Ty Cobb named SportsCentury athlete No. 20

He was a pain ... but a great pain
By Larry Schwartz
Special to ESPN.com

It's difficult to tell which is longer -- the list of records Ty Cobb left shattered when he retired from baseball, or the stories of his nastiness.

"In legend I am a sadistic, slashing, swashbuckling despot who waged war in the guise of sport." Cobb, who wrote that just before his death in 1961, was possibly the only one not to believe the legend. For everyone else, this was a case of perception and reality meeting.

The Georgia Peach was a southern Protestant who hated northerners, Catholics, blacks and apparently anybody else who was different from him. And, in turn, opponents (and some teammates) despised him. They disliked his aggressive behavior, his attitude, his maniacal will to succeed.

Cobb was a 6-foot-1, 175-pounder who threw right (average arm) and batted left. He kept his hands about three inches apart so he could place hits better. When he retired in 1928, he had set some 90 records. Seven decades later, he still holds many. Nobody has yet bettered his .367 lifetime average, his 12 batting titles, his hitting at least .320 for 23 consecutive seasons, or his 2,245 runs scored.

His resumé of accomplishments reads like "The Twelve Days of Christmas:" He led the American League in slugging percentage and hits eight times, in steals six, in runs five, in triples and RBI four, in doubles three, and in homers once. Three times he batted above .400 and in one four-year span he averaged .401. Gone, though, is the treasured record of 4,191 hits, broken by Pete Rose 57 years later.

Cobb also was terrifying on the bases, stealing 892 in his career. Stories had him filing his spikes to razor sharpness, the better to cut infielders who blocked his path. Cobb didn't go that far, but he never denied these tales until after he retired. He believed the image of him sliding into a base with sharp spikes gave him a psychological advantage by intimidating the opposing team.

He was born Dec. 18, 1886, in Narrows, Ga. His mother Amanda, who had married William Herschel Cobb when she was 12, was 15 when she gave birth to Ty. In 1893, the family moved to Royston, Ga., and Ty grew up under the dominant influence of his demanding father, who expected him to attend college and become a professional. But Ty preferred baseball to books, and finally his father relented.

Just before Cobb reached the majors, tragedy struck. On the night of Aug. 8, 1905, his father was shot to death. The story is that he suspected his younger wife of infidelity. He told her he was going out of town, but he returned after midnight and climbed onto the porch roof outside his wife's bedroom. Amanda Cobb saw the figure, took a shotgun that was in the bedroom, and fired twice.

"My father had his head blown off with a shotgun when I was 18 years old -- by a member of my own family," Cobb said. "I didn't get over that."

Amanda Cobb was arrested on a charge of voluntary manslaughter, but she was acquitted the following spring after testifying she had mistaken her husband for an intruder.

Three weeks after his mother killed his father, Cobb was playing center field in Detroit. In his first at-bat, Cobb doubled off New York's Jack Chesbro. The rest of the season wasn't so successful; he batted .240 in 41 games and his teammates ostracized him for his aggressive style.

The next spring, Cobb irritated his teammates even more with his chip-on-the-shoulder attitude and got into several fights. That season, he hit .320 in 98 games. He would never bat that low again.

In spring training in 1907, Cobb, considered a racist by many, fought a black groundskeeper over the condition of the Tigers' spring training field in Augusta, Ga., and ended up choking the man's wife when she intervened.

That season, his first as a regular, Cobb hit .350 to win the first of nine consecutive batting titles. He also led the league with 212 hits, 49 steals and 116 RBI. The Tigers won the first of three straight pennants but lost four straight in the World Series, in which Cobb hit just .200.

Same story for 1908 and 1909. Batting titles for Cobb, pennants for the Tigers, defeat in the World Series. Cobb batted .368 in the 1908 five-game loss to the Cubs and .231 in the seven-game defeat to the Pirates. While Cobb would play another 19 years, he would never appear in another Series.

Cobb won the Triple Crown in 1909, hitting .377 with nine homers and 107 RBI. He kept the batting title in 1910 with a .385 average, one point higher than Nap Lajoie.

The next year, Cobb had his best season, leading in eight offensive categories: batting (.420), slugging percentage (.621), hits (248), doubles (47), triples (24), runs (147), RBI (144) and steals (83). Except for stolen bases, all were career bests for Cobb, who won the first AL MVP award.

He became the first player to have successive .400 seasons, batting .410 in 1912. But off the field, Cobb's uncontrollable temper continued to cause trouble. In New York he went into the stands after a heckling fan called him names. He punched, kicked and stomped the fan, who was missing one hand and part of the other because of a workplace accident. AL president Ban Johnson suspended Cobb.

While his teammates might have disliked Cobb personally, they wanted him in the lineup. After playing one game, they went on strike. Faced with a fine if it forfeited, Detroit fielded a replacement team composed mostly of sandlot players. The result was a 24-2 defeat to the Athletics. Cobb urged his teammates to end the strike; they did, though he would remain suspended for 10 days.

In June, three men jumped Cobb and his wife in Detroit. Cobb pulled his gun, but it wouldn't fire. He chased down one of the fleeing thieves and beat the man's face to an unrecognizable pulp with the butt of his pistol.

In 1915, Cobb stole a then-record 96 bases, scored 144 runs and won his ninth straight batting title with a .369 average. But his streak ended the next year, his .371 finishing second to Tris Speaker's .386. He then won batting titles the following three years with the remarkably consistent averages of .383, .382 and .384.

On his 34th birthday, Cobb was named Detroit's player-manager. While the Tigers played above .500 in five of Cobb's six seasons as manager, only once did they finish within single-digits of the first-place team. Cobb the player didn't let down Cobb the manager, remaining among the league leaders at .389, .401 (George Sisler hit .420), .340, .338, .378 and .339.

Cobb quit the Tigers in November 1926. Later that winter, commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis exonerated Cobb, Speaker and two other players on a charge of fixing a game in 1919.

Cobb then signed with the Athletics, hit .357 and became the first player to reach 4,000 hits. In his final season, in 1928, he batted .323.

In 1936, in the first balloting for the Hall of Fame, Cobb received the most votes (222 of 226), outpolling Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson.

Cobb's outbursts didn't stop just because he no longer played baseball. He continued to argue with waitresses, cashiers, customs officials, policemen and old friends. When he drank, his behavior was even worse. Still, he was a wise investor, and he made a fortune on the stock market. When he died of cancer at age 74 on July 17, 1961, in Atlanta, The Sporting News reported he was worth as much as $12 million.

Only four people from baseball attended his funeral.