Ty Cobb as Seen through the Eyes of a Batboy
This article was published in the 2010 The National Pastime.
COLLABORATOR’S NOTE: My friendship with James Fargo (Jimmy) Lanier went back approximately eighteen years, to a time when I helped organize a local baseball conference and learned that the man who had been Ty Cobb’s batboy and then lived in the Atlanta area. I contacted him, and he agreed to participate in the conference. We stayed in touch through notes and by talking at lunches and over the telephone. Throughout our discussions, three consistent threads stand out:
He viewed Ty Cobb as a father figure, and Cobb in turn loved him like a son.
His steadfast loyalty, caring, and love pervaded all discussions of Cobb.
He vividly recalled specific incidents from 70 to 80 years ago.
Jimmy’s image of Ty Cobb differs from the common perception of the man, but I found Jimmy to be honest and forthright—not one to “sugarcoat” any situation. He would tell it as it was! He often said, “I can tell you five good things for every disparaging remark made about Mr. Cobb.” Jimmy shared many memories of Ty Cobb with me, and I want to share some of them with you—just as Jimmy told them to me.
I was born and raised at 2317 Kings Way in Augusta, Georgia. Ty Cobb lived at 2425 Williams Street, about a three-minute walk away, so we were almost next-door neighbors. When I was a little boy, I did not realize that Mr. Cobb (which I always called him) was a baseball player. I knew only that he was Herschel’s dad, and Herschel was my longtime playmate.
At the Cobb house, Mrs. Cobb would give Herschel and me a Ty Cobb candy bar, which was about the same as a Baby Ruth. She would also give us a little slice of cake. Then she would take us down to the baseball spring practice at Warren Park in Augusta.
HOW I GOT TO BE TY COBB’S BATBOY
I would often spend the night over at the Cobbs’, and we’d sit in the living room talking. Mr. Cobb knew of my love for baseball, and one night he said, “Jimmy m’boy”—Mr. Cobb always called me “Jimmy, m’boy,” from beginning to end—“how would you like to be my batboy this year?” I almost fainted. Mr. Cobb said, “Well, you ask your dad and mama if they’ll let you go up to Detroit.” I did, and they said “yes” but that I would have to live with the Cobbs. Of course, I was in school, so I could not go until June.
So instead of beginning my batboy duties in Detroit, I began in spring practice in Augusta. The streetcar went right by my school, so Herschel and I would ride down to Warren Park, where the streetcar terminated. My first job as a batboy was to go into the springtraining dressing rooms, which looked like an old army barracks, and put out little bars of soap and towels. Then I’d pick up the towels and count them after practice. I also would take a shower after the players had taken theirs. I wanted to be a professional player, so I would get up under the shower just as they did.
The team gave me a cap and a uniform that my mother had to alter because it was too big. I was paid five dollars a week out of Mr. Cobb’s pocket. Some of the other players would tip me at spring practice, and sometimes I got an extra quarter to clean Mr. Cobb’s bat. I did lots of special work for Mr. Cobb in spring training. I would take big bones and I’d bone-rub his bats, and then I’d shine them. The shine didn’t last long, you know, but the bats wouldn’t break. I didn’t like to do that work, but I had to; he wanted me to do it, and he hardly ever broke a bat.
The Tigers held spring training in Augusta for five years. When they were there, they did not stay in a hotel. Right across the river north of Augusta, there were some colonial homes in South Carolina. Mr. Cobb rented one of those huge homes and had it converted so the men could stay there and they would have home cooking. They did not eat in restaurants. They liked that. Also, they did not practice on Sundays. A lot of the players liked to play golf, so Mr. Cobb made arrangements for them to play at the Augusta Country Club. However, he did not let his pitchers go because he said that playing golf would tighten their shoulders.
After my school year ended, I worked all of Detroit’s home games during the regular season and a few of the away games—if I had a relative or guardian whom I could stay with. For example, I made a trip to Chicago, when Detroit was playing the White Sox, and stayed with my aunt. I went to Chicago with the team, and my aunt met me. Of course the players spent the night in a hotel, and after the game I went back to Detroit with my aunt on the train.
TY COBB’S TRAINING AND PREPARATION FOR A GAME
Mr. Cobb said that two things all ballplayers should do is drink a lot of water and get plenty of sleep. From my batboy’s vantage point, I would watch Mr. Cobb work out as a player (he was also player-manager) for hours at a time. He would set an example for the other players on the team by leading an unbelievably rigorous daily training and practice routine; the other players just could not keep up with him. He constantly said, “Practice, practice, practice!” Mr. Cobb would run several miles every day, run the bases “for time” over and over, and spend a couple of hours every day just bunting the ball. He had a way of drawing the bat back and hitting the ball into the ground so the ball would roll slowly. The third baseman could not get to it in time, and Mr. Cobb would be on first base.
