Paul O'Neill 21: On the Fiftieth Anniversary of Ty Cobb's Death


Ty Cobb will never be remembered as professional baseball’s best citizen. Only his on-field performances keep him alive today. An admitted racist (stabbed an African-American elevator operator for being ‘uppity’ and settled out of court), a dirty player (sharpened his spikes before games) and a thug (went into the stands and beat up a crippled man for jeering him), this tremendous batsman, great base stealer, this player for the eons had few real friends in Detroit or back home in Georgia. He was abrasive, pathologically competitive and normally mean. One might expect that from a baseball genius whose mother ended his father’s life with a shotgun blast. She told the police that she thought the senior Mr. Cobb was a burglar. Oh, really?

Admittedly, most geniuses are tortured, in one way or another. You have to be strange to concentrate on a sport so relentlessly as Cobb did.

Paul’s Uncle Clark was the youngest of eight children from a Depression-era family. An amateur catcher, he was the nicest of guys. He could see the humor and goodness in just about anyone. He married a southern girl and ended up living near Atlanta. He met Ty late into the The Georgia Peach’s retirement. Actually, he carried Cobb to his final retirement as a pallbearer.

He was one of Cobb’s few friends, as the greatest hitter for average in baseball history bemoaned modern players' lack of fundamentals, how few friends he had and how others had constantly tried to undermine him. In some ways, he was a bitter old man dying of cancer, drinking a quart of bourbon a day to dull the pain. But Clark knew another side of this baseball titan. Clark told of the practical jokes Cobb enjoyed playing on people. One involved a fake cop hassling a priest at a hospital. The priest loved gin and had been nipping the bottle before going to visit a mutual friend. Bedside, the pretend cop cited some obscure law about drunkenness in public hospitals and had the priest praying on his knees not to be arrested before he realized the joke was on him.

Cobb put his shrewdness to better uses as an astute businessman. He died with over 11 million dollars in assets which in today’s dollars is over 80 million. He funded the building of a small hospital and scholarships late in life. Ty, whose first big contract was $7,500 a year, was an early investor in the Coca-Cola Company. He helped Uncle Clark get contracts to haul Coke from Atlanta by truck all over the country. I remember Uncle Clark taking me, Paul and our brothers to the Coke factory and how we could just grab a can off the conveyor and drink it. We weren’t allowed to have soft drinks at home as regular fare, (too expensive and bad for the teeth according to mom). The excitement was like being in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory to us. All the forbidden junk we could drink in one hour.

In some ways, Cobb was a wretch. In other ways, he was kind and genuine to people, one recipient being my Uncle Clark. All the pictures of Clark and Ty were destroyed in a flood in the early Nineties in Aunt Jane’s basement, but I still have the pictures in my head. Clark has been gone since the Eighties and is royally missed. We will always have his stories.

PHOTO: Paul’s Uncle Clark (near-right with flower in his lapel) carries Ty Cobb's coffin to his family’s crypt in Royston, GA in July, 1961.

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