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Shirley Povich Tribute

  Best Player — Not Best Man

By Shirley Povich
Washington Post Columnist
Sunday, January 1, 1995; Page D14

The book is out ("Cobb, a Biography") and the movie ("Cobb") will be showing throughout the country next week, and now everybody is reminded for sure that Ty Cobb was, indeed, a vicious, demonic fiend who took to the ballfield every day with blood — not his own — in his eye. And how he cut and ravaged and savaged his way to all those records (90) he put in baseball's archives.

Yes, the greatest player of all time was baseball's preeminent unconscionable scoundrel; as miserable a cretin as ever pulled on a uniform, and an outspoken racial bigot to boot.

Cobb not only honed his spikes to his desired cutting edge for any infielders who got in his way, but off the field he was often an instant heel who beat up on waiters and bartenders and any civilians he conjectured as unfriendly, including any in the grandstands.

It's all there in the book by Al Stump, a fine writer and Cobb's longtime biographer companion who suffered Cobb's ugly presence to the very last of his days as a drunken, cancer-riddled diabetic wreck who abused even his nurses.

It's all there, including how he may have been traumatized as a teenager when the father Cobb loved was shot dead by his mother, who mistook him for a second-story burglar. She was tried and acquitted of murder. But how much did it affect the youthful Cobb, how much did it account for a neurosis that would take so many violent forms, including horse whipping his son for flunking out of college? That was for the shrinks to decide.

But it is also a truth that in the 90 years since that teenage Georgia youth broke in with the Detroit Tigers, the game has never seen his equal in baseball skills. Young Cobb reinvented the game for himself and proved he could cut and slash his way around the bases, and intimidate, and win 12 American League batting titles with his highly unorthodox hands-apart batting grip that was also new to the game.

Also new to the game was the constant violence he brought to it, and so good riddance to Ty Cobb.

Yet, as nasty as he was, there was an occasional outbreak of sentiment by Cobb. At some point following his retirement, the meanest man ever to play the game was visited by some out-of-character kindly thoughts toward others, a sort of peeling off of the malice that was in his nature.

Recalled here was an afternoon in Cobb's company at a Cooperstown hotel where Cobb, now in his seventies, was attending the annual Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, as was his custom. Willing to talk about the game he had dominated, he revealed himself on this day as a man of some benevolence.

"Damn it," Cobb said, "Sam Rice should be put in the Hall of Fame here." Like Cobb, Sam Rice of the Washington Senators was an outfielder, and Cobb was saying: "Sam Rice belongs. You don't appreciate how good a ballplayer a man is until you play against him and I played against Sam Rice for 14 years and he could do everything, and I'm saying his name should be here too."

Cobb made it a project. No player could have a weightier endorsement. In 1963, Sam Rice (career .322, lacking only 13 hits to reach the 3,000 milestone) was voted into the Hall of Fame.

From the late Harry Heilmann I learned more about Ty Cobb. Heilmann, who joined the Tigers as a rookie outfielder in 1914, talked of his relationship, or rather non-relationship, with Cobb. "We were in the same batting order for several years before Cobb spoke to me. That was because I was hitting better than .300 and Cobb saw me as a threat to all those batting titles he had been winning {nine in a row} and he was cool to me."

Matters changed in 1921, Heilmann said. "That was when Cobb became manager of the Tigers and now he needed me, and turned friendly. He showed me more about hitting than I ever knew. That year my average zoomed to .394 and got me the first of my four batting titles."

Heilmann said Cobb was the most intense man he ever saw. "He would have made a great banker, a great general, a great scientist — great at whatever he wanted to be. Let me tell you about that time in the Tigers' training camp in New Orleans when Cobb was our manager.

"Those were the days when every big league camp had a sliding pit, and after practice one day Cobb came past a group of us trying to broad jump. The Tigers had signed a young college first baseman who had won the broad jump at the Drake Relays and the fellow was teaching us how to make the leaps.

"Cobb watched for a while and then said he'd have a try at it himself. He outjumped everybody except the kid and then left unhappy and mumbling to himself.

"Ten days later, Cobb grabbed the kid and said, 'Let's you and me jump.' They had three goes at it and Cobb won all three. We found out that for the last 10 days he'd been sneaking off to town and taking broad jump lessons from the Loyola College track coach. Cobb wouldn't finish second to anybody."

Heilmann died of cancer at the age of 56 in 1951. Before his death, when Cobb learned that the Veterans Committee was poised to vote Heilmann into the Hall of Fame, he prevailed on Cooperstown officials to waive the rules and let him inform Heilmann prematurely — on his deathbed — of the honor. Ty Cobb was not all bad, all the time.

Clark Griffith related to me how he once dealt with the menace of Ty Cobb in the Detroit lineup. It was when he was managing the New York Highlanders (later the Yankees) in 1907 that Griffith hatched his plot to neutralize the threat of Ty Cobb.

"I took a second-string third baseman, big George Moriarty, and put him on first base," Griffith said. "Then I told our pitcher to walk Cobb first time up. Previously, I had told Moriarty to call Cobb some nasty names and pick a fight with him, and Moriarty was willing. Picking the fight with Cobb was easy and the umpire threw both men out of the game. I got rid of Cobb at the cost of only a backup first baseman."

Cobb died in 1961 at the age of 74, a broken man. But from beyond the grave he was hauled back into the news in 1985. That was when Pete Rose began making an assault on Cobb's record of 4,191 base hits that, presumably, would be standing for all time. When the aggressive Rose did collect the tie-breaking 4,192, it was loudly hailed in terms tantamount to a New Coming. And a Feat for the Ages, prompting all the front-page news.

Yet to acclaim Rose as the new hit champion and superior to Cobb in any respect was to make even Cobb's detractors bristle. Also none of the game's historians was troubling himself to point out that Rose needed approximately 2,500 more times at bat, equivalent to four full seasons, to achieve Cobb's plateau.

To compare Pete Rose with Ty Cobb is, on any basis, an insult to Cobb. For stealing 20 bases Rose became known as Charlie Hustle. Cobb never stole fewer than 20 in his career and set one record at 96. Compare them as hitters? Another affront to Cobb, who had a career average of .367 (in the dead ball era) compared to Rose's .301. A .323 season was Rose's peak. Cobb never fell to that mark.

One of the remembered tributes to Ty Cobb is the story that used to make the rounds in such New York watering holes as Toots Shor's 52nd Street restaurant, where Toots himself liked to pose the question:

"How much do you think Ty Cobb would hit against today's pitching?"

Whereupon Toots would answer it himself. "I'd say maybe .310, perhaps .320."

"You say .310? Is that all?"

That permitted Toots to say, "Remember, Cobb today would be 74 years old."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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