What kind of man was Ty Cobb, whose record for career hits is being chased by Pete Rose?
No ordinary figure in baseball or American life, Cobb was a complex personality living in simpler times. He was extremely intelligent with little formal education, seemingly possessed by some sort of demon that made him as driven as man can be, a naturally talented hitter with an abrasive personality that encouraged confrontation. He was as wily off the field as on, playing the stock market as he did most pitchers and making himself a multimillionaire.
A simpler man in a complex time, Rose long ago latched onto Cobb as his ideal and frame of reference, baseball's quintessential spray hitter and the prime example of what such a hitter could achieve, monetarily and in the ledgers of the game. Like Cobb, Rose was born to play. Unlike Cobb, Rose also talks the game, and in so doing attracts people as strongly as the sullen Cobb repelled them.
What one has heard of Cobb is probably true. Before a game he would sharpen his spikes in front of the dugout where all could see him. He played to win, no matter who got in his way. "The base line," he said, "belongs to me."
What one sees in Rose -- charging down to first on a walk, flying into second with a headfirst slide -- is how he is. Ray Fosse got in his way at home plate in the 12th inning of the 1970 All-Star Game, but Rose played to win, and Fosse was never the same catcher after the crash.
"Cobb didn't like modern ballplayers, but I think he would have liked Rose a lot," Charles Alexander said recently. Alexander is an Ohio University history professor whose 1984 biography of Cobb is the most scholarly and thorough yet done. "I think he would have said, 'Rose plays the game the way I used to.'
"But I honestly don't think Cobb would like for Rose to break his hit record. He was very jealous of his records. I don't think Cobb would give you that cliche that 'records were meant to be broken.' I've got a feeling Cobb wouldn't be all that gracious.
"Cobb never said which record he was most proud of, but I'm sure he felt no one had a shot at 4,191 hits."
Rose, 44, back home in Cincinnati with the Reds and like Cobb a player-manager, is only 44 hits short of breaking the record after singling in the ninth inning against Atlanta yesterday. He hopes to get No. 4,192 in late August. He started the season needing 95 -- he's right on schedule.
"I don't know if I would have liked him," Rose said the other day. "I know I would have respected his ability as a player.
"Most of what I learned about him came from talking to Waite Hoyt and Lew Fonseca when they were with the Reds (Hoyt broadcast games and Fonseca was a batting instructor). They both played against him and talked quite a bit about him. They both said he was probably the meanest individual they'd ever seen."
Rose never had a chance at Cobb's ultimate mark, a .367 lifetime batting average. Who would? But clearly, Rose has had career hits and Cobb on his mind a long time, bringing Cobb up as early as Page 3 in "The Pete Rose Story," Rose's autobiography published in 1970, far closer to the beginning of his major league career than its finish.
"I'll never be able to equal him because the baseball he played is not the game we play today," Rose said. "Back then, they didn't have the pitching we got now. Even Ty Cobb, if he was batting today, wouldn't hit .350 . . . All it takes is a hot relief pitcher to cool off a hot Ty Cobb until the Ty Cobbs aren't any more."
No doubt Cobb would have taken exception to that -- who would argue if Cobb could hit Walter Johnson, he couldn't hit Goose Gossage?
What is certain is Cobb was obsessed with being the best. "I just got to be first -- all the time," he said.
What propelled Cobb, by all accounts, was the memory of his father. William Herschel Cobb was distinguished and stern, a schoolteacher, farmer, state senator and founder and editor of the weekly newspaper in the north Georgia town of Royston. He hoped his son would be a lawyer or doctor, certainly not a baseball player, a ruffian. Supposedly, after young Cobb had gone off against the father's wishes only to be cut by Augusta, W.H. Cobb told his son, "Don't come home a failure." The words seemed to haunt him just as the thought of his father's death, which occurred just days before Cobb was to join the Tigers. The elder Cobb, returning home in the dark one evening (it's said he had suspected his wife of being unfaithful and was checking up on her), was shot and killed by Amanda Cobb, who said she mistook her husband for a prowler.
"He really loved his father," Rose said. "It would have affected anybody."
Like Cobb, Rose has played as if his father were always watching. Unlike Cobb, Rose never had to work to earn his father's attention, and his father loved sports as Cobb's father did books. "My dad played football until he was 42 years old," Rose said in his autobiography. "My biggest thrill back in those days was being the water boy on my dad's team . . . That's one reason I've got to keep hustling, don't you see? I've got to give my dad, through me, all the moments he never had time for when he, himself, was a kid."
