Mention the name Ty Cobb around Atlanta, and you’ll likely hear two things: that he was one of the most accomplished baseball players in the game’s history and that he had a reputation of being tenacious — racist at the most extreme.
You don’t even need to mention his name in Royston — signs bearing it decorate the city — before locals proudly claim the city as his hometown and defend what they view as unfair accusations about their proudest native.
Earlier this month, a yearlong political battle ended after the city settled ownership rights with the Atlanta Braves, the Fulton County Recreation Authority and Georgia State University over a bronze sculpture of Cobb sliding into home plate. The statue will now stand in Royston after spending nearly 50 years outside Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and Turner Field.
Now that the dust has settled over the agreement and dirt is being cleared for the statue, Royston is not letting go.
“I don’t think we’d take $10 million for it,” Mayor David Jordan said.
‘An intense competitor’
Like many small Southern towns, Royston can be described more by what it’s near — an hour and a half east of Atlanta and 30 minutes from the South Carolina border — than by its roughly 2,500 inhabitants.
“We are a quiet community in the center of everywhere,” Jordan said.
But Cobb’s legacy — and the museum that encapsulates it — separates Royston from other small towns, attracting tourists from across the U.S. and internationally.
Terry and Jeanette VanZant traveled from Ontario, Canada, to visit Cobb’s childhood home and his final resting place, and to determine whether his spiked cleats, a symbol of his aggressive tactics, were real or an urban legend.
“If you’re a baseball fan, how can you not like Ty Cobb? He was a colorful character,” said Terry, who admires Cobb’s “tenacity, ability and love of the game.”
Cobb signed with the Detroit Tigers in 1905, spending 22 seasons there before finishing his career in Philadelphia with 43 major league records. He was known for an aggressive base running style and ability to hit to all fields, according to his Baseball Hall of Fame biography.
Among his accomplishments, Cobb achieved nine consecutive American League batting titles between 1907 and 1915, won the Triple Crown in 1909 and was named most valuable player of the American League in 1911. In 1936, he received the most votes for induction in the initial class of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, just four short of unanimity and seven more than Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner.
“Cobb was an intense competitor and left it all out there on the baseball field,” said Matt Rothenberg, the manager of the Giamatti Research Center within the Baseball Hall of Fame.
‘Monster of a myth’
A statue of Cobb, sculpted by Felix de Weldon, was dedicated in 1977 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and later moved to Turner Field. He never played for the Braves, but the statue was part of a display of famous Georgia athletes at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
When the Braves began planning their move to SunTrust Field, they made a list of items to bring with them. A Hank Aaron statue was among them, but the sculpture of Cobb was conspicuously left off, prompting suspicion.
Jordan emphasized that the debate was over ownership rights between the Braves, who leased the land, and Georgia State University, who acquired the property — and everything attached to it — not a snub toward Cobb’s widespread reputation as some speculated.
“When I found out the Braves franchise was moving to Cobb County, I thought, ‘Well, gosh, what’s going to happen to those statues?’ ” he said. “I started calling around, and no one really would claim it. They said, ‘We don’t know who owns it.’ Then all the sudden people started thinking it was theirs, like ‘Maybe we own it since nobody’s claiming it.’ ”
Cobb earned a reputation as an aggressive player both on and off the field, particularly as a mean-spirited racist, but Charles Leerhsen, the author of the 2015 biography “Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty,” found little evidence to support that after years of research.
“I started the book, and wrote a proposal, with the idea that Cobb was the racist, spikes-crazy monster of myth,” he said. “What I found by going back to the original sources — contemporary newspaper articles, family documents, letters, census reports — changed my mind.”
During his lifetime, Cobb faced accusations of sharpening the spikes to intimidate other players. To disprove myths, Cobb, in 1910, wrote to the president of the American League asking him to require all players to dull their spikes with a file.
While Leerhsen said Cobb “was not a saint” and thought “many people were fools,” he was also progressive, attending Negro League games, and descended from a long line of abolitionists.
“His great-grandfather was a preacher who preached against slavery and got run out of town for it,” he said. “His grandfather refused to fight in the Confederate army because of the slavery issue, and his father was an educator and state senator who fought for the rights of his black constituents.”
The first record of Cobb speaking about race was in 1952, when he told the Sporting News, “The Negro should be accepted wholeheartedly and not grudgingly into baseball — the Negro has the right to play professional sports and who’s to say he has not?”
Many of the stories portraying Cobb as a racist came after his death in 1961, in a book written by Al Stump that included accusations that Cobb killed a man in 1912. A film featuring Tommy Lee Jones was made out of Stump’s book, further fueling the stories.
“When someone tells you otherwise, ask them for evidence — I mean beyond the fact that that’s what everyone says,” Leerhsen said.
A hometown hero
Cobb has always remained a fixture of success for the city, which emphasizes his philanthropy as a pushback against allegations of racism.
“To a great degree Cobb’s attitude toward race are an assumption based on the fact that he was born in Georgia in 1886,” Leerhsen said.
Legislation sponsored by state Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, House Resolution 236, was written to dedicate a road in honor of Cobb, “a generous philanthropist” who “donated funding to build a 24 bed hospital in Royston and $100,00.00 for college scholarships for needy students in Georgia through the Ty Cobb Educational Foundation.”
Wesley Fricks, a historian who has worked at the Ty Cobb Museum and has studied his life, said that “for every one negative thing you can say about Cobb, I can tell you five great things he did in his life.”
In addition to providing endowments for medical care and education in Georgia, Cobb was also an early investor in General Motors and Coca-Cola, which made him a millionaire.
“Our forefathers did a lot of things that today we would all despise,” said state Sen. Frank Ginn, who helped Royston secure the statue. “I don’t think that he was any different from society at that point, and that’s deplorable. In the same token, he did so many good things to help Royston.”
Despite the allegations, Royston is proud to prominently display a statue of its hometown hero.
“I’m happy it turned out this way,” Jordan said. “I’m glad we have the statue.”