Nobody in baseball history quite earned the description of "infamous" like Tyrus Raymond "Ty" Cobb, who played with the Tigers from 1905 to 1926. As we wrote about him in our round-up of the Tigers' "All-star oddballs"
He was known as a bigot with a short temper and a penchant for sadism. One local sportswriter described his style of play as “daring to the point of dementia.” A later Tiger player said Cobb regarded the game as “something like a war,” recalling that “every time at bat for him was like a crusade.” Cobb inspired fear in his opponents and hatred in his teammates. His reputation as a dirty player was well-known — his contemporaries described how he’d sharpen his cleats in the dugout, then slide feet-first into a bag with those razor-sharp spikes aimed high. Given his thirst for blood and spurred soles, it’s hardly surprising his career record for stealing home (54 times) still stands. It’s also not a shocker he retains the dubious honor of committing more errors (271) than any American League outfielder.
On the field, he was famous for violence, but off the field it was his almost sociopathic personality that won him headlines. In 1907, a black groundskeeper greeted Cobb in a way the ballplayer felt was too familiar, and hothead Cobb violently attacked the man; when the groundskeeper's wife tried to intervene, he began choking her, and might have killed her had a catcher not knocked Cobb out cold. In 1908, when a black laborer complained to Cobb about how he'd just walked through freshly poured asphalt, Cobb went into attack mode again, earning a battery charge.
But the most outrageous incident might be what happened more than a century ago today. While playing against the Highlanders in New York, Cobb was so incensed by remarks from a heckler named Claude Lucker that he charged into the stands and attacked the man. As Cobb began beating and stomping the man with those razor-sharp cleats that had punished so many basemen, a crew of his teammates held people at bay. Some in the crowd protested, since Lucker had lost all of one hand and most of the other in an industrial accident, and couldn't defend himself with his fists. A cry went up: “Cobb, that man has no hands!” Cobb reportedly yelled back in a psychotic rage, “I don’t care if he got no feet!” Protected by his teammates, the beating went on until a cop and an umpire led Cobb away.
Sports were something different then. The players were not the multimillionaires of today. And the rules of gentlemanly conduct were much different. Cobb later said that Lucker was “a character who had ridden me hard in past New York appearances” and some say had tossed an insult insinuating that Cobb was part-African. The New York papers didn't seem to keen on defending Lucker. The New York Tribune
's coverage of the beating was titled, "Cobb Turns to Boxing," and said of the incident, "a noisy 'fan' in the left field stands at yesterday's game heaped abuse and vilification on Ty Cobb until the outraged player was provoked into administering a well-deserved beating."
Nothing might have happened to Cobb or the Tigers if American League President Ban Johnson hadn't been at the game and seen the one-sided fight with his own eyes. Cobb faced a suspension, which led to baseball's first strike, and the strange story of how a sandlot team took over for the Tigers one day. But that's a tale for another time ...