Cobb, Jackson museums battle for bragging rights

Spectators? They need to keep a respectful silence until the the bell rings. And then — huzzah!

This, dear reader, is how baseball used to be played, when a “hurler” was the pitcher, the “striker” was the guy with the bat and the “behind” was the catcher, squatting with his butt low to the ground.

It’s how the game will be played, too, on Saturday, Oct. 18, when the Georgia Peaches face the Shoeless Joes for the sixth year.

At stake is a plaque that currently holds an honored place here at the Ty Cobb Museum. The Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum is eager to take it back to Greenville after losing it last year.

The teams will play two games, but the first is for the marbles — er, the plaque. The other is just for fun, and to show people how the American past-time was played in the days following the Civil War. Both are free.

The games also are a chance for two museums, each honoring a native son who went on the baseball greatness, to score some P.R. points. The museums would love to raise their profiles. What better way than an interstate rivalry?

“Oh, we’re going to win,” said Julie Ridgway, director of the Cobb museum. “Again.”

Arlene Marcley, who oversees the Jackson museum 60 miles up the road, laughed when she heard Ridgway’s prediction. It held an edge, though.

“They whooped us real bad last year,” she said. “But we have a pretty good team this year.”

The teams, composed of volunteers and — admit it, ladies — some pretty good ringers from nearby school teams, will be playing old-fashioned baseball. They’ll wear ancient-looking caps favored a century ago. They’ll use wooden bats; forget about metal ones. They’ll play with a ball that is larger than today’s ball. It’s also the color of well-used motor oil. And, yes, a run doesn’t count until a player has made it around the bases and rung a bell. It’s beside the tally keepers — the scoring table.

And, though Cobb and Jackson came along after the old rules had passed into baseball history, organizers want to keep these games as close as possible to the game as it once was played.

“It was, in some ways, simpler,” said Ridgway.

The same cannot be said of the two men these games honor.

Tyrus Raymond Cobb was born in 1886 outside Royston, 95 miles north of Atlanta. He grew up in farm country, like nearly every other Georgia boy, but found his true love when he first donned a baseball glove. A grainy photo in the museum depicts 14-year-old Cobb with the rest of the Royston Reds. Even then, his eyes had the pinched, determined look that would terrify pitchers and any player who got in his way on the base paths.

He went to the Detroit Tigers lineup in 1905. The team paid $750 for his contract. A sportswriter in Detroit predicted that Cobb wouldn’t put up the same batting and fielding numbers he’d produced in minor-league games.

The writer was correct: Cobb would soon exceed his earlier performance. In 1911, he batted .420; the next year he batted .409. By the time he retired, in 1928, Cobb had amassed a lifetime .366 percentage. He played 24 years in the big leagues, all but two at Detroit. He was, everyone agreed, a driven, ferocious competitor. And that’s putting it diplomatically. When the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame announced its first quintet of inductees, in 1936, the boy from Royston was one of the five.

Jackson was born in 1887 in Pickens County, S.C., but grew up just outside Greenville. As a child and teen, he labored in a textile mill. When a mill owner asked his mother if her son would like to play on the company baseball team, she said yes. He was 13, and never looked back.

Jackson bounced around from one mill team to another. In one game, he took off his cleats, which had blistered his feet, and thus got the nickname that followed him forever. He signed with Philadelphia, then played for Cleveland, before joining the Chicago White Sox in 1915. The American League club would be his last.

In 1919, the Sox went to the World Series, and lost to the Cincinnati Reds. It was a stunning upset; the Sox had been heavy favorites. Rumors that some Sox players had been bribed to lose games wouldn’t go away. Eight, including Jackson, were accused of throwing the series. A court later acquitted them, but the damage was done: the “Black Sox” eight were banned for life from baseball. Jackson forever denied that he’d ever taken a bribe.

Today, a lot of people, including just about everyone in Greenville, thinks Jackson got a bum deal.

As he was dying, said Marcley, Greenville’s most famous resident gathered his family around to say goodbye. He said not a word of apology about throwing any World Series games.

“You don’t lay on your death bed,” she said, “and lie.”

On a recent morning, Ridgway walked to the place where the games will be played. It is a disused American Legion baseball field, ringed by hardwoods. The cinder block building where long-ago concessionaires sold Cokes and hot dogs has fallen in. The backstop is made of old telephone poles and rusted fence wire. The infield has grown over with grass.

In short, it looks like fields from a century ago, when mill hands and farmers and clerks shed the drudgery of daily life for a few moments of unadulterated excitement. Baseball, then and now, has always managed to lure people from what they should be doing.

On Saturday, baseball will do just that. Again.

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