Book excerpt: Ty Cobb ruled baseball, until Babe Ruth stole his spotlight
This story appears in the May 11, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Adapted from "Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty" by Charles Leerhsen. Copyright © 2015 by Charles Leerhsen. To be published by Simon & Schuster.
Tyrus Raymond Cobb was the greatest hitter of them all, his .366 lifetime average over 23 1/2 seasons still the highest ever recorded. This achievement is not traceable simply to superior hand-eye coordination; what it shows most vividly is that Cobb understood how to hit in his particular baseball moment, just as Adrian Constantine Anson and George Herman Ruth, the offensive stars who bracketed him historically, understood (or intuited) how best to approach the discouraging art in theirs. Cap (born 1852) and the Babe (1895) both tried to teach the ball a lesson. Anson, a huge man, drove stinging line drives and had 21 home runs in 1884 for the National League Chicago White Stockings (who played in a bandbox, but still). Cobb (born in 1886), though built to be a slugger—rather like Ted Williams, whom he also resembled temperamentally—understood that muscle wasn’t the point. “I never take a good healthy swing at the ball any more,” Cobb told The New York Times in May 1910. “I like to do that, but you can’t get anything in the big leagues swinging the willow. The spitball pitchers would make a dunce of you in short order, to say nothing of the boxmen who have mastered a good change of pace.” (The Times obviously got an insider’s price on quote polish, and lavished it on.) The men of Anson’s age “swung onto the ball with the force of a trip-hammer,” Cobb continued, but “the great hitters of our time grab their batting sticks a foot or more from the handle and, instead of swinging, aim to meet the ball flush. It’s just like the short-arm punch in the prize ring. The long swingers with their terrible haymakers seldom get the money nowadays. I stick to the sure system of just meeting the ball with a half-way grip.”
Italics mine. Willingness to accept the things about the Dead Ball era that he could not change—the deadness of the ball, for example—his.
But Cobb’s hitting, as astounding as it was, wasn’t half his story. Although the modern era of two leagues had started only in 1901, four years before he arrived in the majors, baseball had been around long enough for people to realize how intensely boring it often was, despite its beauty—like a young Brigitte Bardot telling you about the dream she had the other night—and the Georgia Peach was the tangy antidote to that. He was always up to something, or someone else was in a dither because of what he’d just done. His often-stated goal was to be “a mental hazard” for the opposition. “When I am on the bases,” he said, “I try continually to get as close to the home plate as possible, overlooking no opportunity.” Mere inches meant a lot to him. As he waited on base for a teammate to take his licks, he would kick the loose sacks of those days in the direction in which he was headed.
Besides resembling Ted Williams, Cobb was a forerunner of Meadowlark Lemon, without the endless smiles; more like Buster Keaton in spikes. True stories about Cobb sounded like one-reel silent-movie plots. Once, at Detroit’s Bennett Park, while the whole Yankees team ran in to argue a close play at the plate following Cobb’s RBI double, he strolled from second to third, then from third home, sticking his foot between the disputants to touch the plate for what became the winning run. On another occasion he stole second, third and home on three consecutive pitches. Then there was the day in Cleveland that Cobb’s perfectly timed baserunning turned a tap-back to the box into an inside-the-park home run. Davy Jones had been on third, and after Cobb made contact, Jones unwisely got caught in a rundown while Cobb flew around the bases. The second Jones was tagged out by catcher Steve O’Neill “a foot from third,” said ex-umpire (and ex-Tiger) Babe Pinelli, who dined out on the story for years, Cobb passed him and, without sliding, scored the game-winning run. First baseman Doc Johnston was “too awed by what he was witnessing,” said Pinelli, to cover home plate.
Cobb wasn’t just good, he was the kind of player who sold tickets—who made the usually close-but-no-cigar Tigers, said Paul W. Eaton of Sporting Life, grasping for a wildly futuristic figure, “worth four dollars to see.” Or so he was for the first 15 years of his career. By 1919 Cobb was still the greatest baseball player around, and the most exciting. What he wasn’t anymore was the game’s biggest story.
