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The doctor and Ty Cobb

A man of letters

Ty Cobb, the greatest Detroit Tiger and still seen by many as the greatest all-around ballplayer ever, has also gone down in history as the most dangerous.

The asking price on this vintage Ty Cobb baseball card is nearly $300,000. You can find it at oldsportscard.com.

It was said that he sharpened his metal spikes to draw blood from opposing infielders. He slapped around a black groundskeeper for the crime of patting Cobb on the shoulder. He once lunged into a grandstand to pummel a disabled fan who had cat-called the star with racist taunts — the sort of insult that Cobb, the Georgia-born son of a Confederate veteran, would never let pass unpunished.

Tales like these have been debated by pro-Cobb and anti-Cobb biographers ever since the Hall-of-Famer (the first Hall-of-Famer) died in 1961. Many were first spilled by a sportswriter named Al Stump, who collaborated with Cobb on his autobiography, My Life in Baseball: The True Record — then, after Cobb’s death, dumped all Cobb’s dirt in magazine articles and a biography. Stump even claimed that Cobb had confessed to killing a man in a back alley in Detroit.

That is the image of sports legend engrained in popular culture by the 1994 biopic Cobb, starring Tommy Lee Jones in the role of an elderly Cobb telling his dark truths to Stump — a wife-beating, egomaniacal, vicious drunk.

In more recent years, defenders have debunked some of the darkest claims and downplayed others, arguing that the real Cobb, while hardly a saint, was not the demon portrayed by Stump and Jones.

All of which makes it fascinating to review nine letters held in the University’s Bentley Historical Library. They are chatty missives handwritten in green ink from 1948-52 by an aging Cobb to an old friend in Detroit, Dr. Charles Kennedy, who was a U-M regent from 1946-61.

The Cobb of these letters is friendly and generous, not angry or vindictive toward his detractors. Several letters deal with Cobb’s extensive philanthropic activities, including the endowment of a hospital in his home town of Royston, Ga., and a scholarship fund for needy Georgia students.

You’ve got mail

Kennedy poster

Dr. Kennedy was an alumnus and a U-M regent. (Image: Charles Stuart Kennedy papers, Bentley Historical Library.)

Dr. Kennedy was born in 1887 (a year after Cobb) and raised in Detroit’s Irish-American Corktown neighborhood, mere blocks from the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, where Cobb’s Tigers would play beginning in 1912. Kennedy earned a BS at Michigan in 1911, then his MD from the Medical School in 1913. He was a surgeon at Detroit’s Grace Hospital for many years and taught at both Wayne State and U-M. He was known for his Republican political views, his booming voice, and his deep, rumbling laugh.

How Kennedy and Cobb became friends isn’t clear from either the letters at the Bentley or the standard Cobb biographies. The star once remarked that he wished he had been a doctor instead of a ballplayer. So maybe he saw an alter ego in Kennedy. The surgeon’s obituary says only that Cobb “never failed to call on Dr. Kennedy on a Detroit visit and was likely to call him up in the middle of the night from anywhere to ‘chew the fat.’”

That captures the tone of Cobb’s letters, which ramble through the usual concerns of a well-do-do retiree. A southerner by heritage and a Detroiter only by profession, Cobb split his prosperous later years — he had invested his baseball earnings very wisely — between northern California, Nevada, Idaho, and Georgia. He tells Kennedy about his health; his travels and vacations; his charitable activities; and mutual friends.

What’s new?

Cobb catches ball

Cobb’s antics on and off the field made for colorful commentary. (Wikipedia.)

There are occasional glimpses of Cobb’s undimmed celebrity status long after his retirement from baseball in 1928, such as when New York’s famous restaurateur-to-the-stars, Toots Shor, secured tickets to the smash Broadway hit “South Pacific” for Cobb and his wife. The Cobbs couldn’t use the tickets, so they went to another baseball legend.

…we had made plans to leave [New York], had plane tickets, etc. and [Shor] had them for two nights later, they came from one of the owners of the show and Joe DiMaggio had come into town so he enjoyed the show with our tickets.

Cobb’s competitive blood still flowed. Ten days after the 1948 Rose Bowl, in which Michigan humiliated U.S.C. 49-0, he wrote:

I was glad to see Michigan dominance over Southern California, these people out here think they are more or less dominant in athletics and they gloat so about it, it’s good to see them get their ears pinned back.

He had the usual preoccupations with health habits:

I am feeling fine, reduced in 3 weeks 16 lbs. eating things that don’t fatten also taking not even beer… Blood pressure 120 over 70 yesterday. Doctor said I was a boy.

