One black man’s encounter with Ty Cobb’s Tigers

Ty Cobb had a complicated relationship with people in his life.

Ty Cobb had a complicated relationship with people in his life.

It was early March 1917 in Waxahachie, Texas, and Elisha Dunlap was just passing through – a mixed-race prizefighter and occasional trainer trying his best to survive in Jim Crow America. His father, an educated man in Sewanee, Tennessee, was white. His mother, a 17-year-old domestic servant, was black. “So I was looked on as a half-white bastard and so called that by almost everyone that knew me,” Dunlap later wrote.

At 25, Dunlap had worked the last four years as a valet and chauffeur for a liberal-minded Dallas judge, a man he so admired that he took his surname as his own. However, an altercation between another prominent white man and Dunlap forced the judge to reluctantly let his trusted employee go. With no other prospects, Dunlap enlisted in the army, but there was still a month to go before he had to report. The judge, hearing that the Detroit Tigers were coming to Waxahachie for spring training, arranged for Dunlap to work as one of several assistants to Tigers trainer Harry Tuthill. Dunlap’s daily assignment was to massage the arms of five pitchers.

Two of the pitchers, Bill James and George “Hooks” Dauss, treated the light-skinned newcomer with respect. Most of the other Tigers were indifferent. But there was Ty Cobb, whose racist reputation always preceded him, to worry about. Due to a lingering cold and some promotional work he was doing for Coca-Cola, Cobb was late reporting to camp, which only increased Dunlap’s sense of dread. “All of us had heard that he was rough on colored people,” Dunlap recalled many years later. “I eluded him as much as I could although I studied him all the time when he was around.” What Dunlap observed was an “odd man” who rarely spoke to his teammates, but when he did, “they were all ears.”

On Cobb’s first day in camp, he took a shower and stayed behind as the rest of the team headed to practice. He stretched out naked on the training table. “I want you to give me a rubdown,” Cobb told Dunlap. “I’ve been playing baseball 18 years. I’ve never had a rub.”

Dunlap could hardly believe it. “Do you mean to say you don’t get sore the way you pitch your body in the air for 20 feet to slide into the bases like you do?” he asked. Cobb said the only reason he wanted a rubdown now was because his legs had grown knotted from the flu and inactivity. He wasn’t ready to go out on the diamond yet. When Dunlap explained that he had planned to visit the judge’s family for an hour or so, Cobb replied that he knew the judge very well because of some banking business they had conducted. He told him to go ahead. He would wait.

“All the way I fretted to myself about having to rub Cobb,” Dunlap recalled. “By all means I didn’t want to have trouble with any more white people.”

When Dunlap returned, Cobb was still laying there. He told Dunlap to use just alcohol and witch hazel, no liniments, and to give his legs a good working over. “This man had the most compacted muscles in his thighs and legs than any human I have ever seen,” Dunlap marveled. “When I placed my hand on his thigh it felt like the ham of a hog. He was just that firm. His legs should have been attached to a man of 250 pounds instead of 187 pounds. No wonder he is the base runner he is.”

After about an hour, Cobb got up and dressed. He handed Dunlap a couple of dollar bills. Dunlap said thanks and told him of an exhibition he was boxing in that night. Cobb showed up, along with several other Tigers. They put their money on Dunlap, a 2-1 underdog.

Dunlap was losing to his heavier opponent when Hooks Dauss, who had done a little boxing when he was younger, gave him some advice between rounds. “Quicken the pace,” Dauss said. “Keep him off balance. Just box him. You can outpoint him a mile.”

When the bell ending the six-round affair sounded, both fighters were still slugging it out. “At the end we both were bleeding badly from nose and mouth,” Dunlap said. “While we were toweling our faces we were being struck by coins that the spectators were throwing in the ring.”

Cobb was so excited by Dunlap’s performance that he offered to send him to Minneapolis to train at the gym of Mike Gibbons, brother of renowned heavyweight Tommy Gibbons. Dunlap said he couldn’t because he was set to leave for the army in a couple of weeks.

During those two weeks, Cobb had little to do with Dunlap. One day after practice he convinced all of the trainers to shoot craps with him. He cleaned them all out. “You are the biggest chumps I ever saw,” Cobb told them, as his teammates laughed. In a rare display of mercy, Cobb went to his locker and pulled out a leather change bag. “I am going to give you chumps your money back,” he said. “Don’t gamble any more.”

As Dunlap was leaving the locker room on his final day in camp, Cobb impulsively grabbed a ball from Tuthill. He had the coaches sign it before adding his own signature. Then he held the ball high over his head. “Dunlap is going to represent the Detroit Tigers in France,” he announced.

“Then he shot the ball at me with a sidearm flip that stung my hands as I caught it,” Dunlap recalled. “I felt like it was a ball of gold. There was a cheer and applauding came from the teammates. Cobb didn’t say goodbye to me. He put on his robe and strode out of the room. That was the last time I talked to Cobb.”

As he had promised, Dunlap carried the signed ball to France, where he served with a stevedoring unit*. One day, prior to the start of an exhibition game between opposing squads of American doughboys, he presented the ball to the umpire. The ump, a captain from New York, was surprised to see the Georgia Peach’s name scrawled across it, and he excitedly repeated to curious onlookers the story behind it. “So I was happy to know that I carried out my promise to the Detroit Tigers,” said Dunlap. Thus ended his fleeting and unusual association with Ty Cobb’s Tigers, just one of many experiences the worldly Dunlap put down in writing before his death at a veterans hospital in 1968.

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*A stevedoring unit was one commissioned with loading and unloading ships.

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About Richard Bak

Richard Bak grew up on Detroit's west side doing poor imitations of Dick McAuliffe's batting stance and Denny McLain's leg kick. He is a contributing writer to Hour Detroit magazine and the author of nearly 30 books, including biographies of Ty Cobb and Joe Louis. Bak's most recent books are The Big Jump, the story of Charles Lindbergh and the great New York-to-Paris air race of the 1920s, and Detroitland, a collection of his history pieces. He currently is finishing two more books of history: Soldier of Misfortune: The Execution of Private Eddie Slovik and Its Aftermath (DaCapo) and When Lions Were Kings: The Detroit Lions and the Fabulous Fifties (Wayne State University Press), both of which will be published in 2015.