THE LAST DAYS OF TY COBB : A Man Possessed, He Played Baseball and Lived Life With a Deep Anger
As Pete Rose closes in on Ty Cobb’s lifetime hits record, more attention is being paid to the career of the man called the Georgia Peach. This article on Cobb’s final months, written in 1961, was described by Bob Considine as “perhaps the best sports piece I have ever read.” It won the Associated Press’ Best Sports Story of the Year Award. Al Stump wrote this story for True magazine. Stump, 64, is a free lance writer who has had more than 1,000 magazine articles and 7 books published. He frequently contributes to Los Angeles magazine and lives in Pasadena. Ever since sundown the Nevada intermountain radio had been crackling warnings: “Route 50 now highly dangerous. Motorists stay off. Repeat: AVOID ROUTE 50.”
By 1 a.m., the 21-mile, steep-pitched passage from Lake Tahoe’s 7,000 feet into Carson City, a snaky grade most of the way, was snow-struck, ice-sheeted, thick with rock slides and declared unfit for all transport vehicles by the State Highway Patrol.
Such news was right down Ty Cobb’s alley. Anything that smacked of the impossible brought an unholy gleam to his eye. The gleam had been there in 1959 when a series of lawyers advised Cobb that he stood no chance against the Sovereign State of California in a dispute over income taxes, whereupon he bellowed defiance and sued the commonwealth for $60,000 and damages. It had been there more recently when doctors warned that liquor will kill him. From a pint of whisky per day he upped his consumption to a quart and more.
Sticking out his chin, he told me, “I think we’ll take a little run into town tonight.”
A blizzard rattled the windows of Cobb’s luxurious hunting lodge on the crest of Lake Tahoe, but to forbid him anything--even at the age of 73--was to tell an ancient tiger not to snarl. Cobb was both the greatest of all ballplayers and a multimillionaire whose monthly income from stock dividends, rents and interests ran to $12,000. And he was a man contemptuous, all his life, of any law other than his own.
“We’ll drive in and shoot some craps, see a show and say hello to Joe DiMaggio--he’s in Reno at the Riverside Hotel,” he announced.
I looked at him and felt a chill. Cobb, sitting there haggard and unshaven in his pajamas and a fuzzy old green bathrobe at 1 o’clock in the morning, wasn’t fooling.
“Let’s not,” I said. “You shouldn’t be anywhere tonight but in bed.”
“Don’t argue with me!” he barked. “There are fee-simple sons-of-bitches all over the country who’ve tried it and wish they hadn’t.” He glared at me, flaring the whites of his eyes the way he’d done for 24 years to quaking pitchers, basemen, umpires and fans.
“If you and I are going to get along,” he went on ominously, “don’t increase my tension. “
We were alone in his isolated 10-room $75,000 lodge, having arrived six days earlier, loaded with a large smoked ham, a 20-pound turkey, a case of Scotch and another of champagne, for purposes of collaborating on Ty’s book-length autobiography--a book which he’d refused to write for 30 years, but then suddenly decided to place on record before he died. In almost a week’s time we hadn’t accomplished 30 minutes of work.
The reason: Cobb didn’t need a risky auto trip into Reno, but immediate hospitalization, and by the emergency-door entrance. He was desperately ill and had been even before we had left California.
We had traveled 250 miles to Tahoe in Cobb’s black Imperial limousine, carrying with us a virtual drugstore of medicines. These included Digoxin for his leaky heart, Darvon for his aching back, Tace for a recently operated-upon malignancy in the pelvic area, Fleet’s compound for his infected bowels, Librium for his “tension"--that is, his violent rages, codeine for his pain and an insulin needle-and-syringe kit for his diabetes, among a dozen other panaceas which he’d substituted for doctors. Cobb despised the medical profession.
Everything that hurts had caught up with his big, gaunt body at once and he stuffed himself with pink, green, orange, yellow and purple pills--guessing at the amounts often, since labels had peeled off many of the bottles. But he wouldn’t hear of hospitalizing himself.
At the same time, his sense of balance was almost gone. He tottered about the lodge, moving from place to place by grasping the furniture. On any public street, he couldn’t navigate 20 feet without clutching my shoulder, leaning most of his 208 pounds upon me and shuffling along at a spraddle-legged gait. His bowels wouldn’t work: they impacted, repeatedly, an almost total stoppage which brought moans of agony from Cobb when he sought relief. He was feverish, with no one at his Tahoe hideaway but the two of us to treat this dangerous condition.
“The hacksaw artists have taken $50,000 from me and they’ll get no more,” he said. He spoke of “a quack” who’d treated him a few years earlier. “The joker got funny and said he found urine in my whisky. I fired him.”
His diabetes required a precise food insulin balance. Cobb’s needle wouldn’t work. He’d misplaced the directions for the needed daily insulin dosage and his hands shook uncontrollably when he went to plunge the needle into a stomach vein. He spilled more of the stuff than he injected.
