Ty Cobb is a distant legend to this generation of baseball fans -- a name out of the game's faraway past, and one usually heard now only when a Lou Brock or a Pete Rose breaks one of his records. When I was growing up in the early 1940s, however, Cobb was still a giant of a not-so-distant era. And just as today's young fans sing of ``Willie, Mickey, and the Duke,'' we too hailed the stars of an earlier time. We knew all the big names -- Honus Wagner, Tris Speaker, Cy Young, Christy Mathew-son, Walter Johnson, etc. But it always came down to Cobb and Ruth -- as in, ``Who was the greatest player of all time, Ty or the Babe?''
It was an argument that never was resolved, of course, for they were two very different types of player, but you could make a pretty good case either way.
The Babe knew what he was talking about, though, with his famous statement about home run hitters driving Cadillacs. And if it was true in terms of money, it was equally so in terms of fame. For while Ruth's name still connotes ``baseball'' to fans and non-fans alike, Cobb's seems to have faded back just a bit. Still a titan of the game, of course -- right up there with the other all-time greats. Maybe still right there with the Babe, for that matter, among aficionados. But no longer quite in that categ ory with the general public.
This year, with Rose breaking Cobb's career hit record of 4,191, there's been a resurgence of interest in the ``Georgia Peach.'' So let's recall the exploits that put him on an even keel with the Babe in those schoolboy arguments of the 1940s.
You begin, of course, with the .367 lifetime batting average. Indeed, you could almost stop there when you consider what a phenomenal mark that is over a 23-year career.
Pete Rose is quite a hitter, but the best one-season average he ever compiled was .348 in 1969. Cobb hit .350 or better 16 times! His lowest average ever was .320 in his first full year of 1906, and even as a fading veteran in his final season he hit .323.
One learns not to call any record ``unbreakable'' (Cobb's 4,191 hits and Ruth's 714 home runs, after all, were once considered in this category) but that .367 certainly seems out of reach unless the future brings some as yet undreamed-of changes in rules or equipment -- and Ty's 12 batting titles also look pretty safe.