On an overcast Sunday in June 1939, a train carrying Ty Cobb arrived at Detroit’s bustling depot. Cobb and his youngest children, seventeen-year-old Jimmy and nineteen-year-old Beverly, had come to spend the day in the Motor City. It was a precoronation of sorts, a brief stopover en route to Cooperstown, where Cobb would be inducted—first of his class—into the newly unveiled National Baseball Hall of Fame. Their cross-country trip had begun in California, where the Cobbs now lived, and it would eventually take them to New York City, Washington, Cleveland, and Chicago.
In his ball-playing prime, Cobb would have been spotted instantly among the rush of passengers at Michigan Central. He was then one of the two most recognizable figures in the burgeoning city, Henry Ford being the other. People had always noticed Cobb. At six-foot-one, he stood a few inches taller than the average man. His portrait, appearing frequently in publications across the country, had made his face familiar. His guarded grin—tight-lipped as if embarrassed by his teeth—often gave him away. If not, his eyes usually did. Everyone noticed Cobb’s blue eyes: intense, piercing, pulsing, steely as a battleship, some said; the color of robin eggs or Courier and Ives china, according to others. They radiated from beneath narrowed lids. Energy surged from them.
More than a decade had passed since Cobb had played the game, and it had been several years since his last visit to Detroit, when he threw out a ceremonial first pitch before a Detroit Stars Negro league game. Cobb was fifty-two now, and he blended easily in a crowd. If you weren’t expecting him, if you weren’t casting about for famous folks or giving more than a passing glance, you would have thought him just another middle-aged businessman in an overcoat. You wouldn’t have noticed him—not there, anyway.
Down Michigan Avenue from the hulking, eighteen-story depot stood the ballpark where Cobb had once thrilled crowds, frustrated opponents, and clawed his way to unparalleled success. The park had changed considerably since his playing days, not only in ownership and name—from Navin Field to Briggs Stadium—but in size, with a new double-decked grandstand that swelled capacity to fifty-five thousand. Cobb had changed, too—physically, yes, with the addition of a few pounds and the subtraction of much hair, but also in demeanor. That afternoon, as the Tigers battled Washington, Cobb showed a side many had never seen.
Cobb looked dapper in the stands in a stylish straw hat and tailored gray-blue suit, and he still turned heads there. At the ballpark, they knew him. There, word spread quickly that the Georgia Peach was in town. There, fans, photographers, players, and friends clamored yet for his attention. Seated with Walter Briggs in the owner’s box beside the Tigers’ third-base dugout, Cobb felt the admiring gazes as he smoked a cigar. He signed autographs—for Edsel Ford’s children, someone told him—tipped his cap at older women, and reminisced with outfielder-turned-pharmacist Davy Jones, who tried to ignore the pain in his ready-to-burst appendix. Cobb waved to old pals who called his name, joked with goofy Nick Altrock, the famous ball-juggling, googly-eyed clown of the visiting Senators, and basked in the moment. Occasionally, a player would steal a look at him.
It must have gratified Cobb that his youngest children were getting a sense of what it was once like for him. They were too young to appreciate his days in a uniform, and maybe seeing the respect and the adulation he received would provide a different view of their daddy. They knew dissension in their fragile household. Their mother had filed for divorce several times, and their oldest brother, Ty Junior, had a strained relationship with Cobb. Young Ty had rebelled strongly against his strict, demanding father. He disliked baseball, lived a fast life in college, dropped out of Princeton, and failed to graduate from Yale. Though he had since matured and begun work on a medical degree, Ty Junior still did not get along well with his famous father. Cobb had been a ballplayer throughout his namesake’s childhood, gone for weeks and months on end, and that hadn’t strengthened their bond.
Cobb had vowed it would be different with the two youngest of his five children. Jimmy was six when his dad retired from baseball. He had seen him golf frequently but didn’t remember much of his baseball career. Born prematurely, he stood several inches smaller than his father, who sometimes affectionately called him Fido or Snake. Jimmy considered himself his dad’s favorite, and decades later would fondly remember him as the loving man who would tuck him into bed and kiss him goodnight.
Cobb’s pledge to be a better father figured into this trip. It was a graduation gift to his daughter. They would be visiting an East Coast finishing school that she might attend in autumn, and the three of them would be going to the futuristic World’s Fair and to a couple of Broadway plays. Cobb wanted to see Raymond Massey in Abe Lincoln in Illinois and maybe Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story.
“I had twenty-five years of baseball, and I had all the baseball I wanted,” he said. “I had to be away from my family six months a year. I hardly saw my children all summer and in the winter they were in school. . . . You’re not living the life of a martyr when you play baseball but there’s a lot of things you can’t do.”