He’d been warned by experts from Johns Hopkins to California’s Scripps Clinic--that liquor was deadly. Tyrus snorted and began each day with several gin-and-orange juices, then switched to Old Rarity Scotch, which held him until night hours, when sleep was impossible, and he tossed down cognac, champagne or “Cobb Cocktails"--Southern Comfort stirred into hot water and honey.
A careful diet was essential. Cobb wouldn’t eat. The lodge was without a cook or servant--since, in the previous six months, he had fired two cooks, a nurse and a handyman in fits of anger--and any food I prepared for him he pushed away. As of the night of the blizzard, the failing, splenetic old king of ballplayers hadn’t touched food in three days, existing solely on quarts of booze and booze mixtures.
My reluctance to prepare the car for the Reno trip burned him up. He beat his fists on the arms of his easy chair. “I’ll go alone!” he threatened.
It was certain he’d try it. The storm had worsened, but once Cobb set his mind on an idea, nothing could change it. Beyond that I’d already found that to oppose or annoy him was to risk a violent explosion. An event of a week earlier had proved that point. It was then I discovered that he carried a loaded Luger wherever he went and looked for opportunities to use it.
En route to Lake Tahoe, we had stopped overnight at a motel near Hangtown, Calif. During the night a party of drunks made a loud commotion in the parking lot. In my room next to Cobb’s, I heard him cursing and then his voice, booming out the window.
“Get out of here, you (bleep) heads!”
The drunks replied in kind. Then everyone in the motel had his teeth jolted.
Groping his way to the door, Tyrus the Terrible fired three shots into the dark that resounded like cannon claps. There were screams and yells. Reaching my door, I saw the drunks climbing each other’s backs in their rush to flee. The frightened motel manager, and others, arrived. Before anyone could think of calling the police, the manager was cut down by the most caustic tongue ever heard in a baseball clubhouse.
“What kind of a pest house is this?” roared Cobb. “Who gave you a license, you mugwump? Get the hell out of here and see that I’m not disturbed! I’m a sick man and I want it quiet!”
“B-b-beg your pardon, Mr. Cobb,” the manager said feebly. He apparently felt so honored to have baseball’s greatest figure as a customer that no police were called. When we drove away the next morning, a crowd gathered and stood gawking with open mouths.
Down the highway, with me driving, Cobb checked the Luger and reloaded its nine-shell clip. “Two of those shots were in the air,” he remarked. “The third kicked up gravel. I’ve got permits for this gun from governors of three states. I’m an honorary deputy sheriff of California and a Texas Ranger. So we won’t be getting any complaints.”
He saw nothing strange in his behavior. Ty Cobb’s rest had been disturbed--therefore he had every right to shoot up the neighborhood.
About then I began to develop a twitch of the nerves, which grew worse with time. In past years, I’d heard reports of Cobb’s weird and violent ways, without giving them much credence. But until early 1960 my own experience with the legendary Georgian had been slight, amounting only to meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz., and New York to discuss book-writing arrangements and to sign the contract.
Locker room stories of Ty’s eccentricities, wild temper, ego and miserliness sounded like the usual scandalmongering you get in sports. I’d heard that Cobb had flattened a heckler in San Francisco’s Domino Club with one punch; had been sued by Elbie Felts, an ex-Pacific Coast League player, after assaulting Felts; that he booby-trapped his Spanish villa at Atherton, Calif., with high-voltage wires; that he had walloped one of his ex-wives; that he’d been jailed in Placerville, Calif., at the age of 68 for speeding, abusing a traffic cop and then inviting the judge to return to law school at Cobb’s expense.
Before I started the assignment to write the book, I was warned by an in-law of Cobb’s to back out. “You’ll never finish it and you might get hurt. . . . Nobody can live with Ty. Nobody ever has.” That includes two wives who left him, butlers, housekeepers, chauffeurs, nurses and a few mistresses. He drove off all his friends long ago. Max Fleischmann, the yeast-cake heir, was a pal of Ty’s until the night a house guest of Fleischmann’s made a remark about Cobb spiking other players when he ran the bases. The man only asked if it was true. Cobb knocked the guy into a fish pond and after that Max never spoke to him again. Another time, a member of Cobb’s family crossed him--a woman, mind you. He broke her nose with a baseball bat.
“In baseball, a few of us who really knew him well realized that he was wrong in the head--unbalanced,” my informants said. “He played like a demon and had everybody hating him because he was a demon. That’s how he set all those records that nobody has come close to since 1928. It’s why he was always in a brawl, on the field, in the clubhouse, behind the stands and in the stands. The public has never known it, but Cobb has always been off the beam where other people are concerned. Sure, he made millions in the stock market--but that’s only cold business. He carried a gun in the big leagues and scared the hell out of us. He’s mean, tricky and dangerous. Look out that he doesn’t blow up some night and clip you with a bottle. He specializes in throwing bottles.
“Now that he’s sick he’s worse than ever. And you’ve signed up to stay with him for months. You poor sap.”
