Off The Beaten Path

ROYSTON, Georgia -- I owe today's excursion idea to BCB reader HectorVillanueva, who posted this comment the other day in my review of the Louisville Slugger museum. Coincidentally, this morning BCB reader One F posted this diary, detailing Ty Cobb's experiences in the 1907 and 1908 World Series; the young Cobb had played in two WS by the time he turned 22 years old in December, 1908, winning neither of them -- and in fact, he never did play on a WS winner, playing in only one more (the 1909 Tigers lost to the Pirates).

That's a short introduction to the 70-something mile drive I did today from the eastern suburbs of Atlanta, to Royston, still a small town seemingly in the middle of nowhere, to visit the Ty Cobb Museum. Driving there, in fact, you see no billboards or other mentions of the museum on the highways leading to Royston; only when you enter Royston do you see the name "Cobb" and signs to the museum almost everywhere.

The Ty Cobb Museum is somewhat prosaically located in a low-rise, modern office building called, lengthily, "The Joe A. Adams Professional Building of Ty Cobb Healthcare System". It seems an odd location for a baseball museum, but there's a pretty good reason for this -- Cobb, after his retirement, became very wealthy through his investments in, primarily, Coca-Cola and General Motors, and donated quite a bit of money ($100,000 in 1950 dollars had to be a huge amount of money in this part of the country) to build the first hospital in Royston, and the Cobb Memorial Hospital ("Memorial" to Cobb's father) still exists to this day, and much of the healthcare system in that area still bears the Cobb family name. Much of the money Cobb had at his death in 1961 -- his estate at the time was valued at well over $11 million, bigtime money in those days -- went to start the Ty Cobb Educational Foundation, which has awarded over 7,500 scholarships totalling over $11 million as of about a year ago.

The museum is small -- and otherwise deserted on a Wednesday afternoon in October -- but contains, at the entrance, 100 bats engraved with important events in Cobb's career, some of which are sponsored by well-known people (Reed Johnson of the Blue Jays bought one of them, among others). There are some baseballs and other things signed by Cobb, a uniform and a glove (I still marvel at how players in his era could have caught balls with those flat, four-fingered gloves); Cobb's 1907 American League batting title medal, and a banner showing the Tigers had won the 1907, 1908 and 1909 AL pennants. Cobb became "first among equals" when entering the first Hall of Fame class in 1936; he received 98.2% of the vote, more than Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson and Honus Wagner, the other four original inductees. The 98.2% vote ranked as the top percentage until 1992, when Tom Seaver got 98.8%. (Since 1992, Nolan Ryan -- 98.79% -- and Cal Ripken -- 98.5% -- have also surpassed Cobb's number.)

There's a short video as well as timelines which describe Cobb's life in Royston and how he played professional baseball -- at first, against the wishes of his father, but when he at last became established, Cobb's father told him to apply himself and not be a failure and not to return until he succeeded. There's a reproduction of a letter Cobb's father wrote to him, telling him this and also to "be good", which he carried in his wallet for most of his life. The museum mentions the tragic and possibly life-altering event of Cobb's life, when his father, entering his home through a window, was shot to death by his mother. It doesn't mention the reason W. H. Cobb was entering his own home through a window -- apparently, he suspected Amanda Cobb of cheating on him and wanted to catch her "in the act". Amanda Cobb was acquitted, but young Ty -- this happened in 1905, when he was not 20 years old -- was affected deeply by this event, and some think that this gave him the drive and aggressiveness that he needed to succeed.

100 years after he first made a splash onto the major league scene, Ty Cobb, almost certainly the greatest hitter of his generation and one of the greatest of all time, is somewhat forgotten -- I thank One F for posting that diary, which gives you an idea of how good Cobb was and how many records he still holds. His .367 batting average (and they sell in the gift shop at the museum, a numbered set of cards which total 367 cards, in honor of this) is still the best in history; to give you an idea of how good that is, the leading active player in BA is Ichiro Suzuki, whose .333 average ranks twenty-fifth. Cobb ranks second in runs (though if Barry Bonds plays in 2008, he'll pass him), second in hits (the museum, incidentally, gives Cobb's hit total as 4189, which is the generally accepted new-research total, and which means Pete Rose actually broke his record on September 8, 1985 at Wrigley Field), second in triples, fourth in doubles, fifth in total bases, and in the top ten in many other categories. Ichiro, in fact, is a pretty good comp to Cobb in the way he approaches hitting (without the anger, of course). Ichiro turns 34 next week, and combined between his Japanese career and his seven years with the Mariners, he has totalled 2870 hits (combined batting average: .342); with his work ethic and hitting style, there's a possibility that, combined, Ichiro could pass both Cobb and Rose to have over 4000 hits, and maybe even 3000 hits in the major leagues. Cobb, I think, would approve.

While this stop was a bit out of the way, it was well worth it to see the memorabilia and a bit of the career of one of the greatest ballplayers ever, and to drive through small towns and countryside that hasn't changed much in the last 100 years, you can get a little bit of an idea of where ballplayers came from a century ago.

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