Ty Cobb's Many Dimensions - On and Off the Field

Cobb was known for fighting with his teammates, but he also gave generously to charities

TWICE in 1955 I received a letter from Tyrus Raymond Cobb, the first player elected to Baseball's Hall of Fame and the focus of the new Warner Brothers release, ``Cobb,'' which takes an in-depth look at his life.

Actor Tommy Lee Jones plays the former center fielder, and later manager of the Detroit Tigers, like a tightly wound industrial spring that has suddenly broken loose from its moorings.

If you believe everything that appears in the film, then Ty comes off as a man who learned most of his baseball at Gestapo headquarters.

Actually, there is ample evidence that he regularly fought with his teammates; had zero patience; was a loner; and exchanged spike wounds with opponents who tried to stop him from stealing bases.

Yet the 6 ft., 1 in., 175-pound Ty saw nothing unusual in his behavior.

However, there was another side to the multimillionaire Cobb, including sizable charitable contributions in his later years (mostly to hospitals and scholarships) - these from a man whom many of his peers considered a cheapskate. The Georgia Peach made most of his money outside baseball as a heavy investor in General Motors and Coca-Cola.

After he retired, he reportedly sent monthly checks - through a third party to hide his identity - to several ex-major leaguers who were struggling financially, and for whom his earlier dislike was well known.

The first of Cobb's two letters to me, responding to an informal baseball questionnaire I had mailed him, was handwritten in green ink. I didn't learn until years later, while reading a book about Cobb, that he never used green ink unless he was angry and trying to make a point.

Below are excerpts from his letter, with a few added connecting words:

``One run has no value today with the lively ball,'' Cobb wrote. ``Baseball was still baseball when we had the bunt, sacrifice bunt, hit and run, and the squeeze play. The outfield was part of the overall defense, meaning that the outfielders didn't play so deep that they had to relay the ball to an infielder to set up a play at the plate.

``I have for many years in the past, read your paper [the Monitor], so conservative in every way, so well printed and presented. No story under my name, please. Quotes okay.''

It was signed: Sincerely, Ty Cobb.

The second letter I received from Cobb was typewritten: an answer to why he was not interested in writing his autobiography with my help. He wrote:

``So, I am not too keen to do a book, though I do have a lingering feeling to correct a lot of stories that were wrong, also I have kept for myself quite a few experiences and incidents that I have never shared with anyone, and which, of course would be something that had never been written.''

Six years later, in 1961, Cobb would collaborate with magazine writer Al Stump to produce a book entitled, ``My Life in Baseball'' for Doubleday.

Cobb was baseball smart, an extremely scientific ballplayer who made use of his intelligence as well as his great physical skills. For Ty, when he broke into the majors with Detroit in 1905, baseball was still an elaborate chess game.

He hated the home run because he felt it took away the intricacies and strategy of the game and made it too much of a power struggle. To Cobb, Babe Ruth's game-winning home runs were like paint-by-number creations: pleasing to the eye but not earned like the runs of a singles hitter who can work himself into scoring position.

Although Cobb probably would have jetted into Baseball's Hall of Fame as a player with half the numbers he put up during a 24-year career (.367 lifetime batting average; 892 stolen bases; No. 1 in runs scored), most of baseball considered Ty only an average manager.

That is, with the exception of Fred Haney, former California Angels general manager, who broke into the major leagues under Cobb at Detroit in 1922.

``The trouble with Cobb was the critics,'' Haney told me. ``They never think a manager is any good until he wins a pennant. And Ty never had enough good pitching to be a challenger. But ... while I was with Detroit, Cobb got into the first division with a couple of teams that should have finished in last place.

``Cobb's whole theory as a manager was that everybody should know what he is going to do in any situation before it happens,'' Haney said. ``He didn't want any dumb plays like throwing to the wrong base.''

``One of a kind'' generally refers to only one part of someone's personality or playing style. But Ty really was different. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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