Was Baseball Legend Ty Cobb Really a Murderous Maniac?
He was the first inductee into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame and the sport's first national icon. Over 92 years after his retirement from the game, he still holds records for highest career batting average (.367), most career batting titles (12), and highest combined total of runs scored and runs batted in (4,065). When searching through the MLB record books, his name cannot be missed, as he is credited with setting over 90 throughout his career. He is undoubtedly one of the most accomplished and electrifying athletes ever to live. His name is Ty Cobb, and despite his hard work, winner mentality, and legendary achievements on the field, he is remembered as being an anti-social racist, bigot, dirty player, and downright awful human being.
Every student of the game knows the old stories. Ty Cobb once stabbed a black waiter to death just because of his skin color and got away with it. Ty Cobb would get drunk after ballgames, take to the streets, and pistol-whip every black person he came across. Ty Cobb intentionally ended the careers of other players, spiking them hard in the legs, often leaving them with lower leg injuries they could not come back from. In fact, Ty Cobb would sharpen his spikes before games for the sole purpose of harming opposing infielders. In short, Ty Cobb was mean-spirited, hated humanity, and had no friends by his side.
As a lifelong baseball fan, I believed these stories, as they seemed to be the general consensus in every book on baseball history that I read. The media also sold this narrative. In the famous movie Field of Dreams, Shoeless Joe Jackson states that Ty Cobb was not invited to play in the reunion game because "no one liked the son of a b----." In the 1994 film Cobb, he is portrayed as a racist, wife-beater, and drunk whom everyone despised – even his own teammates.
Where is the evidence for these damning allegations? These infamous stories about the terrible Ty Cobb cannot be found in any newspaper articles, police reports, census reports, personal letters to or from friends and family, or any other literature throughout his 23-year baseball career, from 1905-1928.
The historical evidence points to Cobb being a vastly different person and player from what I thought he was.
Was Cobb a bigoted racist? According to baseball historian Charles Leerhsen, who wrote the bestselling biography Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, despite growing up in the Deep South in the late 19th century, Ty Cobb came from a family rooted in abolition and civil rights. His grandfather refused to fight for the Confederacy due to its stance on slavery. His other grandfather was run out of his own hometown for preaching on abolition, and his father broke up multiple lynch mobs.
As for Cobb himself, he once told a reporter, "The negro should be accepted wholeheartedly. ... [T]he Negro has the right to play professional baseball, and who's to say he has not?" As recorded by Leerhsen, Ty Cobb not only advocated for the sport's integration, but also worked out with black ballplayers in the offseason, and he had the honor of throwing out the first pitch at many Negro League games.
What about that black waiter Cobb killed? Well, according to the report from Cleveland that night in 1909, it was just a minor altercation. Oh yeah, and the waiter was white.
Was Ty Cobb a dirty player? Not at all. In 1910, according to old commissioner notes, Cobb petitioned Major League Baseball to require players to blunt their spikes so that careers could be preserved. Based on quotes from teammates and opponents, Ty Cobb was the most competitive and aggressive player in baseball, often screaming at teammates and talking trash to opposing teams, but it cannot be denied that he was well respected as a ballplayer.
Was Ty Cobb perfect? Hardly. Primary accounts from baseball in the early 20th century reveal that he was easily offended; was way too confrontational; and didn't get along with those who lacked his passion, tenacity, and work ethic. But a racist? A murderer? A dirty player? These accusations are undoubtedly false. How is Cobb at all different from many modern professional athletes with the same burning competitive desire in everything they do?
Where do these accusations come from then? Charles Leerhsen uncovers the truth: in the last days of Cobb's life, a man named Al Stump, hungry for fame, started writing fake stories about the baseball legend. Cobb threatened to sue, but he passed away before any legal action could be taken. Tragically, the compelling and shocking stories spiraled out of control, as repetition started to pass for evidence. Stump eventually published a book titled Cobb: The Life and Times of the Meanest Man Who Ever Played Baseball. Despite the fact that Al Stump never listed his sources, or the fact that he was eventually banned from publication for fraud, the damage had already been done, as the opportunistic media went into a frenzy with these new intriguing stories about the once beloved Ty Cobb.
One could argue that Ty Cobb is the greatest baseball player ever to live. He electrified crowds with his skill, effort, and passion. He once turned a bunt into an inside-the-park home run. He once stole three bases on three consecutive pitches. Yet he will never be celebrated like Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, or Willie Mays, as his reputation lies in ruins over fake news.
In today's political climate, there are many lessons we can take from the story of Ty Cobb. How many decent human beings are publicly slandered because certain people have an agenda? Too many. It's important to remember that evidence matters more than repeated, uncorroborated tall tales and that society is too quick to believe lies about successful people. Repeating a certain story over and over again does not suddenly make it true.
There are two sides to every story, especially with regard to the life and career of the great Ty Cobb.