Under a warm summer sun, fans strained to catch a glimpse of two of baseball’s greatest stars battling each other. Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth, once tough competitors on the baseball field, were at it again.
But this competition did not take place on a diamond – the battle occured instead on the rolling hills of a golf course. It was the rubber match of an amazing golf tournament between the “Georgia Peach” and the “Sultan of Swat.” It was the final chapter in their sometimes bitter rivalry.
Cobb and Ruth each made his fame playing baseball, displaying remarkable talents that earned them countless records, accolades, money and election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936. But they were two very different personalities, which fueled their rivalry.
“He was much more adjusted to life than Cobb was,” said Ruth biographer Robert Creamer. “Ruth had a lot more fun playing ball than Cobb.”
By contrast, Cobb was tightly wound. As author Tristram Coffin wrote, “Cobb both fascinated people and made them uneasy.”
Cobb channeled that uneasiness and used it to his advantage, turning each 90-foot stretch between bases into a war zone. He had no time for making friends. Ruth, however, approached life with a child-like obsession. His approach to the game of baseball was markedly different from Cobb’s:
“I swing as hard as I can, and I try to swing right through the ball,” Ruth once boasted. “The harder you grip the bat, the more you can swing it through the ball, and the farther the ball will go. I swing big, with everything I’ve got. I hit big or I miss big. I like to live as big as I can.” Cobb, the master of baseball’s “inside game” scoffed at Ruth’s methods. To Cobb, the game was a mental struggle in which each man had to out-think, out-fight and out-maneuver his opponent. Ruth’s raw power game was an abomination to him.
Ruth defended his game: “I could have had a lifetime .600 average, but I would have had to hit them singles. The people were paying to see me hit home runs.”
Ruth hit home runs in bunches and he hit them higher and farther than any other player ever had. As the game changed around Cobb, he bristled.
In addition, Cobb had no respect for Ruth’s brazen disregard for training. Despite Ruth’s mammoth indulgences of food, drink and party, he continued to swat home runs. This fact irritated Cobb, who took precious care of his body during his playing days.
These factors fueled the tumultuous relationship between Cobb and Ruth. Their rivalry was punctuated by several colorful episodes.
In a four-game series between Ruth’s New York Yankees and Cobb’s Detroit Tigers in June 1921 at the Polo Grounds, the Babe belted six homers and hurled a complete-game victory. Frequently, Cobb ducked and dodged out of the way of pitches aimed at his skull by Yankees pitchers. Consequently, games between the “Ty-gers” and Ruth’s Yankees were often the sport’s biggest draw during the 1920s.
To prove that it was much easier to hit homers than play his brand of baseball, prior to a series against the St. Louis Browns in 1925, Cobb declared that he would try to hit the ball out of the park for the first time in his career. In the first game, Cobb hit three homers and went 6-for-6. The following day he added two more home runs, tying a record with five homers in two consecutive games – something even Ruth had never accomplished. The next day, Cobb went back to slapping the ball.
In 1924, the Tigers were forced to forfeit a game to the visiting Yankees when a brawl ensued after Yankees pitchers retaliated for pitches thrown over Ruth’s head the previous afternoon. Ruth insisted he had seen Cobb signal the brushback pitches from centerfield. The two nearly came to blows, but Yankees manager Miller Huggins and other players separated them.
Through years of competition, both had their share of success. Cobb batted .326 against Ruth, while Ruth belted more homers in Detroit than he did in any ballpark besides Yankee Stadium.
But after years of animosity, a thaw finally occurred. As spectators at the 1924 World Series, Cobb and Ruth posed shaking hands, and later sat together. During the course of the game, the two mended their differences. Never again did they exchange a bad word on the diamond.
In 1941, golf promoter Fred Corcoran decided to dust off the old rivalry, and suggested a series of golf matches between Cobb and Ruth to benefit charity. But the 54-year-old Cobb, six years older than Ruth, declined. Cobb belonged to eight golf clubs at one time – including Augusta National, where he played with golf legend Bobby Jones – but didn’t feel his game was at its best. Then Corcoran sent a telegram to Cobb: “If you want to come here and get your brains knocked out, come on.” He signed it “Babe Ruth.”
That was enough to coax Cobb into the match. He replied, “I could always lick (Ruth) on a ballfield and I can lick him on a golf course now.”
As the victor, Cobb earned a trophy, presented by actress Bette Davis. He was so proud of the prize that he placed it on his mantel, next to the replica of his bronze Hall of Fame plaque.
For the rest of their years, Cobb and Ruth enjoyed a good relationship, often seeing each other at old-timers games. “I can’t honestly say that I appreciate the way in which he changed baseball,” Cobb said. “But he was the most natural and unaffected man I ever knew.”