A terrible beauty
An excerpt from Charles Leerhsen’s biography of Georgia baseball great Ty Cobb.
Every story must begin someplace, and the story of Ty Cobb began in Banks County on Dec. 18, 1886. Many people assume (or assert) that Cobb grew up in a shotgun shack on the wrong side of the tracks from Dogpatch; that is hardly the case. He was born in a nicely appointed 13-room house on the property of his maternal grandfather, a fairly well-to-do former Confederate Army captain named Caleb Chitwood. Local people, for a reason now lost to history, called the area “the Narrows.”
Cobb’s mother was the very pretty Amanda Chitwood, his father a tall, thin, North Carolinian named William Herschel (W.H.) Cobb, who had first met her when he was a farmhand, working his way through school, on the Chitwood plantation.
Tyrus Raymond Cobb was the baby’s full name.
The window when Tyrus Raymond could honestly say “I have not yet begun to fight” was small indeed. By the time the family had moved to Royston (pop. 550), in about 1895, the skinny lad who always seemed to be tossing up stones and whacking them with sticks had become known as a bare-knuckled battler.
“You saw it the minute you set eyes on him,” said a childhood friend of young Ty’s hair-trigger temperament.
A local legend had it that Cobb once beat up a fat classmate whose mistake had caused their team to lose a spelling bee to the fifth-grade girls. In a testy little town such as fin de siècle Royston, the townsfolk thought that story reflected well on young Tyrus. Cobb in later years denied the most outrageous yarns about his youth, but even he admitted in one interview to having “a vying nature.”
Cobb’s mother — though she would be tried for first-degree voluntary manslaughter one day — was never known to be a quarrelsome or aggressive person. So we must ask: Was it from his daddy, W.H. Cobb, that Ty got his fighting ways? That, too, does not seem likely.
From his speeches and writings and the testimony of his contemporaries — resources that have never been examined in much depth before, perhaps because they lead to inconvenient truths — we can see the outlines of what looks like a tall, dark, handsome humanist, or at the very least a well-turned-out, physically imposing man out of sync with the fighting spirit of his times. In the Cobb household, the mother, Amanda, was the disciplinarian. W.H. was a more typical 20th-century parent. “He had,” said Joe Cunningham, his student for six years, “a very cosmopolitan mind.”
Ty Cobb’s father was ambitious in the modern way: eager to better himself through education. He was especially outspoken about race. He saw education as the key to individual and societal progress, and disdained Jim Crow brutality.
With allowances for time and place, the household run by Amanda and William Cobb appears much more yuppie than yokum. The couple strove ever upward, obsessed about their children’s education, and tended to view local events as a function of real estate values. As Cobb
himself said, “I knew which fork to use.”
The average adolescent views his parents with a mix of pride and embarrassment that is subject to daily, unpredictable tides, and there is no reason to suspect Cobb did not have the usual feelings in the usual proportions until the very last days of his youth. But when Amanda shot and killed W.H. on the evening of Aug. 8, 1905, a little more than halfway through Ty’s 18th year, all normal relations with his parents abruptly ceased and a curtain fell heavily on the first act of Cobb’s life.
Whatever their relationship had been before, from that day onward, Ty’s devotion to his father burned, to borrow Walter Pater’s perhaps over-borrowed phrase, with a hard gem-like flame, and he became very suddenly a man with certain strong characteristics. One cannot fully understand Ty Cobb without considering the happy but sensitive boy who preceded the wary, nervous hero.
Ty Cobb always insisted that he had been a normal boy, from “a small country town of the old type,” and in fact the more reliable stories from his early years support a character not unlike that literary sensation of 1885, Huckleberry Finn — a seemingly carefree, somewhat school-averse child content to live in the dogwood-scented moment. Among the chief differences between the boys are that Cobb’s father was a pillar of the community, and not the town drunk, and that while Huck was almost impossible to corral in a classroom, Ty would go more often than not, but spend the day with his hands down below his desk, furiously winding twine around hunks of old ink erasers to make baseballs.
Little Royston, incorporated in 1879 and situated in the northeast corner of Georgia, was a bustling agricultural hub in Ty’s youth. With two hotels and numerous shops and eating places, the town typically contained more traveling salesmen and farmers’ daughters than your average joke book. Downtown streets were often gridlocked with wagons full of cotton bales.
When Tyrus first showed interest in sports in the early 1890s, Franklin County kids still played town ball and cat, as well as the more evolved game of baseball, as it was then rendered. Cat, or old cat, was a relatively simple pastime based on an English game called tip cat in which the batter struck a wooden spindle — probably detritus from the textile mills — instead of a ball.
