Back when the ball was bogged down by spit and tobacco juice, Ty Cobb smacked it to the gaps, ran like hell and dictated terms to the rest of the league. The game then was Cobb’s game, and he left it clutching the career records for games played (3,305), at-bats (11,429, 11,434 or 11,440, depending on the source), runs (2,246), hits (4,189 or 4,191, depending on the source), total bases (5,854) and batting average (.367 or .366, depending on the source).
Not only does Cobb’s career batting average record still stand, but the last time anybody hit .366 or higher in a single season was Ichiro Suzuki way back in 2004.
All these years after his death, as his personal legacy continues to be batted back and forth, Cobb remains an utterly fascinating figure. With that in mind -- and because he was born on this date in 1886 -- here are 15 things every baseball fan should know about “The Georgia Peach.”
1. He might have been the first “Tyrus.”
Cobb’s father, W.H. Cobb, named him after Tyre, an ancient city in what is now modern-day Lebanon. According to U.S. Social Security Administration counts, the name “Tyrus” did not appear in the top 1,000 boy or girl names until 1912, the year after Cobb first hit over .400. And it did not appear on that list again after 1916. Any Tyruses today can thank Cobb for giving the name its initial exposure.
2. His mother killed his father.
On Aug. 8, 1905, W.H. Cobb announced to his wife, Amanda, that he was headed to the family farm and would not be back that night. Allegedly, Cobb suspected his wife of infidelity and returned to the house with a pistol later that night, only to be shot dead by Amanda, who claimed to have mistaken him for a burglar. Cobb’s mother was arrested on the charge of manslaughter and indicted by a grand jury. But she was acquitted at trial in March 1906.
In the immediate aftermath of this life-altering tragedy (Cobb once said he “worshiped” his father and called him “the greatest man I ever knew"), Cobb’s contract was purchased by the Detroit Tigers, and his Major League career began. Cobb was hazed as a rookie while trying to process his grief and tend to family matters. That experience informed everything that came after.
3. He was (probably) not the monster he’s often depicted to be.
If you believe all the stories that circulate about Cobb, he was a racist lunatic who sharpened his cleats to intentionally wound opposing players and even killed a man hours before a game.
As is always the case, the truth is complicated.
Cobb definitely played aggressively and was an abrasive brawler with a quick temper. He was divorced on the grounds of “cruel treatment,” he was reviled by other players and even teammates, and he was an alcoholic. But the spikes thing was exaggerated, if not completely invented, and the murder thing has been thoroughly debunked. Cobb had enough good in his heart to fund his Royston, Ga., hometown’s first hospital.
On the subject of race, Cobb did fight a Black groundskeeper and a Black streetworker. But then again, he fought with just about anybody. He grew up in a family of abolitionists, threw out a ceremonial first pitches at a Negro League game and spoke out in favor of integration. That doesn’t necessarily mean he wasn’t a racist, but the truth about Cobb has long been difficult to pin down.
Charles Leerhsen’s 2015 biography, “Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty,” which we covered at length, made a particularly strong case that many of the most outrageous stories attached to Cobb were invented by an author trying to make a buck. It’s worth a read, if only to balance out Tommy Lee Jones’ exaggerated portrayal in the 1994 movie “Cobb”.
4. He hit .300 in 23 consecutive seasons.
This streak is as safe as Cal Ripken Jr.’s consecutive games played record in terms of its inability to be broken. The only year Cobb did not bat .300 was his rookie year in 1905, when he played just 45 games and went 36-for-151 (.238) while still mourning the loss of his father and acclimating to the big leagues. He never again hit less than .316. And from 1909-1919, he never hit lower than .368. He hit .400 three times.
5. He won 11 or 12 batting titles.
The exact count is a matter of dispute. At the end of the 1910 season, Cobb was in a tight race for the batting title with Cleveland’s Nap Lajoie. Cobb sat out the final two games of the season in order to preserve his slim lead. But St. Louis Browns manager Jack O’Connor, who reportedly hated Cobb, gave Lajoie a path to beat him by having his rookie third baseman Red Corriden play on the back edge of the infield.
That day, Lajoie hit seven bunt singles down the third-base line in an 8-for-8 doubleheader to finish with a .383 average and top Cobb’s .382 mark. Newspaper people wrote in protest of Lajoie’s fraudulent title, and AL president Ban Johnson discovered (wink wink) that Cobb had not properly been credited with two hits in a September doubleheader. So Cobb was declared the winner.
This, too, was a fraud, as researchers later found Cobb’s hits had, indeed, been properly accounted for. But even still, because of the illegitimate means by which Lajoie reached .383, Cobb’s .382 average is, to this day, officially recognized as the best in the AL in 1910.
Whatever the total, Cobb’s batting title count is the most for any AL or NL player. Tony Gwynn and Honus Wagner are second, with eight apiece.