If you counted the new, livelier ball they started playing with that year—more tightly wound, with string made of stronger and springier Australian wool—Cobb was the fourth-biggest sports story of 1919, behind 3) said ball; 2) heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, who won the title by whipping the much bigger Jess Willard in a historic three-round battle in Toledo on July 4; and 1) Babe Ruth. Numbers one and three are intimately related, of course. Ruth by then played the outfield for Boston on most days that he didn’t pitch, in order to get his bat in the lineup as much as possible. He held that bat very differently from Cobb—all the way down at the knob end—and swung it differently too, with a decisive uppercut motion and such force that if his spikes stuck in the clay around home plate, he could, and sometimes did, wrench his back. When Ruth made contact with what everyone but the Spalding Company (which insisted it turned out a perfectly uniform product year after year) called the “jackrabbit ball,” the results were electrifying. After leading the league with 11 home runs and helping the Red Sox win the world championship in the war-shortened 1918 season, Ruth hit 29 homers in ’19, breaking the all-time record of 27 by the White Stockings’ Ned Williamson in 1884. Ruth became a national phenomenon.
Cobb got all those pitty-pat hits and struck out only 3.1% of the time, but now it hardly mattered. Even at Detroit’s Navin Field, as H.G. Salsinger wrote, Ruth received “the welcome due a conquering hero. He got the applause, the shrieking adoration of the multitude, in Cobb’s own city. Cobb, standing aside, could feel deeply how fickle the adoration of the sport-loving public is. He saw before him a new king acclaimed.” (The following year Ruth would hit 54 home runs and then, down the road, 59, then 60.) “Cobb represents the mauve decades in baseball,” said The Sporting News. “Ruth represents the hot cha-cha, and hey nonny, nonny period.” In the Ruthian Age dozens of once-shameful strikeouts could be atoned for by the occasional fence-clearing clout. In the Roaring Twenties the plate, like one’s sister, no longer required fierce protection.
This was, of course, exactly opposite to the way the Dead Ball era greats, who choked up on the bat and mostly tried to poke the ball over the infielders’ heads, approached hitting. After initially saying it was simply the wrong way to play the game, Cobb—whose split-hands grip now struck Washington Senators manager Clark Griffith as “awkward” and old-fashioned, and who never hit more than 12 homers in a season—grudgingly came around to saying in public (probably with his fingers crossed behind his back) that it was a legitimate alternative style of play, a crowd-pleasing trendy thing that ought to be, uh, encouraged. But he could never bring himself to describe Ruth as the Father of Modern Baseball or anything other than one lucky son of a bitch. “I do not vie for prominence,” Cobb wrote in 1953 to the agent Christy Walsh, “but I do know of all the efforts in every way possible that have been put forth by New York scribes, etc., to always play up Ruth. . . . Remember, Christy, I know who was voted in first [italics his] to the Baseball Hall of Fame (Cooperstown).”
For Cobb, the idea that Ruth had come into the pastime as a pitcher was key to his somewhat unearned success. As a pitcher Ruth “could experiment at the plate,” Cobb said years later. “He didn’t have to get a piece of the ball. He didn’t have to protect the plate the way a regular batter was expected to. No one cares much if the pitcher strikes out or looks bad at bat, so Ruth could take that big swing. If he missed, it didn’t matter. And when he didn’t miss, the ball went a long way. As time went on, he learned more and more about how to control that big swing and put the wood on the ball. By the time he became a full-time outfielder, he was ready.”
Cobb could see that there was no use standing in the way of the juggernaut. By 1920, home run production in the American League more than tripled from what it was in ’18, jumping from 96 to 369, and people were coming out in unprecedented numbers to see the pyrotechnics. Not everyone favored the bombastic new way, and a decade or so later some grew nostalgic for the more chesslike game played by Cobb and his contemporaries. Asked in 1933 if he would take Ruth or Cobb in his respective prime, Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey, just 30 at the time, said, “I would take Cobb. I like to see Ruth hit the long ones, but nothing has thrilled me more than the sight of Ty Cobb dashing around the bases, taking chances, outwitting the other side. You could never tell what he was going to do, and it was fine fun trying to figure out what he might do next. You don’t get that with Ruth.”
What you did get with Ruth was more money. The lively ball, the advent of Sunday baseball in New York City and the general postwar exhilaration combined to send attendance soaring in 1919, making for what author Charles Alexander rightly calls “the beginning of sustained surge that would last for a decade.” Ruth, just 24 when he completed the transition to position player, would flare and dim as they all do, but the game people like to insist has never changed was morphing fundamentally and fast. Though Cobb would finish that season with the highest batting average (.384) and the most hits (191) playing the old way, there was no going back.
