From Anniston to Cooperstown

Ty Cobb was striking out on a baseball career until he got a second chance in, of all places, Anniston, Alabama…

A memorial to him stands on the corner of 10th Street and Quintard Avenue in downtown Anniston. Inscribed on it is a bold claim: 

In 1904, 18 year old Tyrus Raymond Cobb lived in a boarding house on this site
while playing minor league baseball for the Anniston Steelers. From nearby
Scarbrough Drug Store on Noble Street he wrote letters, using fictitious names,
to sports writer Grantland Rice, describing what a great baseball player Cobb was
in Anniston. These letters resulted in a scout from the Detroit Tiger organization
coming to Anniston and discovering Ty Cobb, who became the greatest baseball
player of all time.

Indeed, many consider Ty Cobb to be the greatest ballplayer to ever live, but perhaps more rigorous an assertion is that Ty Cobb, baseball aside, was, in his personal life, a scoundrel.

Recently, Charles Leerhsen, in his book Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, has unearthed a new view of Cobb that contradicts the raging, decades-old narrative that Cobb was, among other things, a bigot and an SOB. “People have been told that Cobb was a bad man over and over, all of their lives,” Leerhsen said, describing his book for the Hillsdale College website. “In Ty Cobb’s case, the repetition has not only destroyed a man’s reputation, it has obliterated a real story that is more interesting than the myth.”

As Leerhsen points out, Cobb was a complex man whose reputation was tarnished largely by writer Al Stump, who, in writing Cobb’s biography, cited anonymous sources and essentially took creative license with facts. “For this job they picked a man who was known for quantity over quality, a hard-drinking hack newspaperman named Al Stump,” said Leerhsen of the publisher’s decision to employ Stump. “Stump, who had never met Cobb, spent only a few days with him before setting off to write. For several months he refused to show Cobb the work in progress, and when Cobb finally prevailed upon the publisher to give him a look, he was angry. Stump was filling in the gaps by making up stories out of whole cloth, and Cobb’s voice in the book sounded suspiciously like Stump’s own. Cobb wrote letters threatening a lawsuit if the book wasn’t cancelled or rewritten. But he died soon thereafter, and the book—entitled My Life in Baseball: The True Record—came out a few months later.”

Stump’s grotesque depiction of baseball’s most controversial player has filtered into the American consciousness such that Cobb’s bad boy image has generally been accepted as the truth. As great a ballplayer as Cobb was, his sordid reputation has seemed to negate his on-field accomplishments, including the .367 lifetime average and 4,191 hits.

Cobb, a native of Narrows, Georgia, spent the bulk of his baseball career with the Detroit Tigers and was inducted into the inaugural class of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936. At the time of Cobb’s upbringing as it is today, Narrows was a small community just outside of the town of Royston, population 800. Cobb’s father, William Herschel (W.H.) Cobb, a well-respected professor and a state senator, took young Ty’s rearing seriously, hoping that his son would one day attend West Point or make a fine doctor. At W.H’s behest, Ty became a good student and worked odd jobs baling hay and apprenticing with a cotton factor. But when Ty decided to pursue baseball as a career, W.H. had certain reservations, as turn-of-the-century baseball was a savage game.  

Upon hearing of tryouts for the semi-pro team in Augusta, the Tourists, Ty sent in his application. Tourists manager Con Strouthers allowed young Ty to work out with the team, provided he pay for his own travel expenses. W.H. reluctantly agreed, slipping him $50 with the instructions “Now go down there and satisfy yourself that there is nothing in this baseball business. Then come back to your studies” and Ty left for Augusta.  

After two games, Strouthers sent the young batsman packing. Frustrated, upset, and fearing the wrath of his father, Cobb hurriedly looked for other options. One arrived when Fred Hayes, a Mobile native and fellow Tourists’ reject, suggested the pair try out for the Anniston Steelers, a subpar lot of professionals participating in the Alabama-Tennessee “Southeastern League.”              

Don’t come home a failure,” were the instructional words of his father on this second uncertain lunge into the baseball breach. These words would resonate with Tyrus as he boarded a train to Anniston, future in flux.  

In 1904, Anniston was a steel-mill town that had grown to be Alabama’s fifth largest city. The Steelers, comprised mostly of college players, were uncouth and ragtag and played their conspicuous brand of sport at Zinn Park. Team travel was limited to horse-and-buggy transit; square meals included grits and hog jowls. 