6. He won the 1909 AL Triple Crown.
And he did it with only nine homers. Yeah, the game was a little different back then. Cobb is the only player in the modern era to win the Triple Crown with a single-digit homer total. He hit .377 and drove in 107 that year.
7. He could have gone 0-for-his-last-2,541 and still had a .300 career average.
Cobb’s actual hits and at-bats totals have been adjusted in some places, including Baseball-Reference, to reflect research that strips him of two supposedly phantom hits. But the official records still have him going 4,191-for-11,429, so we’ll use that. Cobb could have gone 0-fer in 2,541 at-bats -- the equivalent of more than four full seasons -- and still hit .300 on the nose, with no rounding up required.
8. He stole home 54 times.
Probably. A steal of home plate is not an officially recorded statistic. But Baseball-Almanac.com and other sources credit Cobb with 54 steals of home -- 21 more than his next-closest competitor, NL leader Max Carey (33).
Cobb is said to have stolen second, third and home on consecutive pitches. He also once stole home when Yankees players had crowded around home plate protesting a call. When Cobb, who is said to have had nine different variations of his slide, retired, his 892 stolen bases overall were a 20th century record.
9. He caused the first players’ strike.
As mentioned, Cobb was a brawler, as were many players in his era. And during a game on May 15, 1912, the relentless heckling of a fan named Claude Lueker prompted Cobb to head into the stands and attack him. Lueker had lost two fingers on one hand and all five on the other in a printing press accident, so the incident is often described as Cobb attacking a handicapped person (even though it's likely he had no idea how many fingers the man had when he went after him).
In any event, Cobb received an indefinite suspension for his actions. But even though he wasn’t exactly the most popular player in his own clubhouse, his teammates stood up for him, refusing to play until he was reinstated. After one game in which the Tigers fielded a team of semipro and amateur players, Cobb’s suspension was reduced to 10 days.
10. He once earned a save.
Well, sort of. The save was not an official stat until 1969.
But Cobb did retroactively meet the Baseball Encylopedia’s statistical requirements of a save in his second of two career pitching appearances. On Oct. 4, 1925, he pitched the final inning of the Tigers’ 11-6 victory over the St. Louis Browns in the nightcap of a doubleheader and retired all three batters he faced. Because the Tigers’ lead was so large, that’s not a save by current standards, but Cobb is credited with the save because the Baseball Encylopedia (and, by extension, Retrosheet and Baseball-Reference) use the 1969 criteria, which required only that the reliever enter a game with a lead and record the final out without having relinquished that lead.
Cobb was the only player in history with 10-plus homers and a save in the same season until the Orioles’ Stevie Wilkerson pulled off the feat in 2019.
11. He struck out just twice in his age-39 season.
That was in 1926, in Cobb’s final season with the Tigers. He played only 79 games that year, but this 273-plate-appearance sample is still good for an incredible 0.7% strikeout rate.
12. He had a winning record as a manager.
Cobb’s Tigers teams reached (and lost) the World Series three consecutive seasons from 1907-09, but finished far from first for most of the 1910s. Fans and management wanted Cobb to succeed Hughie Jennings as skipper, and Cobb took the offer in 1921, becoming player-manager.
Though the team still fell short of the World Series in Cobb’s six seasons at the helm, it did improve, reaching second place in his second season. All told, Cobb went 479-444 (.519) and is credited with helping the development of Tigers hitters, most notably future Hall of Famer Harry Heilmann.
13. He received more Hall of Fame votes than Babe Ruth.
And Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson, too. Those five legends made up the first class voted into the Hall on Jan. 29, 1936. A total of 226 ballots were cast by members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, with 170 votes needed for election. Cobb was selected on all but four ballots cast, or 98.2%. Ruth and Wagner were checked on 215, or 95.1%. Mathewson was checked on 205 ballots, or 90.7%, and Johnson was checked on 189, or 83.6%.
A total of 42 players on that initial ballot would eventually get inducted into the Hall. But if we let the percentages dictate the pecking order, then you could technically say Cobb was the first Hall of Famer.
14. He was very rich.
Cobb wasn’t just a success on the field but in the commodities market. He was the game’s highest-paid player in his time, and he put his salary to work by becoming an early investor in Coca-Cola and United Motors (a company acquired by General Motors in 1918). Cobb’s fortune at the time of his death was estimated at $12 million. That’s about $112 million in today’s dollars.
15. He (possibly) gave one of the greatest baseball quotes ever.
To be clear, this story is apocryphal. If this was said at all, it may not even have been Cobb who said it (some versions attribute the quote to Lefty O’Doul, speaking about Cobb).
But anyway, as the story goes, in the year before his death, Cobb was asked by a reporter how he would fare in the modern game.
“I’d hit about .300,” Cobb said.
The reporter was aghast. Ty Cobb? Only hitting .300?
“You’ve got to remember,” Cobb added, “I’m 73 years old!”