Taken aback, but still skeptical, I launched the job--with my first task to drive Cobb to his Lake Tahoe retreat, where, he declared, we would work uninterrupted.
As indicated, nothing went right from the start. The Hangtown gunplay incident was an eye-opener. Next came a series of events, such as Cobb’s determination to set forth in a blizzard to Reno, which were too strange to explain away. Everything had to suit his pleasure or he had a tantrum. He prowled about the lodge at night, suspecting trespassers, with the Luger in hand. I slept with one eye open, ready to move fast if necessary.
At 1 o’clock on the morning of the storm, full of pain and 90-proof, he took out the Luger, letting it casually rest between his knees. I had continued to object to a Reno excursion in such weather.
He looked at me with tight fury and said, biting out the words:
“In 1912--and you can write this down--I killed a man in Detroit. He and two other hoodlums jumped me on the street early one morning with a knife. I was carrying something that came in handy in my early days--a Belgian-made pistol with a heavy raised sight at the barrel end.
“Well, the damned gun wouldn’t fire and they cut me up the back.”
Making notes as fast as he talked, I asked, “Where in the back?”
“Well, dammit all to hell, if you don’t believe me, come and look!” Cobb flared, jerking up his shirt. When I protested that I believed him implicitly, only wanted a story detail, he picked up a half-full whisky glass and smashed it against the brick fireplace. So I gingerly took a look. A faint whitish scar ran about five inches up the lower left back.
“Satisfied?” jeered Cobb.
He described how after a battle, the men fled before his fists.
“What with you wounded and the odds 3-1, that must have been a relief,” I said.
“Relief? Do you think they could pull that on me? I went after them! “
Where anyone else would have felt lucky to be out of it, Cobb chased one of the mugs into a dead-end alley. “I used that gun sight to rip and slash and tear him for about 10 minutes until he had no face left,” related Ty, with relish. “Left him there, not breathing, in his own rotten blood.”
“What was the situation--where were you going when it happened?”
“To catch a train to a ball game.”
“You saw a doctor, instead?”
“I did nothing of the sort, dammit! I played the next day and got two hits in three times up!” Records verified this. On June 3, 1912, in a blood-soaked, makeshift bandage, Ty Cobb hit a double and triple for Detroit, and only then was treated for the knife wound. He was that kind of ballplayer through a record 3,033 games. No other player burned with Cobb’s flame. Boze Bulger, a great old-time baseball critic, said, “He was possessed by the Furies.”
Finishing his tale, Cobb looked me straight in the eye.
“You’re driving me into Reno tonight, " he said softly. The Luger was in his hand.
Even before I opened my mouth, Cobb knew he had won. He had a sixth sense about the emotions he produced in others: in this case, fear. As far as I could see, he wasn’t merely erratic and trigger-tempered, but suffering from megalomania, or acute self-worship; delusions of persecution; and more than a touch of dipsomania.
Although I’m not proud of it, he scared the hell out of me most of the time I was around him.
And now he gave me the first smile of our association. “As long as you don’t aggravate my tension, we’ll get along,” he said.
Before describing the Reno expedition, I would like to say in this frank view of a mighty man that the greatest, and strangest, of all American sport figures had his good side, which he tried to conceal. During the final 10 months of his life, I was his one constant companion. Eventually, I put him to bed, prepared his insulin, picked him up when he fell down, warded off irate taxi drivers, bartenders, waiters, clerks and private citizens whom Cobb was inclined to punch, cooked what food he could digest, drew his bath, got drunk with him and knelt with him in prayer on black nights when he knew death was near. I ducked a few bottles he threw, too.
I think, because he forced upon me a confession of his most private thoughts, that I know the answer to the central, overriding secret of his life: was Ty Cobb psychotic throughout his baseball career?
Kids, dogs and sick people flocked to him and he returned their instinctive liking. Money was his idol, but from his $4 million fortune he assigned large sums to create the Cobb Educational Foundation, which financed hundreds of needy youngsters through college. He built and endowed a first-class hospital for the poor of his backwater home town, Royston, Ga. When Ty’s spinster sister, Florence, was crippled, he tenderly cared for her until her last days. The widow of a one-time American League batting champion would have lived in want but for Ty’s steady money support. A Hall of Fame member, beaned by a pitched ball and enfeebled, came under Cobb’s wing for years. Regularly he mailed dozens of anonymous checks to indigent old ballplayers--relayed by a third party--a rare act among retired tycoons in other lines of business.
If you believe such acts didn’t come hard for Cobb, guess again: he was the world’s champion penny-pincher.
Some 150 fan letters reached him each month, requesting his autograph. Many letters enclosed return-mail stamps. Cobb used the stamps for his own outgoing mail. The fan letters he burned.
“Saves on firewood,” he would mutter.
