Nine things you didn’t know about Ty Cobb

Ty Cobb had a remarkable career in his 24 seasons in the major leagues.

Today marks the 126th anniversary of Ty Cobb’s birth. Happy birthday, Peach!

To celebrate the life of the greatest Tiger of them all, here are nine facts from his life that you may not have been aware of.

1. Where was he really born?
Depending on the source, you’ll find Cobb’s birthplace listed as either Narrows or Royston, Georgia. The fact is that there is no town named Narrows in Georgia and there never was. And Cobb was most definitely not born in Royston, though he grew up there after his father took a job as the schoolmaster and editor of the local paper. At the time of Cobb’s birth in December of 1886, the family lived in a cabin in what was called “The Narrows”, a narrow path of cleared land between a forest and river in rural Georgia. It was there, in “The Narrows” where Tyrus Raymond Cobb was born. Today, there is a community called Narrows in that area, but it has no formal structure as a village or town. It does have postal service and a marker showing the approximate location of the cabin where Ty was born.

2. Dear Mr. Rice…
When he was playing for the Anniston Steelers in 1904 in the Tennessee/Alabama League, Cobb was thirsty for a break that would get him noticed. He penned a series of letters to Grantland Rice, the sports editor of the Atlanta Journal, telling of the exploits of a “kid named Cobb down in Anniston.” Ty signed fictitious names to the letters and mailed dozens of them to Rice. Eventually, Rice wrote a short note in his column about Cobb. As the years passed and the careers of Cobb and Rice skyrocketed, the two became good friends.

3. Pass me that sweater
When he played for the Augusta Tourists in the Sally League, young Ty (he was just 18 years old) practiced his bunting by laying a sweater down on the grass on the first or third base line. He would bunt pitches and try to have them come to rest on the sweater. Eventually, Cobb became so adept at bunting that it was an important part of his offensive arsenal.

4. Sliding pits, pants, and rubber weights
Ever an innovator, Cobb introduced new ways to train and hone his craft as a ballplayer. Early in his career he observed a coach in the Sally League training his baserunners to slide into a deep and wide “pit” of loose dirt. Cobb introduced that practice to the Tigers, and when he was manager of the club he stressed sliding practice. With all of those slides, Cobb’s legs would take quite a beating, so he helped design a pair of sliding pants, which he frequently wore under his uniform. In 1911 he wore them when he swiped 83 bases and hit .420, and he wore a version of them in 1915 when he set an AL record with 96 steals. A pair of his sliding pants can be seen in the collection of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Cobb was also an early adopter of weight training. He attached rubber weights to his hunting boots and wore them as he trekked through the snow in the winters, strengthening his legs and improving his endurance.

5. How to know if you have a real Cobb autograph
Starting in the early 1910s and for the rest of his life, Ty Cobb signed his name in green ink – every time. It was both a superstition and a personal choice. If you have a baseball with his name on it, it should show signs of the green ink, though many in the Baseball Hall of Fame collection have faded to a darker color.

6. Blamed Navin for his woes
For six seasons, from 1921 to 1926, Cobb was both manager and player for the Detroit Tigers. While Cobb was hardly a great manager (he was demanding and could lose faith in a player very quickly), he knew the game and he was very good at teaching hitting. During his six-year tenure as skipper of the “Ty-gers”, Cobb’s players won four batting titles and in 1921 the team hit .316! But despite the offensive fireworks, the Tigers never won a pennant with Cobb as their manager. For that, Cobb blamed owner Frank Navin, whom he called “a cheap, short-sighted man.” Cobb frequently identified pitching talent that he wanted to add to the roster, but Navin would not fork out the money to acquire the players.

7. Hitting with both eyes tied behind his back 
In the early 1920s, Cobb was diagnosed with glaucoma, and he also suffered from tumors on and around his eyes, most likely due to excessive exposure to the sun. Cobb underwent surgery for the tumors and wore sunglasses most of the time for the last few years of his career. Remarkably, despite his deteriorating eye sight, Cobb hit .401 at the age of 35 and .378 in 1925 when he was 38 years old. In 1922, the year he had the first surgery on his eyes, Cobb set a record with four five-hit games, a mark that has never been surpassed. Hardly slowing down as he aged, Cobb hit .360 over the last eight seasons of his career.

8. Honors and praise
Throughout his career, Cobb was flooded with awards, honors, and gifts. Contrary to the belief that he was hated and reviled, Cobb was well-respected by many in the game of baseball during his time. When he crossed the white lines his tenacious play on the diamond spoke for itself, but it was not particularly unusual for that era. The Deadball Era was characterized by a rough style of play, one that skirted the rules of the game. Cobb was the supreme practitioner of that style of play. In Detroit there were no fewer than eight “days” held in his honor throughout his playing career. Other cities: St. Louis, Cleveland, Boston, and even Philadelphia, held “Ty Cobb Days” on which he was awarded gifts. In St. Louis he was given a hunting rifle, a set of golf clubs, and silver coins from admiring fans. In his first game against the Tigers as a member of the Athletics, Cobb was presented a Packard automobile by his former club, as well as a gold watch from his former teammates. Upon his retirement and for decades after, Cobb was universally recognized as the greatest player the game had ever seen, eclipsing even Babe Ruth in most polls. It was only after the publication of Al Stump’s biography of Cobb in the 1960s that Cobb’s reputation was besmirched to a degree that he became a villain in the eyes of many.

9. Last baseball game he ever saw
By 1961, Cobb’s body was riddled with cancer. He was a very sick man, but he gathered the strength to make an appearance at Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field in April for the first home game in the history of the Angels in the American League. For that one season only, the expansion Angels played their games in Wrigley Field, and on April 27, they hosted the Minnesota Twins. Cobb was invited as a special guest of LA general manager Fred Haney, who had played for Cobb with the Tigers in the 1920s. Cobb, dressed in a fine suit that draped over his decimated body, walked gingerly out onto the infield grass and tossed the first pitch to catcher Earl Averill. Cobb waved to the crowd and watched the first few innings of the game from a special VIP box seat on the field level, where he sat near team owner Gene Autry. It was the last professional baseball game Cobb ever saw or attended and he died less than three months later.

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He was formerly the Web Producer for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @thedanholmes or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.