By Glen Sparks
The Baseball Hall of Fame did not officially open in lovely Cooperstown, N.Y., until June 12, 1939.
Baseball writers, though, elected the Hall’s first members in 1936. Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner were chosen.
Members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America cast 226 votes, according to an article written by Matt Kelly on the HOF’s web site. Nominees needed 170 votes, or 75 percent of the total, for election. Writers sent in their votes by Jan. 25; Hall officials announced its first class Feb 2.
Cobb received the most votes with 98.2 percent, followed by Ruth and Wagner (95.1 percent each), Mathewson (90.7) and Johnson (87.6). The next five, eventual Hall of Famers but not members of that first class, were Nap Lajoie (64.6), Tris Speaker (58.8), Cy Young (49.1), Rogers Hornsby (46.4) and Mickey Cochrane (35.3). Everyone in the top 24 in the voting eventually made it into Cooperstown. Hal Chase, a solid hitter and smooth fielder at first base for the New York Highlanders and other teams, was the lowest finisher who is still on the outside looking in. (I’ll be writing a post on Chase later this week.)
This is a brief overview of that first class. You’re probably already familiar with these guys.
Cobb played 24 seasons (1905-28) and retired with a .366 batting average and 897 stolen bases. The center-fielder hit better than .400 three times and won 12 batting titles, including nine in a row. Cobb mostly toiled during the Deadball era and hit just 117 career home runs. He led the American League in 1909 with nine homers and topped the circuit in RBI four times. The left-handed batter, known as the Georgia Peach, played 22 seasons for the Detroit Tigers and two years for the Philadelphia A’s. Cobb batted .240 over 150 at-bats as a 19-year-old rookie in ’05. His next lowest season-ending batting average? .316.
Quote: “The great American game should be an unrelenting war of nerves.” (Source: baseball-almanac.com)
Born in rural Kansas, Johnson grew up on the plains. His family left for California shortly after young Walter turned 14 years old. Scouts spotted him during his high school days at Fullerton Union High School. Johnson, a.k.a. the Big Train, played his entire career (1907-27) with the Washington Senators. He retired with a lifetime won-loss record of 417-279 and a 2.17 ERA. The two-time A.L. MVP won the pitching Triple Crown (leader in wins, ERA and strikeouts) three times. All told, he led the league in strikeouts 12 times, wins six times and ERA five times. He retired with 3,508 strikeouts.
Quote: “I throw as hard as I can when I think I have to throw as hard as I can.” (Source: baseball-almanac.com
Baseball people called Mathewson “The Christian Gentleman.” He did not smoke, drink or even cuss at a time when practically every other player did. Mathewson employed a fastball, screwball and pinpoint control to take care of batters. He sported a career won-loss record of 373-188, pitching mostly for the New York Giants (1900-16). He topped the National League in wins and ERA five times each and hurled two no-hitters. In four World Series, the right-hander from Factoryville, Pa., went 5-5 but with a 0.97 ERA over 101.2 innings. He won all three of his starts in the 1905 Classic against the Philadelphia A’s. His lungs seriously damaged after exposure to chemical weapons during training in World War I, Mathewson died from the effects of tuberculosis in 1925 at the age of 45.
Quote: “A boy cannot begin playing ball too early. I might almost say that while he is still creeping on all fours, he should have a bouncing rubber ball.” (Source: christymathewson.com)
Like Matthewson, Wagner grew up in Pennsylvania. The son of German immigrants took the American game of baseball to heart. He broke in with the Louisville Colonels in 1897 and was sent to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1900. Wagner hit .329 lifetime and recorded 3,430 hits. He won eight batting crowns and five RBI titles. The shortstop could run, too. Wagner led the league in steals five times. Fans called him “The Flying Dutchman.” Wagner retired following the 1917 season. His 1909-11 T206 baseball card, rare for debatable reasons, fetches north of $2 million at some auctions.
Quote: “There ain’t much to being a ballplayer, if you’re a ballplayer.” (Source: honuswagner.com)
Where do you start? George Herman Ruth Jr., the troubled youth from Baltimore, the kid who ended up at the St. Mary’s Industrial School for boys, the teenager who learned the finer points of baseball from a Roman Catholic brother, the young man who signed with the Boston Red Sox to pitch, who turned into one of the game’s best hurlers, who was sold to the New York Yankees because the Red Sox owner liked Broadway more than baseball, who quit pitching because he wanted to play every day, who slammed 60 homers in 1927, more than any other team hit in the league, who crushed 714 career home runs, twice as many as anyone else when he retired … His story is incredible, unbelievable and 100 percent true in every way that really matters. The Bambino, the Big Bam, the Sultan of Swat, the Colossus of Clout. He remains an American legend.