In December of 1960, Ty hired a one-armed “gentleman’s gentleman” named Brownie. Although constantly criticized, poor Brownie worked hard as cook and butler. But when he mixed up the grocery order one day, he was fired with a check for a week’s pay--$45--and sent packing.
Came the middle of that night and Cobb awakened me.
“We’re driving into town right now , to stop payment on Brownie’s check,” he said. “The bastard talked back to me when I discharged him. He’ll get no more of my money.”
All remonstrations were futile. There was no phone, so we had to drive the 20 miles from Cobb’s Tahoe lodge into Carson City, where he woke up the president of the First National Bank of Nevada and arranged for a stop payment on the check. The president tried to conceal his anger--Cobb was a big depositor in his bank.
“Yes, sir, Ty,” he said. “I’ll take care of it first thing in the morning.”
“You doggamn well better,” snorted Cobb. And then we drove through the 3 a.m. darkness back to the lake.
But this trip was a light workout compared to that Reno trip.
Two cars were available at the lodge. Cobb’s 1956 Imperial had no tire chains, but the other car did.
“We’ll need both for this operation,” he ordered. “One car might get stuck or break down. I’ll drive mine and you take the one with chains. You go first. I’ll follow your chain marks.”
For Cobb to tackle precipitous Route 50 was unthinkable in every way. The Tahoe road, with 200 foot drop-offs, had at that time killed a recorded 80 motorists. Along with his illness, his drunkenness, and no chains, he had bad eyes and was without a driver’s license. California had turned him down at his last test; he hadn’t bothered to apply in Nevada.
Urging him to ride with me was a waste of breath.
A howling wind hit my car a solid blow as we shoved off. Sleet stuck to the windshield faster than the wipers could work. For the first three miles, snowplows had been active and at 15 m.p.h., in second gear, I managed to hold the road. But then came Spooner’s Summit, 7,000 feet high, and then a steep descent of nine miles. Behind me, headlamps blinking, Cobb honked his horn, demanding more speed. Chainless, he wasn’t getting traction. The hell with him , I thought. Slowing to third gear, fighting to hold a roadbed I couldn’t see even with my head stuck out the window, I skidded along. No other traffic moved as we did our crazy tandem around icy curves, at times brushing the guard rails. Cobb was blaring his horn steadily now.
And then here came Cobb. Tiring of my creeping pace, he gunned the Imperial around me in one big skid. I caught a glimpse of an angry face under a big Stetson hat and a waving fist. He was doing a good 30 m.p.h. when he had gained 25 yards on me, fishtailing right and left, but straightening as he slid out of sight in the thick sleet.
I let him go. Suicide wasn’t in my contract.
The next six miles was a matter of feeling my way and praying. Near a curve, I saw tail lights to the left. Pulling up, I found Ty swung sideways and buried, nosedown, in a snowbank, his hind wheels two feet in the air. Twenty yards away was a sheer drop-off into a canyon.
“You hurt?” I asked.
“Bumped my (bleep) head,” he muttered. He lit a cigar and gave four-letter regards to the Highway Department for not illuminating the “danger” spot. His forehead was bruised and he’d broken his glasses.
In my car, we groped our way down-mountain, a nightmare ride, with Cobb alternately taking in Scotch from a thermos jug and telling me to step on it. At 3 a.m. in Carson City, an all-night garageman used a broom to clean the car of snow and agreed to pick up the Imperial--"when the road’s passable.” With dawn breaking, we reached Reno. All I wanted was a bed and all Cobb wanted was a craps table.
He was rolling now, pretending he wasn’t ill, and with the Scotch bracing him. Ty was able to walk into the Riverside Hotel casino with a hand on my shoulder and without staggering so obviously as usual. Everybody present wanted to meet him. Starlets from a film unit on location in Reno flocked around and comedian Joe E. Lewis had the band play Sweet Georgia Brown --Ty’s favorite tune.
“Hope your dice are still honest,” he told Riverside co-owner Bob Miller. “Last time I was here I won $12,000 in three hours.”
“How I remember, Ty,” said Miller. “How I remember.”
A scientific craps player who had won and lost huge sums in Nevada in the past, Cobb bet $100 chips, his eyes alert, not missing a play around the board. He soon decided that the table was cold and we moved to another casino, then a third. At this last stop, Cobb’s legs began to grow shaky. Holding himself up by leaning on the table edge with his forearms, he dropped $300, then had a hot streak in which he won more than $800. His voice was a croak as he told the other players, “Watch ‘em and weep.”
But then suddenly his voice came back. When the stickman raked the dice his way, Cobb loudly said, “You touched the dice with your hand.”
“No, sir,” said the stickman. “I did not .”
“I don’t lie!” snarled Cobb.
“I don’t lie either,” insisted the stickman.
“Nobody touches my dice!” Cobb said, swaying on his feet, eyes blazing, working his way around the table toward the croupier. It was a weird tableau. In his crumpled Stetson and expensive camel’s-hair coat, stained and charred with cigarette burns, a three-day beard grizzling his face, the gaunt old giant of baseball towered over the dapper gambler.
