No. 20: Ty Cobb

Demon on the diamond
By Larry Schwartz
Special to

"He had a son-of-a-bitch list. He would write down the names of people, including everybody from his ex-wives to Eleanor Roosevelt to Kenesaw Mountain Landis," says biographer Charles Alexander about Ty Cobb on ESPNs SportsCentury show (Friday, Sept. 17, 10:30 p.m. ET and Sunday, Sept. 19, 8 a.m. ET).

Cobb, the winner of a record 12 batting titles and whose .367 career average is baseball's best, was voted No. 20 among North American athletes of the 20th century by SportsCentury's distinguished 48-person panel.

Signature game
May 5, 1925 -- When Babe Ruth and his mighty home runs came onto the scene, Cobb seethed with anger. The Detroit Tigers center-fielder believed in the single, the steal, advancing baserunners with a grounder. He resented that the Babe and his brute force had taken over baseball.

Before playing the Browns in St. Louis, Cobb told a reporter, "I'll show you something today. I'm going for home runs for the first time in my career."

  Ty Cobb and his legendary rival Babe Ruth each dominated baseball, but they didn't do it in the same fashion. Cobb believed in the science of hitting and artistry of baserunning. Ruth revolutionized the game in the early 1920s with unprecedented home run power. Here's how the career numbers of both players compare:
  Cobb Ruth
  Batting average
.367 .342
4,192 2,873
  At bats
11,429 8,399
  Home runs
118 714
1,901 2,211
2,244 2,174
  Stolen bases
892 123
357 1,330

Cobb, the Tigers' player-manager, was 38 and in his 21st season in the majors. Only once had he reached double figures in homers (12 in 1921), though he had led the American League with nine in 1909.

Cobb was as good as his word today. In the first and second innings, he smashed home runs into the right-field bleachers. In the eighth, he went even deeper, sending the ball beyond the bleachers and onto Grand Avenue. His three homers tied the 20th century record for most in a game.

In his other three at-bats in the Tigers' 14-8 victory, Cobb had two singles and a double. With his 16 total bases, he broke by three the modern record. He finished 1925 with 12 homers.

Until the Mets' Edgardo Alfonzo accomplished the feat in 1999, no other major leaguer had ever gone 6-for-6 with three homers in a game.

Odds 'n ends

  • The day after his three-homer performance, Cobb banged out two more home runs against the Browns, becoming the first player in the 20th century to hit five homers in back-to-back games.

  • For his career, he ended up with 118 homers in 11,429 at-bats, or a shade better than one homer in every 100 at-bats.

  • His father William named his first child Tyrus, after the Phoenician city of Tyre, which withstood months of siege by Alexander the Great's army.

  • William tried to discourage Ty from playing baseball as a youngster. William was quoted as saying: "There's nothing so useless on earth as knocking a string ball around a pasture with ruffians."

  • When asked why he fought so hard, Cobb said, "I did it for my father, who was an exalted man. He never got to see me play [in the majors]. But I knew he was watching me and I never let him down."

  • As a kid, Cobb used to take his homemade bat, "Big Yellow," to bed with him.

  • Grantland Rice's description of the young Cobb: "An extremely peculiar soul, brooding and bubbling with violence, devious, suspicious and combative all the way."

  • Sam Crawford, the Hall of Fame outfielder who played with Cobb for 13 years, said, "He came up with an antagonistic attitude. Any little razzing [was turned] into a life-or-death struggle. He was still fighting the Civil War. We were all damn Yankees before he even met us."

  • In the summer of 1906, Cobb had a nervous breakdown and entered a sanitarium. He left the Tigers in July and didn't return until September.

  • In spring training of 1907, after Cobb fought with a black groundskeeper and then teammate Charley "Boss" Schmidt, Tigers manager Hugh Jennings offered the 20-year-old Cobb to Cleveland for outfielder Elmer Flick, the 1905 A.L. batting champion with a .306 average. Nap Lajoie, the Indians' player-manager, turned down the deal, believing Cobb was too much trouble.

    "An extremely peculiar soul, brooding and bubbling with violence, devious, suspicious and combative all the way."
      -- Grantland Rice

  • Philadelphia Athletics third baseman Frank "Home Run" Baker, who was spiked by Cobb in 1909, called Cobb's slashing spikes "Cobb's kiss."

  • Cobb was divorced twice; the father of five children.

  • In 1907, Cobb received his first commercial endorsement -- from Coca-Cola.

  • Cobb began investing early in his career and became a millionaire buying stock in Coca-Cola and United Motors (now General Motors).

  • Heinie Manush, a future Hall of Famer who was Cobb's protTgT as a rookie in 1923, said, "I couldn't like him as a man. No way. He ran things like a dictator. But as a teacher, he was the best."

  • After the 1926 season, Cobb was accused by former Tigers teammate Dutch Leonard of fixing a 1919 game against Cleveland. Leonard said he, Cobb, and the Indians' Tris Speaker and Joe Wood were in on the fix. He sent two letters, one written by Cobb, to A.L. President Ban Johnson as evidence. The matter was referred to Commissioner Landis, who exonerated the players. However, many baseball people believed Leonard and thought that Landis ruled as he did because he didn't want another gambling scandal to taint baseball.