Ty Cobb was a great great great great (many more greats) baseball player. And he also happened to be one of the most miserable, angry, effed-up a-holes ever to blacken humanity’s collective aura. Even if Al Stump exaggerated Cobb’s awfulness as many allege, he still spread enough documented atrociousness around to rank as one of the absolute worst people ever to pollute the earth.
Today happens to be Ty Cobb’s birthday. If he were still alive, he would now be 127. And very very very ticked-off about everything.
In honor of the anniversary of Ty Cobb’s arrival on this planet, let’s remember not the magnificent ballplayer but the absolute horror-show of a man. It’s okay to make fun of him, he was that big of a jerk-off.
10. Promoted his own skills by sending postcards to Grantland Rice under an alias.
It’s no secret that athletes are often shameless self-promoters. That was as true in the early 20th century as it is now. Ty Cobb was not an exception to this rule, in fact he was proof of it. Cobb’s most (maybe admirably) devious and totally d-baggy act of self-promotion saw him writing postcards to famed sportswriter Grantland Rice extolling his own great virtues as a ballplayer. All were written under an alias of course. Basically, Ty Cobb forged his own positive reviews. The fact that he was right about his own greatness, and may in fact have undersold himself, isn’t relevant. It was still a dick move.
9. Faked an eye ailment late in the 1910 season to protect his batting average.
Every baseball fan knows the story of Ted Williams and the last day of the 1941 season. Williams was batting just a shade under .400, but close enough that it would have been officially rounded up to .400. Hitting virtually .400 would have been good enough for almost anyone else but not Ted Williams. Despite the urging of many, including his own manager, Williams put his average on the line the last day of the season, playing in both ends of a doubleheader. You know what happened. He went absolutely Ted Williams, and by day’s end was hitting .406.
Williams is revered as a god for his decision not to sit on his average the last day of the season. He is seen as the epitome of character and integrity and doing-it-the-right-way. Ty Cobb couldn’t have cared less about that crap, he wanted his damn stats. And his damn car.
It was 1910. Ty Cobb of Detroit and Nap Lajoie of Cleveland were running neck-and-neck for the batting title. In those days, the batting title didn’t just mean a nice mention in the paper and perhaps some free drinks at the local watering hole. Winning the batting title in 1910 meant a free car from the Chalmers Auto Company. A nice free car.
Cobb was just a smidge ahead of Lajoie with two games remaining and feared a slump that would cost him his average and his car. So he did what any jack-ass would do. He pretended there was something wrong with his eye and sat out.
The plan almost blew up in Cobb’s face when Lajoie went on an absolute insane tear during a doubleheader against the St. Louis Browns on the final day of the season. Lajoie finished 8-for-9 including six bunt hits, moving his average from 1-to-3 points ahead of Cobb depending on the source (stat-counting was a less exact science in those days).
Defenders of Cobb – amazingly some of these existed, although most were probably just Cobb sending angry letters under aliases – cried shenanigans, claiming Lajoie only got his six bunt hits because Browns manager Jack O’Connor, a former teammate of Lajoie’s, ordered his third baseman Red Corriden to play back, deliberately aiding Lajoie. Cobb himself accused a Browns coach named Harry Howell of offering the official scorer a free suit if he would change an error to a hit, giving Lajoie an incredible 9-for-9 day.
Even though almost everyone hated Cobb and wanted Lajoie to win the batting title, an investigation was launched by American League president Ban Johnson. No official action was taken against Jack O’Connor or Harry Howell, but someone must have smelled something fishy because both men were later run out of the league purportedly for their involvement in the collusion against Cobb.
Since nobody could make up their mind who actually deserved the batting title, the Chalmers car company decided to award both Cobb and Lajoie with a free car. The diplomatic move to be sure. But seriously, Cobb didn’t deserve the car, because he chickened out. He was not Ted Williams.
8. Won the battling title in 1911 by messing with Shoeless Joe Jackson’s head.
Faking an eye disease was only the second-crappiest thing Ty Cobb ever did to preserve a batting average, believe it or not.
