His eyes ringed with pain. They were deep-set, manacled eyes. Eyes of a tiger. Glassed.
When Tyrus Raymond Cobb suited up for the Detroit Tigers in 1905, he hauled back and gave baseball a dose of hell for over two decades. Pain fueled him. Loss ignited him.
And so, he ran. On the basepaths, he taunted, calculated, strategized. His hits came like daily pricks of a needle instead of monster shots, but effective all the more, and annoying. He kicked up pale orange mud, sliding into second. Into third. Into home. Spikes northward.
And they would cut you. Premeditated. With intent.
He believed baseball was a game of the mind. That it could be won by outthinking the opponent, out-toughing him. He was a Southerner with an Ivy League mentality of the game. But maniacal.
Before infamy, Cobb received “AA” training for the Tigers. First in Anniston, Alabama. Then Augusta, Georgia.
Here is how it happened.
At the time of Cobb’s upbringing, Narrows, Georgia 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 state senator, took young Tyrus’ rearing seriously. The elder Cobb hoped that his son would one day attend West Point or make a doctor. At the behest of his father, Tyrus became a good student and worked odd-jobs baling hay and apprenticing with a cotton factor. But when Tyrus decided to pursue baseball as a career, W.H. had reservations.
On hearing of tryouts for the Augusta semi-pro team, the Tourists, Ty sent in his application. Tourists’ manager Con Strouthers sent word that Ty could work out with the team, provided he pay for his own travel expenses. W.H. reluctantly agreed, 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 came from Thad Hayes, a Mobile native and fellow Tourists’ reject, who suggested the pair tryout for the Anniston Steelers, a subpar lot of professionals that participated in the Alabama-Tennessee “Southeastern League.” Ty inevitably would have to discuss this option with his father.
“Don’t come home a failure,” were the words that resonated with Tyrus, as his father instructed him before leaving for Alabama. With future in flux, the young Cobb boarded a train to Anniston.
In 1904, Anniston was a steel-mill town that had grown to be Alabama’s fifth largest city. The Anniston Steelers, a rag-tag bunch of also-rans comprised mostly of college players, were Cobb’s last hope of realizing his dream of becoming a professional baseball player.
Travel was limited to horse-and-buggy transit; square meals included grits and hog jowls. Although conditions were Spartan, if not downright pitiful, Anniston was just the place the young Georgian needed to be. It would be in Anniston that Cobb reversed his misfortunes, propelling him to become one of the greatest baseball players of all time.
In Anniston, Cobb quickly became a household name.
By summer, Cobb not only had found his swing— a .350 average was one of the league’s best— he also 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 as was commonplace, but a way to grind out base hit after base hit. Crowds followed as he toured the bases. Loyalists to Cobb known as “Cobbies” packed the stands and created a considerable amount of local hubbub.
His exploits drew further interest of one J.B. Darden, Anniston steel executive. Darden offered to put Cobb up in his new home and provide meals, which the indigent Cobb promptly accepted. Cobb moved into the Darden boardinghouse on Quintard Avenue in downtown Anniston. More importantly, Darden also accommodated Cobb with praise, often, and imbued a certain degree of confidence in the slugger that he severely lacked.
There was but one problem: no one outside of Anniston was noticing him, as coverage by northeast Alabama news outlets was sparse. When articles were written, the names of the players were not always correct. Cobb was once disheartened to find that one local paper erroneously called him “Cyrus.”
Some ninety miles away, Grantland Rice, famous sportswriter for the Atlanta Journal soon began to receive postcards of Cobb’s heroics. Other publications all of over the Southeast received similar notifications, with several reaching Augusta. The word was out about the Georgian. The reporter?
None other than Cobb himself.
Cobb would often slip away from the Quintard Avenue boardinghouse to Scarborough Drug Store on Noble Street to construct the postcards and letters, which glowingly praised the slugger.
Around the same time, the ailing Augusta Tourists needed help. Getting word of Cobb’s solid performance in Anniston, the Tourists invited him back for a second engagement. Cobb begrudgingly agreed, under one condition: that Con Strouthers was out as manager. Correspondence assured the resentful Cobb that Strouthers had resigned and been replaced by catcher Andy Roth.
Cobb caught a train and headed for Augusta on August 8, 1904. He finished the season with the Tourists, hitting a paltry .237 in 37 games. The next season, under the tutelage of aging veteran George Leidy, Cobb found his swing and 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 discovered that his mother had pulled the trigger, wrongly suspecting that her husband was an intruder into their home.
With Cobb’s father gone and mother standing trial for murder, he 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 went to Anniston.
The words that would haunt him for the rest of his life.
Cobb played for twenty-four seasons, amassed a .367 career batting average, and collected 4,191 hits.
He is considered by many to be the greatest baseball player who ever lived.