The temperature is 95°, a July day that is hot even for northern Georgia. I sit on the steps of the granite mausoleum at Rose Hill Cemetery in Royston, and my shirt is soaked, stuck to my back. Two hours of driving from Atlanta have been a sticky ordeal. Hot. The only sound is from the convulsions of a backhoe, digging a new grave in the red clay.
I sit with Ty Cobb. Was it always this hot, Ty? Goodness. No wonder you were the way you were. Goodness. I am drawn here by the dark legend of baseball's greatest player. I have read all the stories, grown up on them, virtual American folktales by now. Did you really sharpen your spikes in the dugout before a game, giving the boys in the other dugout a look at the trouble that awaited? Did your teammates really hate you just as much as the players in that other dugout did? What about the gambling? What about the affinity for the bottle in your later years?
Ty Cobb is interred in the wall on the left side of the mausoleum. His father and his mother, touched by scandal in life, are linked together forever in death on the right side. His sister Florence, flamboyant and never married, has joined them. In the back of the crypt is a stained-glass window. In the front are two wrought iron doors, backed by glass. A heavy chain and padlock seal the doors.
"We needed the padlock," says Greg Hall, a local florist and chamber of commerce member. "About a year ago, a vagrant was sleeping in here every night. We kept kicking him out, but he kept coming back. Finally, we just had to lock the doors. Two or three years ago, someone put a bullet through the glass. A small caliber. Maybe a .22. We had to replace the glass."
I am late to the game. I know this. Ty Cobb, Royston's most famous resident, has been inside this mausoleum for 31 years. He would be 105 years old now. There are very few people alive who ever saw him play baseball, even as children, and the younger people who knew him at the end of his 74-year life are becoming old themselves. I know this.
I am here as the dim cover of time is being pulled, ever so slowly, for those last few inches or feet or whatever final tug renders a famous man remote, as remote as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln or Julius Caesar, remembered only by the written word. I want to take a look before the last stretch of asphalt is poured across the footsteps. I want to talk to some people here who knew the actual man.
"Look inside the crypt," Hall, the florist, says. "See how it's lined with marble? Look at the marble in the back. See the crack underneath the window? We're going to get the chamber of commerce to repair that. The family has little interest in the upkeep, so the chamber's going to do it. You have to stop a small problem before it becomes a big problem."
Hall is a young man, maybe mid-30's. I ask if he ever met Ty Cobb. He says he never did. He has only heard the stories.
The Banker "Ty showed up one day at the bank," says Cliff Kimsey, who lives in the nearby town of Cornelia. "He was carrying this large pillow slip, this pillowcase, filled with something. He asked to see the president of the bank. I was the president at the time."
Kimsey didn't know Cobb. He had heard of him, of course, but Cobb had spent most of his time after retirement living in California and Nevada. Now, in 1957, Cobb had returned to Georgia. He was living in an apartment in Cornelia but had purchased a stretch of land on a hill and planned to build an estate. It was a project that would never come to pass. In a few years the cancer that had started in his prostate gland would move into his bones, and doctors would tell him there was nothing that could be done. But Cobb didn't know that on the day he walked into Cliff Kimsey's bank.
"Ty introduced himself, and I introduced myself, and he asked if we had safety-deposit boxes," Kimsey says. "I told him we did. He asked the rate for renting a box for a year. I told him $25. For some reason he seemed astonished at this. He said 'the backstabbers' in California—that's what he called those bankers out there, backstabbers—were charging him $300 a month for the same service. He seemed honored that I would charge him only $25. I wasn't doing anything special, that was the rate for anyone, but I was glad that he was happy.
"He then showed me what was in the pillowcase. There was a giant pile of stocks and securities. I said we didn't have a box big enough to fit all of them, but maybe we could fit it in two boxes. I also said, before we put everything in the boxes, that maybe we should do an audit to protect him and the bank."
Kimsey, 71, is now retired. He says there was more than $5 million in paper certificates in the two deposit boxes when Cobb died in 1961. Cobb was a wealthy man, an investor from his first days in baseball when he would listen to the tips offered by auto executives in Detroit. He was a heavy investor in General Motors, and in Coca-Cola in its earliest years. The same stocks that Cobb bought in the Twenties would be worth over $2 billion today. In 1961, Kimsey estimates, Cobb was wealthy enough that his paper worth could rise or dip $100,000 a day with the fluctuations of the market.