For all the individual success they enjoyed in 1919, neither Ruth nor Cobb could propel his club to the top. In baseball it takes a village, and a deep bench. The Tigers overcame a 5–14 start after owner Frank Navin bought Dutch Leonard from the Yankees in mid-May, and they would finish fourth in the AL, a half-game behind Boston. No one could stop the White Sox that season—no one, that is, except Arnold Rothstein and his fellow professional gamblers, who paid off seven Chicago players to ensure that the Cincinnati Redlegs won the championship. Cobb had heard rumors that something was fishy with the best-of-nine Series, but he said he didn’t believe the stories, theorizing instead that the men who became known as the Black Sox played poorly because of “overconfidence.”
The truth is, though, Cobb wasn’t paying much attention. He had a new daughter, Beverly, his fourth child, and he had plenty of birds to shoot up in the Georgia hills, far from the world that weighed so heavily upon him. It would be just as well if he missed the New York Times piece that said, “Ruth was such a sensation last season that he supplanted the great Ty Cobb as baseball’s greatest attraction.”
Still, by most measures Cobb handled success better than Ruth. If Cobb wasn’t a millionaire by 1921, he was close to it, thanks to endorsement deals with candy, clothing and sporting-goods companies, a probably useless patent medicine called Nuxated Iron, a tire store, a Hupmobile dealership, real estate investments, the Augusta Tourists (his old minor league team, which he now owned in partnership with several local businessmen) and of course his stock. One of his hunting buddies was Robert W. Woodruff, who would succeed his father as head of the Atlanta-based Coca-Cola company in ’23 and who urged Cobb to buy and hold onto as many shares as he could afford. He did, and passed along the tip to a number of sportswriters, who, in keeping with a sacred press box tradition regarding the accumulation of wealth, almost universally didn’t. “Had we taken his well-intended advice, we each could have made between $250,000 and $300,000,” said Henry Edwards, a baseball beat man for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. (The business journalist Adam J. Wiederman has calculated that one share of Coca-Cola purchased for $40 in 1919 would be worth $9.8 million today.)
When a reporter visited the Cobb family in mid-October- 1921, he found the archetypal American man of leisure, cheerfully overseeing a household full of fresh-faced baseball buffs. Ten-year-old Shirley waited at the front door for the newspaper to arrive so she could keep track of the Giants–Yankees “subway” World Series. Eleven-year-old Ty Jr. expounded on his theory that Babe Ruth should return to pitching despite his hot bat. Dad listened and chuckled. “Yes, we’re all fans in this house,” said the “lovely, raven-haired” Charlotte (Charlie) Cobb, in one of the rare times she was quoted directly. “And in between times I suppose I’m the biggest fan of all!” Unless this was a charade put on for the reporter, Cobb had all of the items on the standard checklist for happiness: a loving spouse (with family money of her own), five healthy kids, a more than healthy income, well-recognized success. It was probably the happiest time of his life.
Yet as long was Ruth was clouting homers and getting applause, Cobb couldn’t be content. Sid Keener recalled in a Sporting News article in 1961 that in early May ’25 he came upon Cobb telling his sportswriter friend Salsinger that he was tired of “reading stories that say I get my base hits on infield grounders and little bunts. The big guy, oh, you know, Babe Ruth, he socks those home runs! Well, I’ll show you something today. I’m going for home runs for the first time in my career!” That afternoon at Sportsman’s Park, Cobb hit three homers, two singles and a double as the Tigers beat the Browns 14–8. As Keener remembered it, Cobb missed by only a few inches having five home runs for the day. The next afternoon he hit two more homers and a single in an 11–4 Detroit win. In the clubhouse afterward, the old scribe wrote, Cobb was “jabbering all over the place” and practically hornpiping with glee. “What will the Babe say about this trick by Ty, five in two games?”
Watching Cobb and Ruth fail to get along sweetly was one of joys of the early live-ball era. Cobb was perennially the more aggrieved party because he paid more attention to what was being said and took offense quicker. It pained him to see the stands at Navin Field packed to near capacity when Boston, and then the Yankees, came to town. To Cobb, in those days, the Babe was just a big lummox who would eventually eat his way out of the major leagues—or so Cobb said, probably without really believing it. “Ruth is good for the game,” he kept hearing. “Cobb cannot be fully appreciated unless you are a student of baseball,” said Yankees manager Miller Huggins. “Ruth appeals to everybody.”
