#Shortstops: Letters from Ty Cobb

Written by: Matt Rothenberg

During his major league career, Tyrus Raymond Cobb made a name for himself as being one of the best ballplayers of his generation. His having appeared on the highest percentage of ballots in the first Baseball Hall of Fame election in 1936 is an example of that fact.

Yet, Cobb was never one to shy away from controversy during his time in Detroit and Philadelphia, and almost 25 years after his final game with the A’s, he was stirring it up once again.

On March 17, 1952, Life magazine ran the first article of a two-part series by Cobb. This article, titled “The Greatest Player of All Time Says: They Don’t Play Baseball Any More,” features Cobb’s thoughts on the current state of the game. Among other topics, the Georgia Peach critiqued managers’ “so-called ‘strategy’” in ballgames, base running (both stealing bases and preventing stolen bases), and the “many joke teams” in the majors, singling out the 1951 St. Louis Browns.

In fact, Cobb states that “[t]here are only two players in the major leagues today who can be mentioned in the same breath with the oldtime greats.”

Jackie Robinson?

Not a “first-class base runner,” opined Cobb, who swiped nearly 900 bases in his career.

Ted Williams?

A “marvelous athlete” and a “modern-day all-star,” according to Cobb, but “he let [opposing teams] neutralize his power” with the “Williams shift.”

“[I]t was an insult to his ability and judgment,” the 12-time batting champ continued.

Joe DiMaggio?

Though “perhaps the greatest natural ballplayer who ever lived,” wrote Cobb, who felt the Yankee Clipper’s offseason conditioning left a lot to be desired.

“Naturally he went to spring training with his muscles weakened and soft; naturally he got hurt a lot,” he stated. “He will never know how great a ballplayer he might have been – or how many more years he might have lasted – if he had taken care of himself.”

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Cobb’s choices were Stan Musial and Phil Rizzuto, exemplars of playing baseball the right way. According to Cobb, at least.

Bemoaning the “fragile” nature of 1952’s pitchers, Cobb opted for Bob Feller as one who could compare to players from his era.

The livelier baseball, players’ attitudes, the lack of camaraderie in the postgame clubhouse – it was all fodder for Cobb.

As one might expect, modern players did not necessarily share Cobb’s thoughts, and there was a bit of fallout.

The Detroit Tigers’ Fred Hutchinson wondered what Cobb has – or has not – been watching.

“I’ll bet he hasn’t seen more than a half dozen big league games in the last 20 years,” Hutchinson told the Boston Globe ’s Hy Hurwitz. “I suppose he can tell you how to hit by watching television.”

Others questioned Cobb, as well. Vern Stephens of the Red Sox said that “[c]onditions are different today than they were in Cobb’s time. … The guy must be getting old. I’ll bet they paid him plenty to let them use his name.”

It is believed Cobb received about $25,000 for the stories.

Bill McKechnie – a contemporary of Cobb’s and a coach for the Red Sox in 1952 – got a kick out of Cobb’s statement regarding players of his day talking baseball in hotel lobbies and how that no longer happens.

“They used to do it,” McKechnie said. “But you never saw Ty around many hotel lobbies. He was too busy doing a lot of other things to sit around and talk baseball.”

Defenders were few and far between – and not always steadfast in their opinions. Following publication of the story, Rogers Hornsby told the Associated Press that “Cobb is right. Right in everything he says.”

However, later that spring, Hornsby had his own article, in Look magazine, as a response to Cobb. Titled “It’s Still Baseball, Cobb!” Hornsby praised Cobb in some respects but noted that Cobb “says a lot of things. A few of them make sense, but not very many.” Among those which didn’t, the Rajah felt: His criticism of Williams.

Hornsby then noted that Cobb, his boyhood idol, was a selfish player, and that managers interested in winning pennants rather than managing batting champions would be wise to choose DiMaggio over Cobb. He also offers explanations countering much of Cobb’s Life statements.

Cobb was not just questioned by members of the baseball community; he also received mail from the general public regarding his standpoints.

Leroy Jacobsen of Oak Park, Ill., got a reply from Cobb in May 1953, written in his signature green ink. This letter, as well as its envelope and another note from Cobb sent in June 1953, were recently donated to the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Library. These are among several letters written by Cobb which exist in the Library’s collection.

Feeling obliged, though “honored,” to respond to “anyone that takes time to write me,” Cobb notes that he absorbed plenty of negative feedback on his stories.

“I received many ‘brick bats’ relative to the stories in Life magazine ” Cobb wrote. “But when you go to official records (emphasis Cobb’s) also how baseball is as of today I have no doubts as to my opinions as expressed.”

Cobb cites the “official records” as opportunities for one to discover why there is “no need to argue with anyone” over an individual’s baseball abilities. He notes the importance of a “successful sacrifice (bunt),” a skill which had been lost, he claimed in the article, as well as modern pitchers’ inability to win between 30 and 40 games each season, or the ability to hit in the clutch late in a game with runners on base.

Interestingly, these abilities or inabilities – some of which can be quantified today – were likely not commonplace in the “official records” of 1952.

He also issued a challenge to Jacobsen.

“Just ask anyone to pick an all star all time baseball club [using] official records,” Cobb said. “And see how many they can place of present day players.”

Even today, 80 years after Cobb’s Hall of Fame election and 64 years since the Life articles were published, the age-old arguments comparing players from different eras remain.

Matt Rothenberg is the manager of the Giamatti Research Center at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

Just the Ticket for Cobb

Ty Cobb made his home debut for the Philadelphia Athletics on April 20, 1927.

Just the Ticket for Cobb

Ty Cobb made his home debut for the Philadelphia Athletics on April 20, 1927.