,295. On May 5, 1925, Ty had 16 total bases (three home runs, a double, and two singles) in one game. This set an American League record. He holds the American League record for most inside the park home runs in a season (9) and a career (46), and is tied for most in a game (2).
Ty was an amazing athlete, but he was a loner who was often angry and ready to argue. He was a racist, and he was a bully on and off the field. His teammates tolerated him because of his value as a player. Ty was a mentor for Charlie Gehringer when he first joined the Tigers. At that time, Charlie said of Ty, “He was like a father to me.” Later he described Ty as “a real hateful guy.”
Ty wrote three books: Busting ‘Em: And Other Big League Stories, Memoirs of Twenty Years in Baseball, and My Life in Baseball. Busting ’Em can be read online. He was also an authority on the Civil War. In 1917, he became the first athlete to star in a silent movie, Somewhere in Georgia. During World War I, Ty enlisted in the US Army Chemical Corps in 1918 and was sent to France. Other members of the unit were Branch Rickey, the president of the St. Louis Cardinals, Giants pitcher Christy Mathewson, and George Sisler of the St. Louis Browns.
Here are a couple stories about how hard Ty played to win.
- Sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote, “He had a temperature of 103 and the doctors ordered him to bed for several days, but he got three hits, stole three bases, and won the game. Afterward, he collapsed at the bench.”
- One day when he stepped up to the plate, Ty told the catcher that he was going to steal every base. After singling to first, Cobb then stole second, third, and home on four straight pitches.
- In another game, Ty was called safe when he slid into second for a double. The Highlander catcher began to argue with the umpire about the call. Highlander infielders gathered to watch the argument. Ty realized that no one on the Highlanders had called time. No one noticed when he strolled to third base, and then casually walked toward home plate as if to get a better view of the argument. Then Ty broke into a run, slid into home plate, and scored what would become the winning run.
- Ty felt the base paths belonged to him. One day in 1907, he hit a triple, but he didn’t stop at third. He lowered his shoulder, ran into the catcher, Harry Bemis, and knocked the ball loose. Bemis picked up the ball and beat Cobb over the head with it until the umpire pulled Bemis off and ejected him from the game.
Some say that Ty’s fiercely competitive personality was related to his desire to please his father who was fatally shot by his mother just weeks before Ty joined the Tigers. She mistakenly thought he was an intruder outside the house.
Ty played before players had numbers, so he was honored by the Detroit Tigers in 2000 when they put his name (COBB) next to retired numbers of other players on the wall at Comerica Park and a statue of him outside the park. He was one of the first five players (Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Honus Wagner, and Babe Ruth) elected to the Hall of Fame in 1936. He received the most votes of any player on the first Hall of Fame ballot, 222 out of a possible 226 votes.
Ty Cobb died July 17, 1961, in Atlanta, Georgia. Ty invested wisely, mostly in General Motors and Coca-Cola stock, which made him very wealthy and probably baseball’s first millionaire. His estate was reported to be worth at least $11,780,000 (equivalent to $91,600,000 today). One-fourth of this went to the Cobb Educational Fund, which gives college scholarships to needy students in Georgia. He also built hospitals in Georgia that are known as the Ty Cobb Healthcare System, including a hospital in Royston which is a memorial to his parents.
George Sisler said, “The greatness of Ty Cobb was something that had to be seen, and to see him was to remember him forever.”