Ty Cobb Left Behind a Complicated Legacy of Both Greatness and Racism

The long history of the MLB means many of its greatest moments played out during America’s worst moments. Not least, the segregation of the sport by race. This forever taints the accomplishments on the field, as some of the best players were barred from competing with one another. Ty Cobb is emblematic of this uncomfortable dichotomy.

The outfielder represents, at once, one of the best on-field talents the game ever put forth. Cobb was also a difficult man, with openly racist views. Is it possible to recognize his accomplishments, or should Cobb be left to the dustbin of history?

Ty Cobb left an indelible mark on baseball

MLB player Ty Cobb smiles for a picture
Outfielder Ty Cobb in 1915 | Bettmann/Contributor

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According to Baseball-Reference, Cobb holds two incredible, potentially unbeatable MLB records. His .367 career batting average is absurd. This is especially notable in the contexts of how pitching has changed and the focus on home run hitting. It’s hard to imagine anyone putting bat to ball so often as Cobb. Then, there’s the matter of consecutive high average seasons. For 23 seasons, he hit for over .300.

Cobb’s training and preparation were unmatched during his era, the Society for American Baseball Research reports. At a time when many players considered the game itself exercise enough, Cobb completed intensive training routines, some conditioning and others to sharpen his baseball skills.

Cobb ran for two miles daily. He took long sessions of batting practice that exhausted his teammates, including two hours dedicated to bunting drills. Even after his neighborhood runs, he’d run the bases by himself, practicing slides and working on his turns.

Cobb’s regressive views and abrasive personality loom large

Cobb’s racism manifested in horrible incidents of physical violence toward Black men. Once, during spring training, a Black groundskeeper patted Cobb on the shoulder and extended his hand for a shake. Cobb reacted like this was an insult, slapping the man. As the groundskeeper ran, his wife tried to stop Cobb. The Hall of Fame player choked her.

The next year, a Black laborer reprimanded Cobb for stepping on a patch of fresh asphalt. What Cobb did next is unclear, but the legal record is that he was charged with assault and battery. It is, however, with the utmost care that we point out that Cobb’s stance on race was more complex than these incidents imply.

The Times-Standard reports that these incidents didn’t represent the whole of Cobb’s evolving worldview. He grew up in a family of abolitionists. Once integration was proposed, he came out in support — before these assaults occurred. He put hands on Black men without good reason two times. Yet much of his public and private persona was one of a man supporting the cause of integration.

Cobb welcomed the level of competition that Negro League players brought, which wasn’t the uniform reaction from popular white players at the time. He happily anticipated Jackie Robinson’s entrance into the league. In later years, he regularly cited Willie Mays as his favorite active player. 

Was Ty Cobb misunderstood or does he deserve his negative reputation?

Negro League stats are finally part of the official MLB history, reports the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. This shifting of the record books for those early, segregated years of baseball often points to an ironic touchstone for newly boosted stats. How do the players who crossed over, now bolstered with their full career stats, compare to Cobb?

Josh Gibson is now second only to Cobb, with his .365 career batting average. It may be frustrating that a man with race-driven assaults to his name would come out on top. For a hopefully small cohort, this stat may be deceptively upheld as an example of a white man being the best. But a closer look at his life reveals someone more layered than a man who was a polarizing influence on society.

Whatever personal and cultural darkness Cobb unleashed in those two horrifying incidents, it’s clear he was not a man who went to his grave with nothing but hatred in his heart for Black Americans. To truly understand the culture of his era, there might be no better example of the often common blend of sickening racism and genuine affection for his fellow man regardless of race, than Cobb’s.