Cobb still revered, reviled 100 years after first game
ROYSTON, Ga. -- He stepped to the plate for the first time -- this baby-faced teenager with the fiery eyes -- after a three-day-long train trip from Georgia to Detroit.
On the mound was a spitballing pitcher who had a staggering 41 wins the previous season.
Ty Cobb took the first pitch for a strike.
Then, with Jack Chesbro probably thinking it was time to finish off this overmatched rookie, Cobb did something that would become his trademark -- he slapped a run-scoring double to left-center field, the first of more than 4,000 hits to come over his 24-year career.
One hundred years ago Tuesday, Cobb played in his first major league game for the Detroit Tigers, an 18-year-old outfielder who was purchased from the South Atlantic League's Augusta Tourists for a mere $750.
He would go on to become one of the greatest hitters in baseball history, his lifetime average of .367 still one of those magical figures in a sport that relishes its numerical heritage.
But Cobb's legacy goes beyond his accomplishments on the field. He is remembered as one of baseball's most despicable figures -- a dirty player, a racist, a quick-tempered, violent man who fought with fans, opponents and teammates.
"He's almost become a cartoon character," said Dan Holmes, who runs the Baseball Hall of Fame Web site and wrote a book, "Cobb, Baseball's Greatest Hitter" that came out last year. "He's viewed as the most evil villain in baseball history."
Cobb's supporters -- such as Holmes and those who run a museum in this northeast Georgia town where he grew up and was buried after his death in 1961 -- say there's more to the man who supposedly sharpened his spikes (never proven, according to Holmes) so he could slice up opposing fielders with his slides.
"Ty Cobb was not all a bad fellow," said Julie Ridgway, the museum curator who named a son Ty and is a distant relative of Cobb through marriage. "Sure, he had his quirks. But he didn't care if people knew his quirks. He just went on and did his thing."
The Ty Cobb Museum doesn't gloss over his faults, which is evident from the sign that adorns the entrance to the small shrine.
"No player in history," it says, "generated more emotion, created more havoc, bruised more egos and left more bitterness than Tyrus Raymond Cobb, a snarling wildcat who cut a bloody path to baseball immortality."
But the museum also has displays on his generosity, which included sizable donations to start the Ty Cobb Healthcare System (which now includes three hospitals, three long-term care facilities and one assisted-living complex) and the Ty Cobb Educational Foundation (which doles out some $600,000 a year in scholarships to students both black and white).
"He made a $100,000 donation to build the hospital in 1949," Ridgway said. "I wouldn't sneeze at $100,000 now, but that was really a lot of money in 1949."
Ernie Harwell, the longtime radio voice of the Detroit Tigers, had his first meeting with the "Georgia Peach" shortly after starting his career in Atlanta in the early 1940s. The long-retired Cobb was coming to Royston for a visit, and the brash young broadcaster dropped in thinking it would make a good interview.
"My bosses said, 'He's a mean, old man. He's not going to talk to a kid like you who's just starting out,"' Harwell remembered. "But he was very warm, very hospitable. I sat in the living room with him and we talked for about 15 minutes on the air. He filled the whole program, then we sat around and talked a lot more."
Still, it's the darker side of Cobb's personality that seems to grow more dominant with the passing years, fueled by Al Stump's unflattering book, "Cobb," and the grim movie of the same name that starred Tommy Lee Jones.
In the final year of his life, Cobb picked Stump to write an authorized biography that glossed over the Hall of Famer's many faults. Some three decades later, the writer came out with a new version that told the entire story of their time together.
Holmes is highly critical of Stump's book, calling it a mere snapshot of Cobb's life at a time when he was dying of cancer and had been stricken with several other maladies.
"That created a whole landslide of Cobb-hating and piling on," Holmes said. "That was the last 10 months of Cobb's life. I think if any of us were portrayed in the last 10 months of life, when we were ravaged by disease, we would not come across very well."
Cobb made it to the majors during a tumultuous time in his life. Less than month earlier, his father had been shot and killed in the family home by Cobb's mother, a sordid tale of alleged infidelity a jury later ruled was a tragic accident.
Detroit had a spot in its injury depleted lineup when Cobb finally arrived, having endured a 725-mile train trip that was supposed to be 30 hours but stretched to three days when he missed connections in both Atlanta and Cincinnati.
On Aug. 30, 1905, Cobb made his debut against the New York Highlanders -- known today as the Yankees. He played center field and batted fifth. In the bottom half of the first, he came up against Chesbro, whose 41-12 record the previous season is still the modern record. There was a runner at third and two outs.
"Jack Chesbro was one of the best pitchers in the game at that time," Holmes said. "He was known for his spitball. Cobb took the first pitch. Then he hit next pitch into the left-center gap."
According to other versions of that historic game, Cobb actually fell behind in the count 0-2. No matter -- everyone agrees he hit safely in his first at-bat.
Cobb played in the final 41 games of the season, batting a modest .240. It would be the only time in his career he hit less than .320.
Cobb held close to 100 records when he retired after the 1928 season and was one of the first five players elected to the Hall of Fame, receiving more votes than anyone (yep, even more than fellow inductee Babe Ruth).
Many of the records have fallen -- most notably, Pete Rose breaking the mark of 4,191 hits -- and some historians claim Cobb's stats from the dead-ball era don't hold up quite as well to latter-day scrutiny.
Still, there's no denying that the scrawny kid who first batted a century ago was one of the best to play the game.
No matter his faults.
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press
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