Quote: “If I’d tried for them dinky singles I could’ve batted around six hundred.” (Source: baberuth.com)
By Glen Sparks
Ty Cobb played 24 seasons in the major leagues, 3,034 games. Every game was a battle, every season a war. “Cobb was pursued by demons,” MLB historian John Thorn has said.
Born Dec. 18, 1886, in Narrows, Ga., Tyrus Raymond Cobb grew up the son of a school-teacher dad and wealthy mom. Young Ty idolized his dad, who wanted his son to study law or medicine, not play baseball.
The game fascinated young Cobb, though, and he began trying out for various semi-pro clubs. He figured to make it big as a ballplayer and make his dad proud. On Aug. 8, 1905, Amanda Cobb fatally shot her husband, William Herschel Cobb. Charged with murder, Mrs. Cobb was later acquitted of the charge.
W.H. Cobb had suspected his wife of adultery. He left home one night and hoped to sneak back and catch his wife in an act of infidelity. Amanda Cobb shot her husband when she saw a silhouette in the window.
“He never got to see my play,” Ty Cobb always said.
One of the greatest players ever—maybe the greatest ever—competed with a sense of fury in large part because of what happened on that humid August night in 1905.
This is a summary of the life of Ty Cobb.
- “A ball bat is wondrous weapon.” – Ty Cobb
- Cobb batted .240 (150 at-bats) in his rookie season of 1905. He hit at least .316 in every season after that.
- The Georgia Peach won 12 batting titles over his 24-year career (1905-23). He topped the A.L. in hitting every year from 1907-15 and from 1917-19.
- Cobb took home the Triple Crown in 1909. He led the league with nine homers, 107 RBI and a .377 batting average.
- In 11 seasons, Cobb drove in at least 90 runs without reaching double digits in homers. His single-season high mark in home runs was 12 (1921 and 1925).
- Cobb always played the game hard. He famously cut the arm of Philadelphia A’s third baseman Frank “Home Run” Baker after sliding on a close play. Death threats from riled-up A’s fans followed.
- “The great American game should be an unrelenting war of nerves.” – Ty Cobb.
- “He lived on the field as though it was hit last day.” – Branch Rickey
- Cobb committed several violent assaults. He held some detestable racial views, especially early in his career. Once, he went into a rage when a black groundskeeper tried to shake his hand. Later, his racial views reportedly mellowed. He called Willie Mays “the only player I’d pay to see.”
- Cobb put together his lone MVP season in 1911. That year, he led all A.L. players in runs scored (147), hits (248), doubles (47), triples (24), RBI (127), batting average (.420), slugging percentage (.621), OPS (1.088), OPS+ (196) and total baes (367). He finished second in homers (eight) and on-base percentage (.467).
- “I never saw anyone like Ty Cobb. No one even close to him. He was the greatest all-time ballplayer.” – Casey Stengel
- Cobb’s regular-season heroics did not extend into the post-season. He hit .200 (4-for-20) in the 1907 Series, .368 in 1908 (7-for-19) but just one extra-base hit, and .231 (6-for-26) in 1909. The Tigers lost all three Series.
- Cobb served as player-manager for Detroit from 1921-26. His squads compiled a 479-444 (.519) mark and finished as high as second place (83-71-1) in 1923.
- When he retired, Cobb held the major league records for games played (3,035), at-bats (11,434), runs scored (2,246), hits (4,189), total bases (5,854) and batting average (.366). He held the 20th century mark for most career stolen bases (892).
- All told, Cobb led the league in OPS 10 times, hits and slugging percentage eight times, on-base percentage seven times and stolen bases six times.
- Cobb left baseball a wealthy man. He owned thousands of shares of Coca-Cola, along with three bottling plants. He helped build the Cobb Memorial Hospital in Royston, Ga., (now part of the Ty Cobb Regional Medical Center) and the Cobb Educational Fund for needy college-bound students.
- In 1936, Cobb received more votes than any other player on the Baseball Hall of Fame’s inaugural ballot. Writers gave him 222 of 226 possible votes (98.2 percent).
- “You’ve got to remember, I’m 73.” – Ty Cobb later in life, explaining why he might hit just .300 against the day’s pitchers.
- Cobb died July 17, 1961, at the age of 74. He is buried in Rose Hill Cemetery in Royston, Ga.