Ty Cobb is a distant legend to this generation of baseball fans -- a name out of the game's faraway past, and one usually heard now only when a Lou Brock or a Pete Rose breaks one of his records. When I was growing up in the early 1940s, however, Cobb was still a giant of a not-so-distant era. And just as today's young fans sing of ``Willie, Mickey, and the Duke,'' we too hailed the stars of an earlier time. We knew all the big names -- Honus Wagner, Tris Speaker, Cy Young, Christy Mathew-son, Walter Johnson, etc. But it always came down to Cobb and Ruth -- as in, ``Who was the greatest player of all time, Ty or the Babe?''
It was an argument that never was resolved, of course, for they were two very different types of player, but you could make a pretty good case either way.
The Babe knew what he was talking about, though, with his famous statement about home run hitters driving Cadillacs. And if it was true in terms of money, it was equally so in terms of fame. For while Ruth's name still connotes ``baseball'' to fans and non-fans alike, Cobb's seems to have faded back just a bit. Still a titan of the game, of course -- right up there with the other all-time greats. Maybe still right there with the Babe, for that matter, among aficionados. But no longer quite in that categ ory with the general public.
This year, with Rose breaking Cobb's career hit record of 4,191, there's been a resurgence of interest in the ``Georgia Peach.'' So let's recall the exploits that put him on an even keel with the Babe in those schoolboy arguments of the 1940s.
You begin, of course, with the .367 lifetime batting average. Indeed, you could almost stop there when you consider what a phenomenal mark that is over a 23-year career.
Pete Rose is quite a hitter, but the best one-season average he ever compiled was .348 in 1969. Cobb hit .350 or better 16 times! His lowest average ever was .320 in his first full year of 1906, and even as a fading veteran in his final season he hit .323.
One learns not to call any record ``unbreakable'' (Cobb's 4,191 hits and Ruth's 714 home runs, after all, were once considered in this category) but that .367 certainly seems out of reach unless the future brings some as yet undreamed-of changes in rules or equipment -- and Ty's 12 batting titles also look pretty safe.
Hitting, however, was only a part of Cobb's greatness. Indeed, the thing his contemporaries always mentioned even before that was the tremendous fire and drive with which he played. His base-stealing prowess is legendary -- the 892 thefts standing as the all-time high until broken by Brock in 1977. But those who saw him play talk even more glowingly of his overall aggressiveness -- not only the steals, but the constant threat of taking the extra base -- and its increasingly disruptive effect on opposin g defenses.
He also was a lot more of a slugger than most people realize. He still stands third all-time in doubles and second in triples. He led the American League in RBIs four times, in total bases six times, and in slugging percentage eight times. He even led the majors in home runs one year, and was among the leaders consistently throughout the early part of his career.
The numbers may not look impressive (his league-leading total in 1909 was 9), but in that pre-Ruthian era nobody else did much better. And if you don't believe the ball changed that much, consider this fact: in 1918 the American League home run leader had 11, in 1919 he had 29, and in 1920 he had 54 -- and in each case it was the same young man named George Herman Ruth. If it wasn't the ball that got pepped up, the Babe must have eaten an awful lot of Wheaties!
No, Ruth's slugging feats can't match Cobb's overall play. But just as Ty was a lot more than a hitter, so was the Babe a lot more than a slugger. His own lifetime average of .342 -- despite swinging for the fences -- is perhaps even more amazing than Cobb's .367. And of course the Babe also won nearly 100 games as a pitcher.
It's close -- as we knew back in those schoolboy days. And although there have been many great players in the interim, these two still seem a cut above the rest. So now with the spotlight once more focused on Cobb because of Rose's feat, perhaps the public will again realize that the old question still stands -- and is just as unanswerable as ever.