He taught all his players how to bunt and hit. He taught Harry Heilmann how to hit, and later in Mr. Cobb’s career, Heilmann regularly beat him in hitting. He would tell his catchers over and over—hundreds of times—not to throw the ball to the fielder but instead to throw it to the bag so that the ball would be there before the runner.
TY COBB’S COMPETITIVE SPIRIT AND HIS ABILITY TO INFLUENCE THE OUTCOME OF A GAME
Mr. Cobb was a ferocious and fearless competitor! He always wanted to be number one in everything he did (and he almost was). The origin of this was his father’s telling him, when he left home to play baseball, that if he was not successful not to come home. This message was ingrained in him! Of all the players that I ever saw, no other player had the heightened level of competitive spirit that Mr. Cobb had from the first day I saw him play to the last day.
Because of Mr. Cobb’s ability to utilize his speed and base-stealing skills to intimidate the opposition, he was a constant threat to influence the outcome of any game. The opposing team knew that he was a fast and daring runner. When he was on a base, he would not hesitate to steal any base, including home. This not only put a tremendous amount of pressure on the pitcher worrying about him as a baserunner, but it also took the pitcher’s concentration off the batter. As you may know, in his major-league career, he stole 897 bases, including stealing home 50 times—a major league record. Mr. Cobb was a threat to steal any base in any situation regardless of the score, the pitch count, or the batter, so the intimidation factor was always prevalent.
I feel that I must address the commonly held rumor—written and spoken by many as fact—that Mr. Cobb sharpened his spikes. I am telling you as Mr. Cobb’s batboy who was there, it never happened. I cleaned his spikes every day, serviced his locker, and never saw a file or any indication that he sharpened his spikes. Moreover, I was in his home one day when several friends asked him if he sharpened his spikes, and he said he never did on any occasion. Although I never heard Mr. Cobb say so, I believe he used the “sharpening the spikes” rumor as an advantage, making the opposing players fearful of getting cut trying to tag him when he slid into a base.
MR. COBB’S VISITORS IN AUGUSTA
Some of the frequent visitors Mr. Cobb befriended were Tris Speaker, Eddie Collins, Lu Blue, Moe Berg, Joe Tinker, and Grantland Rice. They all came to visit Mr. Cobb’s home in Augusta, where I was a frequent diner and always sat at the right of Mr. Cobb, and Herschel would sit by my father.
Mr. Speaker was a very friendly man, but he was abrupt. Eddie Collins was very funny. Grantland Rice was very nice, and he liked to “kid” (joke around with) me.
Even though Mr. Cobb said he was not going to play anymore after 1926, he signed up with Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics. Just prior to that, I asked, “Mr. Cobb, you’re not going to stop playing, are you?” and he said, “Jimmy m’boy, I think I am.” I could only reply, “Well then, I’ve lost my job.”
When Mr. Cobb went to Philadelphia in 1927, he joined Eddie Collins. The following year, he helped convince Connie Mack to hire Tris Speaker, bringing the three great Hall of Fame players together for one year.
RECOLLECTIONS OF BABE RUTH AND CONNIE MACK
I liked Babe Ruth because he could hit a lot of home runs. Mr. Ruth was very friendly, and he particularly liked children. His bat was very heavy and oversized. On a hot day, the Babe would put a cabbage leaf on top of his head; he said it kept him cool.
Mr. Cobb and Babe Ruth were very competitive on and off the field in a friendly way. I recall one occasion when Babe Ruth hit a tremendous home run, and when he was coming around third base, he yelled at Mr. Cobb, “Now do you want to tell me how to hit?!” Off the field, they competed against each other playing a lot of golf.
I met Connie Mack in Philadelphia when Mr. Cobb was playing for the Athletics. I was no longer a batboy, but Mr. Cobb had me and his son, Herschel, visit him in Philadelphia. Mr. Cobb said, “Herschel, take ‘Jimmy m’boy’ up to the office.” There I met Connie Mack, who was having his lunch—a sandwich and a glass of milk. He ordered the same thing for me, and we ate together and talked about baseball. Mr. Mack was very quiet and humble, and he never went down on the field before a game while the players were warming up.
FAVORABLE COMMENTS ABOUT TY COBB
Another inaccurate rumor about Mr. Cobb was that his teammates made negative comments about him behind his back. I had the run of the dressing room every day and always listened intently to what the players were saying. On no occasion did I ever hear any player make any derogatory comments about Mr. Cobb. Instead, I heard positive remarks and players talking to one another about getting him to help them with their playing skills.
