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Now they chew bubble gum

As spring training opens again for the 2011 major league baseball season, we might well reflect on how the players have changed in the last 100 years. We all know about the great Babe Ruth, but how much do we know about Ty Cobb who played 22 seasons with the Detroit Tigers from 1905, starting with a salary of $1,500 per year, until 2017, then one more season with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1928.

In those early days of baseball, the players were all white, always played outdoors on real dirt and grass, wore hot heavy wool uniforms, had tiny leather baseball gloves, played with a cheekful of chewing tobacco about the size of a golf ball, did a lot more scratching than players today and rode from game to game on trains.

In his career, Cobb set 90 major league records and is still regarded as one of the greatest players of all time. You can look up his numbers for yourself if you're interested. But what makes him unique, even among the many baseball legends since the game was invented was his reputation, well earned, for competitiveness and nastiness.

When he left home as a teenage boy to become a ballplayer, his father gave him a stern warning, "Don't come home a failure." But just about the time Cobb was getting started, his mother shot and killed his father. The father suspected his wife of infidelity and was sneaking past the bedroom window to catch her in the act. She saw his silhouette, presumed him to be an intruder and nailed him. She was later acquitted of murder on the grounds of self-defense. Their son, Ty, attributed his ferocious play to the death of his father.

In his first year with the Tigers, it was customary for veteran players to haze the rookies. Cobb couldn't take it and refused to endure hazing in good humor. He was almost immediately alienated from his teammates. He attributed his hostile temperate to this hazing, blaming the old-timers for turning him into a "snarling wildcat."

There were no blacks in major league baseball when Cobb played, but having been born and raised in Georgia, he was a notorious racist. During spring training in 1907, he got into a fight with a black groundskeeper at the Augusta, Ga., training camp about the condition of the field. He ended up choking the man's wife when she intervened.

Cobb regarded baseball as "something like a war." He was said to be a crusader possessed by demons.

In 1911, he and his close personal friend, Joe Jackson, who played for Cleveland at the time, were both having tremendous years and were competing for the batting title. Cobb and Jackson were friendly on and off the field. Near the end of the season, Cobb refused to talk to Jackson and snapped at him when Jackson tried to engage him in conversation. Whenever Jackson tried to have a word with his friend, Cobb shunned him. Jackson was puzzled and hurt, wondering what he had done to damage the relationship. But, Cobb was playing a mind game and he caused Jackson's emotional pain to affect his hitting and his average fell off while Cobb's average continued at top level and Cobb beat Jackson for the league batting title.

In 1912, Cobb was being heckled by a fan in New York by the name of Claude Lueker. He and Lueker exchanged insults for several innings until finally, after the sixth inning, Cobb ran up into the stands and attacked Lueker. It turns out that Lueker was handicapped and that he had lost all of one hand and three fingers on the other hand in an industrial accident. When other fans shouted at Cobb to stop his attack because the fan had no hands, Cobb replied, "I don't care if he got no feet."

Cobb was said to sharpen his steel spikes so that in sliding into a base, he could come in, spikes high, and gash the legs of the infielder waiting to tag him. As a result, he was involved in many fights on and off the field, including one fight after a game below the grandstand with an umpire that was broken up by spectators after Cobb had knocked the ump to the ground, pinned him and was choking him. Another time, Cobb slapped a black elevator operator for being "uppity" and when a black night watchman intervened, Cobb pulled out a knife and stabbed him. That matter was settled out of court.

Cobb's comment on his pugnacious habits was that, "Sure I fought, I had to fight all my life to survive. They were all against me. Tried every trick to cut me down, but I beat the bastards and left them in the ditch."

But enough about Cobb. He died a wealthy man in 1961 and left a quarter of his estate to an educational foundation that provided scholarships for needy children. Great human being. Today baseball is played by men of all colors in stylish, lightweight uniforms on manicured fields by pampered, polite and refined millionaires who ride from game to game, coast to coast, in chartered jets, and mostly chew bubble gum. I told you the players had changed.