This article was written by Anthony Papalas
This article was published in the 1984 Baseball Research Journal
In the summer of 1908 Tyrus Cobb, the Georgia Peach, discovered a ten-year-old black orphan, Lil’ Rastus, hanging around the Detroit ballpark. Cobb became the boy’s protector, feeding and housing him and eventually taking him to Georgia. The relationship of Cobb and Lil Rastus opens up the question of Cobb’s attitude towards blacks, a topic this essay aims to explore.
Lil’ Rastus made his appearance in Bennett Park in July 1908 when the Tigers, who were in the thick of a pennant race, were in a slump. The homeless black boy sought shelter in the stands. The Tigers immediately went on a winning streak, and many of the players attributed the luck to the presence of Lil’ Rastus. Cobb took a liking to the boy and often gave him food. The players allowed him to sleep in the clubhouse at night. In return Lil’ Rastus became the batboy and did errands for the players.
When the Tigers went on the road, they left their mascot behind and ran into a losing streak. Upon their return to Bennett Park, they resumed their winning ways. Wild Bill Coughlin, the Tigers’ captain and third baseman, was so convinced that Lil’ Rastus was a good luck charm that he would not bat unless he ran his hand through the boy’s hair.
When the Detroit players hit the road again, they took Rastus with them. H.G. Salsinger, the baseball journalist who began covering the Detroit team in 1909, wrote that Cobb was the “Ethiopian’s main defender and patron.”
Cobb would hide Rastus under his bunk and then sneak him into his hotel room. Rastus, however, did not always play the discreet role the Detroit players wanted him to assume. Rastus would leave his room and strut in front of the other Negro bellhops letting them know that he was a guest though blacks were not permitted to stay in the hotel.
Salsinger liked Lil Rastus as much as the Detroit players did and described the lad as “rich in experience but poor financially. All of his problems are a result of his membership to the colored race.” But Lil Rastus’ luck ran out. When the Tigers returned home at the beginning of September, they began to lose games, and it was decided that Lil’ Rastus had to go.
Furthermore, things were starting to disappear from the clubhouse and there was a strong suspicion that Lil Rastus was selling balls, bats and equipment that he found laying around.
Cobb generally hid him in a locker or took other measures to protect his good-luck charm. But now that the team was losing and Cobb himself was in a bad slump, Lil’ Rastus was kicked out of the clubhouse. He did not want to go and looked back with a soulful expression at the Detroit players who stood at the clubhouse door.
Lil Rastus went over to the Chicago Cubs when they arrived for the World Series. They put him on their bench during the games. He promised to put a whammy on his erstwhile friends, and when the Tigers proceeded to drop four out of five they believed he had succeeded.
Lil Rastus was brought back by the Tigers and kept for the 1909 season. On one occasion George Mullin “stole” the lad, who was hidden under Cobb’s bunk, and put him under his. Mullin pitched a shutout the following day and got three hits. Mullin, not wanting to fight Cobb, surrendered Lil’ Rastus to the Georgia Peach, who kept him under his bed in the hotels. When the season ended, Cobb took the boy to Augusta because he needed a domestic, particularly now that President Taft was going to stop and play golf.
Lil Rastus got about as close as a black man could to the major leagues in the rag-time era of baseball. Racism was casually accepted.
Besides mascots like Lil Rastus there were black trainers. Some of them were believed to have magical therapeutic powers as “rubbers,” masseurs. The best known was Doc Buckner, trainer of the Chicago White Sox, who had extraordinary skills in physiotherapy. But like Lil Rastus he had to be hidden on trains, and when the White Sox played in Detroit they somehow managed to furtively get Buckner into a room at the Book Cadillac and keep him from public view. The hotel managers throughout the American League generally turned a blind eye to these activities.
While Cobb was in agreement with the prevailing view of the time that blacks should be relegated to a peripheral role in major league baseball, his racial theories were more extreme than those of most his teammates. When Cobb arrived in Detroit, he was one of only two southerners on the Detroit team and, in fact, one of the few southerners in the big leagues. Fred Lieb, the baseball correspondent who knew Cobb for many years, thought that Cobb eventually became a member of the KKK. In any event, Cobb displayed hostility towards blacks which surprised even his teammates.
