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Cobb still revered, reviled 100 years after first game

8/29/2005 - MLB

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.