Marking a legend: Unofficial sign in Anniston claims Ty Cobb greatest baseball player ever

Marking a legend: Unofficial sign in Anniston claims Ty Cobb greatest baseball player ever

A marker in honor of baseball player Ty Cobb was placed in April at the corner of 10th Street and Quintard Avenue in Anniston. While playing baseball for the Anniston Steelers, Cobb boarded in a row house that was on the site in 1904. Photo: Trent Penny/The Anniston Star

The hallowed plaque on display at the National Baseball Hall of Fame doesn't anoint Ty Cobb as the best baseball player of all time. It refuses to make that claim. Researchers in Cooperstown, N.Y., even shy away from such bold and intrepid pronouncements about any big-leaguer.

But Anniston has decreed it as gospel.

No attribution. No equivocation. No proof.

Thanks to a marker erected in April at the former site of a row house where the 18-year-old Georgian briefly boarded in 1904, Anniston lists Cobb as the best — which, by default, places his name above those of Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Hank Aaron or any of the game's all-time greats.

Intentional or not, the marker's declaration — that Cobb "became the greatest baseball player of all time" — has fueled a barroom debate over a delicious but unanswerable question. And for Calhoun County Commissioner Eli Henderson, who wrote those now-inscribed words but did not vet their authenticity through the Alabama Historical Commission or Alabama Historical Association, it's placed his opinion of baseball history squarely, and perhaps uncomfortably, under scrutiny.

Researchers in Cooperstown, site of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, were curious to hear that an Alabama politician had made such a declaration.

"They might chuckle about it," Henderson said. "But I wrote it. I'll stick by it. I think it's the truth."

The statistical proof

There is no way to prove that Cobb, who resided in Anniston as a minor-league player just fewer than 100 days in the summer of 1904, was the best ever. Yet, his career statistics, as seen through the lens of a game changed through time, remain a staggering testament to his greatness.

His .376 career batting average remains the highest ever. He still leads baseball with 2,245 career runs scored. He won 12 batting titles in 13 years, including nine in a row from 1907 to 1915. He hit better than .400 three times. He hit under .320 just once — his first season — and he hit more than .320 for 23 straight seasons.

In perhaps the strongest evidence of his worth, Cobb was the highest vote-getter among the Hall of Fame's inaugural class in 1936, joining fellow inductees Ruth, Wagner, Johnson and Christy Mathewson. In that tabulation he received 98.2 percent of the votes — more than 3 percentage points higher than Ruth, the charismatic home-run hitter who today is often fans' popular choice as the best player of all time.

That voting is a main reason why people such as Augusta, Ga., author Don Rhodes, who has written extensively on Cobb and his legacy, defend the assertion that Cobb is the best to ever lace up a pair of spikes.

"All you have to do is go to the very first five inductees," Rhodes said. "Ty Cobb was the very first inductee in the very first round. In the first round of balloting (by the sports writers of that time), Cobb got the most votes. That settles it for me."

Nevertheless, that Hall of Fame voting doesn't universally settle the debate. Cooperstown experts agree that Cobb, even with his damaged and hotly contested reputation as a Southern-born racist, should be considered among the best to ever play the game.

Hall of Fame library researcher Gabriel Schechter points to a collection of historical surveys that offer different opinions about the game's greatest players. There's no doubt that the debate today is difficult, if not impossible, to arbitrate.

"(Cobb) certainly remains one (of) the 30 greatest (players)," Schechter said. "He would certainly be in one of the top five or top ten historians' lists of the greatest players."

But the best? The most recent poll of historical merit that lists Cobb as the best, Schechter said, is a 1942 survey conducted by The Sporting News, which polled a noteworthy collection of former major league players and managers. Of the 102 votes cast, Cobb received 60. Wagner, the Pittsburgh slugger, received 17 votes and finished second.

Perhaps more impressive was the partial list of standout players and managers from that era who voted for Cobb: Johnson, Tris Speaker, Eddie Collins, George Sisler, Connie Mack and Clark Griffith.

In the intervening decades, however, the perception of Cobb's greatness seems to have declined. A 1969 survey by Major League Baseball listed Ruth as the greatest ever. A 1998 Sporting News poll had Ruth, Willie Mays and Cobb as its top three. A 1999 poll by the renowned Society for Baseball Research (SABR) listed Cobb as the No. 7-ranked player. A 1999 poll by The Associated Press ranked Cobb fifth.

SABR official Bill Nowlin, in an e-mail to The Star, estimated that his 6,500-member organization might produce "500 different opinions as to whom the best player of all time might have been."

For author Tom Stanton of New Baltimore, Mich., who also has written on Cobb, the question is more complex than a simple yes-or-no answer. Stanton sees Cobb as being a casualty to the changing values system employed by historians of the game.

