When he first met Ruth on a sparkling Michigan day in the spring of 1915, Ty Cobb reigned as the unconquerable king of baseball. He was the game’s premier warrior, fiercest competitor, smartest hitter, most ingenious player, strongest drawing card, highest-paid performer, and brightest base-path terror and an inspiration to boys throughout the nation. He also was the owner of one finely shaped head, the beauty of which could not be easily appreciated, one admirer would lament, because of “the way he wears his cap on the ball field – down over his eyes.”
Cobb was twenty-eight and beginning his eleventh season, once again the defending batting champion of the American League. The year prior, he had won his eighth straight title, though limited by a thumb injury sustained in a fight with an unrepentant butcher’s assistant. The scuffle had occurred after Cobb stormed into a Detroit meat shop, demanding an apology on behalf of his wife, who claimed the store had sold her spoiled fish. Cobb’s explosive temper set off a number of such unfortunate encounters, but it didn’t keep baseball observers from trumpeting his talents.
“Cobb has no superior,” said Walter Johnson, the much-loved pitcher. Baseball Magazine agreed. “There is no player on the diamond today, there has never been a player of any age, to equal Cobb in versatility, in all around excellence,” its pulpy pages proclaimed. Tobacco manufacturers and bat makers and purveyors of products of all types clamored for Cobb’s endorsement, and he obliged for a sum: the world’s greatest ball player smokes the world’s best tobacco … i drink coca-cola regularly throughout all seasons of the year … ty cobb, super-man, world’s greatest baseball player, tells how nuxated iron gave him new life. Cobb had starred in a traveling stage production, been celebrated in song (“They All Know Cobb” and “King of Clubs”), and would soon be showcased in a feature film, Somewhere in Georgia. Presidents invited him for visits, newspapers paid him to share his expertise in guest columns, and newspaper poets, like John H. McGough, heralded his qualities in rhyme: “… A whip of steel, eye for the pill, endurance, foresight, strength, and skill / A perfect player, nobly planned, to belt the bulb, to beat the band…”
On a sun-kissed May 11 afternoon in Detroit, as latecomers filtered in to Navin Field from the streetcars along Michigan and Trumbull avenues, the sprite Donie Bush stirred the crowd by opening the first inning with a single. Manager Hughie Jennings, a once-sharp leader now dimming in the grip of alcoholism, stood along the first base line, where he often raised his fists and let loose his familiar rally cry. “Ee-yah!” Jennings would call, and inevitably fans would parrot him. “Ee-yah! Ee-yah!”
After Oscar Vitt, a snazzy dresser and a survivor of the San Francisco earthquake, moved Bush to second, the on-field announcer bellowed the name of the next hitter into his megaphone. As if Ty Cobb needed any introduction. As if they didn’t know him instantly, didn’t realize who batted third, didn’t recognize him swinging three bats as he strutted to the plate – a routine he fashioned to serve two purposes: to lighten his swing and to intimidate the pitcher, on this day a cocky kid from Baltimore.
The mind’s eye pictures such moments in the gray palette of the black-and-white photos of the era. But the scene burst with color: the yellow slat seats of three-year-old Navin Field, the forest green fence in center, the red-banded socks tight around George Herman Ruth’s muscular calves, the blue Old English D across Cobb’s heart, the kaleidoscopic panels advertising taxi services and chewing tobaccos and shaving creams along the outfield walls, the sunlit sky streaked with streams of smoke from nearby stacks, the brick church towers rising beyond home plate along Michigan Avenue, the speckled fabric of the audience, some 4,385 fans, mostly men, their heads topped in checked caps, brown derbies, beige panama hats, and an occasional burgundy bowler.
Cobb nailed his eyes on the pitcher, a platter-faced, gray-flannelled twenty-year-old. Though roughly Cobb’s size, George Ruth wore a broader build, with wide shoulders and a globe of a head that balanced precariously on his neck. He looked like a grown street urchin, not a Herculean figure destined to alter the history of the game. The left-hander was making only his fourth start in his first full season. To Cobb, he was just another kid on the mound, a prospect who might fizzle like wet fireworks.
Ty Cobb and George Ruth were contrasts in almost every way. One sprung from the red clay of the rural South, the other from seaside grit of the urban Northeast. One was Baptist, the other Catholic. One came from a family deeply rooted on the continent, the other from immigrant grandparents. One benefited from a comfortable childhood; the other suffered poverty. Cobb’s six-two, college-educated father, now dead, savored history and science; could read Greek and Latin; served as a mayor, a state senator, and school superintendent; and expected great achievements from Tyrus in medicine, law, or military service. George Herman Ruth Jr. grew up around seedy saloons run by a roughneck, nearly illiterate father who gave him his own name and not much else. With his miniscule mother plagued by worries, the younger Ruth spent years in a parochial industrial school for orphans, delinquents, and neglected children. Ruth was virtually abandoned by parents incapable of raising him. He was incorrigible.
Cobb could not have imagined at that moment that George Ruth would become his primary rival, transform the nature of baseball, and challenge him for eternal glory. What he did know was that Donie Bush was on second base waiting to score. Gripping his bone-burnished ash bat inches above the knob and with his hands spread apart, Cobb faked a bunt that unsettled a rookie third baseman and allowed Bush to steal third. Cobb followed with a single to Tris Speaker in center, and the Tigers were on their way.
After Sam Crawford popped to strong-armed Duffy Lewis in left, Cobb stunned the Red Sox by tagging and taking second. He should have been an easy out, but the ball escaped a flustered fielder. Cobb had that effect on opponents. He made them anxious. He rattle them like maracas.
In the third, Cobb singled again and later got a free base when Ruth turned wild and walked a trio of batters. Ruth forced in a run, thus ending his day. It was an unimpressive outing, not the kind that would endear him to manager Bill Carrigan and certainly not of a caliber to trouble the great Tyrus. But Ruth did provide a glimpse of something more pleasing: his hitting prowess. Ruth pounded a double off the scoreboard, giving the Red Sox their only run. Days earlier, he had smacked a home run at the Polo Grounds. Veteran reporters were beginning to murmur about the mounds-man who could handle a bat. “Ruth seems to be considerable of a hitter,” noted Detroit journalist E.A. Batchelor. But no one had a clue just how “considerable” he would become.