By the time his father died of a heart attack in 1970, Pete Rose knew he had lived up to expectations. Cobb could only wonder if he did. Near the end of his life, Cobb told writer Al Stump, who was doing a 1961 piece for True magazine, some thoughts also recounted by Alexander in his book: "My father was the greatest man I ever knew. He was the only man who ever made me do his bidding. My father had his head blown off with a shotgun when I was 18 years old -- by a member of my own family. I've never gotten over it."
Other similarities link Rose and Cobb. Each came out of the minors in Georgia, Cobb from Augusta, which gladly took him back after a successful stint in Anniston, Ala., and Rose, a Cincinnati kid who nevertheless arrived in the majors from Macon. While there, he knew nothing about Cobb, he admitted, but he hit a Cobb-like .330.
Both came up much ballyhooed, Rose a crowd-pleaser with his headfirst slides who quickly became known as Charlie Hustle, Cobb getting early notices because of his speed, which would enable him to steal 892 bases. But, ironically, Cobb abandoned his headfirst technique shortly after making Detroit late in 1905 -- too dangerous, he thought.
"As the runner at first base, I went sprinting to second and slid headfirst at the bag," he said in "My Life in Baseball." "Kid Elberfeld was waiting to give me the professional 'teach' -- which he did by slamming his knee down on the back of my neck, grinding my face untenderly into the dirt. Spluttering and spitting dirt, I heard Umpire O'Loughlin's well-rounded baritone -- 'Owwwwtttt!'
"(Manager Bill) Armour and the Tigers didn't have to tell me I'd pulled a dumb, sandlot slide that could have finished me before I was started. The Kid could have broken my neck . . . The scab on my nose reminded me that the head-on method of stealing bags I'd thought such hot stuff in the Georgia minor league was suicide up here."
Today, Cobb might say there aren't any infielders like Kid Elberfeld who would break one's neck with his knee. Rose hasn't found any, and said recently of the headfirst slide, "I think it's the safest. It's certainly the fastest. And you usually get your picture in the paper."
Similarly single-minded, Rose and Cobb played with a competitive fury. Ex-teammate Joe Morgan said of Rose, "It's like every day is opening day." But Cobb often carried his fury to extremes, for which he was hated.
Rose still features a dirty-uniform style, a throwback to Cobb's day; Cobb espoused a running game that he mistakenly thought had died, but actually presaged a part of modern baseball. The year after Cobb's death in 1961, Maury Wills broke Cobb's single-season steal record of 96 with 104. Alike but different, Cobb and Rose contrast sharply in personality. The eager and congenial Rose, a boy who's never really grown up, quickly became welcome among the Reds, but Cobb, a man before he was ready, cursed and fought even his own teammates in his first full seasons, 1906 and 1907. According to Alexander, Cobb believed that a clique of players wanted to prevent him from taking an outfield spot. That belief, and traditional hazing given young players, had the effect of isolating Cobb. A loner, he considered himself a Southern boy among Yankees. Later in life, he even kept an enemies list. "I had to fight all my life to survive," he once said. "They were all against me and tried every dirty trick to cut me down. But I beat the bastards and left them in the ditch."
In the spring of 1906, serious illness also plagued Cobb. As the Tigers swung north playing exhibition games, he contracted acute tonsillitis. Keeping his ailment a secret for fear he would be taken from the lineup, yet barely able to swallow, he finally found a hotel doctor in Toledo. Alexander writes: "Without anesthetic, proper surgical equipment, or much of anything else, the man went ahead anyway, cheerfuly cutting away at Cobb's grossly swollen tonsils. Periodically, when the hemorrhaging in his throat threatened to suffocate him, Cobb would ask to be let up to rest a while . . . The next morning, though, he was in the physician's chair for more unanesthetized cutting and bleeding. A gory third session took place the morning after that, following which Cobb caught a train to Columbus, where he played seven innings and got a hit as the Tigers beat the American Association team . . . About a year later he learned that the physician had been committed to an asylum for the insane."
Later that season, Cobb missed a number of games, and Alexander suggests he suffered "some kind of emotional and physical collapse" from "the strain of his desperate drive to make good," noting that a Detroit paper mentioned Cobb being in a "sanitarium."
After that, though, Cobb more than lived up to the nickname given him by a Detroit sportswriter, "The Georgia Peach."
Cobb's 1911 season was the kind found only in the "Baseball Encyclopedia." He hit .420, and had a slugging percentage of .621, 248 hits, 47 doubles, 24 triples, 147 runs scored, 144 RBI and 83 stolen bases. From 1921-26, Cobb was the Tigers' player-manager, trying but failing to emulate Tris Speaker, who guided Cleveland to a championship. This was as close as Cobb came to modeling himself after anyone. But the result was that Cobb helped create the maxim that a great player won't be a great manager because he expects too much from his players.