“You fouled the dice. I saw you,” growled Cobb, and then he swung.
The blow missed, as the stickman dodged, but, cursing and almost falling, Cobb seized the wooden rake and smashed it over the table. I jumped in and caught him under the arms as he sagged.
And then, as quickly as possible, we were put into the street by two large uniformed guards. “Sorry, Mr. Cobb, but we can’t have this,” they said.
A crowd had gathered and as we started down the street, Cobb swearing and stumbling and clinging to me, I couldn’t have felt more conspicuous if I’d been strung naked from the neon arch across Reno’s main drag, Virginia Street. At the street corner, Ty was struck by an attack of breathlessness. “Got to stop,” he gasped. Feeling him going limp on me, I turned his six-foot body against a lamppost, braced my legs and with an underarm grip held him there until he caught his breath. He panted and gulped for air.
His face gray, he murmured, “Reach into my left hand coat pocket.” Thinking he wanted his bottle of heart pills, I did. But instead pulled out a six-inch-thick wad of currency, secured by a rubber band. “Couple of thousand there,” he said weakly. “Don’t let it out of sight.”
At the nearest motel, where I rented a single, twin-bed room, he collapsed on the bed in his coat and hat and slept. After finding myself some breakfast, I turned in. Hours later I heard him stirring. “What’s this place?” he muttered.
I told him the name of the motel--Travelodge.
“Where’s the bankroll?”
“In your coat. You’re wearing it.”
Then he was quiet.
After a night’s sleep, Cobb felt well enough to resume his gambling. In the next few days, he won more than $3,000 at the tables, and then we went sightseeing in historic Virginia City. There, as in all places, he stopped traffic. And had the usual altercation. This one was at the Bucket of Blood, where Cobb accused the bartender of serving watered Scotch. The bartender denied it. Crash! Another drink went flying.
Back at the lodge a week later, looking like the wrath of John Barleycorn and having refused medical aid in Reno, he began to suffer new and excruciating pains--in his hips and lower back. But between groans he forced himself to work an hour a day on his autobiography.
Parenthetically, Cobb had a vocabulary all his own. Anything easy was “soft-boiled,” to outsmart someone was to “slip him the oskafagus,” and all doctors were “truss-fixers.”
While working one morning on an outside observation deck, I heard a thud inside. On his bedroom floor, sprawled on his back, lay Ty. He was unconscious, his eyes rolled back, breathing shallowly. I thought he was dying.
There was no telephone. “Eavesdropping on the line,” Cobb had told me. “I had it cut off.” I ran down the road to a neighboring lodge and phoned a Carson City doctor, who promised to come immediately.
Back at the lodge, Ty remained stiff and stark on the floor, little bubbles escaping his lips. His face was bluish-white. With much straining, I lifted him halfway to the bed and by shifting holds finally rolled him onto it, and covered him with a blanket. Twenty minutes passed. No doctor.
Ten minutes later, I was at the front door, watching for the doctor’s car when I heard a sound. There stood Ty, swaying on his feet. “You want to do some work on the book?” he said.
His recovery didn’t seem possible. “But you were out cold a minute ago,” I said.
“Just a dizzy spell. Have ‘em all the time. Must have hit my head on the bedpost when I fell.”
The doctor, arriving, found Cobb’s blood pressure standing at a grim 210 on the gauge. His temperature was 101 degrees and, from gross neglect of his diabetes, he was in a state of insulin shock, often fatal if not quickly treated. “I’ll have to hospitalize you, Mr. Cobb,” said the doctor.
Weaving his way to a chair, Cobb angrily waved him away. “Just send me your bill,” he grunted. “I’m going home.”
Home was the multimillionaire’s main residence at Atherton, Calif., on the San Francisco Peninsula, 250 miles away, and it was there he headed later that night. With some hot soup and insulin in him, Cobb recovered with the same unbelievable speed he had shown in baseball. In his heyday, trainers often sewed up deep spike cuts in his knees, shins and thighs, on a clubhouse bench, without anesthetic, and he didn’t lose an inning. Grantland Rice one 1920 day sat beside a bedridden, feverish Cobb, whose thighs, from sliding, were a mass of raw flesh. Sixteen hours later, he hit a triple, double, three singles and stole two bases to beat the Yankees. On the Atherton ride, he yelled insults at several motorists who moved too slowly to suit him. Reaching Atherton, Ty said he felt ready for another drink.
My latest surprise was Cobb’s 18-room, two-story, richly landscaped Spanish-style villa at 48 Spencer Lane, an exclusive neighborhood. You could have held a baseball game on the grounds.
But the $90,000 mansion had no lights, no heat, no hot water.
“I’m suing the Pacific Gas & Electric Company for over-charging me on the service,” he explained. “Those rinky-dinks tacked an extra $16 on my bill. Bunch of crooks. When I wouldn’t pay, they cut off my utilities. OK--I’ll see them in court.”
