What Ty Cobb Really Wanted

The night I saw another side of baseball's meanest player
By William R. Nesbit, Jr. M.D.

Ty Cobb, an American baseball legend who carried a lot of private pain.
Dusk was falling that January day when a knock on my office door brought me face to face with a baseball legend known for his skills yet arguably the meanest and most hated man in the history of sports.

I had been alerted that Ty Cobb would come, but when I opened the door I was surprised to see an extremely fragile-looking man. It wouldn't be the only surprise of the evening.

He had come to me because of severe gastric pain. In the examining room, I took a medical history, examined his abdomen, and gave him some medicine to quiet his stomach.

"Ty," I said, "you have a number of serious health problems, and you have been under the care of some of the best physicians in the country. Have you been doing what they tell you to do?"

"Naw, they're nothing but a bunch of truss fixers. They don't know what to do for me."

"What do you want them to do?" I asked.

"Get rid of this pain. It's with me all the time."

"I'm not sure I can do any better than they can. Is there something else bothering you?"

He looked at me suspiciously and then a shadow of hopelessness clouded his rugged features. "I've had a hard life but a successful one, and now I'm nearing the end."

"Would you like to tell me about it?" I asked.

For the next hour and a half, Cobb poured out his pain, frustration, and bitterness. When I asked if I could pray with him, Cobb got on his knees. I asked God to help him find peace and for relief from his pain. When Cobb got up, he asked if he could see me again.

The man behind the stats

Over the next three years I discovered two Ty Cobbs. The Detroit outfielder dubbed the "Georgia Peach" was the first player elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936 (officially inducted three years later) - with a lifetime batting average of .366 over a 24-year career. Ty Cobb played in 3,035 games and set innumerable batting records during his playing days, among them the highest lifetime batting average (.366), most base hits (4,149), most total bases (5,854), and most years batting above .300 (23).

In addition, he had 892 stolen bases, 1,937 runs batted in, and only 357 strikeouts in 11,434 times at bat. His season batting average topped .400 three times, and he led the American League in batting 12 years, 9 of them back to back.

To this day, Cobb's lifetime batting average record still stands as does his 35 steals of home, his base hits total was only broken by Pete Rose in 1984, and he's still ranked in the top 5 to 10 players of all time in most other batting categories.

There's little argument with Cobb's impressive skills on the field, but in life - and death - he was reviled. Only three professional baseball players attended his funeral.

It seemed a mystery to me. As our friendship grew, Cobb visited our home, stayed for meals, and enjoyed my children. He extended invitations to me to visit his home in Atherton and his beautiful lakeside cabin at Lake Tahoe.

We had long talks and long rides together.

I discovered he was an authority on the Civil War, regaling me with the details of different battles and the Confederate generals who fought them. He advised me on everything from travel ("American Airlines is the safest"), to automobiles ("Chrysler makes the best"), to making a delicious pot of tea ("Stopper the spout and cover the pot with a tea cozy"). Strangely enough we talked very little about baseball.

One evening Ty opened up about his marital troubles brought on by his drinking and violent temper. He still loved his estranged second wife, Frances, and wished they could get back together.

Tears welled up in his eyes. "Would you talk to her and see if she would give me another chance?"

Reluctantly I agreed. He placed the call.

"Fran, I'm here with a good friend," he said, "a Dr. Nesbitt. He would like to talk to you."

Though embarrassed, I managed to say, "I've been seeing Ty quite often for several months. The thing he wants most is for me to tell you that he's a changed man. He wants you to give him another chance at making your marriage work."

For a moment there was silence. Then Fran's bitter words stung my ears, "I'll never live with that man again. I did it once and in no way will I ever repeat it."

Trying to convince her that things were different was futile. As I hung on the phone, I could see the devastation in Ty's face.

Delving Ty's darkness

The more time we spent together, the more intimate details Ty divulged about his life. Growing up, he idolized his father. His father's violent death at the hands of his mother still haunted him.

"My father suspected my mother was having an affair. One evening when my father was supposedly away on a trip, he actually stayed in town and shortly after midnight put up a ladder and climbed to a second story porch outside my mother's bedroom. Not knowing who it was, and fearing a burglar, she took a shotgun off a gun rack on the wall and shot the intruder."

Because he loved both his parents, Cobb's torment turned into raging anger - against anything or anyone that crossed his path. He carried a heavy burden of guilt, feeling that in some way he was responsible for what happened.

Joining the Detroit Tigers at 18 years old (three weeks after his father's death) wasn't the cure. His combative reputation preceded him, and other players tried to make his life as miserable as possible. Fighting back became his day-to-day defense.

One incident ended tragically.

"I killed a man in Detroit," he said. "He and two other hoodlums jumped me on the street with a knife. I was carrying a Belgium-made pistol with a heavy raised sight at the barrel end. The gun wouldn't fire, and they cut me up the back."

But the brawl wasn't over. After Ty got in some punches, the men fled. Ty went after them, cornering one of them in an alley. He beat him with his gun and "left him there, not breathing, in his own rotten blood."

Longing to be loved

Cobb's early investments in a small Georgia soft drink company, Coca-Cola, had made him a rich man. But he didn't keep his money to himself. He built a hospital in his hometown of Roystown, Georgia, stipulating that patients of the time could only be charged $12 a day. He provided hundreds of thousands of dollars for college scholarships for poor Georgians. When one graduate came back to thank him personally for making education possible, Cobb broke down and cried. He also sent dozens of monthly checks anonymously, relayed by a third party, to baseball players down on their luck as well as others players' widows.

Cobb made sure his acts of generosity never received much publicity.

Over the years, whenever I'd visit, Cobb would ask me to read the Bible and pray with him. I recognized his spiritual hunger, evident in his attentiveness to God's Word. I felt that God had given me unique opportunity to share. Some of Cobb's requested passages were Psalm 91 and Isaiah 53. The words of 1 Corinthians 13, "And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing," seemed to convict him.

Our friendship had started with a simple prayer for God's help. I couldn't have prescribed a better course of treatment.

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