"I'd like to speak for Ty a little bit," Kimsey says. "A lot has been written about him, a lot of bad things, but he did some good. He established a scholarship fund for kids to go to college, and when he died, he left more than $1 million to it. I was there at the reading of the will. His family was there, and it seemed to me that they didn't give a hoot in hell that he was dead, just wanted to see what was left to them. I think he left his three children about a million dollars each, including a trust for his 15 grandchildren, then he left all that money to the scholarship fund.
"That's not to say he wasn't controversial. I remember, when he came back to Cornelia, the Kiwanis Club called him and asked if" he wanted to be a member. He said he'd be delighted. Well, about three months later, the bills for the dues went out. I think it was something like $12 a year. Ty was outraged. He called up and said he'd been a member of clubs across the country and never had to pay one thin dime. He'd be damned if he'd do it with the Kiwanis Club in Cornelia. That did not sit well with a lot of influential people around here."
The General "Ty Cobb's mother was 12 years old when she married his father," Brig. Gen. (ret.) Eugene Phillips says from behind a desk in the Royston City Hall. "Not too many people know that. His mother was 12, his father was 20. That wasn't so unusual in those days around here, but you think about it now...12 years old. She was 15 when she had Ty."
Phillips, tall and dignified, with a proper white mustache, has finished a far-flung military career and returned home to become Royston's unofficial historian. He tells the city's enduring tale of midnight passion and intrigue. The events happened in 1905, but they could be a modern screenplay.
"Ty's mother was a Chitwood, a famous name around here," Phillips says. "His father, William Herschel Cobb, was a learned man. He was the county school commissioner, editor of the local paper, member of the Georgia legislature. Very educated. The name Tyrus, in fact, came from ancient history, from the Phoenician city of Tyre.
"Amanda Chitwood Cobb was a strikingly beautiful woman. Herschel, with all of his positions, traveled a lot. He drove a horse and buggy, and when he would travel to the towns to deal with school matters, he would stay overnight. He would be gone perhaps five days out of a week. At some point he became suspicious that his wife was having an affair.
"He announced that he was taking another trip, would be gone for a couple of days, and off he went. Only this time, he doubled back. Around midnight, he came back to the house—a yellow frame house, bedroom on the second floor. He climbed onto the porch roof outside the bedroom window. What happened next is what people have talked about ever since."
William Herschel Cobb was shot twice, once in the stomach and once in the head. He was shot dead. Amanda Chitwood Cobb's explanation was that she had heard a noise, saw someone trying to get in the house and used the gun that her husband had given her for protection. A terrible case of mistaken identity. This explanation was eventually believed by a jury in the nearby town of Laronia, where Amanda was acquitted. It never has been truly believed in Royston.
Maybe Amanda knew who she was shooting. Wasn't that possible? Maybe Amanda wasn't alone. Maybe her lover had done the shooting. Wasn't that also possible? "My father was Ty Cobb's age," Phillips says. "He always said there was someone else in the room. He said he even knew who it was, though he never told me the name."
The shooting occurred when Ty was 18 and playing for the Augusta (Ga.) Tourists; less than three weeks later, he was on his way to the big time in Detroit. The violent death of his father is often mentioned as a reason for his ferociousness and his personal instability. True? False? It is also mentioned that he had his fierce intensity before the shooting occurred. It is part of the mystery, a small-town forever mystery.
The Sportswriter "It was the damnedest story I ever came across," says Furman Bisher, 73, a columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "I went down to Royston in 1953 to do a story about Ty. He was living in California and coming back to Atlanta to be honored at an Atlanta Crackers game. I went down to do a normal story about the place where he grew up, and I wind up hearing this story about his mother and father.
"I wrote it and we ran it, but it wasn't any big exclusive—Cobb's father shot by his mother almost 50 years ago wasn't going to be a big headline—but it was the damnedest story I ever had. I remember a friend of his, Joe T Cunningham, said that he lived next door and heard the shots, and that it wasn't Mrs. Cobb who pulled the trigger. He said when Ty came home, he stood on the porch and said, 'This isn't the kind of people Cobbs are.' "
Bisher saw Cobb in various places during the next eight years. The final meetings were in Cornelia, before Cobb's death. Bisher was working on a story for the Saturday Evening Post.