"I think it would have been hard for him to be a manager," Rose said recently. "Perfectionists get irritated when guys can't do what they could. When you have that kind of personality, it's hard to manage.
"I wish every player could get 4,000 hits and score 2,000 runs, but they can't. All I can ask is that they try hard."
Further, Rose said he's not finding it difficult both managing and chasing Cobb's record. "The goals are the same," he said. "We're trying to win games. How do I do that? By getting base hits."
Cobb finished up his career playing in 1927 and 1928 for Connie Mack's A's, ending with averages of .357 and .323. Nobody can match his nine straight batting titles, 12 in 13 years, but Rose did say after the 1977 season, in which he totaled more than 200 hits for the ninth time, tying Cobb's record that he subsequently broke in 1979: "I'm proud that I was able to do it in 15 years, while it took Cobb 19 years." Recently, he added, "We both hate to lose. We love to hit. We both hit the ball all over the place."
Over their lengthy careers -- Cobb played 24 big league seasons, Rose is in his 23rd -- they have amassed similar statistics. Besides being one-two in hits, and Cobb being unmatched in average, Cobb ranks first in runs and second in triples and stolen bases. Rose stands second in doubles and first in games played and at bats.
Both Cobb and Rose took pride in their salaries, if for slightly different reasons. To Cobb, the money was important. He held out for $5,000 for 1908 and did not sign until he was offered $4,800, with bonuses. In "My Life in Baseball," he said, "I've been called one of the hardest bargainers who ever held out, and I'm proud of it."
Becoming the first $100,000-a-year singles hitter pleased Rose as much as breaking any record of Cobb's. To him, it showed that his hustle and all his hits had paid off.
Cobb, who went on to earn a record $70,000 a year, made most of his money in stocks. Another of his biographers, John D. McCallum, in the 1975 book "Ty Cobb," wrote, "He was called 'the world's richest baseball player.' In a particularly candid mood one day, he frankly told me that his personal fortune was worth between $6 million and $10 million."
He had invested in Coca-Cola and General Motors.
Part of Cobb's legacy is the Cobb Educational Foundation, which provides scholarship funds for college students.
Yet the beneficent side of Cobb seldom was seen. He invited trouble. Once, Alexander recounts, he "assaulted" a black street paver in Detroit after stepping into some fresh asphalt. In another incident, Cobb slapped and chased a groundskeeper, and when the groundskeeper's wife appeared, "grabbed her and began to choke her." They were black, and Alexander writes, "In simplest terms, Cobb was what, fifty years later, people would freely call a racist."
He fought so much with teammates that the Tigers' manager, Hugh Jennings, once tried to trade him to Cleveland, but was turned down because Cobb was considered a troublemaker.
When he finally retired from baseball, Cobb said he was glad to get away -- he was tired of the game. Unfortunately for him, he didn't have much to do after that, a rich man who could play with his investments but one divorced from baseball, with no one eager to hire him again as a manager. He moved back and forth between California, where he had a home, and his native Georgia. Rose, meanwhile, said the other day that when his playing days are over he hopes to stay in the game. "If I do a good job, they'll keep asking me back year after year. Of all the things that I could do, what I know is baseball."
Cobb, like Rose, married twice, but unlike Rose had a bitter falling out with one of his children. The cranky father considered Ty Jr. a disappointment. (Cobb had five children and outlived two of them). But Rose often is seen cavorting with his children. Petey, a son by Rose's first marriage, has been a sometimes ballboy for his father's teams, and Life magazine (for which Cobb in his later years wrote two articles criticizing the modern game) recently pictured Rose hefting his baby son Ty from his second marriage. Ty? Rose told Life, "I already have a son named Pete."
In the final year of his life, Cobb, dying of cancer, behaved bizarrely. Wherever he went, he carried a brown bag that contained more than $1 million in stock certificates and government bonds. Before falling into a final coma at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, Cobb put the $1 million in securities on the night table beside his bed -- and placed a Luger on top of them.
The day after Cobb died, at 74, Ralph McGill of the Atlanta Constitution wrote, "For the last dozen years he had been trying to go home again. He could never quite make it, and it angered him that here was something with which he could not come to grips and have it out. Try as he would, Ty Cobb could not find the old dream in the hills of north Georgia where he was born. But he made it at last . . . He went home as quietly as if his father had come and taken him in his arms and carried him away."