During spring training in March 1907 Cobb became involved in a racial incident that nearly led to his being traded from the Detroit club. The Augusta Baseball Club, which was hosting the Tigers for spring training, employed a Negro groundskeeper known as Bungy. While three Detroit and two Augusta newspapers vary in details of the incident, they agree on the following essential points:
Bungy, who had apparently known Cobb from his days with the Augusta Tourists, greeted the young star in a familiar fashion: “How you doin’, Georgia Peach?” Cobb ignored Bungy, who was his cups, up to the point where Bungy tried to shake his hand. Infuriated, Cobb chased the drunken groundskeeper, who must have been a good athlete in his own right, to a little shack on the edge of the field where the man and his wife lived.
Cobb was in the process of kicking in the door, according to newspaper accounts, when Bungy’s wife opened up and shouted, “Go way, white man, we didn’t done nothing to you.” Cobb had by now gone berserk. He threw the black women down and began to choke her in full view of the Detroit players and the fans who had come early to watch batting practice.
The Detroit players ran to the scene, led by Charlie Schmidt, the only other southerner on the team. Schmidt, known as the Arkansas strongboy, pulled Cobb off the stunned woman, and the two men began fighting. The Detroit players hated Cobb for incidents that had taken place in the 1906 season and were anticipating the satisfaction of seeing him manhandled by Schmidt, the strongest man in baseball. But Cobb was a hometown boy, and if that happened and it was related to a racial incident, there would probably be a riot. The racial climate in Georgia at that time was particularly tense. Blacks had recently been disenfranchised, and there was a series of lynchings in and around the Augusta area.
Hughie Jennings, the Tigers’ rookie manager, broke up the fight and waited until the team left Georgia before he would permit the two men to settle the affair. In the meantime, Jennings tried to trade Cobb, but no team was willing to give a player of merit.
This incident did not moderate Cobb’s racial views. In July 1907 he was leaving the Ponchartrain Hotel in Detroit, his residence, and stepped into freshly-poured asphalt. In his autobiography, Cobb claimed that he was forced into the asphalt by a speeding automobile and that the black construction worker insulted him. A fight ensued, and by all accounts, Cobb was very lucky that he got off with a $75 fine. Apparently, the judge did not believe the version that Cobb offered in My Life In Baseball.
A more serious fracas took place in September 1909. The Tigers were in Cleveland involved in a tight pennant race, and Cobb to unwind spent an evening on the town with George Cohan. He returned to his room in the Euclid Hotel in the early morning hours only to be confronted by a black night watchman who wanted to know who he was. The watchman had a blackjack and Cobb had a knife. They both used their weapons and Cobb won the fight. To avoid incarceration he fled the city.
During the 1909 World Series with Pittsburgh Cobb could not travel from Detroit with other members of his team through Cleveland to Pittsburgh but had to take a more circuitous route to avoid Cleveland authorities. Frank Navin hired the best lawyer in Cleveland and paid an enormous fee to have the case settled. He then wrote a fatherly letter to his star telling him, “Now, Ty, let this be a lesson.”
Things did not work out well for Lil Rastus in Augusta. For some reason, Cobb dismissed him and took in a certain Alex Reeves as a replacement. He met Reeves in New Orleans during spring training in 1911. Apparently, he took care of Cobb’s equipment. In June 1911 he wrote to Cobb in Detroit, “Maste Cobb, please jest rite me a word for the Lord’s sake. I want to show it to these niggers down here what says I don’t know you. Jes one line maste Cobb, please!” Cobb sent him a postcard with his photo on it and commented to a reporter, “Old Alex, he’s the best darky I ever saw.”
Reeves remained with Cobb for many years, and the Georgia Peach boasted that he had a “Negro mammy and lived peaceably with colored folk.” Cobb indeed did appreciate blacks like Lil Rastus and Reeves who accepted their social inferiority, but he was extremely hostile to those who showed some measure of independence. On several occasions, he entered the stands to fight blacks who booed him, and he continued to fight with blacks throughout the country. Cobb’s career, however, did not suffer because journalists reported these fracases as if they were amusing incidents. Cobb was a national star, always a good story, and it did not pay to dwell on his twisted nature.