First published: Dec. 14, 1986
Tyrus Raymond Cobb was probably the greatest baseball player who ever lived. But the first inductee into the Baseball Hall of Fame isn't even memorialized in his hometown.
Ty Cobb thought he had come back to Georgia to live out his years, on a mountain overlooking Narrows, where he was born, or where Narrows had once been. The settlement was no more.
"I'm tired. I'm old and I'm tired, " he told me one day. "I don't like to say I'm old, but I am. It has been a tough life, 24 years of fighting off Nap Lojoie, Joe Jackson, Eddie Collins, Tris Speaker and Babe Ruth, trying to stay ahead of them. I had to do that era after era.
"I've used myself up since I was 17. I don't believe any player had a tougher time of it in baseball than I did. Now I'm 71, and I'm tired. I want to get out of circulation. I'm going to be hard to find on my mountain."
That much of what he said was true. The mansion he planned was never built. He crisscrossed the country, feeling death in pursuit. To Lake Tahoe, to Phoenix, to Atherton, where he had a home in California, and back to Georgia. He couldn't stay put until he finally collapsed into a bed at Emory University Hospital, and there he died, a million dollars worth of securities in a tote bag with a Luger on top beside him.
My assignment was to write, in 1,500 words, of Ty Cobb, the man and the player, on the anniversary of his birth, Dec. 18, 100 years ago. I could write 1,500 words about a dinner in his home in Atherton, which broke up before the first course was served. He became enraged at the wife of one of his guests. I could do another 1,500 words on the day I sat on the porch of Joe Cunningham's funeral home in Royston, Ga., and listened to Cunningham tell of the night that Cobb's mother shot his father. Cunningham had been just a boy about Cobb's age at the time, the first person to the scene.
I could write another 1,500 words of the day I escorted Bill Shrout to Cornelia to shoot the pictures that would accompany a story I'd written for the Saturday Evening Post. Shrout was a tough, world-wise traveler full of confidence.
"I've just come from shooting Charles Kettering in Ohio, " he said. "If I can handle Kettering, I can handle Cobb."
When we went back to the motel that night, Shrout threw off his photographic gear, fell across a bed and groaned, "And I thought Charles Kettering was an ordeal."
I shall not engage in a review of Cobb's career. That is engraved on the records and memorialized on the wall at Cooperstown, N.Y. Suffice it to say that he was the first player voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, and he may have been the greatest player of all time. Surely there was none more volatile, surely none who created more hellfire.
He was sensitive, intelligent, articulate, well-read, well-invested and fiercely proud. It would seem strange to say that it was family pride that manifested itself in the quirks that mottled his character, but it becomes a documented fact as he moved into the twilight of his life.
Al Stump, a free-lance writer from California, spent a wild and tempestuous time with Cobb trying to put the man's life story into words that suited him. They were nearing the end of the weeks of preparation for the book when Cobb asked Stump one night, "Have you got enough to finish the book?"
"More than enough, " Stump said.
Cobb fired back, wracked with pain and, as he often was then, full of booze and medication, "Give ‘em the word then. I had to fight all my life to survive. They were all against me, tried every dirty trick to cut me down. But I beat the bastards and left them in the ditch. Make sure the book says that. . . ."
Several years before, I had written that the driving force in Cobb's life had been the murder of his father, a family disgrace that sometimes warped his mind. He finally confirmed it one fiery evening with Stump.
"I did it for my father, " he raged. "He was an exalted man. They killed him when he was still young. They blew his head off the same week I became a major leaguer. He never got to see me play. But I knew he was watching me and I never let him down."
You could close the story of Ty Cobb right there. There were times when it seemed nothing else mattered in his life, though he was twice married and had four children. It is as strange as it can be that a man could dictate the terms of his autobiography in which neither the mother of his children nor the children themselves are mentioned. It was all baseball and Ty Cobb's wars with man.
He was miserly with his affection as well as his coin. He broke off completely from his elder son, Tyrus Raymond Jr., when the offspring flunked out of Princeton. He later became a doctor and died young of a brain tumor. The man who coached the second son, Herschel, remembered him as a fine prospect of a tackle, but Ty forced baseball upon him, to the point of sitting in the stands and shouting at him during games at Redwood City High School in California. Herschel grew into a massive man and died of a heart attack at a convention, only 52 years old.
Jimmy, the youngest, is still in life, in North Carolina; so are the two daughters. And at last count, there were 15 grandchildren left to carry on the family name.
It was in his father's memory that Cobb established the Cobb Educational Foundation, something by which to mark his trail in Georgia. He and Herschel Cobb, the sire, had had serious differences on young Ty's course in life.
"But I had my mind on baseball, " Ty once said. "I knew I had to go and see about it, not as a career. I had no idea that a living could be made in baseball. We did not argue. He did not want me to become sidetracked in life and become a failure, whatever I did."
So the Cobb Foundation was created. It was for the youth of Georgia only, and only partially provided for the collegiate needs of those chosen.
"My original idea, " he said, "was the Lincolnesque characters, the boys and girls out of the fields and the mountains who would otherwise not have the opportunity of college."
After I completed the story of Cobb's unrequited reunion with his mountain in Georgia, I sent him a check for $250 out of my magazine fee. I'd told him I would. He could be sentimental and mellow. Once as we stood on the mountain on a brisk and somber day, he broke into tears and said, between sobs, "I want you to have a key to my new house. Come visit any time. Bring your family."
After receiving my check, I had an anguished letter from Cobb, written in longhand, suggesting, yea, insisting that I send more, that I had not been generous enough. I wrote that the Bisher Foundation had three young ones of its own to sponsor through college, and that the other $750 would be put to that good purpose.
It was the last exchange we ever had. When he died, I was on vacation with my family. He lies at rest now in Royston, reunited in the same cemetery with his father and mother, having found the final peace from all those "bastards" who tried "every dirty trick to cut him down." He would have been outraged that only three old players came to the funeral to see him off.
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