A year after the crazy 1910 Nap Lajoie batting race, Cobb found himself neck-and-neck for the batting title with the now-infamous Shoeless Joe Jackson. The two guys were friends mostly due to their shared Southern background, but that whole Southern gentleman friendship thing didn’t mean much to Cobb when it came to winning stuff.
A fair gentlemanly competition between rivals? Screw that. When Ty Cobb wanted something, he would do anything to get it. Including unleashing a campaign of psychological torture.
Basically, Ty Cobb used psy-ops against Shoeless Joe Jackson. They were friends like I said, but “friends” meant something different to Cobb than it means to you or me or Shoeless Joe. To Cobb, Jackson’s affection was a weakness to be exploited. It wasn’t that hard to mess with Jackson, given that he was a bit of a simpleton and somewhat fragile psychologically. All Cobb did was refuse to acknowledge Jackson any time they met.
This silent-treatment tactic is well-known among middle schoolers, and it had the same effect on Jackson that it might have on a fat, socially-inept sixth-grader.It drove Jackson a little nuts.
A bewildered Jackson so lost his composure the rest of that season that his batting average dropped off. He ended up hitting .410, which is fricking astonishing, but still ten points lower than the .420 average a psychologically impregnable Cobb posted. Gaslighting an alleged friend just to win a statistical contest? Oh yeah. He’s in hell.
7. Choked out an umpire during a fight under the stands.
Surprisingly enough, Ty Cobb had a hard time getting along with umpires. He also had a hard time getting along with his family members, friends, members of the clergy and helpless kittens. But he really didn’t get along with umpires.
There was one umpire he hated in particular, a guy named Billy Evans. As it happened, the feeling was mutual. One day Ty and Billy decided they had to settle their differences the only way early-2oth-century manly men knew how to settle their differences. They agreed to meet under the stands after a game to engage in gentlemanly fisticuffs.
As we’ve already discovered, the term “gentlemanly” didn’t really exist in Ty Cobb’s personal lexicon. So it’s no surprise that what started as fisticuffs quickly degenerated into a desperate scrum. To the horror of the assembled crowd, mostly players who wanted to watch Cobb get his butt kicked, Cobb pinned Evans to the dirt and began choking the life out of him. Had several of Cobb’s teammates not jumped on him and pulled him off, Billy Evans may very well have died at the hands of the insane Cobb.
What a mess that would have been. Hiding the body. Lying to the cops. And yeah, Cobb’s teammates would have helped him. They hated him, but they liked having him on their team. Cause the sucker could play.
6. Probably participated in fixing a ballgame in 1919.
Everyone knows about the Black Sox scandal of 1919. Eight members of the Chicago White Sox including John Cusack and David Strathairn teamed up with gangsters in a conspiracy to throw the World Series. The conspirators were caught and banished from baseball, their good names soiled forever.
That was the most famous gambling-related incident of the era, but it was far from the only one. Turns out the whole fixing games thing was a bit of an epidemic at that time, with lots of famous ballplayers getting involved on at least a small scale. Ty Cobb, it should possibly not shock you to learn given his overall character, was one of of the guys who got caught up in game-fixing. Maybe.
There may have been multiple incidents with Cobb, but there is only one that ever came out. Years after the fact, a player named Dutch Leonard who once had the misfortune to be managed by Cobb accused Cobb and Indians pitcher Smoky Joe Wood of teaming up to fix a 1919 Tigers-Indians game. The plan involved Cobb and Wood putting a bunch of money on the game and Wood blowing it by pitching badly. Leonard produced evidence in the form of letters, enough damning information to get commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis involved.
Cobb and Wood defended themselves by lamely insisting the letters were actually about betting on horse races and not baseball games. Neither man ended up being punished by Landis, himself an accomplished piece of garbage. To this day, we’re not sure if Cobb ever bet on baseball. But he probably did. And so did probably almost every other baseball player of the time. But that doesn’t excuse Cobb, it just makes him one low-down jerk among hundreds.
