“If you build it, they will come.” Or so it was told to Kevin Costner’s character in the 1989 baseball movie Field of Dreams. In the small town of Royston, just a 65-mile drive north from Lake Oconee, they did just that.
Home of baseball legend, Ty Cobb, the town of Royston established a museum dedicated to “The Georgia Peach,” arguably the finest hitter to ever play the game of baseball. You don’t have to be a baseball fan to enjoy the story behind the man.
Inside the museum you will view his story from a child playing in the woods of rural Georgia to the first inductee to the Baseball Hall of Fame to a successful business career. Glittering showcases feature a vast collection of valuable Ty Cobb memorabilia including old-fashioned uniforms, bats, gloves, and awards. These include the 1907 first annual major league batting award, a bronzed baseball shoe with cleat worn by Cobb, a sterling silver Louisville Slugger bat recognizing Cobb as the 1911 American League batting champion for .420 batting average, and numerous awards for hunting and golf. Cobb was a gifted golfer and played golf exhibits with the great Bobby Jones and Babe Ruth.
Another area of the museum displays the philanthropic gifts he left behind. There is a 20-minute video narrated by none other than the late Larry Munson, the famous UGA football announcer. The museum opened in 2003 and is operated by the Ty Cobb Foundation. It is open Mondays through Saturdays and charges a $5 admission fee.
Proceeds of the museum and its gift shop go to help support the Ty Cobb Educational Foundation that has awarded more than $16 million to more than 9,500 recipients. The Ty Cobb Healthcare System originated with a donation of $100,000 made by Ty Cobb to build the Cobb Memorial Hospital in 1950 and grew to include numerous health and assisted living facilities in Northeast Georgia.
Tyrus Raymond Cobb was born in 1886 to Herschel and Amanda Cobb, prominent members of the Royston community. Herschel was the area’s school superintendent while Amanda was known for community activities. Herschel was shot and killed by Amanda in a tragic accident shortly after Cobb left home to start his professional baseball career. It has been over 100 years since Cobb started his career in which he accumulated 4,191 hits (second only to Pete Rose) and a .367 batting average, the highest on record.
Cobb was a fierce ball player who would do anything to win a ball game. His playing style was rough – maybe too rough. He was known for sliding into a base with cleats up to intimidate the player guarding the base. He was a fighter and an antagonist – qualities that did not go over well with those playing against him. Cobb, along with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, was inducted into the very first class of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1935. The tough guy image stuck with him well after his baseball career ended although his generosity and business dealings were contradictory to that image.
Another line from the movie Field of Dreams describes his reputation: “Ty Cobb wanted to play but none of us could stand the son-of-a-bitch when we were alive, so we told him to stick it.” There were many players who did not like playing against him but there were few who did not respect him.
Many years after his retirement from baseball, Cobb was villainized in a 1950’s True magazine article by Al Stump, who later wrote the book, Cobb. A movie based on the book and article portrayed Cobb as a violent drunkard who died a lonely death. The museum allows you to see another person, one who donated his monies and his fame to philanthropic causes. His wise investments with a startup company named Coca Cola allowed him to endow an educational fund for children of poverty in Georgia, and create the Cobb Memorial Hospital in Royston. These are just a few of the generous contributions Cobb provided to many social causes. He is fondly remembered by friends and family as a gentleman who gave more than he received. His granddaughter, Cindy Cobb-McGowin, who lives in New York, offers a glimpse into Cobb as a grandfather.
McGowin was four when her grandfather died in 1961. Her first memory is of eating ice cream while sitting with her sisters in a big cushioned chair with him while he read fairy tales. “Granddad was just a regular granddad,” she says. It wasn’t until 1969 when she and family members attended a gala in Washington, D.C., celebrating the 100th anniversary of baseball that she realized how famous her granddad was. During this event, her father accepted a trophy honoring her late grandfather. She remembers roaming the lobby with her sisters asking for autographs and having breakfast with Hall of Famers Casey Stengel and Sam Crawford in the hotel restaurant.
To have her grandfather’s legacy continue to be honored through the museum is important to her and her family.
“The Cobb Family has been involved with the museum since groundbreaking, and we are extremely thankful to the city of Royston, its citizens and the Ty Cobb Healthcare for providing such and incredible tribute. Our family’s artifacts are now there and I can tell you after spending over 50 plus years polishing trophies, we are happy for them to be on display for the public,” says McGowin.
