On this day in 1886, the often controversial baseball legend Ty Cobb is born in Narrows, Georgia. From the beginning of his career, a shadow seemed to hover over the hard-drinking, hard-living Cobb, whose dark personality would often overshadow his undeniable athletic talent. In August 1905, just before Cobb joined the major leagues at the age of 18, his mother shot his father to death; she was later acquitted of voluntary manslaughter after testifying that she had mistook him for an intruder. After two weak seasons as a center fielder for the Detroit Tigers, he emerged in 1907 to hit .350 and win the first of nine consecutive league batting titles. He also led the league that year with 212 hits, 49 steals and 116 RBI. That year, the Tigers won the pennant, but lost to the Chicago Cubs in the World Series, during which Cobb hit a dismal .200.
That pattern would repeat itself for the next two years, though Cobb upped his World Series batting performance to .368 in Detroit’s five-game loss to the Cubs in 1908 and .231 in a seven-game defeat in 1909 to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Cobb won the league’s Triple Crown in 1909–most home runs (9), most runs batted in (107), and best batting average (.377). Though he never again appeared in the World Series, Cobb’s best years in baseball were yet to come. In 1911, he led the league in eight offensive categories, including batting (.420), slugging percentage (.621), hits (248), doubles (47), triples (24), runs (147), RBI (144) and steals (83), and won the first American League MVP award. He batted .410 the following season, becoming the first player in history of baseball to bat better than .400 in two consecutive seasons.
Cobb set a record for stolen bases (96) and won his ninth straight batting title in the 1915 season. He faltered the next year, but came back to win another three straight titles (1917-19). Despite his legendary temper, aggressive personality, and outspoken racism which caused problems on and off the field and consistently alienated him from his teammates, Cobb was considered an invaluable addition to the lineup throughout his career. He was made the Tigers’ player-manager beginning in 1920. He left the team in 1926 and signed with the then Philadelphia Athletics, hitting .357 and becoming the first-ever player to reach 4,000 total career hits before retiring after the 1928 season.
In 1936, during the first balloting for the Baseball Hall of Fame, Cobb received the most votes of any player, handily outpolling his fellow inductees Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson. In his retirement, Cobb invested heavily in the stock market, and by the time of his death from cancer in 1961, he was worth nearly $12 million. Reflecting Cobb’s complicated legacy, only four people from baseball attended his funeral, though he was hailed by many at the time as one of the best players ever to play the game.