Occidental forward Ty Cobb, 19, battles for position against Colton Cochrane… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)
Occidental College baseball coach Jason Hawkins' eyes lit up when he learned who was coming to the Eagle Rock campus.
Ty Cobb was enrolling.
"When you hear about someone with that name, c'mon, you're excited, right?" Hawkins said.
Cobb is the 19-year-old great-grandson of Ty Cobb, the legendary Detroit Tigers outfielder and Baseball Hall of Famer who is considered one of the game's all-time best players.
The 6-foot-5 Occidental freshman is a left-hander who pitched and played first base at his high school in Atherton, Calif., and on an American Legion team that competed for several state baseball titles. As he was picking a college, several Division III schools expressed interest in giving him a slot on their baseball lineups.
But Cobb picked the 2,100-student liberal arts college in northeast Los Angeles — and signed up for the basketball team.
"I'm not going to play baseball here. It's just not my love," he said. "Basketball has always been my favorite sport."
When he enrolled in the fall, most at the campus assumed that Cobb would be playing this spring on the Oxy Tigers baseball team.
"I get it all the time: 'Why are you playing basketball?' I played baseball through high school. This will be the first year I've ever not played," Cobb acknowledged. "I guess Occidental just caught me at the wrong time.
"I've played football, basketball, baseball, tennis, golf, run track. But basketball is the one I always come back to. There's no doubt in my mind it's what I love to do."
A Menlo Park resident, Cobb is undecided on his college major, although he is leaning toward economics with a minor in sociology. He hopes to later attend business school.
Over the years, people have sometimes given him grief over his namesake, he said. The original Ty Cobb has been criticized for his cleats-up, highly competitive play and for his quick temper and racist remarks.
"People have given me a hard time about it because Ty Cobb had a tough reputation among a lot of people. They think he wasn't a very good guy — some people thought he was a jerk. I've had to defend him on more than one occasion," Cobb said.
Cobb didn't know his great-grandfather, who died in 1961, but his own father was close to the baseball great, he said. Herschel Cobb, now a Menlo Park lawyer, spent summers with the retired Cobb until about age 18.
"My dad knew him really well. My dad would tell fun stories about when he was young and interacting with Ty Cobb. When my dad was about 12 my great-grandfather was in his late 60s or 70s. One day he had a fresh linen suit on and they were talking baseball and he decided to teach my dad how to hook-slide.
"So they go out in the backyard on the grass and Ty Cobb is in his fancy suit and he's got the cuffs of his pants rolled up and one of his helper ladies came out and said, 'Mr. Cobb, you can't be doing that!' It kind of showed his competitiveness even into his twilight years."
Cobb said he's come to realize that his great-grandfather "was a student of the game and a competitor in the best sense of the word." What others considered antics were simply efforts to give himself and his team an advantage, he said.
"He was one of the first players to start studying pitchers. When he was on the base path it was hell for the pitchers because he was constantly talking and yelling and getting into their heads."
The Cobb who will play basketball at Occidental said he is more soft-spoken than his predecessor. "A lot of the things he said probably wouldn't be accepted very well today," said Cobb. "The culture of sports has changed. When Ty Cobb was a player it was a much dirtier game."
Cobb is a forward on the Occidental basketball team and when the season ends, he said, he may play intramural softball.
What would Coach Hawkins have to say to entice him to join the baseball team?
"I don't know — maybe, 'Here's a jersey,' " Cobb said, laughing.
Hawkins brightened at that news.
"I'm going to try to find out a way to sit down with Ty post-season," he said. "He's got to be a good baseball player just based on his name. I haven't given up."