"I was there for three days," Bisher says. "Every day I'd go to the door and he would answer, wearing this treacherous old robe with a sash tied in the front. Every day was the same thing. 'Who are you? What do you want?' I'd have to start over each day from the beginning. You had to treat him like a stick of dynamite. Anything could set him off. I suppose he was sort of like Bobby Knight today. You'd be getting along fine and then you'd say something that would trigger a response. Norm Van Brocklin was like that, too. You'd just make one mistake, say something wrong, and he'd be gone."
Bisher remembers Cobb would always claim "distilled spirits have never passed my lips." A few minutes later, he would leave the room for his "medicine." When he returned, the medicine on his breath would smell very much like bourbon. On the third day of interviews the bourbon was brought into the room, and Bisher and Cobb shared it together. Cobb took him to the site of the new house he was planning to build. He pointed deep into a valley where a thin wisp of smoke was coming from a chimney, and he told Bisher this was where he was born. Cobb said that when the new house was built, he would give Bisher a key and Bisher could use it anytime he wanted.
"He also made a great point of the scholarship fund, so when the story ran and I got paid, I sent him a $250 check," Bisher says. "I thought I was being pretty generous. Well, Cobb sent me back a four-page letter telling me in every which way how cheap I was, about how he'd taken me into his confidence and this was all I could do? I never could figure the man out. I thought he was a strangely mad man."
The Doctor "I spent 24 hours a day with him, seven days a week, from 18 May 1961 until 17 July 1961, when he died," Rex Teeslink says. "I think he is the single keenest mind I ever have known in my entire career. He was the most unusual personality I ever have known."
Teeslink, 58, lives in Augusta, where he is a radiologist at the Medical College of Georgia. He was a first-year student in medical school when Cobb returned to Cornelia. Cobb already was sick, suffering from a number of other ailments besides the cancer, but when he became worse, he needed constant care. This brought nurses to the house. One after another, the nurses were quickly dismissed by Cobb.
"I was home at spring break and he'd just lost some more nurses," Teeslink says. "He couldn't keep them. He had zero patience and a hair-trigger temper. He always set a high standard for himself, and when he felt someone else wasn't measuring up, there was trouble. I had met him earlier and we somehow had clicked. I don't know what it was. I liked baseball a lot and I respected him. He had asked me to help him answer some mail, but now he asked me to stay with him for the summer. I said I would."
The job, for two months, was all consuming. When Cobb went into a diabetic coma and was taken to the Emory University hospital, Teeslink accompanied him in the ambulance. He slept on a cot in the hospital room. Or didn't sleep. Cobb would sleep only three hours a night in the last months of his life, wringing out maximum waking time from each day. Teeslink was with him. They talked endlessly.
"I've never said much about what we talked about before now," Teeslink says, "because about three days before he died, he said, 'You know, they're going to try to get to me when I die, and they're going to try to get to me through you. Don't let them do it.' I guess I'm talking now because I want to set the record straight before it's too late. The things that have been written, the way he has been portrayed...it's like those 10-cent novels about the heroes of the old West. None of them are true. Wyatt Earp and all the rest aren't any more heroes than you or I, but because these things have been written and have lasted so long, the stories have been taken as the truth. That's how it has been with Ty Cobb, only the other way. All I want people to realize is that he was a fair and meaningful guy."
Stories. Cobb asked one night if Teeslink knew how he had made the major leagues. Teeslink said he knew the story vaguely, about being called up from Augusta as an 18-year-old kid. Cobb said there was more to it than that. The Tigers had really wanted a different centerfielder, an older player from Augusta. But that player, Cobb said, had contracted a venereal disease. He was logy, listless, his average was declining. So the Tigers took Cobb. Could you believe that? Ty Cobb went to the majors because another guy had a dose of the clap? No, sir.
Challenges. Cobb asked one night if Teeslink thought he was addicted to the pain medications the doctors were giving him. Teeslink said no, knowing Cobb was the type who would never let himself become dependent on anyone or anything. Cobb said there should be a test. Full of pain, he refused the narcotics for 36 hours. Was that proof? Would an addicted man be able to stay away from his drug for a day and a half? No, sir.
History. Cobb talked one night about statistics. Did Teeslink know that in Cobb's day no one paid much attention to statistics? No, sir. His record of 96 stolen bases in 1915? That could have been much higher. Cobb said he would sometimes get himself thrown out on purpose. If the game was one-sided, he would run a little slower, slide a little sooner. The catcher would get him and maybe feel confident the next time Cobb tried to steal, in a closer game. Maybe overconfident.