Although it seems in some ways like a benign game, cat was considered dangerous because to get a runner out you had to hit him with the thrown ball. The practice was called “soaking” or “plugging,” and players often used the opportunity to drill an opponent in the head or ribs.
Said Cobb: “I became very proficient at dodging [and] I laid a foundation for my Major League career.”
Cobb got so much exercise as a kid that he looks, in team pictures from that era, as gaunt as an urchin out of Dickens. Besides being skinny he was also strikingly short, especially for someone who would blossom into a six-footer; some people in Royston referred to him as “the midget.” At the age of 11, when he held a marginal spot on the Rompers, a kind of junior varsity that served as a feeder for the “official” town team, the Royston Reds, he could barely lift the bats that Joe Cunningham’s father, William, the local coffin maker, fashioned from scrap wood.
Marching down Main Street with his casket-shard propped against his shoulder and his fancy, store-bought mitt dangling from the knob, Cobb was a relatively carefree child. He always was, he said, notably “timid around adults,” to the point where some people thought they detected a slight stammer in his speech, and he could be cocky with his peers in a way that led to frequent combat, yet on the whole Ty seem to have been well adjusted and popular, perhaps because he was, even then, so darn entertaining.
He was a fun-loving kid who liked an audience to amaze with physical feats. In Royston, playing baseball was a good way to get one. One day in the spring of 1894 or so, Amanda Cobb looked out her kitchen window and saw Tyrus and a bunch of Negro boys merrily hauling a cart laden with scrap metal, broken furniture and other things they’d found in backyards and vacant lots around town. They were headed toward the junkyard to try to make a few dollars, and Mrs. Cobb knew for what. “He was always thinking up ways of earning money to buy baseball supplies,” she would tell.
As idyllic as his days in Royston seemed to be, Ty was always delighted to visit Grandpa Johnnie in rural Murphy, N.C. For a while Tyrus went there each summer and on every winter school vacation, smuggling his dog, Bob, on the short train trip.
During his summer stays, Cobb’s Aunt Norah would drive him in a horse-drawn buggy to the equivalent of Little League games around Murphy, where the preference was still for town ball. As the perennial new kid, Cobb was always at risk for a particularly hard plugging and he seems to have accepted pain and the occasional minor concussion as the price of admission.
Hits were hard to come by when the midget started out — a right-hander who batted left, perhaps because it gave him a two-step head start toward first, or because most pitchers are right-handed.
Too proud to go back to the silly-looking elongated paddles he had first used for bats, and too weak to get around like the big boys with his hefty “custom made” models, Cobb was at first of no real use to the Rompers, who may have taken him on as a benchwarmer, solely for his skill at making baseballs, or, to be precise, ball cores. Every so often, he would deliver a batch of the stringy things to another boy on the Rompers who couldn’t play very well, either, but could cut and sew leather, Cobb said, “as well as a harness maker” and thus was adept at stitching on the tanned horsehide used for covers.
For a while, he served as the designated retriever of foul balls, a chore that kept him close to the action and technically on the team, yet only made him appear more pathetic. When he tried to talk his way into the lineup, pointing out to the manager and some of the more influential players that in Carnesville he had made the first string at the age of 9, “they just laughed at me,” Cobb recalled.
If you understood the pecking order of north Georgia town teams of that era, you’d know why. Though roughly the same size in terms of population, Carnesville was the bushes compared to Royston, where a number of well-paid mercenaries played for the men’s squad, the Reds, and minor league scouts regularly came through on the Elberton Air Line Railroad to see, in the parlance of the trade, “if there was anything in the lake.”
The team wore bright red suits and, said Cobb, “Believe me, whenever the Royston club went on the field they attracted attention — you could see that club a mile.” In a 1904 article, the Augusta Chronicle commended Royston for its “push and pluck” as compared to other Franklin County whistle-stops and noted that it was “baseball crazy.” Partly because some of the choicest spots on the senior squad were taken by semi-professionals, both the Rompers and Reds were tougher to make than your average small-town team, but the accomplishment was correspondingly more meaningful, a rosette on the résumé of anyone who wanted to go further in the game.
Cobb said that “so great was my anxiety to play” for Royston that he spent many hours concocting a methodical make-or-break plan. Though he was not especially fleet of foot, “How to Sprint,” a 25-cent pamphlet he saw advertised in the back of The Police Gazette, would help him run the bases, he believed, if he could ever figure out a way to get on in the first place.
But transforming himself into a consistent hitter was Ty’s toughest task.
What he did was simple and straightforward. Ty’s first adjustment was to choke up severely on the bat and employ what he called “a snap swing.”
“I don’t recall whether it was by accident or study that I developed [the snap swing],” Cobb said. But “after that the pitchers never fooled me much.”