One day, a foul ball by Detroit Tigers shortstop Jackie Tavener hit a woman who was sitting in the stands. Mr. Cobb went up to see if she was all right. She said that she was okay; however, Mr. Cobb told her to go and see a doctor and he would pay for whatever expenses she incurred.
One day when the Tigers were playing the Yankees, another foul ball gave Mr. Cobb a chance to show his gentler side. When one of the Yankees hit a foul ball down the leftfield line, a young boy ran onto the field and picked the ball up. But the umpire took the ball away from the boy. From his position in centerfield, Mr. Cobb saw what happened, and when he had the opportunity, he beckoned to the boy and gave him a new baseball.
Another incident involved a farm boy who had just been plowing the fields and did not look well. Mr. Cobb heard him ask for directions to Lynnwood, a veterans’ hospital in Augusta. A man told the boy how to get there on a streetcar, but Mr. Cobb said that he lived near there and would take him in his car. While they were riding, Mr. Cobb slipped the boy a twenty-dollar bill.
Mr. Cobb was accused of being a racist, but I never saw any evidence of such racism on or off the field. I saw black people who worked around the Cobb house treated with respect and friendliness. When the workers got sick, Mr. Cobb paid their medical expenses.
Mr. Cobb gave generously to many charities, including a retirement home and the hospital in Royston, Georgia, that now houses the Ty Cobb Museum. He also gave millions of dollars for the implementation of a scholarship fund for students who are residents of Georgia. Recipients did not have to be honor students, but their parents had to show a commitment to their children’s finishing their education.
MY FRIENDSHIP WITH MR. COBB AFTER HE RETIRED FROM BASEBALL
After Mr. Cobb’s playing days were over, he and I stayed in communication with each other and were close friends to the end. My office and home were in Atlanta. Mr. Cobb owned a lot of property in Augusta and still had many close ties there. Mr. Cobb made frequent trips to Atlanta; he would call me at my office, and we would meet for lunch at the Biltmore Hotel. On a typical visit, we would have a sandwich and eat in Mr. Cobb’s room because so many people recognized him that he was not able to eat his lunch downstairs in the restaurant. We would reminisce about “the good old days.”
On one occasion, I asked Mr. Cobb whom he would pick as his all-time all-star team. He told me that he would select only players he actually saw play. His all-star team was as follows:
Catcher: Mickey Cochrane
First Base: George Sisler
Second Base: Eddie Collins
Shortstop: Honus Wagner
Third Base: Pie Traynor
Left Field: Joe Jackson
Center Field: Tris Speaker
Right Field: Babe Ruth
He played with or against most of these players in the American League. Wagner and Traynor were National Leaguers whom Mr. Cobb saw when they played for Pittsburgh against Detroit in the 1909 World Series or in exhibition games.
THE LAST TIME I SAW MR. COBB
Now I want to tell you about the last time I saw Mr. Cobb. I learned that my longtime friend was in Emory Hospital (in Atlanta), where he had been very sick for several days. On July 15, 1961, I hurriedly went to the hospital to see him. When I asked the nurse on duty if I could go in and see Mr. Cobb, she said, “No. He wouldn’t recognize you.” So I called into the room in a low voice, asking members of Mr. Cobb’s family if I could come into the room to see him. They responded by telling the nurse that I was a very close friend of Mr. Cobb’s and to let me see him. I went slowly into the room toward the bed where Mr. Cobb was lying. He looked like he was asleep, but I bent over the bed and said, “Mr. Cobb, this is ‘Jimmy m’boy.’” I thought he responded by moving his mouth slightly. I like to think I heard him speak, but it might have been just my imagination. I then squeezed his hand very gently and said again, “Mr. Cobb, this is ‘Jimmy m’boy,’” and I thought he responded by squeezing my hand back. Again, I’m not sure he actually did react to me, but I like to believe he did. I knew it was time to leave, and when I got to the door, I saluted him and said, “Goodbye, Mr. Cobb.” That was the last time I ever saw him. Two days later (on July 17, 1961), Mr. Cobb died.
MILLARD FISHER writes and speaks on medicine and health issues. He is a consultant to the World Future Society, the Centers for Disease Control, and the National Institutes for Health.
COLLABORATOR’S NOTE: On February 13, 2010, my dear friend Mr. Jimmy Lanier, Ty Cobb’s former batboy, passed away peacefully in his sleep at age 93. He was a man of great character who exemplified all the good things in life. I shall miss our telephone conversations, lunches, and other visits—and all those wonderful discussions about baseball, with most of those focused on Ty Cobb. Just as Jimmy saluted Ty Cobb as he was dying at Emory Hospital, I salute Mr. Lanier and say, “Goodbye, my friend. Rest in peace; you played the game well.”