Recognizing Cobb, a century later

Recognizing Cobb, a century later

DETROIT -- Those with great expectations have their Major League debut celebrated weeks or months in advance. Those with great accomplishments have their big-league debut celebrated after they've retired.

Then there's Ty Cobb.

A hundred years ago Tuesday, Cobb broke into the Majors with the Tigers and rapped his first big-league hit in his first at-bat. Before he became known for his spikes-first slides, his steals of home plate, his notorious temper and his insatiable competitiveness, he came to Detroit as a fresh-faced 18-year-old kid from the South with hefty statistics yet no certainty whether he could cut it in the big leagues. Many believe the conditions that surrounded his arrival shaped the player and person he was to become.

Neither Baseball America nor was around to tout Cobb in the summer of 1905 while he hit up a storm with the Augusta Tourists of the South Atlantic League. Yet once the Tigers purchased his contract in mid-August and expected him to report to Detroit by the end of the month, news of his potential spread through the local papers.

Those Minor League accomplishments, however, didn't spare him from the scrutiny of the Detroit media at the time. The Detroit Free Press mentioned his league-leading .326 average with which he left Augusta and remarked, "He won't pile up anything like that in this league, and he doesn't expect to. If he gets away with a .275 mark he will be satisfying everybody."

At the same time, the word of mouth was hard to ignore. In the same article, the Free Press mentioned a South Atlantic League umpire saying Cobb was one of the fastest men he'd ever seen. Another late-season callup for the Tigers that year, Eddie Cicotte, raved about his Augusta teammate Cobb to the Detroit Times:

"If the ball takes a second bounce, he's sure to beat it to first," Cicotte marveled. "They get to playing in on him and he raps it over their heads. He's not a long-distance hitter, but ... all the veterans in our league think he's going to be a star."

The anticipation lasted a little longer than expected. What was usually a 30-hour trip, the Free Press wrote, took longer after he missed connections in both Atlanta and Cincinnati. If he ever arrives, one paper wrote a day before he got to town, he'll play in center field.

What he arrived in time for was no easy matchup. Playing in Bennett Park for his first Major League action, the Tigers faced the Yankees and spitballer Jack Chesbro, who went 41-12 with 48 complete games a year earlier. Cobb batted fifth, but didn't have to wait long for his first chance at the plate thanks to a first-inning rally.

Dan Holmes, Web manager for the Baseball Hall of Fame and a noted writer, published his first book on Ty Cobb last year. Holmes described in an excerpt from "Ty Cobb, A Biography" the hitter's first game:

"Using the hands-apart grip that he'd perfected as a boy in Georgia, 18-year old Ty Cobb peered out at Jack Chesbro and tried to overcome the nerves that were causing his stomach to twist and turn. The first pitch he saw was a high fastball that he swung through and missed. The next offering from Chesbro was a spitter that fooled Cobb for strike two.

"Chesbro then returned to his fastball, sending a pitch into the heart of the strike zone that Cobb met with a flick of his bat. The ball soared into the left-center-field gap where it was retrieved by New York left fielder Noodles Hahn, whose throw to second base was a split-second too late to catch the sliding Georgian.

"'Pinky' Lindsay, the Tigers' runner on third, trotted home to make the score 2-0. Ty Cobb had his first hit, first run batted in and first double in the big leagues, having victimized one of the best pitchers in the league."

Add in a couple putouts in the field, and a walk and caught stealing in another at-bat, and Cobb lived up to his reputation to the announced attendance of 1,200 at Bennett Park. "When a kid who has down on his face can step up to the mighty spitball artist and soak his offering first crack out of the box," the Detroit News wrote the next day, "he's got something in him."

As it turned out, nobody but Cobb knew what exactly was in him at the time. His father was murdered three weeks earlier in an incident that Cobb didn't want to describe even in his autobiography. As the story now goes, the elder Cobb suspected his wife was cheating on him and tried to catch her in the act. When he tried to sneak into his house, his wife mistook him for a burglar and shot him twice.

Cobb left Augusta to return home in Royston, Ga. While there, he had to watch his mother arrested for involuntary manslaughter and released on bail. He stayed home for a week to look after his family before returning to his ballclub. Three days after rejoining the club, he was told the Tigers had purchased his contract.

More than one writer has since pointed to the murder as the reason for Cobb's fiery nature and unstoppable drive. That competitiveness became evident as he grew more comfortable in the Majors.

For the rest of the 1905 season, the Free Press was right: Cobb probably would've been satisfied with a .275 average. Instead, he hit .240. The next season, he finished sixth in the American League with a .316 average despite missing six weeks with stomach ulcers that bothered him much of the season. In 1907, Cobb became the youngest player to win a batting title -- hitting .350 -- setting a record that stood until another Tiger, Al Kaline, beat it 48 years later.

The rest is history -- in book, movie and stage form. For that matter, it's also in a plaque.

The Tigers are on the road for this anniversary, but they honored it earlier this summer when they unveiled a plaque honoring Cobb outside the administrative entrance to Comerica Park. It had stood on the face of Tiger Stadium since 1963, two years after his death, but had been moved for repair in the spring. Below his birth and death years, it simply reads: "Greatest Tiger of All" and "Genius in Spikes."

A hundred years ago Tuesday, the genius arrived.

Jason Beck is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.