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THE LAST DAYS OF TY COBB : A Man Possessed, He Played Baseball and Lived Life With a Deep Anger

August 05, 1985|AL STUMP

As Pete Rose closes in on Ty Cobb's lifetime hits record, more attention is being paid to the career of the man called the Georgia Peach. This article on Cobb's final months, written in 1961, was described by Bob Considine as "perhaps the best sports piece I have ever read." It won the Associated Press' Best Sports Story of the Year Award. Al Stump wrote this story for True magazine. Stump, 64, is a free lance writer who has had more than 1,000 magazine articles and 7 books published. He frequently contributes to Los Angeles magazine and lives in Pasadena. Ever since sundown the Nevada intermountain radio had been crackling warnings: "Route 50 now highly dangerous. Motorists stay off. Repeat: AVOID ROUTE 50."

By 1 a.m., the 21-mile, steep-pitched passage from Lake Tahoe's 7,000 feet into Carson City, a snaky grade most of the way, was snow-struck, ice-sheeted, thick with rock slides and declared unfit for all transport vehicles by the State Highway Patrol.

Such news was right down Ty Cobb's alley. Anything that smacked of the impossible brought an unholy gleam to his eye. The gleam had been there in 1959 when a series of lawyers advised Cobb that he stood no chance against the Sovereign State of California in a dispute over income taxes, whereupon he bellowed defiance and sued the commonwealth for $60,000 and damages. It had been there more recently when doctors warned that liquor will kill him. From a pint of whisky per day he upped his consumption to a quart and more.

Sticking out his chin, he told me, "I think we'll take a little run into town tonight."

A blizzard rattled the windows of Cobb's luxurious hunting lodge on the crest of Lake Tahoe, but to forbid him anything--even at the age of 73--was to tell an ancient tiger not to snarl. Cobb was both the greatest of all ballplayers and a multimillionaire whose monthly income from stock dividends, rents and interests ran to $12,000. And he was a man contemptuous, all his life, of any law other than his own.

"We'll drive in and shoot some craps, see a show and say hello to Joe DiMaggio--he's in Reno at the Riverside Hotel," he announced.

I looked at him and felt a chill. Cobb, sitting there haggard and unshaven in his pajamas and a fuzzy old green bathrobe at 1 o'clock in the morning, wasn't fooling.

"Let's not," I said. "You shouldn't be anywhere tonight but in bed."

"Don't argue with me!" he barked. "There are fee-simple sons-of-bitches all over the country who've tried it and wish they hadn't." He glared at me, flaring the whites of his eyes the way he'd done for 24 years to quaking pitchers, basemen, umpires and fans.

"If you and I are going to get along," he went on ominously, "don't increase my tension. "

We were alone in his isolated 10-room $75,000 lodge, having arrived six days earlier, loaded with a large smoked ham, a 20-pound turkey, a case of Scotch and another of champagne, for purposes of collaborating on Ty's book-length autobiography--a book which he'd refused to write for 30 years, but then suddenly decided to place on record before he died. In almost a week's time we hadn't accomplished 30 minutes of work.

The reason: Cobb didn't need a risky auto trip into Reno, but immediate hospitalization, and by the emergency-door entrance. He was desperately ill and had been even before we had left California.

We had traveled 250 miles to Tahoe in Cobb's black Imperial limousine, carrying with us a virtual drugstore of medicines. These included Digoxin for his leaky heart, Darvon for his aching back, Tace for a recently operated-upon malignancy in the pelvic area, Fleet's compound for his infected bowels, Librium for his "tension"--that is, his violent rages, codeine for his pain and an insulin needle-and-syringe kit for his diabetes, among a dozen other panaceas which he'd substituted for doctors. Cobb despised the medical profession.

Everything that hurts had caught up with his big, gaunt body at once and he stuffed himself with pink, green, orange, yellow and purple pills--guessing at the amounts often, since labels had peeled off many of the bottles. But he wouldn't hear of hospitalizing himself.

At the same time, his sense of balance was almost gone. He tottered about the lodge, moving from place to place by grasping the furniture. On any public street, he couldn't navigate 20 feet without clutching my shoulder, leaning most of his 208 pounds upon me and shuffling along at a spraddle-legged gait. His bowels wouldn't work: they impacted, repeatedly, an almost total stoppage which brought moans of agony from Cobb when he sought relief. He was feverish, with no one at his Tahoe hideaway but the two of us to treat this dangerous condition.

"The hacksaw artists have taken $50,000 from me and they'll get no more," he said. He spoke of "a quack" who'd treated him a few years earlier. "The joker got funny and said he found urine in my whisky. I fired him."

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