Whatever you think of Ty Cobb—and much pro and con has been said about him since he took his first at-bat with the Detroit Tigers in 1905—we all can agree that he had, to put it mildly, a tangy personality. Cobb exercised fiercely his rights as a base runner, perfected the art of intimidating pitchers and punched out anyone who violated his sense of the baseball hierarchy. The pecking order was as important to him as the batting order, and what he deemed important he was willing to fight for. “Don’t get Cobb mad!” the Philadelphia A’s manager Connie Mack used to say, knowing that "the Georgia Peach" had the highest average in history—.366, still the record—because he could alchemize anger into offense.
The venerable Mack, as it turned out, was one of the bigger influences in Cobb’s life. But who else helped shape the man who shaped the direction of early 20th century baseball? His mentors were a mix of the immortal and the obscure.
1) William Herschel Cobb
Ty’s beloved father—“the professor” to his neighbors in Royston, Georgia—put himself through college as a married man, and wound up being an educator, newspaper editor and state senator known for helping black constituents. His famous son revered him, but they disagreed about baseball. Initially W.H. wanted Ty to be a doctor or lawyer, not a two-fisted jock (“Conquer your anger and wild passions,” he told Ty in 1902. “Be good.”). Eventually, though, W.H. supported his boy’s ambitions. “Don’t come home a failure,” he said when Ty’s minor-league career hit a speed bump. For Cobb, that somewhat passive blessing was enough.
2) George Leidy
The straight-talking outfielder, who played in the Pennsylvania League and managed in Louisiana and Texas, is barely a footnote in baseball history—except for his influence on Cobb. Ty crossed paths with him on the Augusta Tourists, at a point where he (Ty) was falling prey to malingerers and misanthropes. Leidy gave lectures about taking the game seriously and spent mornings with him, teaching the art of the bunt. Cobb later supported Leidy financially and praised him for “understanding a young man’s mind.”
3) Frank Navin
After W.H. Cobb was shot and killed by his mother (in what was most likely an accident) in 1905, Ty needed a father figure, and he found one in the Detroit Tigers president and future owner. Navin, who had no children of his own, gave Cobb (who was just 19 when he came to the majors) unsolicited raises, paternal advice and protection when he received a vicious rookie hazing. The two fought bitterly at times, but in a way that underscored their familial connection.
4) Babe Ruth
The Peach and the Bambino weren’t just American League rivals—they represented conflicting approaches to the game. Cobb choked up on the bat and knocked singles; Ruth swung for the fences. “Cobb represents the mauve decades in baseball,” said The Sporting News. “Ruth represents the hot cha-cha, and hey nonny, nonny period.” At first Cobb pooh-poohed Ruth’s primitive style, but ultimately the slugger, by being so different, helped Cobb define himself. Instead of being defensive, Ty expressed pride in his pitty-pats hits, and bragged that he got more Hall of Fame votes than the great Yankee.
5) Connie Mack
The natty sage of East Brookfield, Massachusetts, was born a few days after the Battle of Fredericksburg, and lived long enough to manage a game called by current Dodger announcer Vin Scully. He was a boyhood hero of Cobb’s, then a rival, then Cobb’s manager when Ty moved to the Athletics. It was from Mack, who said, “If you get the other fellow worried, the battle is half won,” that Cobb got his signature notion of always being a “mental hazard for the opposition.” In the age of Freud, both men were among the first to play what sportswriters called “psychological baseball.”
Charles Leerhsen is the author of Blood and Smoke: A True Tale of Mystery, Mayhem, and the Birth of the Indy 500, Crazy Good: The True Story of Dan Patch, the Most Famous Horse in America and Ty Cobb: Terrible Beauty. He has written for Sports Illustrated, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Newsweek, The New York Times Magazine, and other publications. He has been an editor at SI, People, and US Weekly. He has co-written books with Chuck Yeager and Brandon Tartikoff and teaches writing at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. Visit CharlesLeerhsen.com and follow him on Twitter at @CharlesLeerhsen.