Ty Cobb was one mean son of a gun. The enormous chip on his shoulder drove him to play with reckless abandon, for his own safety and the well-being of those around him. He shot his mouth off routinely, often in order to play head games with his competitors. He was despised and feared by opponent and teammates alike, but he was an undeniably talented athlete and a larger than life character. His ruthless aggression is something missing in today’s kinder and gentler baseball era. I can’t help but wonder if his star would have burned even brighter if he played in the modern era of baseball.
Obviously any argument for Cobb’s marketability as a modern superstar must first acknowledge his greatest character flaw, overt racism. I want to be clear that I make no excuses for his prejudices, because there are none. Regardless of whether the racist rhetoric he put forth was a product of the times or his environment, being born and raised the segregated South just two decades removed from the Civil War. His racism mars his legacy as one of the greatest players in baseball history.
But the beauty of this scenario is that it removes Cobb from the circumstances that undermine his achievements. A Ty Cobb playing in the majors today would have been raised in a time of integration and greater equality. He would have played alongside a diverse field of players at all levels of baseball, to say nothing of having a group of handlers to steer him away from this potentially career killing controversial attitude. Contemporary athletes have entourages dedicated to ensuring athletes have positive images. Certainly no one could leash his wild temperament, but it is plausible that an exceptional agent , publicist, or even life coach could help him avoid some of the nasty pitfalls of his past. There is still no guarantee that any of this would endear him to those in his clubhouse or around the league, but it should at the very least minimize the greatest blemish on an otherwise impressive career.
With a clean slate in modern baseball there should be little doubt that Ty Cobb would take the league and world by storm. He has the story, personality, and tools to be a icon larger than any other in sports today.
Somewhat of a lesser known aspect to Ty Cobb is the fact that he overcame and was driven by a tragic youth. When Cobb was entering early adulthood his mother accidentally murdered his father. Cobb’s mother mistook young Cobb’s father for an intruder and shot and killed him. It was believed that his father suspected his mother of an adulterous affair and was lurking outside their bedroom to catch his wife in the act. It was a pivotal moment in Cobb’s life. In his own words, “My father had his head blown off with a shotgun when I was 18 years old – by a member of my own family. I didn’t get over that.” It certainly stirred something deep within the tortured ballplayer, pushing him to play with a ferocity that baseball had never seen.
Such a tale of adversity would make him more popular and marketable. The public likes underdog tales like Cobb’s because they create an emotional connection. When the public sympathizes with a celebrity, especially an extremely talented one with an electric personality, there is no telling what shortcoming they are willing to ignore. NFL icon Ray Lewis is living proof of that. He was once alleged to be connected with a double murder, but people don’t generally associate him with what would otherwise be a career defining incident. In light of years of dominance and personal loss, people view a more complete, likeable, and marketable Lewis. Now, when people think of number 52 they think of his intense persona, on field successes, and the story of how he overcame the hardships of his youth. A modern Cobb would surely be no different. He wouldn’t want sympathy though just a chance to take out his frustrations on the competition, which was something he excelled at.
What speaks the loudest in terms of Cobb’s contemporary appeal is his unrivaled ability. The achievements of his career are mind blowing. He won 12 batting titles, nine of which were consecutive (from 1907-1915). At one time he held nearly 90 MLB records, some which still stand today. That type of record breaking play would make him an instant success. If he received a Wheaties cover endorsement each month for every record he held, we would be looking at pictures of Cobb every morning for the next seven and a half years. At one time he held the career record for hits, runs, stolen bases, games played and at bats. Comparatively, he is like a mix of Pete Rose, Ricky Henderson, and Cal Ripken, Jr. But even more impressive is the fact that he still holds the record for career batting average with an astonishing .367 average. The man could flat out hit the ball anywhere he wanted, though that was hardly the most notorious aspect of his game.
Ty Cobb’s style of play offers something different, something that modern fans have never seen – the most brutal base running in MLB history. Everyone knows baseball fans love the long ball, but Cobb would have disagreed. He felt placing the ball, something he could do like no other batter, required more skill. He didn’t care for power hitters like Babe Ruth. It is even reported that to prove his belief –that hitting homeruns was easy and required less skill – he once changed his grip and hit three home runs in the same game. Instead of the easy homer, Cobb let his deadly feet do the talking.
Ty Cobb stole bases in an unruly fashion. He owned base stealing the way Roger Clemens owned the mound, and just like the brutish bat throwing hurler, Cobb would defend what was his at all costs. Rumors spread, adding to his legend that he even sharpened his cleats to take out any runner that dared to guard the bag. In a modern context that alone might make him an anti-hero and fan favorite in the process. But Cobb didn’t just steal the occasional bag. He stole them all. On 54 occasions Cobb stole home plate. A steal of home is an immediate SportsCenter highlight and it is something he did with regularity. On four occasions he even turned a single into a run by proceeding to steal second, third, and home plate. There’s a Nike campaign if I ever saw one.
Obviously the current MLB player is probably faster and more athletic than in Cobb’s day, but a great deal of Cobb’s prowess is bound to have survived in modern baseball. Looking around baseball today there are fewer villains that fans love to hate than in the past. Alex Rodriguez probably tops the list of contenders for that title, with his swagger, but Cobb’s antagonistic style and unique skill set would set him apart today. He would be controversial and innovative, electric and volatile. He would fit in with today’s stars just fine.