In the first part of this short series on Detroit Tigers outfielder Ty Cobb, I talked a little bit about his statistical accomplishments. This time, I’d like to do a brief overview of some of my favorite parts of the early chapters in the recent biography on Cobb titled Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty.
The Georgia Peach, an intellectual? Well, maybe not in so far as college degrees and general lifestyle go. Yet Cobb was not a dumb hick raised by ignorant farmers, running around beating up black folks. That’s a myth perpetuated by such fictional (and damaging) productions as Al Stump’s 1962 biography and the lame 1994 film starring Tommy Lee Jones.
Instead, Cobb’s father, W.H. Cobb, was a college graduate and a respected teacher. A former student once said of him, “He had a very cosmopolitan mind”. He was known for confronting locals who spoke in favor of “Jim Crow brutality”. Serving in the Georgia state Senate for two years, a W.H. speech saved funding for negro schools in the state. He probably got many of his ideas from his own father (Ty’s grandfather), who was an abolitionist before the Civil War.
Ty’s mother was known as the disciplinarian of the family. Uneducated but savvy, she was known as a very attractive woman. She kept a tight household that included Ty’s brother and sister. It was a relatively middle class home in an unremarkable small town in Georgia, the kind of old southern town where cursing in public wasn’t the norm. Cobb often took offense when, after going north to join the Tigers, he found that the supposed “mature men” of the major leagues cursed at will.
Early in life, Ty Cobb used a thoughtful approach to baseball. He saved every penny – working extra jobs to come up with extra cash – to always keep himself stocked with a ball, glove and bat. He spent hours practicing and many hours reading pamphlets and articles like “How to Sprint” from the back of The Police Gazette. He hated being called a “natural hitter”, because he spent so many hours over the course of his career studying and working on being a better hitter. He once said, “I had the gift of being able to appraise myself, even at that age [twelve]. It has been the greatest asset of my life.”
He was also a reader of other things besides baseball. His favorite book was Les Miserables, and he carried (and reread) it several times in his first years with the Tigers. He loved biographies, favoring books on Napoleon Bonaparte and Thomas Jefferson. Like Cobb, neither of those men were famous for simple brute strength or thoughtless natural talents. Perhaps Cobb used some of what he learned from those two savvy men when, upon entering the big leagues, he used a deliberately psychological approach to defeating physically superior opponents.
… continued in Part III