It takes a lot more than talent to become one of the best players in baseball history. Luck will also play a small role, but more than anything, drive, determination, and a willingness to do whatever it takes can be what separates the average from the extraordinary. Few players exhibit this more than Ty Cobb, who most baseball historians consider to be among the best players of all time.
Cobb played 22 big league seasons, winning 12 batting titles along the way. When his career was all said and done, he had set 90 major league records, including all-time highs in games played, at-bats, runs, hits, and total bases. Naturally, he was a little more talented than the average player in the 1910s and 1920s. But Cobb never would have had such a long and distinguished big league career if he didn’t have drive and motivation to accomplish all he did.
Much of Cobb’s motivation originated from his father, a man who did not agree with his son’s choice to pursue a career in baseball. As an educated man and professional, Cobb’s father wanted his son to follow in his footsteps. But Cobb defied his father and continued to pursue baseball. Even when he struggled, cut after two games with the Augusta Tourists, a minor league club, Cobb pushed forward.
“My father was the greatest man I ever knew. He was a scholar, state senator, editor, and philosopher. I worshiped him. He was the only man who ever made me do his bidding.”
— Ty Cobb
Eventually, Cobb’s father came around on baseball, telling him: “Go for it. And I want to tell you one other thing–don’t come home a failure.” Soon after that, the Detroit Tigers caught a glimpse of Cobb during his second stint in Augusta. The Tigers were struck by his aggressive play, which would become Cobb’s calling card throughout his career. Midway through the 1905 season, the Tigers purchased Cobb from Augusta and brought him to the big leagues.
Unfortunately, Cobb’s call up to the big leagues came less than a month after the sudden death of his father, who was shot by his mother in what she claimed was a case of mistaken identity. But Cobb was able to use the death of his father as a driving force in his career.
As a rookie with the Tigers, Cobb was the victim of hazing by his teammates, calling it “the most miserable and humiliating experience I’ve ever been through.” After struggling with the hazing and the death of his father during his rookie season, Cobb bounced back and hit .320 in his second year in the big leagues in 1906.
From there, things only got better, as he would hit better than .320 in every subsequent season. Driven by the notion that his father never got a chance to see him play in the majors, Cobb forged one of the greatest careers in baseball history.
“I did it for my father…I knew he was watching me and I never let him down.”
Cobb’s record-setting career was about more than pure talent. He often played with a temper and a fire inside him that few players of his era could match. He was always aggressive on the base paths, even in lopsided games, knowing that in close games, his reputation would make fielders nervous and more prone to errors.
Cobb also did whatever he could to outsmart his opponents. He would study the tendencies of pitchers in order to gain an advantage that he could exploit, making him an offensive force during the dead-ball era.
“He didn’t outhit the opposition and he didn’t outrun them. He out-thought them!”
— Sam Crawford
Of course, Cobb’s attitude and temper had a downside. He was never particularly popular with his teammates or fans, spending much of his career as a loner. Cobb was also known for being physically abusive during his career. In one instance, he is alleged to have beaten up a handicapped man in the stands who was heckling him during a game. Cobb was also charged with attempted murder after beating up a hotel watchmen, eventually pleading down to a lesser charge.
But it was that tempestuous attitude and passion that made Cobb the player he was. Throughout his career, there was something inside him driving him to overcome his early struggles, the hazing from teammates, and the loss of his father. He was a lone wolf, motivated by survival, and that’s why he is forever remembered as one of the best players of all time.
“I had to fight all my life to survive. They all were against me, tried every dirty trick to cut me down. But I beat the bastards and left them in the ditch.”
— Ty Cobb