Sports Heroes Who Served: Baseball Legend Ty Cobb Served as World War I Soldier

Ty Cobb poses for a photo in 1913.
Ty Cobb poses for a photo in 1913.

Sports Heroes Who Served: Baseball Legend Ty Cobb Served as World War I Soldier

by David Vergun
U.S. Dept of Defense

Sports Heroes Who Served is a series that highlights the accomplishments of athletes who served in the U.S. military.

Ty Cobb is a baseball legend: He is widely credited with setting 90 records during his career, including runs scored, runs batted in, career batting average and most bases stolen by any MLB player. His baseball career spanned 23 years, from 1905 until 1928, and the only time that he wasn’t playing baseball during those 23 years was when he was serving in World War I.

As a Major League Baseball outfielder and manager, he was with the Detroit Tigers from 1905 to 1926, and he rounded out his career as outfielder with the Philadelphia Athletics from 1927 to 1928. During that time, he amassed some impressive statistics: a .367 batting average; 4,191 hits; 117 home runs; 1,938 runs batted in; and 892 stolen bases.

Ty Cobb, left, and Honus Wagner greet each other during a World Series game between Detroit and Pittsburgh, March 17, 1910

In 1936, Cobb received the most votes of any player on the inaugural Baseball Hall of Fame ballot, receiving 222 out of a possible 226 votes. No other player had received a higher percentage of votes until Tom Seaver in 1992. In 1999, the Sporting News ranked Cobb third on its list of "Baseball's 100 Greatest Players," trailing only Babe Ruth and Willie Mays.

Ty Cobb steals third base during a 1909 game.

Less is known about Cobb's military service during World War I, although some might say that in its own way his military career was just as unique.

In October 1918, Cobb enlisted in the Chemical Corps branch of the Army and was assigned to the Allied Expeditionary Forces headquarters in Chaumont, France.

Ty Cobb, left, poses for a photo with "Shoeless" Joe Jackson in Cleveland, Ohio, in September 1913.

He was there for 67 days as a captain serving under Army Maj. Branch Rickey, who was also a famous baseball player and manager. Coincidentally, there were other famous baseball players in the unit, including Army Capt. Christy Mathewson and Army 1st Lt. George Sisler.

Cobb and his fellow soldiers were assigned to the Gas and Flame Division, where they trained soldiers in preparation for chemical attacks by exposing them to gas chambers in a controlled environment.

Ty Cobb, right, stands next to Babe Ruth in 1920.

Some other facts about Cobb include:

  • He was born Tyrus Raymond Cobb — nicknamed "the Georgia Peach" —  in Narrows, Georgia, on Dec. 18, 1886.
  • He was a celebrity spokesman for The Coca-Cola Co. and held thousands of shares of company stock.
  • He starred in the 1917 motion picture "Somewhere in Georgia," based on a story by sports columnist Grantland Rice. In the movie, Cobb played a small-town Georgia bank clerk with a talent for baseball.
  • In the 1994 film "Cobb," actor Tommy Lee Jones played Cobb. The movie was directed by Ron Shelton.
  • Cobb was known to help out young players and was instrumental in helping Joe DiMaggio negotiate his rookie contract with the New York Yankees.

Cobb was mentioned in this 1949 poem "Line-Up for Yesterday" by Ogden Nash.

C is for Cobb,
Who grew spikes and not corn,
And made all the basemen
Wish they weren't born.

Cobb died in 1961 in Atlanta; he was 74.

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