Top 100 Baseball Blog

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Ty Cobb’s Turn as a Stage Actor

Ty Cobb was one of the greatest baseball players to ever grace a diamond. During a 24-year major league career, he hit .366 with 12 batting titles, both the highest marks of all-time, and was ultimately inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

He was also a complicated man, known for his intolerance  and ferociousness, both on and off the field. When he died in 1961, he was incredibly wealthy, yet essentially alone—having lived an incredible life but not maintaining the relationships befitting his station.

Cobb wasn’t just baseball and controversy. There were many facets to him, with one of the least well-known being a brief bit of stage acting he did following the 1911 season.

Although Cobb was one of the best-paid players in baseball during his career, it was common practice for most major leaguers to barnstorm or have a second job during the offseason. The star outfielder was no exception.

In 1911, Cobb was 25 and coming off a season that saw him hit an amazing .420 for the Detroit Tigers. He was the face of baseball and in a position to capitalize on it.

According to Rob Edelman, who wrote about Cobb’s acting for SABR, Cobb was invited to try his hand at the stage by Vaughan Glaser, an actor-director who oversaw a Georgia-based theater company.

Dan Holmes wrote in Ty Cobb: A Biography, that Glaser reportedly offered Cobb in the neighborhood of $8,400 to play the part of Billy Bolton, a fourth-year freshman college football player, in the production of The College Widow. It was a popular comedy of the time and would be later made into the Marx Brothers film, Horse Feathers.

The play was a travelling show, going all over the country during the late fall and early winter months. Because of the nice payday and the promise he would receive acting coaching, Cobb accepted.

He wasn’t the only major leaguer in the troupe at first. He was joined by Shoeless Joe Jackson, an outfielder for the Cleveland Indians and his closest equal as a hitter. However, the quiet South Carolinian quit his supporting role shortly after the tour began and returned home.

When the production reached Nashville, Cobb suited up and practiced with the Vanderbilt football team—apparently trying his hand at method acting.

His arrival in the land of country music and barbeque was eagerly anticipated. Bill Traughber cited a newspaper account, which was impressed by his thespian abilities. "On the stage Mr. Cobb is maintaining the same high average that has marked his work on the diamond. Although the footlights are new to him, he declares he never had stage fright and likes the work.”

Not everyone appreciated Cobb’s acting, according to a June 13, 1915 article in the New York Times. The ballplayer received very marked criticism from the editor of The News in Birmingham, Alabama. The two exchanged heated letters, including Cobb telling him, “I am a better actor than you are, a better sports editor than you are, a better dramatic critic than you are. I make more money than you do, and I know I am a better ball player—so why should inferiors criticize superiors?”

Being a professional sports star, Cobb apparently took to the pressures of acting naturally. Edelman quoted him as explaining, “Much to my surprise, I managed to get through my first night on the stage without that awful bugaboo, ‘stage fright,’ attacking my heart and dropping me in my tracks. But I had been warned so much regarding such an attack that I made every preparation to guard against it. It was just like figuring out what kind of a ball a pitcher was going to put over. I knew it was coming and waited for it. A few appearances on the stage gave me reassurance and now I am perfectly at home. I find stage work wonderfully interesting and I like it.”

The show was a success wherever it went, as people piled into seats to see the famous baseball deliver a comedic performance. However, despite the success, Cobb unexpectedly decided to pull a diva move.

According to Edelman, Cobb explained, “Here I am at the end of several months on the boards four pounds under my playing weight when under . . . more natural conditions I should be from five to ten pounds over that notch. I am becoming nervous and I miss my regular sleep. It was my ambition . . . to become a good actor, but in attaining that object I see that my usefulness as a baseball player is bound to suffer and so I have decided to cut out the stage for the pastime which first made me the reputation I enjoy.” 

After nearly 10 weeks travelling all over North America as an actor, Cobb returned home and spent the next several weeks with his family before heading off to start a new baseball season.
There were possible other reasons why Cobb didn’t finish his full run of shows. Dennis Abrams wrote that the crusty player felt uncomfortable kissing his female on-stage co-star and also worried that the bright production lights would possibly damage his refined batting eye. He also intensely disliked not being thought of being the best at whatever he did. Even though the show was popular, and he had displayed great bravado in defending himself to the Birmingham critic, he also must have known that his presence was primarily that of a novelty.

Although he cut his first acting gig short, The College Widow wasn’t his only brush with show business. He later acted in at least one silent film, and also appeared on some television quiz shows.

Show business was big business, and for a man who proved himself incredibly intelligent at amassing a fortune, it’s not a great surprise he continued to go back to the well to capitalize on his reputation and celebrity.

Just think how odd it would be to see Mike Trout in an off-Broadway production of Cats. The same would have applied when Cobb tested out his acting chops. He brought out the lookie-loos, and made good money, but ultimately knew baseball was where his bread was buttered. Nevertheless, it is yet another fascinating chapter in the life of one of baseball’s most interesting figures.

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