Saturday, December 18, 2010

Ty Cobb

Royston, Georgia - Visited December 2010

Times have certainly changed
This is a very recent venture with my brother John when we were down visiting with my mom in Toccoa, GA. Finally went to see Ty Cobb, who is repining up in my family’s North Georgia neck of the woods. I can’t say I was a fan of Ty Cobb before this, and doing some research didn’t make him any more appealing as a person. But he was an amazing baseball player, arguably the best pure hitter in history. The reason he’s made it into the blog is not so much because of his claim to fame but because of a very odd way I found out where he is buried. I’ll unpack that down below. But first, some bio.

Tyrus Raymond "Ty" Cobb was born in rural Banks County, Georgia. December 18, 1886. which coincidentally makes this post a little tribute to his 124th birthday. He died July 17, 1961. Though he was born into very modest circumstances, his father was a teacher who gradually advanced into higher education and state and local politics. The elder Cobb’s vision for his son was education and position, but Tyrus just wanted to play baseball. And he was good at it from the get go. Father and son never saw eye to eye on the game but the father reluctantly assented when his son secured a contract with the Detroit Tigers, nurturing his tender ambitions with these kindly parting words: ‘don’t come back a failure’.
Ty Cobb's Hall of Fame Plaque

Ty Cobb didn’t fail. He played for 22 years in the majors, amassing a bunch of hitting records including the highest lifetime batting average of .367, which is still tops in baseball history. He was elected to the first class of the Hall of Fame with the highest percentage of votes, beating out Babe Ruth, among others. And he shrewdly amassed a considerable fortune, which he built on throughout his retirement.

But by all accounts Ty Cobb was not a real pleasant guy. Probably racist, he was also mean spirited, and vengeful (among other undesirable traits).  Not surprisingly, he was a loner throughout his life. His playing style was equally aggressive, labeled by one sportswriter as ‘daring to the point of dementia’. As Cobb himself put it, “I’ve got to be first all the time. In everything.”

"Baseball is a red-blooded sport for red-blooded men. It's no pink tea, and mollycoddles had better stay out. It's a struggle for supremacy, a survival of the fittest."

Why such an ornery cuss? There are several possible reasons. Some point to the fact that he was a southerner playing what was a ‘Yankee’ game in the long shadow of the Civil War. Others suggest it was the fact that his father was accidentally shot to death by his mother the week he signed his first Major League contract. My personal opinion is that he was called ‘the Georgia Peach’, which should rightfully tick off any guy who gets stuck with that kind of nickname. Anyway, it does appear that Cobb mellowed somewhat with age, secretly helping out broke former players, and ultimately giving millions to establishing a hospital and medical treatment system in North Georgia which still serves the area. In his later years Cobb lived in California and Nevada, but returned to Royston, GA in his final days, passing away from cancer and other ailments in 1961.

My mystical intersection with Ty Cobb and his final resting place goes as follows. My great grandfather Ben Fricks was a childhood friend of Ty Cobb, and he kept a lifetime relationship with the Georgia Peach. Upon Cobb’s death, Grandpa Fricks was asked to be a pallbearer at Ty Cobb’s funeral. That much is part of family history. On September 27, 1994 I was sitting in my basement in Drexel Hill, PA. It was during the inaugural run of Ken Burns documentary, “Baseball” on PBS, and I had been devoting my evenings to seeing it all the way through. It was the Eighth Inning installment, covering the 1960s. As I settled into my chair to watch, the episode opened oddly with grainy black and white footage of a funeral procession. It soon became apparent that what I was watching was the funeral procession of Ty Cobb to his final resting place in a cemetery in the little town of Royston. And therefore it became very apparent that I was watching my great grandfather Ben, who had died in the late Sixties, playing a bit part in a PBS pledge special. I had only known Ben Fricks when I was a little kid who didn’t like to be around old people very much, but it was strangely cool to see him walking stoically in a dark suit and hat, carrying the casket of the greatest hitter who ever played the game. So I had to see the spot where my great grandfather got his fifteen minutes of fame, even if it came 33 years after the fact. Thank you Ken Burns. And thank you Ty Cobb.

Cousins at the Ty Cobb statue outside Turner Field in Atlanta - June 2005