- The Washington Times - Monday, May 16, 2005

One Christmas season in the mid-‘90s, buying a present for a baseball-batty friend, I approached the cash register with a new book about the greatest player in the game’s first 125 years.

The clerk took a peek at “Cobb” as she rang up the sale and quoted from the cover, ?The life and times of the meanest man who ever played baseball.” Then she added, “My, that certainly sounds like inspiring holiday reading.”

It was good for a chuckle but, truth be told, there was nothing funny about Tyrus Raymond Cobb on or off the field.

When he retired as a player in 1928 after 24 seasons, he owned 90 major league records — the most notable a .366 lifetime batting average eight points higher than that of his closest pursuer, Rogers Hornsby.

Yet by all evidence, Cobb was a psychopath who went out of his way to hurt opponents and a bigot who beat up black people unlucky enough to encounter his wrath. He was hated by many of his teammates and most of his foes — so much so that when he died of cancer in 1961 at 74 there were just three baseball men at his funeral. Perhaps the so-called Georgia Peach’s nickname should have been the “Georgia Peachpit” instead.

Cobb’s ugliest moment might have come May15, 1912, when he went into the stands behind third base at New York’s old Hilltop Park to beat up a regular heckler who, as it turned out, was physically handicapped. Yet when writer Al Stump did Cobb’s autobiography, ?My Life in Baseball,” in 1961, the book emerged as an apologia in which the dying ex-ballplayer portrayed himself unbelievably as a gentle soul who “forgave” all his adversaries.

Thirty-three years later, in Stump’s own book about writing the earlier one, Cobb was revealed as a delusional, drunken maniac whose behavior seemed to justify every bad thing said about him. In the subsequent movie version of “Cobb,” Tommy Lee Jones did a marvelous job in the title role, but the film’s theme is so unpleasant that watching it is painful.

There is a theory Cobb became mentally unbalanced after his mother shot and killed his beloved father in August 1905 while the 18-year-old was playing minor league ball in Augusta, Ga. According to reports, the highly respected William Cobb, suspecting his much younger wife of infidelity, left home for a supposed three-day trip but returned that night and climbed a ladder to peer into her bedroom window. Thinking him an intruder, Amanda Cobb grabbed a rifle he had given her for protection and shot him dead.

When Cobb joined the Detroit Tigers several weeks later, he was subjected to the sort of hazing common to baseball in those days: Veterans sawed his bats in half, refused to let him take batting practice and ostracized him. Instead of taking it good-naturedly, southerner Cobb fought back literally and figuratively in his own version of the Civil War. Even when he won the first of his 12 batting titles in 1907, he was an outcast on his own team.

That had changed somewhat by 1912 when the New York heckler, one Claude Lueker, began his barrage. Does an athlete have the right to fight an abusive spectator” We may assume Cobb spent no time weighing the pros and cons after Lueker questioned the player’s racial origins and insulted his mother and sister.

“Are you going to take that?” teammate Sam Crawford asked Cobb. “If you do, you’re yellow.”

Not to worry. Cobb charged 12 rows into the stands and began to smite Lueker hip and thigh, not to mention elsewhere. Nearby spectators informed Cobb that the man was handicapped — he had lost one entire hand and three fingers on the other in an industrial accident — but Cobb replied, “I don’t care if he has no feet.”

In his self-serving autobiography, Cobb naturally defended his actions. Referring to Lueker somewhat quaintly in print as “a mugwump,” Cobb said he even returned to the Tigers’ third-base dugout the long way around after the early innings, trotting from center field down the first-base side and behind the plate so as to avoid him. But not for long.

After the sixth inning, Cobb said, “the man ripped out something else, and … the next thing I remember, they were pulling me off him. I do know I didn’t just slap him around.”

That’s for sure. Questioned by police afterward, Lueker said, “He struck me in the forehead and over the left eye and knocked me down. Then he jumped on me, spiked me in the left leg, kicked me in the side and booted me behind the left ear.”

Police finally pulled Cobb off his victim but amazingly never charged him with assault — probably because Lueker had provoked the attack. Cobb was ejected by the umpires and American League president Ban Johnson, a spectator at the game, suspended him indefinitely.

No matter how much they might have disliked Cobb, his 18 teammates rushed to his support. They refused to take the field May18 for a game in Philadelphia, changing into street clothes and sitting in the stands with Cobb and forcing Tigers management hastily to assemble a team of amateurs. Connie Mack’s Athletics, undoubtedly licking their chops, slaughtered them 24-2.

Johnson fined each of Cobb’s teammates $100 — a substantial sum then — and Cobb urged them to return for the next game, which they did. Johnson then suspended Cobb for 10 days and fined him just $50. Thus ended baseball’s first player strike.

Probably league president Johnson was fortunate to be out of Cobb’s reach. Said Cobb in his book: “He’s the most egotistical, overbearing man in the game. I can get dozens of witnesses to prove I had every right to attack this miserable mug [Lueker].”

In any case, the incident provided early indication that both spectators and athletes need to show some restraint under pressure. Buying a ticket does not entitle a ?fan? to abuse players — and wearing a uniform doesn’t enable players to abuse spectators.

Ninety-three years later, we still have both sides forgetting about proper, responsible behavior and losing control — as shown by November’s NBA brawl involving Ron Artest and others at the Palace of Auburn Hills.

After all, folks, it’s only a game. But to Ty Cobb, an unbridled and unrepentant bundle of fury, the game was life.

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