Ty Cobb is one of the greatest players in baseball history, but few are aware that the Hall of Fame legend finished up his long career as a member of the Philadelphia A’s, the franchise that would later relocate to become the Oakland Athletics.
Cobb is rightly remembered as a Detroit Tigers superstar. He played for 24 seasons in the big leagues, and 22 of those were with the Tigers. Nicknamed “The Georgia Peach”, Cobb was born in the Peach State in 1886 and grew to love the game of baseball at an early age.
The story of Cobb’s early life, brief minor league career, and a family tragedy that had lasting implications is well told in the book “Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty” by Charles Leehrsen, and his SABR bio by Daniel Ginsburg.
Cobb With the Tigers
Cobb blew no one away during his rookie rookie season with the Tigers in 1905. The 18-year-old was a boy among men, and his stat line shows just how much that difference meant. He hit for just a .240/.288/.340 slash over his first 164 plate appearances that year.
But by the following season in 1906, Cobb had established himself more, and in 1907 at age 20 he exploded, leading the big leagues in hits, RBI, batting average and total bases, and the American League in steals, slugging, OPS and OPS+.
It was the first of many such seasons for Cobb. Over the 22 years in Detroit he would lead the majors in hits seven times, steals four times, runs scored and RBI three times, and triples and doubles twice. He even led baseball in homers during the 1909 season.
He won the American League MVP Award in 1911, and received Most Valuable Player votes in each of the next three seasons as well.
Cobb Tied to a Scandal
Following the 1926 season, in the aftermath of a near scandal involving accusations that Cobb and fellow future Hall of Famer Tris Speaker had engaged in trying to fix a game between the Tigers and Speaker’s Cleveland Indians team back in 1919, Cobb and Speaker both retired.
Both players were found not guilty of the accusations by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, but Cobb, fearing his reputation had been tarnished, hired lawyers to begin an investigation of baseball.
Before that effort could get very far, according to Ginsburg, “Cobb received a lucrative offer from Philadelphia owner and manager Connie Mack, one of the few men in baseball that Cobb truly admired and respected”, and chose to take Mack up on the offer to join the Athletics.
The lucrative offer was for two years at $85,000 total, big money in those days. Cobb would thus come to Philadelphia and play the final two seasons of his glorious and controversial career in an A’s uniform.
“I’d battled and feuded with the A’s and their fans most of my career, needed police protection at Shibe Park and received a good dozen anonymous death threats there,” said Cobb. Now he was not only playing for the team, but he received a standing ovation in his first game from the notoriously tough Philly fans.
Cobb Winds it Down in Philadelphia
Playing with something to prove now at age 40, Cobb put together a strong first season with the A’s in 1927. That year he hit for a .357 average and recorded a .440 on-base percentage. He had 44 extra-base hits, and his 104 runs scored and 175 hits were his best marks in four years. He even stole 22 bases, though he was also thrown out a majors-high 16 times as well.
Those 1927 Athletics won 91 games, but it was only good enough for a distant second place in the American League, 19 games behind the vaunted “Murderer’s Row” New York Yankees team featuring a half-dozen Hall of Famers including Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
In 1928, the A’s nearly overcame the Yanks, but again finished in second place, this time just three games back. Cobb hit for a .323/.389/.431 slash with 32 extra-base hits, but by the end of the season he was relegated to the bench by the emergence of 20-year-old future Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx.
The A’s would not only catch the Yankees the following season, they would begin a streak of three consecutive American League pennants, winning back-to-back World Series crowns in 1929 and 1930 before being dethroned by the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games in 1931.
Cobb would not be around for that glorious run, however. He retired following the 1928 campaign, taking with him career totals of 4,191 hits and 2,246 runs as well as 1,938 RBI and 892 stolen bases. He finished with a career .367/.433/.513 slash line.
Cobb’s Career Postscript
In February of 1936, the first class was elected to the new Baseball Hall of Fame. 75 percent support from the 226 voters was required for election, and only five men from among all the game’s greats to that point made it. Receiving 222 votes, Cobb was one of them.
The others who kept him company in that legendary first Hall of Fame class read like baseball royalty, as they should: Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson, and Christy Mathewson. Cobb’s 98.2 percent of the vote stood as the record until Tom Seaver received 98.8 percent in 1992.
The greatness and controversy of Cobb’s career was ultimately captured not only in numerous books and essays, but also in a 1994 film starring Tommy Lee Jones in the title role of Cobb, for which Jones was nominated for a Best Actor award by the Chicago Film Critics Association.