But baseball was seldom more than an afterthought. In a letter written in June 1950, Cobb goes on for pages about travels, families, and fishing before he comments on that summer’s American League pennant race, apparently in response to Dr. Kennedy’s query:

Cobb in 1913

Cobb in 1913. (Wikipedia.)

I think Detroit [led by four All-Stars, including Hal Newhouser and George Kell] has the best chance to win this year, they have the best pitching staff and they have the offense and as good defense as any. New York I don’t think can do it…

And in 1951 Cobb confided his plans to help an old Tiger teammate and friend get into baseball’s Hall of Fame — a footnote to a famous incident in Hall of Fame history.

Confidentially I am starting now to try to get Harry Heilmann in Hall of Fame though I think he will go in this coming election but one cannot be sure and to try every way is to play it right.

When Heilmann was on his deathbed later that year, Cobb told him he had been elected to the Hall when in fact he had not been. Instead he was inducted the following year.

Cobb died 10 years later of a combination of diabetes and cancer, rich and still renowned. Dr. Kennedy, interviewed by a Detroit reporter, remarked on Cobb’s devotion to the students he had helped through his Georgia scholarship fund.

“I’ve watched his eyes glow when he read letters from those students,” Kennedy said. “He was as proud of their accomplishments as if they were his own children. When you’d see him then, you never could visualize him as the man who challenged umpire Billy Evans under the stands, fought Buck Herzog and others, and carried spike wounds from his toes to his hips.”

Comments

  1. Tom Isaia - 1971

    Yes, the great Detroit Tiger, and one of the most skilled players ever, as the first line of the article states. His best-know statistic is the lifetime .366 batting average, untouched in a century of baseball.

    Mention his name and the negative lore surfaces immediately. It’s refreshing to see evidence of his softer side.

    Reply

    • Wesley Fricks - 1989

      Tom, Ty Cobb’s official lifetime batting average was .367 and not .366. His lifetime average of .367 is the official stat recognized by Major League Baseball, Ty Cobb and Elias Sports Bureau, the official statistician for MLB.

      All the errors that have been discovered by stat heads are a negative reflection of Cobb’s average and they know the errors that are in favor of Ty Cobb have not been published. I would love to stack up all the errors for Cobb because his average would go up. Until then, we have to stick with the official averages.

      Reply

  2. C. Tino Lambros - U of M 1966

    In 9th grade English class at Ypsi High School in 1959,.our teacher, Mrs. Medrano, gave us a letter writing assignment. It was to send a letter to someone we admired. As a young baseball player, I had read quite a bit about Ty Cobb. Mrs. Medrano had resources we used ti find addresses. I sent Mr. Cobb a fan letter. After several months and no response, I figured that none was coming. A couple months later a letter appeared in our mailbox with a return address label with Ty Cobb’s name. Inside was a handwritten letter from Ty Cobb with a couple of index cards with his autograph on them. I have cherished that letter ever since and still have it.
    I never thought of him in the negative ever since.
    C. Tino Lambros

    Reply

    • Timothy Prentiss - 1977

      Mr. Landis, please consider donating your letter from The Georgia Peach to the Bentley! What a great story you have as provenance

      Reply

  3. Jim Urbanski - 1978 Masters Degree

    Excellent insight on Ty Cobb – Ernie Harwell the Hall of Fame announcer of Tigers agreed with the Doctor’s assessment. Speaking at a book signing a couple of years before he passed- Ernie mentioned how Cobb regularly made a point helping disabled kids with regular hospital visits.

    Reply

  4. Frederick Schmid - 1968 Pharmacy

    I have visited the Ty Cobb museum in Royston, Ga. It is presently located in the lobby of one of the hospitals he built. Before Cobb built the hospital Royston had none. I learned that he would mail monthly checks to retired ball players that had fallen on hard times. I am glad to hear the comments that tell of the complete man.

    Reply

  5. Robert Splittgerber - '71

    I appreciate learning about Cobb’s “better angels.” I would still not want to underplay whatever truth there may be to his racial views. Read, once, a story of a dying Cobb’s conversion. Hopefully, part of it was a regret for whatever wrong he may have done.

    Reply

    • Wesley Fricks - 1989

      Robert, I would love to hear the story that you are referencing about a dying Cobb saying something about racism. I have researched his life story for 30 years and I have never heard of that. I would love to track down that story and research its sources to determine if it is true or not. If true, it would contradict all of the facts that I have discovered in my research, Interesting…..

      Reply

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