"Baseball historians (today) see run production and the home run as being symbolic of greatness on the field instead of singles and stealing bases," Stanton said. "The expectations have changed; we look for greatness on the field in a different way.

"But by the measure of his time, those who saw Cobb and Ruth play thought Cobb was the greatest ever … It's unfortunate that Cobb's reputation among those who try to name the best of all time has declined."

Cobb's stats, however, are cemented in Cooperstown lore.

"It's an old saying that you can prove anything with numbers," Rhodes said. "That's what it comes down to, I guess."

A legacy still debated

The unpleasant component of Cobb's legacy hasn't dissolved with time. His reputed racist leanings and status as an uncaring, rough-hewn player remain both intact and debated to this day. Of course, neither of those issues is mentioned on Anniston's Quintard Avenue marker.

Documentarian Ken Burns, in his landmark work Baseball, vilified Cobb for his racist beliefs. The late author Al Stump, whose mid-1990s book, Cobb, remains the most quoted work on the player's life, did little to underplay the notion of The Georgia Peach's racism.

In differing ways, authors Rhodes and Stanton take exception with those beliefs and attempt to put Cobb's legacy in a more appealing, and humane, light.

Rhodes' viewpoint is clear. "I totally take exception with Al Stump's book. It was all lies. The movie (the 1994 production based in part on Stump's book) is even worse."

Stanton is a bit less dramatic. "(Cobb) has done nothing since he died in 1961 to tarnish his reputation, but his reputation has continued to spiral downward. He certainly was not the nicest player to play the game; he certainly was no saint."

But Stanton says Cobb's legacy is damaged because he held early 20th-century viewpoints that were all too common in America during those years.

"There's this temptation by baseball to scapegoat Ty Cobb," Stanton said, "when the sad fact is that his views on race relations in his time unfortunately weren't that abnormal. When we look back and tag Cobb as a racist, well, baseball didn't address its racism until 20 years after (Cobb) retired. He's become a symbol for racism, and I think that's unfair."

Over time, Stanton said, Cobb's attitude changed, but that's rarely reported. "By the late 1940s, he's talking favorably about different African-American players; he supports the integration of the game."

Have cash, erect a marker

Henderson, the Calhoun County commissioner, paints a much simpler, organic story about the city's Cobb marker. No talk of racism, just baseball, tourism and Southern pride.

A host of people in the county, Henderson said, had tried for some time to erect something in Cobb's memory. The Alabama Historical Association even has on file a copy of the proposed language from an unsuccessful 2007 effort to erect a Cobb marker in Anniston. Had it been erected, it would not have listed Cobb as the game's all-time best.

But Henderson, and others, would not give up. He said he worked with former Anniston City Councilman Stan Bennett on the expense, and they agreed that the city and county would split the $1,635 cost of the marker. Instead of having a certified marker vetted and endorsed by either the state historical association or commission, Henderson said the sign was ordered independently from Sewah Studios of Marietta, Ohio, which makes the official markers for 26 states, including Alabama. Its Web site carries this statement: "Cast aluminum historical markers: 'History on a stick.'"

Henderson and Anniston's Cobb enthusiasts then had the marker installed and held a public ceremony to mark the occasion.

Yet, the marker is not official by state of Alabama standards. In fact, Norwood Kerr, who oversees the AHA's marker committee, said he wasn't aware the marker had been erected until he read a newspaper account. Even so, Rhodes believes Anniston may be one of only four cities — joining Detroit, Atlanta and Royston, Ga. — to have a Cobb marker or statue.

Henderson remains proud of the marker and the decision to decree Cobb as the best ever to play the game. He anticipates it bringing in a touch of tourism revenue. He even laughs when he tells the story of Calhoun County Commission executive secretary Janice Howard asking him beforehand about the "best-ever" wording on the marker.

"I (told her) that's debatable, but I'm a sports nut and he still holds the record for the highest batting average ever," Henderson said. "I said I don't know that he was for a fact (the best ever). But I said it will enhance the sign and enhance the legend."

Calhoun County Commissioner Rudy Abbott, the former baseball coach at Jacksonville State University and a member of the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, took part in the Cobb marker ceremony — but he said he did not help Henderson write the marker's wording. Ask him to name the best-ever player and he mentions Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle and Roberto Clemente as strong contenders. But Cobb? "I'm not sure, because I never saw him play. But I'll tell you one thing, he was the greatest player to ever play in Anniston."

For Stanton, the Michigan author, the sign's "best-ever" verbage can't be proven, but it's wholly acceptable given Cobb's place in baseball lore and his brief tenure as a teenaged ballplayer at modern-day Zinn Park.

"If you can't make that statement in places where he appeared, then probably it can't be made anywhere," Stanton said. "I think we all allow for some hyperbole in such signs. I think you should be allowed to make that claim and not get too much of an argument."