During a rain delay, Cobb appeared in the Detroit locker room, a pack of reporters trailing him. The air crackled with electricity. He greeted the quiet veteran Charlie Gehringer, one of his batting protégés, a star second baseman, and the last remnant of Cobb’s 1926 team. Flashbulbs popped and sizzled as Cobb gripped his hand and locked his eyes on him. Gehringer averted his stare. Gehringer sat on a stool, one shoe on, the other off. His right foot had been sliced on a slide by George Washington Case.
“You aren’t going to quit, are you?” Cobb asked.
“No,” said Gehringer, “I’m just going to get another pair of shoes.”
As good as Gehringer was—and several writers ranked him among the best ever at his position—Cobb always felt Gehringer could have been better. With a bit more fire and exuberance, he might have been as fine as Eddie Collins, Cobb believed.
The team’s freshest talent was Barney McCosky, and Jimmy Cobb didn’t linger long before heading to the locker of the rookie center fielder, who had already been nicknamed Belting Barney by The Sporting News. “That kid of mine has made up his mind that McCosky is the greatest player in baseball,” Cobb remarked. “He talks of him all the time.”
The other Tigers—and not just the Southern boys, though there were plenty of them—gathered around Cobb. Tommy Jefferson Davis Bridges, a noted curveball pitcher from Tennessee, shook his hand. Fellow Georgian Rudy York, a hard drinker prone to charring mattresses with untended cigarettes, quizzed Cobb about his bird dogs. Bobo Newsom, the colorful ace of the staff, invited him to go hunting in South Carolina.
“I might do that, Buck,” Cobb replied, his words as smooth and stretched as taffy.
Everyone wanted to see the Peach.
Slicker Coffman, a relief pitcher, presented himself.
“Sounds like an Alabama drawl,” Cobb guessed.
“Sure is,” he replied. “I’m from Veto, Alabama.”
Cobb talked with Bing Miller about their days with Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics, and he gave a verbal boost to Red Kress, a struggling utility man who had begun his career as Cobb was ending his. “If you can hit like you did when you first got in this league, you’re okay,” said Cobb.
After the game, Cobb’s homecoming continued at his suite in the Hotel Statler, looking out over busy Grand Circus Park. Cobb shared memories with seventy-year-old Bobby Lincoln Lowe, who had been a fifteen-year veteran when Cobb debuted in 1905. And then Cobb rang up a dozen friends, including an auto executive hospitalized in Ann Arbor.
“They’ve got three balls and two strikes on me,” Don O’Keefe told him.
“Then you’ll hit a home run,” Cobb said.
Cobb seemed possessed of one mission: to reconnect with as many friends as time would allow. Perhaps it was just the distance. Or his long absence. He had been living near San Francisco since 1932 and hadn’t been back to Detroit much since retiring in 1928. Or maybe a grander epiphany had struck him. Maybe he was coming to realize that the fierce competitiveness that had served him so well on the ball field had deprived him of an abundance of close friendships. Maybe that helped explain his demeanor. Mild, mellow, relaxed—in his playing days people rarely described him with such words. One pal even said he was now as “sedate as a schoolmarm.”
Of all the acquaintances Cobb renewed during his twelve-hour stop in Detroit, it was the one with Alex Rivers that touched him most. Cobb had sent a friend to search for Rivers, whom he had known for thirty-three years, since 1908, when Rivers was toiling as a clubhouse man in New Orleans. Cobb took a liking to him immediately and invited him to Detroit.
“I would be happy if I could see him,” Cobb said.
Moments before departing for his train, Cobb got his wish. Alex Rivers, a black man, appeared in his suite. The sight affected Cobb, and he grew emotional, patting Rivers warmly on the back.
“Mister Ty, you are still my man,” said Rivers, who had worked as Cobb’s personal locker-room assistant, chauffeur, and handyman and who had honored him by naming his firstborn Ty Cobb Rivers. They reminisced about days gone by, and caught up on family matters. After Cobb left baseball, Rivers had parlayed his baseball celebrity into a job as messenger for Detroit mayor Frank Murphy.
“Keep in touch with me, Alex,” Cobb said. “You’re still my man, too.”
Emotions came easily to Cobb, and this journey promised to be nostalgic and sentimental. Cobb must have been flush with tender feelings when he left by train that evening. He had been celebrated in Detroit, and now he was heading toward Cooperstown to help dedicate the National Baseball Hall of Fame and to be officially enshrined as the first member of the game’s most elite class. Life was grand.
Copyright © 2007 by Tom Stanton. All rights reserved.