Cobb’s other modification was the split-hands grip, a starting position that lets a hitter make a last-second decision to slide the lower hand upward or the upper hand down toward the knob. Cobb’s revised approach to hitting, coupled with a growth spurt that added about four inches in height, as well as about 20 pounds in weight, did for him more or less what the devil did for Robert Johnson, down at the crossroads. No records of the Royston teams have survived, and remembered accounts get muddled, but it appears that a few games into his 1898 season with the Rompers, the shortstop on the Reds was injured in a farming accident, or had to go buy a mule or something, and the 12-year-old Cobb got called up to the town team.
This was a bold and risky move, though. The Reds, after all, were an elite group.
The Royston Reds “were regular demigods to me,” Cobb said in 1913, but the admiration wasn’t mutual. “Come back when you grow up a little!” the older players told him when he first reported for duty with his big black bat. “Where’s his nurse?” someone shouted from the stands. “Have you got his milk bottle in that grip?” Cobb, ultra sensitive to any slight, even then, remembered that taunt for the rest of his life, but he didn’t act on it, as he would act on — and overreact to — so many insults and perceived insults in the years ahead.
Yet even in the faster company of the Reds, he stood out from the start, not just for his ability to get hits, but also for his base running and fielding.
On January 5, 1904, when he was butchering hogs with Uncle Ezra, Ty managed to shoot himself with his “parlor rifle,” a .22 caliber firearm designed for indoor target practice at a gallery or arcade. The bullet entered near the collarbone and lodged in his left shoulder. W.H. spirited Ty by train to Atlanta, where the hospitals had X-ray machines. The doctor there found the bullet on his film and showed it to W.H., but suggested they take a wait-and-see approach, as probing might do more harm than the initial injury.
It was either on this trip, or more likely during a follow-up doctor’s visit in Atlanta several weeks later, that the Cobbs, père et fils, took in an exhibition game at Piedmont Park featuring the Atlanta Crackers of the Southern League versus the barnstorming Cleveland Naps. This was Ty’s first exposure to big league ball, and he was mesmerized. During batting practice, Cobb went down to the field and asked the Naps’ Bill Bradley if he could take a snapshot of him; the brilliant third baseman not only posed for the gangly, wide-eyed lad with the Pocket Brownie, he hung around and chatted. (“I kept those pictures until they turned to dust,” Cobb said.)
In some ways Cobb’s day at Piedmont Park resembles the portentous encounter between the 16-year-old Bill Clinton and President John F. Kennedy in 1963, or the famous photograph that captures a 6-year-old Theodore Roosevelt staring out his Manhattan window at Abraham Lincoln’s funeral cortege. (The bullet, in case you’re wondering, remained permanently in Cobb’s body, and, although he later developed a hypochondriacal streak, caused no complaints beyond an occasional “burning sensation” on chilly mornings.)
As Ty passed through his teen years with the Royston Reds, it became increasingly clear that he was the best ballplayer anyone in that hotbed of baseball had ever stood and cheered for.
One day, in a game against Harmony Grove, the locals effectively forced professionalism upon young Tyrus, about 16 at the time. After a rising line drive tipped off the glove of a fellow outfielder and Cobb, who’d been running for the same ball, made a fully extended flying catch “that all my life I have never thrilled to more,” a total of $11 in coins — about 10 days’ pay for the average rural Georgian — came raining down upon the diamond, and he gathered them up gratefully. In its next edition, the Royston Record broke with its policy of ignoring sports and ran a page-one story about the game written by the editor, W.H. Cobb himself.
From “Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty” by Charles Leerhsen. Copyright © 2015 by Charles Leerhsen. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster Inc.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Charles Leerhsen was formerly executive editor at Sports Illustrated, senior writer at Newsweek, an assistant managing editor at People and editor of Us Weekly. His work also has appeared in Esquire, Rolling Stone and the New York Times Magazine. He is author of “Blood and Smoke” and “Crazy Good,” and co-author of books with Chuck Yeager, Donald Trump and Brandon Tartikoff. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Signing and author Q&A. 7:15 p.m. May 28. Free. Georgia Center for the Book, Decatur Library Auditorium, 215 Sycamore St., Decatur. 404-370-3070.
Author reception and signing. 10 a.m. May 30. Free. Ty Cobb Museum, 461 Cook St., Royston. 706-245-1825.
MORE ON TY COBB AND THE TY COBB MUSEUM IN ROYSTON
The Ty Cobb Museum and the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum, based in Greenville, S.C., host an annual game, fielding teams that play the game the way it was played in the decades following the Civil War. Read our story about that tradition here.
Get a deeper look at those two museums here, including contact information and how to get there.
In 1986, late AJC sports editor and columnist Furman Bisher wrote about his memories of Ty Cobb. You can read that here.