A Rivalry Still Remembered
Much like the timeless game played in Field of Dreams, the Ty Cobb Museum comes alive each fall during the annual Vintage Base Ball Game, a recreation of a 19th Century game between the Georgia Peaches and the “Shoeless” Joe Jacksons, a team representing The Joe Jackson Museum in Greenville, S.C.
Cobb and “Shoeless Joe” were rivals on the baseball diamond but each had great respect for the achievements of the other. Their relationship has been immortalized in baseball lore not only because they were arguably the two greatest hitters of all time, but also because of the mystique attached to each one.
Joseph Jefferson Jackson was born in 1887, just 60 miles up the road from Cobb in Greenville, S.C. He grew up poor with little education. What he lacked in education he made up on the baseball diamond. His lifetime major league batting average of .356 is the third highest on record. He gained his nickname in the minor leagues because of his preference of playing in the outfield with no shoes to relieve his aching feet.
Except for one tragic mistake, Jackson would have been alongside Cobb in the inaugural Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. In 1919, eight ball players for the Chicago White Sox were accused of taking money for throwing the World Series. Although acquitted in court, baseball commissioner, Judge Kennesaw “Mountain” Landis expelled all eight players from the game for life. Jackson was one of the players present in the initial meeting in which the terms of the fix were agreed upon with the gamblers, though he later had a change of heart and gave back the money.
He went on to post the best batting average of any ball player in the World Series. The story has been told in the book and movie Eight Men Out which includes the well-known sentiment, “Say it ain’t so, Joe” spoken to Jackson as he left the courtroom by a young admirer.
Once expelled from the game, Jackson returned to his hometown of Greenville where he played minor league baseball using an alias. Later on, with the help of Cobb, he purchased and operated a liquor store in Greenville. He is also well known as a central character in the movie Field of Dreams.
Each fall the two museum teams square off for a double-header, recreating an 1860 version of “base ball.” The players are young men and women, primarily from Royston and Greenville, although there are some who travel hundreds of miles to participate. Often there are players related to Cobb or Jackson on the teams.
In the late 19th and early 20th Century, teams traveled from town to town to take on the local team. Royston had a barnstorming team, as did Greenville. Cobb played for the Royston team at the turn of the 20th Century.
Dressed as old time players in ratty uniforms and no gloves or cleats, the museum teams take the field. There is only one official, the judge, who rests comfortably on a rocking chair midway between the second base and centerfield. In days gone by, his primary purpose was to help break up fights but it has been said he was probably sleeping from too much to drink during the game.
There is no scoreboard, only a large bell that clangs when a team scores a run. The ball is the same size of today’s baseball, but somewhat softer since no one wears gloves. The rules allow a fielder to record an out if they catch the ball before the second bounce. It is all in good fun for both fans and players.
The game’s location alternates each year between Royston and Greenville. Royston’s Georgia Peaches have lost the past three years, but team manager and Ty Cobb Museum board member, Wesley Fricks, says they are going to find a way to win this year. “It started out as a gentlemanly game as it was played in 1860s, but now it is a highly competitive game. But just like the reputation of Ty Cobb held throughout his professional career, we will bounce back with winning on our minds,” he says.
Fricks was one of the original developers of the game in 2009. “The atmosphere that was established from the very first game was most memorable for me,” he says. Each year, more and more players discover the nostalgic fun surrounding the game, many of whom return each year, others who come to visit their roots.
“I cannot tell you how many Cobb-Jackson family member have participated,” says Fricks. “It seems we have distant relatives that spring up each year.”
Cindy Cobb-McGowin, dressed in mid-19th Century finery, attended last year’s game in Royston and described the following: “On the ball field was a display of heart and soul. Players were dressed in vintage uniforms and abided by the rules of that bygone era. I met other descendants of the Cobb and Chitwood families, and became a fan of boiled peanuts! It was great fun.”
This year, the Georgia Peaches and Shoeless Joes will face off in Royston on Oct. 21 for those interested in taking in a game and turning back the clock. Any other day, a trip to Royston is worth the drive. Plan on visiting one or both of the museums. A morning drive to Royston will allow plenty of time for a museum tour and a late lunch or make it a full day trip and continue on to Greenville to the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum and spend an evening in the beautiful downtown area.
For more information, visit tycobbmuseum.org or shoelessjoejackson.org.
Written by Jim Halloran
Photos courtesy of the Ty Cobb Museum