Back on August 12, 1912, Ty Cobb and his wife left their Detroit home in Ty’s Chalmers automobile, making their way to the train depot for a Tiger team road trip. Driving south on Trumbull, Cobb slowed down as they approached the Temple (formerly Bagg) Street intersection. According to researcher Bill Burgess III, it was at this junction that three men appeared suddenly and jumped on the running boards of Cobb’s vehicle. According to Cobb’s report, the men had been drinking and they also spoke to each other in a “foreign language.” They demanded that Cobb stop the car and give them money.
Cobb stopped the car, alright, but he didn’t give them money. He gave them hell.
Several versions of “what happened next” have come out over the years from Cobb, his wife, police reports, and newspapers, but the common theme over time has remained that Cobb beat them all up, even after being stabbed with a knife. Two supposedly ran away while the third lay on his back while Cobb beat him into a bloody, senseless, unconscious, and non-breathing pulp. In my book, those symptom-descriptors would pretty much put the man somewhere about six feet beyond the pail of death, I do believe.
After Cobb’s superhero mop-up of the bad guys, he and his wife supposedly got back in their car and continued the drive to the depot in time to catch their train, not even reporting what had happened to Tiger manager Hugh Jennings until the next day in Syracuse, where they were scheduled to play an exhibition game. Cobb had the knife wounds and torn clothing as evidence that something bad had happened the previous night.
Well, the short of it is this: No one ever found a body in the street or alleyway back in Detroit, and no researchers have since found any evidence of violent trauma deaths around this time period in Detroit that match any of Cobb’s descriptions of the episode. A fellow name Bill Burgess III, whom I do not know, has done a lot of research on this incident. If you care to read his report, cut and paste the following link to your address line and check out what Burgess has to say.
Did Ty Cobb get away with murder? I don’t know.
Was Ty Cobb capable of murder? Most certainly. He just never did it or got caught doing it.
I do not offer my commets lightly. In my earlier career as a clinical faculty member in the Department of Psychiatry and Neurology at Tulane University Medical School in New Orleans, I was in charge of screening and evaluating research volunteers from the Jackson State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. It wasn’t the most pleasant detail of my professional life, but it was certainly one of the most memorable.
The violent personalities I met all had this much in common with Ty Cobb. They each had family histories of violent episodes from childhood forward and personal histories of violence toward others. Ty Cobb’s mother shot and killed his father two days prior to his major league debut. She was originally charged with murder, but then released and the matter closed as a case of mistaken identity. She claimed to have mistaken the elder Cobb for a burglar. The elder Cobb, however, had suspected Cobb’s mother of infidelity and many believed that she “did him in” as the result of a violent quarrel over the fidelity issue.
Cobb never believed his father’s death to be an accident. The untimely death also left Cobb with some powerful unfinished business with a father that Ty had never been able to please. Cobb was supposed to become either a lawyer or doctor. That’s what his father wanted. The elder Cobb was beyond disappointed with his son’s decision to pursue a career in baseball. All he could say to Ty when he left home to join his first team was “don’t come home a failure.”
The traumatic loss of his father left Ty Cobb with an unquenchable thirst for proving his worth by becoming the greatest ballplayer of all time. He was not trying to please anyone, but he was totally dedicated to out-performing everyone. He also hit the field and streets alike with a tender ego for anything he perceived as a show of slight or disrespect of him by others. He would quickly lash out and fight with anyone, male or female, young or old, able bodied or disabled, who rubbed him the wrong way.
Cobb’s most notorious impulse-to-violence event occurred at the Polo Grounds in New York. A fan was really giving it to Cobb from the third base stands. When Cobb could take it no more, he jumped the rail, ran up to where he sighted the fan and started pummeling the man senseless. Tiger teammates came after Ty, yelling, “Ty! Cut it out! This guy ain’t got no arms!” Ty still had to he pulled away. When asked later by the press about the wisdom of attacking a man with no arms, Cobb said, “well, that fellow should have thought of that possibility before he decided to use rough words on me!”
Could Ty Cobb have killed a man at some other moment? Yes. The inmates I saw in the hospital years ago either did or tried their best to do so, and their histories of violence were often less numerous than Cobb’s. Those inmates who couldn’t establish insanity as a defense got sent to Angola State Prison. The rest who did establish insanity just ended up in Jackson State Hospital – which really was also a prison that the State of Louisiana officially called a hospital.
Nobody got well there. And the screams in the night at Jackson were bone-chillng. These were all people who suffered from a variety of violent personality disorders that inevitably spread harm, damage, and death upon others.
Ty Cobb also was a violent personality disorder who just happened to have also been the arguably greatest ballplayer of all time. Society just never pinned a murder conviction on him. Even these kinds of people come with variable levels of intelligence. Ty Cobb had the intelligence, power, influence, and money to have bought his way out of much trouble along the way. We don’t know if he did, or not, but the possibility is there. It can neither be proven nor dismissed.