Ty Cobb vs Babe Ruth

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Ty Cobb didn’t like Babe Ruth. Specifically, he didn’t like his hitting style. Ruth had discovered the home run, and in his first full season as an outfielder (he’d been a very good pitcher before) had hit more home runs than anyone ever had in a season. The next year he almost doubled that. Someone said that today it would be like someone hitting 120 home runs in a season. As amazing as that, but also impossible.

Cobb liked the old-fashioned game, which he found more subtle, and therefore more interesting and more fun. That game (offensively) had largely been invented by the Baltimore Orioles in the 1890s. It included the hit and run, the double play, bunting and stealing bases. That’s pretty much how everyone played when Cobb came to Detroit in 1904.

I think a lot of people may be unaware that there had been professional baseball for about 30 years by then, and that something like that game had been played for decades before that. The legend is that Abner Doubleday invented the game in the 1840s, but experts say it’s almost certainly older than that.

It was a much different, less specialized game then. The National League was founded in 1876, the American 24 years later. Teams only had two or three pitchers, so one or two pitched most of the games. Winning 30 or 40 games wasn’t unusual then, and one pitcher won 60. At the same time, it wasn’t unusual for someone to hit .400 either. The highest season average ever was .438 by someone in the 1890s. At the age pf 15 I got interested in sports, baseball first, and found a book about baseball players published probably in the 1920s. The author (don’t recall the name of book’s title) apparently shared Cobb’s dislked: a number of contemporary players were included (many now forgotten), but not Ruth.

It was a very interesting book, though by no means complete. Players were chosen from the beginning of the National League up into the 20’s, not all of them stars, and a good many stars left out. Billy Sunday, the famous evangelist, played a season in professional baseball, though he wasn’t very good. Louis Socksalexis, and American Indian, was another who apparently had a lot of talent, but became an alcoholic, and didn’t realize his potential.

Candy Cummings was one of the earliest pitchers, and supposedly was the first to learn to throw the curve. Charles Radbourne won 60 games in one season. Cap Anson was a very good player and manager, but also unfortunately a segregationalist. Ed Delehanty was one of the early great hitters, but died in strange circumstances, an apparent suicide. The Baltimore Orioles, including Wee Willie Keeler, john McGraw, Hughie Jennings and Wilbert Robinson were the innovators of the 1890s, and all of the above went on (except Keeler) to be very successful managers. Jennings was Cobb’s manager.

In the early 20th century the players get a bit more recognizable. Christy Matthewson, Eddie Plank, Chief Bender, Sam Crawford, Tinker-to-Evers-to Chance, Mordecai Brown, Honus Wagner, Napoleon Lajoie, Jimmy and Eddie Collins, Jack Chesbro and Ed Walsh. The latter two were the only pitchers to win 40 games in the 20th century. Thirty game winners were fairly common the first two decades, but increasingly rare after that. Some of the reasons given are increased travel, the end of the dead-ball era, and increased specialization in pitching. In the early days pitchers were expected to finish what they started, and in the 19th century it wasn’t unusual for pitchers to throw 500 or 600 innings. Now it’s unusual for pitchers to pitch as many as 200.

I also read Cobb’s autobiography with Al Stump, and his early years in the American League come through as exhilarating, though he wasn’t easily accepted by his team at first. He’s learning what he can do, and eventually leading his team to the World Series three straight years–all of which the Tigers lost. His later career seems to have been less fun, By that time he was an established star, but his team wasn’t as good, and never made the World Series again until after he’d retired. He was a fiery, volatile personality, who got in trouble that way at times–beating up a fan in the stands who had been booing him, but also for allegedly throwing a game. The latter was a recurring theme in that time, as owners didn’t want to pay players as they thought they ought to be paid. That culminated in the Black Sox scandal, in which members of the Chicago White Sox were accused of throwing the World Series, and several of them were banned from baseball. That was the beginning of the more modern era of baseball.

Baseball team owners decided to appoint a commisioner who would have the power to police the game, and there’s been a commisioner ever since. They also decided to make the baseball so it would carry further when hit to encourage Ruth and other plaers like him. So there was an offensive explosion in the 1920s. Besides Ruth there was Rogers Hornsby, another of the all-time great hitters, George Sisler, Al Simmons, Jimmy Foxx, Paul Waner and a number of others. The star system was already in place in sports, and players were beginning to be paid better, though the salaries wouldn’t really get huge until the 1970s and after. Maybe that’s where power and money enter the equation of the star system in athletics, and maybe other areas too. That the star system was already in place was demonstrated in the mid-20s, when Babe Ruth was out most of a season with a “stomach ache” that turned out to be a veneral disease. A biography of Vince Lombardi points out that sports were already a big deal and prone to scandals in the 1930s, when he played college football, which was much more popular than pro football at that time. Sports in general have only gotten bigger since then, as well as the money and scandals.

The whole role of sports in our society is an odd one. They seem to be an occasion for people to worship and becme fanatical about something actually peripheral to our lives–or ought to be. Compare how great athletes are paid to what police, firemen and teachers are paid, all arguably more important to the functioning of society than entertainment figures. Just one of many imbalances that can be discerned in our way of life. Yet there’s a fascination in sports, both current and of the past. We’re fascinated with skills far beyond ours, and the whole drama of winning and losing, to which we often inappropriately attach some moral meaning. Maybe it’s related to our fascination with wealth and power, all the things we envy, but aren’t able to attain ourselves. But wealth and power don’t always bring happiness.

Al Stump, who collaborated on Ty Cobb’s autobiography, later wrote about the Cobb he knew as an old man. He lived alone, he was an alcoholic, and hard to get along with. He often threatened violence, and gave the impression that he wouldn’t be easily stopped if he decided to employ it. He was no longer married, and the implication was that he hadn’t treated his wife or wives well. On the other hand, he helped out old ballplayers who had fallen on hard times. A very mixed man, probably because of a trauma he had suffered about the time he’d entered pro baseball.

His father had suspected his mother of having an affair with someone, and approached their house from the outside. His wife thought he was an intruder, and shot him. Or at least that was the story. Cobb had been very close to his father, and this hurt him in a way he apparently never recovered from. His teammates in Detroit didn’t immediately accept him, so he became aggressive in the way he behaved in general, as well as the way he played the game. He said that baseball was the moral equivalent of war, which leads me to believe that had he been born more recently he would either have been a soldier or a football player, as football is much more equivalent to war.

His approach made him arguably the greatest baseball player ever, but not a happy man. Achievenemt can, but doesn’t necessarily make people happy. Consider John D. Rockefeller, who could only eat bread and milk. Adoph Hitler and Josef Stalin achieved on unpredictable scales, but it’s doubtful that either were very happy. Andy Reid, recently fired coach of the Philadelphia Eagles had a son who died of a heroin overdose. I suspect that has something to do with Reid never being at home because football was more important to him. Driven people may achieve, but they often don’t achieve much that satisfies them.

Was Babe Ruth a happier man than Cobb? I don’t think he was driven in the same way, but he wanted to manage a major league team, preferably the Yankees, and never got the opportunity to do that. His main enjoyment had come during his playing career, when he was not only very successful on the field, but was able to satisfy his huge attitude for food and women. He died of cancer little over a decade after he retired. I don’t know if the cancer has any significance.

In any case, he was one of the key figures who changed not only the game of baseball, but the whole culture of sports into becoming such a gargantuan part of society as it is now. For better or worse.

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