5. Wrote a letter accusing ex-teammate Sam Crawford of sabotaging him by deliberately fouling off balls when he was trying to steal.
Ty Cobb had a tough relationship with his greatest teammate, Sam Crawford. Initially the younger Cobb looked up to Crawford as a mentor, but as Cobb got older and surpassed Crawford in skill and fame, his admiration slowly warped into a twisted paranoid jealousy that ultimately led to hatred.
Of course as Cobb got older he mellowed and after retirement he let all those old beefs go by the wayside. Or not.
In truth, Cobb carried his hatred for Crawford over into the years after his retirement from baseball. Years on from their playing days, Cobb was still trashing Crawford at every opportunity. In 1946 Crawford learned about a letter Cobb had written to The Sporting News accusing a jealous Crawford of consciously sabotaging him by not helping him in the outfield and by deliberately fouling balls off on Cobb’s stolen base attempts.
Crawford chalked the accusations up to Cobb being a completely delusional psychotic. That may or may not be an accurate characterization, but one thing’s for sure: Cobb sure knew how to hold a grudge. Thirty years after the alleged sabotage, he was still writing letters to The Sporting News.
Cobb was great at baseball for sure, but he may have been even greater at beefing. He would have been right at home in hip hop.
4. Attacked a handicapped heckler.
I think everyone’s heard this story. It was featured heavily in the movie Cobb starring Tommy Lee Jones. Story goes, Cobb was being ridden hard by a heckler during a visit to the Polo Grounds. Cobb put up with this mean-spirited, allegedly racially-charged heckling for several innings, a Herculean feat of patience given who we’re talking about here. But then Cobb finally decided he’d had enough. He snapped as only Ty Cobb could snap.
Possibly at the urging of teammates (who may have secretly been hoping that Cobb would get knifed) Cobb jumped into the stands and started pummeling away at the heckler, a fellow named Claude Lueker. From a historical-reputation point-of-view, Cobb could not have picked a worse heckler to beat up on. Because as it turns out Claude Lueker was missing most of both of his hands due to an industrial accident, making him essentially helpless against a crazed Ty Cobb.
This may be apocryphal, but Cobb was allegedly informed by other spectators that the man he was mercilessly beating was in fact horribly maimed and incapable of defending himself. In typically charming fashion Cobb allegedly replied, “I don’t care if he got no feet!” Lueker was just lucky Cobb didn’t have no knife. Cuz sometimes he carried a knife. More on that later.
3. Attacked a black groundskeeper for shaking his hand. Then choked the man’s wife when she tried to defend him.
Ty Cobb hated a lot of people in his lifetime. Umpires. Handicapped hecklers. Other ballplayers. Members of his family. People he allegedly was friends with. But there was one particular group of people Cobb hated above all others. Hated with a blindingly pathological ferocity. A hatred so horrifying it led him to attempted murder on more than one occasion.
Folks, Ty Cobb really really really hated black people.
This wasn’t just the kind of racial hatred that leads a person to shun or belittle or look-down-upon. This wasn’t the cute white-lady-type hatred featured in the movie The Help. This was insane.
Possibly Cobb’s most outrageous act of pure racially-motivated violence happened in 1907 during spring training in Augusta, Georgia. The ballpark the Tigers used had a black groundskeeper named Bungy, a man Cobb had known for years. One day Bungy crossed whatever line existed in Ty Cobb’s mind that was supposed to separate the world of people like him from the world of people like Bungy the black groundskeeper. And Cobb went ape poop.
No one knows for sure what Bungy did. He may have tried to shake Cobb’s hand or pat him on the shoulder. Whatever the nature of Bungy’s gesture, Cobb took it as a sign that Bungy thought himself just as good as a white person. This caused dynamite to go off inside Cobb’s hateful racist mind and he attacked Bungy.
Bungy’s wife happened to be in the vicinity, and when she saw Ty Cobb trying to beat up her husband, she jumped in. This act of true heroism by this loving woman was met with Ty Cobb by his favorite fighting move: hands around the throat. Cobb might have killed Bungy’s wife and Bungy had his teammate Charles “Boss” Schmidt not lived up to his nickname by knocking Cobb unconscious.