Although conditions were Spartan, if not downright pitiful, Anniston provided a way for Cobb to reverse his misfortunes and send him on his way to becoming a major league ball player.

Cobb bargained a contract with Steeler’s owner, L.L. Scarborough, a local druggist, who agreed to pay him $50 per month for his services. 

Enduring the inherent razzing from his rough-and-tumble teammates, Cobb eventually procured the nickname “Scrappy” for his precarious style of play. By summer, not only had he found his swing—a .350 average was one of the league’s best—he began to find more creative ways to get on base. He employed the bunt to his batting repertoire, not merely as a tactical method of advancing runners, but also as a way to grind out base hits.  

Crowds followed. Cobb loyalists called “Cobbies” packed the stands and gave the batsman considerable attention. 

His exploits drew further interest of one Ed Darden, an Anniston steel executive, who offered the luxuries of room and board. Cobb soon moved into the third floor of the Darden boardinghouse on Quintard Avenue in downtown Anniston.  More importantly, Darden praised Cobb often and expressed confidence in the young slugger, who remained disconsolate from the rejection of the Tourists.

There was but one problem: no one outside of Anniston was noticing him, as media coverage was sparse. Cobb was further disheartened to find that one local paper erroneously called him “Cyrus.” 

But Grantland Rice, the famous sportswriter for the Atlanta Journal soon began to receive dozens of postcards, boasting Cobb’s heroics, signed by common surnames such as Smith, Jones, and Brown. Rice, evidently duped by the letters, soon was compelled to construct the following affirmation in his column: “a new wonder had arrived, the darling of the fans, Ty Cobb.” Other publications received similar notifications, the scuttlebutt eventually reaching Augusta.  

The reporter? None other than Cobb himself.

Cobb would slip away from the Quintard Avenue boardinghouse to Scarborough Drug Store on Noble Street to construct the postcards and letters. “Each note Cobb wrote contained a rave review of his abilities over a fictitious signature,” Leerhsen wrote. “Instead of sending these pieces right away, Ty would drop them in mailboxes at various points along the Steelers’ circuit, the better to create the impression of a grassroots movement.”

Around the same time, the Augusta Tourists, Cobb’s former team, were ailing. Getting word of Cobb’s solid performance in Anniston, Strouthers and the Tourists invited the slugger back for a second engagement. After publicly admonishing Strouthers and offering a few terms of his own (requesting Strouthers’ ouster), Cobb agreed to return.

Strouthers had lost the Augusta fans with a series of controversial financial moves, and soon was gone. Cobb, while waiting for his last check from the Steelers, slipped off to Sheffield, Alabama, to play for $65 per month. In a handwritten letter to friend Erwin Manley dated July 21, 1904, Cobb claimed he hit .408 with the Steelers and nearly .500 at Sheffield.

Cobb playing for the Augusta Tourists. Photo courtesy Sports Collectors Daily/Roykas.

Cobb caught a train and headed for Augusta in August of 1904. Finishing the season with the Tourists, Cobb hit a paltry .237 in 37 games. The next season, under the tutelage of aging veteran George Leidy, who had spent hours with Cobb, sharpening his game, Cobb hit .320.  

Exactly one year had passed since formally joining the Tourists when Cobb received the most horrific news of his life. On August 8, Cobb attended a dance and was catching up on sleep the next day when he received a telegram. He was informed that his father, the great W.H. Cobb, had been fatally shot.

It was not until he returned home that he found that his mother had pulled the trigger.    

With Cobb’s father gone and mother standing trial for murder, Cobb was called up to Detroit just weeks later. Finding his way in the big city would require a certain toughness, of which Cobb had developed in the backwoods ball fields of Alabama and Georgia. The memory of his father still lingering in his mind, he continued to rest on the words, “Don’t come home a failure,” the words that rang so resolutely before he boarded the train to Anniston, Alabama.

The words that would haunt him for the rest of his life. 

The certainties of Ty Cobb’s life– or any man’s for that matter– will never be found in the court of public opinion. We do know that his experience in Anniston helped to catapult him to a life among diamonds. Whether or not he was a good man or the greatest baseball player who ever lived is a matter of conjecture. 

Perhaps more important than what we think about him or the judgments we reserve based on someone else’s account, is the fierce pursuit of truth. H&A

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