For months previously, Ty Cobb had lived in a totally dark house. The only illumination was candlelight. The only cooking facility was a portable Coleman stove, such as campers use. Bathing was impossible, unless you could take it cold. The electric refrigerator, stove, deep-freeze, radio and television, of course, didn’t work. Cobb had vowed to “hold the fort” until his suit against PG&E; was settled. Simultaneously, he had filed a $60,000 suit in San Francisco Superior Court against the State of California to recover state income taxes already collected--on the argument that he wasn’t a permanent resident of California, but of Nevada, Georgia, Arizona and other way-points. State’s attorneys claimed he spent at least six months per year in Atherton, thus had no case.
“I’m gone so much from here that I’ll win hands down,” he claimed. All legal opinion, I later learned, held just the opposite view, but Cobb ignored their advice.
Next morning, I arranged with Ty’s gardener, Hank, to turn on the lawn sprinklers. In the outdoor sunshine, a cold-water shower was easier to take. From then on, the backyard became my regular washroom.
The problem of lighting a desk so that we could work on the book was solved by stringing 200 feet of cord, plugged into an outlet at a neighboring house, through hedges and flower gardens and into the window of Cobb’s study, where a single naked bulb, hung over the chandelier, provided illumination.
The flickering shadows cast by the single light made the vast old house seem haunted. No ghost writer ever had more ironical surroundings.
At various points around the premises, Ty showed me where he’d once installed high-voltage wires to stop trespassers. “Curiosity-seekers?” I asked.
“Hell, no,” he said. “Detectives broke in here once looking for evidence against me in a divorce suit. After a couple of them got burned, they stopped coming.”
To reach our bedrooms, Cobb and I groped our way down long, black corridors. Twice he fell in the dark. And then, collapsing completely, he became so ill that he was forced to check into Stanford Hospital in nearby Palo Alto. Here another shock was in store.
One of the physicians treating Ty’s case, a Dr. E.R. Brown, said, “Do you mean to say that this man has traveled 700 miles in the last month without medical care?”
“Doctor, I’ve hauled him in and out of saloons, motels, gambling joints, steam baths and snowbanks,” I said. “There’s no holding him.”
“It’s a miracle he’s alive. He has almost every major ailment I know about.”
Dr. Brown didn’t reveal to me Ty’s main ailment, which Cobb revealed late one night from his hospital bed. “It’s cancer,” he said, bluntly. “About a year ago I had most of my prostate gland removed when they found it was malignant. Now it’s spread up into the back bones. These pill-peddlers here won’t admit it, but I haven’t got a chance.”
Cobb made me swear I’d never divulge the fact before he died. “If it gets in the papers, the sob sisters will have a field day. I don’t want sympathy from anybody.”
At Stanford, where he absorbed seven doses of cobalt radiation, he didn’t act like a man on his last legs. Even before his strength returned, he was in the usual form.
“They won’t let me have a drink,” he said, indignantly. “I want you to get me a bottle. Smuggle it in in your tape recorder case.”
I tried telling myself that no man with terminal cancer deserves to be dried out, but sharp-eyed nurses and orderlies were watching. They searched Ty’s closet, found the bottle and over his roars of protest appropriated it.
“We’ll have to slip them the oskafagus,” Ty said.
Thereafter, a drink of Scotch and water sat in plain view in his room, on his bedside table, under the very noses of his physicians--and nobody suspected a thing. The whisky was in an ordinary water glass, and in the liquid reposed Ty’s false teeth.
There were no dull moments while Cobb was at the hospital. He was critical of everything. He told one doctor that he was not even qualified to be an intern, and told the hospital dietitian--at the top of his voice--that she and the kitchen workers were in a conspiracy to poison him with their “foul” dishes. To a nurse he snapped, “If Florence Nightingale knew about you, she’d spin in her grave.”
But between blasts he did manage to buckle down to work on the book, dictating long into the night into a microphone suspended over his bed. Slowly the stormy details of his professional life came out. He spoke often of having forgiven his many baseball enemies, then lashed out at them with such passionate phrases that it was clear he’d done no such thing. High on his “hate” list were John McGraw; New York sportswriters; Hub Leonard, a pitcher who in 1926 accused Cobb and Tris Speaker of “fixing” a Detroit-Cleveland game; American League President Ban Johnson; one-time Detroit owner Frank Navin; former baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis; and all those who intimated that Cobb ever used his spikes on another player without justification.
After a night when he slipped out of the hospital, against orders, we drove to a San Francisco Giants-Cincinnati Reds game at Candlestick Park, 30 miles away, Stanford Hospital decided it couldn’t help Tyrus R. Cobb, and he was discharged. For extensive treatment his bill ran to more than $1,200.
“That’s a nice racket you boys have here,” he told the doctors. “You clip the customers and then every time you pass an undertaker, you wink at him.”
“Goodby, Mr. Cobb,” snapped the medical men.
