I mentioned in part two of this series that Cobb wasn’t only a talented ballplayer; he was also a dedicated student of the game. While his enthusiasm and daring often gave him an edge in the lower professional leagues, it wasn’t until he learned how to thoughtfully train himself to be a better player that he showed signs of his future greatness.
In Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, author Charles Leerhsen describes Cobb’s experience with George Leidy, a man who has no other claim to baseball success, but who was instrumental in creating one of the great hitters in the game. Leidy took over as manager of Cobb’s low-pro Augusta Tourists in 1905. (They didn’t have real farm systems or the “A” ratings we have now.) He was known as a disciplinarian, and because of the terribly rowdy bunch on the Tourists, he didn’t have much success… except with Cobb.
As Leerhsen describes it, Cobb had hit a low point in his young professional career. He was hitting somewhere in the .230 range, and had picked up careless habits from his lackluster teammates, like snacking while in the outfield (!) The night after Cobb missed an easy fly ball because he was busy eating, Leidy took Cobb on a long walk, talked some sense into him, and convinced him to meet him first thing in the morning at the ballpark.
What happened the next morning (and many mornings afterward) wasn’t anything that seems remarkable to us today, but was hardly the norm at the time. Leidy had Cobb practice bunting into a sweater, which Leidy placed at various points on the infield. Over and over and over. He made him practice pulling the ball, hitting the opposite way… in other words, he took long, repetitive batting practice. This was something Cobb’s teammates almost never did, at least on this scale. What Cobb learned wasn’t only discipline, but also that a player could really change what was wrong on the field, if he wanted to take the time. By June, he was hitting over .300.
Cobb was eventually spotted and signed that year by the Detroit Tigers, who were looking for any help they could get. Cobb hit .438 over the four game series witnessed by the Tigers’ scout. Cobb ended up playing in 41 games for an average Tigers team that ended 15 games out but with a winning record. He hit only .240, but was exciting enough on the base paths to gain some recognition among fans.
But it was around this same time that an infamous tragedy occurred. Cobb’s father W.H. Cobb was shot and killed by his wife – Ty’s mother – Amanda. W.H. had come home a day or two early from a conference, and it was past 11 p.m. when he arrived.
Leerhsen clarifies several myths about this terrible night. There is little to no proof that Amanda had been cheating on Ty’s father; Amanda almost surely did not know that it was W.H. trying to enter the house; she used a pistol, not a shotgun; and Cobb was far away in another town when it happened: he did not witness any of it.
It seems more likely that W.H. had been doing some amateur detective work for a local judge. The two men had decided to try and gather hard evidence against a couple of supposed prostitutes who were a “blemish” on the small town of Royston. W.H. may have been attempting to peer into the windows of the nearby house where the women lived. Coming home, he would have been coming in from the side yard, rather than the front, which is why Amanda would not have assumed it was him. Without going into all of the sordid details, Amanda was eventually acquitted, and no mysterious lover ever surfaced.
The psychological effect on Ty is hard to measure. Surely it caused him great heartache, and he did return home for the funeral and the court proceedings. But there isn’t any direct correlation between the shooting and Cobb’s play or his temperament. It’s certainly possible that those feelings lay dormant until later years, when his anger was more pronounced, but that it more of a guess than anything based on evidence.
… continued in Part 4