The only way Ruth was good for Cobb, it seems, was as another piece of grit that he could impearl, a negative he could transform into a plus. Besides hitting 18 points above his lifetime average when Ruth pitched, Cobb had a consistently higher average when Ruth was anywhere on the same field, as Tom Stanton tells us in his book Ty and the Babe. In 1920, for example, Cobb hit .334 against all opponents but averaged .420 against the Yanks. But when it came to Cobb’s managing (which began in 1921, while he was still a player), Ruth had the opposite effect, bringing out Ty’s overly prideful side. The Tigers were the only team in the American League that chose not to pitch around Ruth, a decision by Cobb that yielded disastrous results. In ’21, for example, Ruth had the game-winning hit in three of the Yanks’ first four encounters with Detroit, and he twice hit game-winning homers in a four-game sweep of the Tigers in mid-June.
In the second game of that series, played in New York on Sunday, June 12, single combat between Cobb and Ruth was narrowly avoided, but their respective armies clashed. Wrote Harry Bullion of the Detroit Free Press: “Close to 32,000 people were undecided whether to weep out of shame for the athletes, give vent to joy or feel insulted at the spectacle.” The trouble began during batting practice, when Ruth, put off by something Cobb had said to him during the previous day’s game, refused a photographer’s request to take a picture of him with his rival. The Babe, no idiot, was hardly insensitive to the slurs that came his way. Biographer Robert W. Creamer tells us that teammates and opponents alike “made pointed insults about his round, flat-nosed, heavily tanned face; they called him monkey, baboon, ape, gorilla.” Upon hearing that Ruth wouldn’t pose with him, Cobb did his best impression of a gorilla in front of the Yankees’ dugout. Ruth, “taking it as a challenge,” according to one paper, charged Cobb and would have fought him had not umpires intervened.
Once the game began, the two stars exchanged words every time they passed each other on the field, and in the fifth inning, said the Bridgeport Telegram, they “struck the pose Dempsey and [Georges] Carpentier will assume July 2” and glared at each other until umpire Bill Dinneen broke the tension. Dinneen was a sort of Neville Chamberlain figure. Earlier in the game he had been slugged in the stomach and jaw by Donie Bush following a disputed call, but he did not eject the Tigers’ shortstop until, when the inning ended, Bush threw a ball at him. All eyes remained on Cobb and the Babe, though—until, in the eighth when a fight erupted between Tigers first baseman Lu Blue and Yankees catcher Wally Schang following a collision at the plate, which caused both teams, wrote Bullion, “to pour off the benches like smoke out of the funnels of a trans-Atlantic liner.”
Ruth and Cobb found each other in the fracas and were again about to mix it up when Huggins tackled his star to keep him out of trouble. “While that was going on,” Bullion wrote, “[Tigers catcher Eddie] Ainsmith rushed to the plate to challenge somebody and [Yankees outfielder] “Ping” Bodie challenged Eddie,” and so on. The melee didn’t end “until Blue arranged to fight [Yankees coach] Charley O’Leary under the stands after the game.” The results of that contest went unrecorded.
Ruth and Cobb were at the center of a very similar battle royal that took place three years later almost to the day, at Navin Field. The catalyst was a pitch that drilled Yankees outfielder Bob Meusel in the ribs, causing him to crumple. Ruth yelled that he’d seen Cobb signal pitcher Bert Cole to plunk Meusel, and Ruth ran out of the dugout toward the mound. Cobb scurried to defend his man, but Huggins once again played referee, with the help of umpire Emmett (Red) Ormsby. Thousands of Detroit fans engulfed the principals, and in the ensuing chaos, as people pulled up seats and tossed them onto the field, Ormsby declared the Yankees winners by forfeit.
Curiously, with that catharsis the Cobb-Ruth feud seemed to run out of steam. The 100 or so extra policemen that Navin arranged to be brought in for the next day’s game proved unnecessary, nor were such precautions ever needed again. It’s likely that Cobb finally figured out that it looked bad for him to be bothered by the man whom fate had so obviously sent to be his replacement. “I’ve always liked Ruth,” Cobb began saying with a straight face. Batboy Jimmy Lanier remembered only the friendly last days of the rivalry: “One time when Ruth hit a tremendous home run, he was coming around third base and he yelled at Mr. Cobb, in the dugout, ‘Now do you want to tell me how to hit?’ ”
After Cobb’s retirement the two greats often golfed together and spent long evenings drinking whiskey and swapping tales, the way ex-ballplayers do. Maybe they weren’t such an odd couple after all. Besides having baseball and success in common, they also had Claire Merritt Hodgson, a Georgia native and a Ziegfeld Follies girl who was Ruth’s second wife. In her autobiography, The Babe and I, Mrs. Ruth said she had known Cobb “very well” as a teenager back in Athens, Ga., before he married Charlie, and for what it’s worth, Al Stump, in his second book on Cobb, suggests that Claire and Ty were young lovers.