Soon after this, Ty caught a plane to his native Georgia and I went along. “I want to see some of the old places again before I die,” he said.
It now was Christmas eve of 1960 and I’d been with him for three months and completed but four chapters. The project had begun to look hopeless. In Royston, a village of 1,200, Cobb headed for the town cemetery. I drove him there, we parked, and I helped him climb a wind-swept hill through the growing dusk. Light snow fell. Faintly, yule chimes could be heard.
Amongst the many headstones, Ty looked for the plot he had reserved for himself while in California and couldn’t locate it. His temper began to boil. “Dammit, I ordered the biggest damn mausoleum in the graveyard. I know it’s around here somewhere.” On the next hill, we found it: a large, marble, walk-in-size structure with “Cobb” engraved over the entrance.
“You want to pray with me?” he said, gruffly. We knelt and tears came to his eyes.
Within the tomb, he pointed to crypts occupied by the bodies of his father, Prof. William Herschel Cobb, his mother, Amanda Chitwood Cobb, and his sister, Florence, whom he had disinterred and placed here. “My father was the greatest man I ever knew,” he said. “He was a scholar, state senator, editor and philosopher. I worshipped him. So did all the people around here. He was the only man who ever made me do his bidding.”
Arising painfully, Ty braced himself against the marble crypt that soon would hold his body. There was an eerie silence in the tomb. He said deliberately:
“My father had his head blown off with a shotgun when I was 18 years old-- by a member of my own family . I didn’t get over that, I’ve never gotten over it.”
We went back down the hill to the car. I asked no questions that day.
Later, from family sources and old Georgia friends of the baseball idol, I learned about the killing. One night in August of 1905, they related, Professor Cobb announced that he was driving from Royston to a neighboring village and left home by buggy. But, later that night, he doubled back and crept into his wife’s bedroom by way of the window. “He suspected her of being unfaithful to him,” said these sources. “He thought he’d catch her in the act. But Amanda Cobb was a good woman. She was all alone when she saw a menacing figure climb through her window and approach her bed. In the dark, she assumed it to be a robber. She kept a shotgun handy by her bed and she used it. Everybody around here knew the story, but it was hushed up when Ty became famous.”
News of the killing reached Ty in Augusta, where he was playing minor league ball, on August 9. A few days later he was told that he’d been purchased by the Detroit Tigers, and was to report immediately. “In my grief,” Cobb says in the book, “it didn’t matter much . . . “
Came March of 1961 and I remained stuck to the Georgia Peach like court plaster. He’d decided that we were born pals, meant for each other, that we’d complete a baseball book beating anything ever published. He had astonished doctors by rallying from the spreading cancer and, between bouts of transmitting his life and times to a tape recorder, was raising more whoopee than he had at Lake Tahoe and Reno.
Spring-training time for the big leagues had arrived and we were ensconced in a $30-a-day suite at the Ramada Inn at Scottsdale, Ariz., close by the practice parks of the Red Sox, Indians, Giants and Cubs. Here, each year, Cobb held court. He didn’t go to see anybody; Ford Frick, Joe Cronin, Ted Williams, and other diamond notables came to him. While explaining to sportswriters why modern stars couldn’t compare to the Wagners, Lajoies, Speakers, Jacksons, Mathewsons and Planks of his day, Ty did other things.
For one, he commissioned a noted Arizona artist to paint his portrait in oils. He was emaciated, having dropped from 208 pounds to 176. The preliminary sketches showed up his sagging cheeks and thin neck.
“I wouldn’t let you calcimine my toilet,” ripped out Ty, and fired the artist.
But at analyzing the Dow Jones averages and playing the stock market, he was anything but eccentric. Twice a week he phoned experts around the country, determined good buys and bought in blocks of 500 to 1,500 shares. He made money consistently, even when bedridden, with a mind that read behind the fluctuations of a dozen different issues. “The State of Georgia will realize about one million dollars from inheritence taxes when I’m dead,” he said. “But there isn’t a man alive who knows what I’m worth.”
According to The Sporting News , there was evidence after Cobb’s death that his worth approximated $12 million. Whatever the true figure, he did not confide the amount to me--or, most probably, to anyone except attorneys who drafted his last will and testament. And Cobb fought off making his will until the last moment.
By early April, Cobb could barely make it up the ramp of the Scottsdale Stadium, even hanging onto me. He had to stop, gasping for breath, every few steps. But he kept coming to games--loving the sounds of the ball park. His courage was tremendous. “Always be ready to catch me if I start to fall,” he said. “I’d hate to go down in front of the fans.”
People of all ages were overcome with emotion upon meeting him; no sports figure I’ve known produced such an effect upon the public.
We went to buy a cane. At a surgical supply house, Cobb inspected a dozen $25 Malacca canes, bought the cheapest $4 white-ash cane they had. “I’m a plain man,” he informed the clerk, the $7,500 diamond ring on his finger glittering.
But pride kept the old tiger from ever using the cane, any more than he’d wear the $600 hearing aid built into the bow of his glasses.