Cobb’s lifelong hatred of black people led him to get in plenty of scrapes, including one where he attacked a black laborer who had yelled at him after he thoughtlessly stepped in some fresh asphalt. Oh, and then there was that other time…
2. Stabbed a black hotel manager after getting in a fight with a black elevator operator.
Ty Cobb was in a particularly Ty Cobb mood one Friday night during the 1909 World Series (pitting Cobb’s Tigers against Honus Wagner’s Pirates). This was bad news for a black elevator operator and black night manager at Cleveland’s Hotel Euclid (don’t ask me why Cobb was in Cleveland in the middle of the World Series between Detroit and Pittsburgh).
The elevator operator, not realizing the nest of rattlesnakes he was about to poke, said something to Cobb that Cobb interpreted as “uppity.” Knowing Cobb, the elevator man’s remark could have been as innocent as a simple ‘Hello Ty, how’s it going?” Pretty much any word from a black person is “uppity” if you hate black people as much as Cobb.
The remark was met by Cobb in classic Cobb fashion. He attacked the elevator operator. The night manager, George Stansfield, rushed to the elevator operator’s aid, and being black himself, was immediately and viciously set upon by Cobb. During the fracas, Cobb pulled a knife. Because of course Cobb carried a knife. He used the knife to slash Stansfield, who responded by trying to pistol whip Cobb.
This could have been the end for Ty Cobb, but the fleet-footed athlete managed to escape before getting shot or having his skull caved in. An arrest warrant was issued for him but he evaded it by getting a train to Detroit via Canada. The matter finally went away after Cobb ponied up $100 and court costs to settle a civil suit.
So, pretty much a normal Friday night for Ty Cobb.
1. Beat his son with a whip after he flunked out of Princeton.
Ty Cobb was an angry man. A violent man. Possibly an evil man if you need to employ such labels. Ranking his acts of malice and viciousness and downright diabolical crappiness against his fellow humans is a complicated matter that touches on a lot of pretty sensitive ground, including racism.
What was the worst thing Cobb ever did? Hard to say. It probably was something we never heard about, some horrible thing only he and whatever poor individual got in his way ever knew happened. Some secret he and the victim carried to their graves. But among the documented incidents of Ty Cobb’s life? You can rank these any way you want, but to me this one was the worst.
Beating his son with a whip to teach the kid a lesson about the importance of academics. Yup, it doesn’t get any more horrific.
The story goes like this. Ty Cobb was a rich man, rich enough to put his son Ty, Jr. through Princeton. But Ty, Jr. like a lot of the children of the rich was not the most serious-minded individual. He didn’t want to study, he wanted to goof around. Unfortunately, his father was Ty Cobb, a man who never ever ever goofed around.
Ty, Jr. goofed around a little too much and got into some academic trouble at Princeton, flunking out of school. This got back to Ty who decided that his son needed to learn a lesson about taking life seriously. So Ty got on a train and journeyed to sit down with his son. A nice fatherly chat to set the boy straight?
Screw that. Ty Cobb stormed into his son’s place and pulled out a bull-whip. An honest-to-God Indiana Jones bull-whip. And proceeded to beat his son with it. His own flesh-and-blood. Yes Ty, that will teach him…to hate you and everything else in the world forever. Good parenting, Ty. Really awesome.
Look, stuff happens in families. Sometimes ugly stuff. Those wounds can be the worst wounds of all. They can mess you up for life. Cobb himself had many such wounds, most inflicted by his father, who was possibly a worse human being even than Ty Cobb himself (my soul shudders at the idea).
But I’m sorry, you don’t get to pull out an actual honest-to-god whip and beat up on your kid. There’s no excuse. I don’t care if your own father had his head blown off with a shotgun by your own mother (yeah, that happened to Cobb when he was a kid). That sucks, but seriously.
Wow. Ty Cobb. You really sucked. But happy birthday.