Who Was Ty Cobb? The History We Know That’s Wrong

Charles Leerhsen
Author, Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty

Charles LeerhsenCharles Leerhsen is a journalist, author, and adjunct professor at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism. He has been an editor for Sports Illustrated, People, and Us Weekly, and spent eleven years as a senior writer at Newsweek. He has also written for Esquire, Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, Smithsonian, and Money. He is the author of several books, including Crazy Good: The True Story of Dan Patch, the Most Famous Horse in America and, most recently, Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, which won the 2015 Casey Award for best baseball book of the year.

The following is adapted from a speech delivered at Hillsdale College on March 7, 2016, during a program on “Sports and Character” sponsored by the College’s Center for Constructive Alternatives.

Cobb’s mind-boggling statistics don’t tell half the story of the ballplayer he was. It is often not remembered, because there is very little motion picture footage of him, but Cobb was likely the most exciting player of all time. Yes, he got thousands of hits with his unusual split-hands grip, and that in itself was entertaining; but it was what happened after he got on base that set him apart. “Ty Cobb getting a walk is more exciting than Babe Ruth hitting a home run,” a sportswriter once said.

When Cobb made it to first—which he did more often than anyone else; he had three seasons in which he batted over .400—the fun had just begun. He understood the rhythms of the game and he constantly fooled around with them, keeping everyone nervous and off balance. The sportswriters called it “psychological baseball.” His stated intention was to be a “mental hazard for the opposition,” and he did this by hopping around in the batter’s box—constantly changing his stance as the pitcher released the ball—and then, when he got on base, hopping around some more, chattering, making false starts, limping around and feigning injury, and running when it was least expected. He still holds the record for stealing home, doing so 54 times. He once stole second, third, and home on three consecutive pitches, and another time turned a tap back to the pitcher into an inside-the-park home run.

“The greatness of Ty Cobb was something that had to be seen,” George Sisler said, “and to see him was to remember him forever.” Cobb often admitted that he was not a natural, the way Shoeless Joe Jackson was; he worked hard to turn himself into a ballplayer. He had nine styles of slides in his repertoire: the hook, the fade-away, the straight-ahead, the short or swoop slide (“which I invented because of my small ankles”), the head-first, the Chicago slide (referred to by him but never explained), the first-base slide, the home-plate slide, and the cuttle-fish slide—so named because he purposely sprayed dirt with his spikes the way squid-like creatures squirt ink. Coming in, he would watch the infielder’s eyes to determine which slide to employ.

What of the stories about him sharpening his spikes and injuring opposing players? Cobb believed strongly that the runner had the right of way in what he called “my little patch,” in front of the bag. The opposing players who were asked to comment on him respected his ability and consistency, and agreed with his “little patch” theory. “It was no fun putting the ball on Cobb when he came slashing into the plate,” said Wally Schang, who caught for almost every American League Club. “But he never cut me up. He was too pretty a slider to hurt anyone who put the ball on him right.” Infielder Germany Schaefer, a teammate of Cobb, called him “a game square fellow who never cut a man with his spikes intentionally in his life, and anyone who gets by with his spikes knows it.” And if Cobb could dish out the punishment, he could also take it. Catcher Steve O’Neill of the Cleveland Naps once favored Cobb with the greatest compliment a catcher can give: “He came home on a base hit and I was blocking the plate. I got him in the kidneys and knocked him out. When he came to he didn’t say a word. He just got up and limped out to his position.”

There is a famous photograph that is often used to indict Cobb. It shows Cobb and St. Louis Browns catcher Paul Krichell in 1912. Cobb appears to be flying foot-first into Krichell’s crotch while the catcher squints in pained anticipation. But there is a 1950s interview with Krichell, then a scout for the Yankees, and by his own testimony, Cobb was aiming his foot at the ball in Krichell’s glove, and succeeded in knocking it to the backstop. Here is Krichell’s account: “The ball hit the grandstand on the fly. I was mad and stunned. Cobb was mad and shaken. In a way it was really my fault. I was standing in front of the plate, instead of on the side, where I could tag Ty as he slid in. But out of that mix-up I learned one thing: never stand directly in front of the plate when Cobb was roaring for home.”