Every day was a new adventure. He was fighting back against the pain that engulfed him again--cobalt treatments no longer helped--and I could count on trouble anywhere we went. He threw a saltshaker at a Phoenix waiter, narrowly missing. One of his most treasured friendships--with Ted Williams--came to an end.
We left Arizona for my home in Santa Barbara. Now failing fast, Tyrus had accepted my invitation to be my guest. Two doctors inspected him at my beach house by the Pacific and gave their opinions: he had a few months of life left, no more. The cancer had invaded the bones of his skull. His pain was intense, unrelenting--requiring heavy sedation--yet with teeth bared and sweat pouring down his face, he fought medical science. “They’ll never get me on their damned hypnotics,” he swore. “I’ll never die an addict.”
He shouted, “Where’s anybody who cares about me? Where are they? The world’s lousy . . . no good.”
One night later, on May 1, Cobb sat propped up in bed, overlooking a starlit ocean. He had a habit, each night, of rolling up his trousers and placing them under his pillows--an early century ballplayer’s trick, dating from the time when Ty slept in strange places and might be robbed. I knew that his ever-present Luger was tucked into that pants-roll.
I’d never seen him so sunk in despair. At last the fire was going out. “Do we die a little at a time, or all at once?” he wondered aloud. “I think Max had the right idea.”
The reference was to his one-time friend, the multimillionaire Fleischmann, who had cheated lingering death by cancer some years earlier by putting a bullet through his brain. Ty spoke of Babe Ruth, another cancer victim. “If Babe had been told what he had in time, he could’ve got it over with.”
Had I left Ty that night, I believe he would have pulled the trigger. His three living children--two others were dead--had withdrawn from him. In the wide world that had sung his fame, he had not one intimate friend remaining.
But we talked, and prayed, until dawn, and then sleep came; in the morning, aided by friends, I put him into a car and drove him home, to the big, gloomy house in Atherton. He spoke only twice during the six-hour drive.
“Have you got enough to finish the book?” he asked.
“More than enough.”
“Give ‘em the word then. I had to fight all my life to survive. They all were against me . . . tried every dirty trick to cut me down. But I beat the bastards and left them in the ditch. Make sure the book says that.”
I was leaving him now, permanently, and I had to ask one question I’d never put to him before.
“Why did you fight so hard in baseball, Ty?”
He’d never looked fiercer than then, when he answered. “I did it for my father, who was an exalted man. They killed him when he was still young. They blew his head off the same week I became a major leaguer. He never got to see me play. But I knew he was watching me and I never let him down.”
You can make what you want of that. Keep in mind what Casey Stengel said, later: “I never saw anyone like Cobb. No one even close to him. When he wiggled those wild eyes at a pitcher, you knew you were looking at the one bird nobody could beat. It was like he was superhuman.”
To me it seems that the violent death of a father whom a sensitive, highly talented boy loved deeply, and feared, engendered--through some strangely supreme desire to vindicate that father--the most violent, successful, thoroughly maladjusted personality ever to pass across American sports. The shock tipped the 18-year-old mind, making him capable of incredible feats.
Off the field, he was still at war with the world. The emotionally disturbed individual, in most cases, does not change his pattern. To reinforce that pattern, he was viciously hazed by Detroit Tiger veterans when he was a rookie. He was bullied, ostracized and beaten up--in one instance, a 210-pound catcher named Charlie Schmidt broke the 165-pound Ty Cobb’s nose. It was persecution immediately heaped upon a young man.
Yes, Ty Cobb was a disturbed personality. It is not hard to understand why he spent his entire life in deep conflict. Nor why a member of his family, in the winter of 1960, told me, “I’ve spent a lot of time terrified of him. . . . I think he was psychotic from the time that he left Georgia to play in the big leagues.”
Psychotic is not a word I’d care to use. I believe that he was far more than the fiercest of all competitors. He was a vindicator who believed that “father was watching” and who could not put that father’s terrible fate out of his mind. The memory of it threatened his sanity.
The fact that he recognized and feared this is revealed in a tape recording he made, in which he describes his own view of himself: “I was like a steel spring with a growing and dangerous flaw in it. If it is wound too tight or has the slightest weak point, the spring will fly apart and then it is done for.”
The last time I saw him, he was sitting in his armchair in the Atherton mansion. The place still was without lights or heat. I shook his hand in farewell, and he held it a moment longer.
“What about it? Do you think they’ll remember me?” He tried to say it as if it didn’t matter.
“They’ll always remember you,” I said.
On July 8, I received in the mail a photograph of Ty’s mausoleum on the hillside in the Royston cemetery with the words scribbled on the back: “ Any time now. " Nine days later, on July 17, 1961, he died in an Atlanta hospital. Before going, he opened the brown bag, piled $1 million in negotiable securities beside his bed and placed the Luger atop them.
From all of major league baseball, only three men were invited to his private funeral.