Looking Back at Ty Cobb’s Big League Debut

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When Ty Cobb stepped foot into a big league ballpark, it was also the first time the southerner had never been above the Mason-Dixon Line.

Detroit, at that time on the precipice of a technological revolution that would transform it into the most important manufacturing city in the world, was the largest place Ty had ever seen.

It was late August in 1905, and the Detroit Tigers had purchased Cobb’s contract from the Augusta Tourists of the Sally League. Ty was as inexperienced in the ways of big league baseball as possibly any rookie had ever been. He was anxious and he was also heartbroken. Just weeks earlier, Cobb’s father had been killed by a gunshot. Tragically it was his mother who pulled the trigger. With that death ringing in his psyche, and with his mother facing murder charges, the 19-year old Cobb was preparing to make his major league debut.

After a few missed connections, Cobb arrived in Detroit by train on August 29, and checked in to a hotel within walking distance of Bennett Park. Detroit’s Bennett Park was located on the corner of Michigan and Trumbull in the heart of the city in a section called “Corktown,” because of the predominance of Irish immigrants living there. Cobb reported to the park on August 30, just over three weeks after the death of his father. He was ready to start his big league career.

The Detroit Free Press, writing of his arrival and his minor league batting success, speculated that the young Georgian “wouldn’t pile up anything like that in this league.”

Cobb saw action immediately with the Tigers, who were hosting the New York Highlanders in the second of a three-game series. Bennett Park was named for Charlie Bennett, a star for the National League’s Detroit Wolverines in the 1880s. A catcher, Bennett’s career was ended abruptly when he lost both of his legs in a terrible train accident in 1894. Bennett had been tremendously popular in Detroit, and in 1900, when the city earned a team in the Western League (later to become the American League), their ballpark was named in his honor.

The Highlanders, later to be known as the Yankees, started ace “Happy Jack” Chesbro, a master of the spitball. The previous season, Chesbro had won an amazing 41 games and pitched more than 400 innings for the New York club. The Tigers, managed by Bill Armour, countered with “Big George” Mullin, a fidgety right-hander from Wabash, Indiana. In front of an afternoon crowd of approximately 1,200 fans, Cobb hit fifth in the lineup, playing center field. Armour’s Tigers, due to injury, had a shortage in the outfield. In the bottom of the first inning, the Tigers hit Chesbro hard, putting together a double, single, and a sacrifice bunt to plate one run and move another runner to third. With one out, the left-handed hitting Cobb strolled to the plate for his first major league at-bat. Using the hands-apart grip that he’d perfected as a boy in Georgia, 18-year old Ty Cobb peered out at Jack Chesbro and tried to overcome the nerves that were causing his stomach to twist and turn. The first pitch he saw was a high fastball that he swung through and missed. The next offering from Chesbro was a spitter that fooled Cobb for strike two. Chesbro then returned to his fastball, sending a pitch into the heart of the strike zone that Cobb met with a flick of his bat. The ball soared into the left-center field gap where it was retrieved by New York left fielder Noodles Hahn, whose throw to second base was a split second too late to catch the sliding Georgian. “Pinky” Lindsay, the Tigers’ runner on third, trotted home to make the score 2-0. Ty Cobb had his first hit, first run batted in, and first double in the big leagues, having victimized one of the best pitchers in the league. Ty walked against Chesbro his next time up, and with Sam Crawford in front of him on second base, Cobb was out on the backend of a double steal attempt, but it did little to dampen the day for the Tigers, as they vanquished the Highlanders, 5-3. In center field, Cobb handled two putouts without incident and his first big league game was under his belt.

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Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes is the author of three books about baseball, including Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and Major League Baseball Advanced Media. He lives in Michigan where he writes, runs, and enjoys a good orange soda now and again.
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