"He was a master of psychology," Teeslink says. "Grantland Rice wrote about it. No one ever had done the things he did, thought the way he did. He was amazing. You always had the feeling he knew what you were going to say before you said it. He'd always be looking around the room, sizing up people. If he was playing cards, he'd know what all six people were holding. He always was thinking, but he never wanted people to know what was going on in his mind. He always wanted the edge."
At one point during the two months—before Cobb's diabetes landed him in the hospital—Cobb asked Teeslink to take him to Royston. They drove the 20-odd miles on back roads, Cobb pointing out sights along the way. In the town he pointed at the fields where he had played; at the spot where an old tool shed once stood, where William Cunningham, the father of his friend Joe, made Ty his bats out of prime ash; at the gas station that now occupied the spot where his boyhood home had been. But none of this was the reason for the trip.
The ultimate destination was the mausoleum. It had been built already and Cobb had helped with the design. He and the young medical student left the car and walked to the wrought iron doors and went inside. Cobb showed him where his mother and father and sister were buried and where he, quite soon, also would rest. Teeslink was solemn. Cobb was whimsical.
"What we have to have, Rex," Cobb told Teeslink, "is a signal, so when you come here, I'll know it's you; and I can let you in, and we can sit and talk the way we do now." Knock six times; the former medical student still remembers the signal.
I leave the mausoleum. Hall takes me on a tour of the city that is not much different from the one Cobb had conducted for his young aide. I see the fields where Cobb played. Two houses sit on one of the fields. The other field—at the corner of Cobb and Mill streets—is covered with weeds that reach a man's waist. I see the original Cunningham Furniture Store and the present store. I talk with Joe Cunningham's daughter, Susie Bond, now an elderly woman with back pain and a walker. She says her father did not think another man shot Ty's father, that Amanda Chitwood Cobb did, indeed, pull the trigger, and that Amanda knew who her target was.
I see the Cobb Memorial Hospital, established by Cobb with a $100,000 grant, now grown to 95 beds. I visit the Royston City Hall, which was originally built to be a Ty Cobb memorial museum—thus the words TY COBB MEMORIAL carved over the main entrance. There is still a small exhibit honoring Cobb inside the city hall—nine pictures on the wall, T-shirts for sale—but the main business here is city business. There's a drive-in window where the town's 2,700 residents can pay their parking tickets without leaving their cars.
"The memorial didn't work," Hall says. "There just weren't enough exhibits. It turned out that most of Ty's stuff was in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Just not available. We're thinking, though, of another museum, in a smaller building."
I am intrigued by the signs at each of the four highway entrances to the town, signs that read: HOME OF BASEBALL'S IMMORTAL TY COBB AND DEE DOWIS, 1989 HEISMAN TROPHY CANDIDATE, HOLDER OF NCAA RECORD. What is this? Dee Dowis? A quarterback from the Air Force Academy? Together with Ty Cobb?
"That'll change," Hall says. "It's been nothing but a problem. One man did it, without consulting anyone. We're going to take that down. Maybe if Dee Dowis had won the Heisman, but to put him now on the sign with Ty Cobb? There's been problems with the black community about it, too. A local kid, Tony Jones, now plays for the Cleveland Browns. Offensive line. The community asked, 'Why isn't Tony's name on the sign? Dowis isn't in the pros. Tony is.' It's a point. We named a street for Tony, but that isn't the same. The sign will be changed."
I wind up at a parking lot. This is the place where Cobb lived, where the shooting occurred. The gas station that replaced the house has been replaced by the parking lot for the Pruitte Funeral Home. There is no sign that any building of substance ever stood on this ground. None.
I notice a small baseball-card shop across the street. I enter. The proprietor, Louneal Martin, says she has been open about a year. She says business is good. I ask if she has any Ty Cobb cards. She says she didn't have any for a long time but only last week picked up an old Cobb card for $7. It is not a mint card, she says, probably not even worth what she paid.
A kid, maybe 12 years old, is the one customer in the store. He says he wants to buy a mint rookie card of Frank Thomas, the big first baseman for the Chicago White Sox. The card is two years old. Martin says the price is $65, but she will sell the card to the kid for $60. The kid says his mother will soon be here.
A woman appears. She is holding the hand of another child, who is about nine years old, and carrying a baby in her other arm. She is pregnant. "Will you take a check?" she asks.
Time passes. The past disappears.