In Praise of Ty Cobb, Joltin' Joe, and the Babe

The greatest baseball player ever was Babe Ruth. Not only because every home run hit after him "has his DNA in it," but also for his prowess as a pitcher. "This man was a hell of a player."
  • Transcript


Question: Who is—or was—the smartest player in the history of baseball?

Bert Sugar: Ty Cobb.  I mean, he was a solid B-player, who became an A+ player because he was smart.  He had some help.  Ernie Harwell, who was the man who got me into sports when I was at Michigan Law—a brilliant, brilliant voice, wonderful person—told me that the used to have something, at old Navin Field, where Cobb played called Cobb’s Lake.  And Cobb would have them water that area every day so his bunts just went phbtt, and stayed there.  And that was a hit.  Cobb could figure out who could be intimidated, when to run on a batter for a stolen base, where to drop a bunt, when... and he held his bat with his hands apart.  And then as the pitch came, he’d move them up and down so to direct the ball to where he wanted it. 

And he hated Babe Ruth.  He hated Babe Ruth because he changed the game.  And then one day, in 1925, because everybody was giving him hell because Ruth was hitting homers, he hit three home runs in a game and said, “There, I can hit homers too.”  And that was the last time he tried.  He could play the game here. [Points to his temple] 

Pitchers, some of them... I always loved Gaylord Perry who was known far and wide for throwing a spitball.  Perry will tell you he didn’t throw a spitball that often.  But he’d be licking his hands so that they thought every pitch coming was a spitball because the batter has an easier job than the pitcher.  The pitcher’s got to keep him off balance and throw him what he doesn’t expect.  So, if you’re talking about intelligence; that falls to the pitcher, or the catcher who is calling the signals because the game’s in their hands. 

You know, batting is a special science, so is pitching.  But pitching requires more of this.  I remember once asking Barry Bonds, “Barry, how do you deal with the steroid crap?”  And I didn’t say “crap.”  I was always very subtle.  And he thought for a second and he said, “Nothing beats eye-to-hand coordination.  And you know what?  Steroids ain’t gonna help you if you can’t hit the ball.  It ain’t gonna go further except into the catcher’s mitt.”  So, batting... I mean Ted Williams.  As great a hitter as he was, was less thinking than his eyes.  His eyes.  He went to Korea and the second time around as a pilot.  In fact, his flight commander’s name was John Glenn, who said he was the greatest pilot he ever saw.  He comes back after a year and a half out of baseball, almost two full seasons, and he’s taking batting practice just to get his skills back to the point where his hands were bloodied from the number of times he had to swing to get his rhythm.  And he went up to the office of Tom Yawkey, then the owner, and he said, “Mr. Yawkey, the plate is off.”  “No,” he says, “No it’s not off," he says, “Yes, we redid the stadium, we put everything back where it belonged.  We refurbished it.”  He said, “It’s off by this much.”  They measured.  For a year and a half, they’d been playing with a plate that was off this much.  Who saw it?  Ted Williams.  I guess that’s intelligence, but it’s also eyesight. 

Who is—or was—the greatest baseball player ever?

Bert Sugar: The greatest player I’ve ever seen?  Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays second, Roberto Clemente third.  Clemente could... Clemente is lost in this because he didn’t play in a major market.  He played in Pittsburgh.  He had an arm that could throw out a runner in the next county.  Willie Mays was brilliant.  DiMaggio, only because I grew up with him. You know, your first hero is always going to be your hero for life.  I don’t care how old you are, when you fell in "like" with a player, that was your hero.  Joe Lewis was my boxing hero.  Sammy Baugh, B-A-U-G-H, who I still think is the greatest quarterback ever, was my first hero in playing for the Redskins.  You fell "in like" with someone—I’d say “love”, but in today’s society it’s got a different connotation.  Everything’s got a different connotation today.  But, I tell any sports fan, I ask them, who was your first hero, and they’ll tell me, Mickey Mantle for some, Ted Williams for some, Joe Montana for some, depending on their age and their locale.  And I’ll say, "Is he still your hero?"  And he’ll say "my greatest hero."  Because that was when they fell in love with sports, so that was their first hero and their love for sports has grown, but they haven’t lost that nostalgic reflection. 

And when I wrote the book "The Baseball Hall of Fame," I wrote a sort of insert for every decade as for the greatest player ever in that decade.  And there was Honus Wagner who was terribly overlooked for the first decade of the 20th century playing for Pittsburgh.  He was the National League’s Ty Cobb.  Well, when Ty Cobb -- and we do this in the book, we put all the plaques in and then the first five men voted into the Hall of Fame were, Ty Cobb, and second was a tie between Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner, before Kristy Matheson, Walter Johnson.  And they have the five of them, as you‘ll see in the book, the picture of the, if you will, first class, inducted into the Hall of Fame.  And there’s Honus Wagner, who got as many votes as Babe Ruth.  And today, all anybody knows about him is that he’s a face on the most valuable trading card.  Well, he wins, what, eight batting titles and stolen base titles, and etc., etc.  And nobody remembers him except as a face on this valuable card.  And that’s unfortunate.  We’ve lost some of that in the history of baseball, which has more history than any sport; than all sports put together. 

Guess we’re into statistics now.  We’ve got on-base percentages and it’s still history.  And the stories are the game.  The statistics may be the mortar of the game, the real, I think, if you will, "glory" of the game is encapsulated in stories more than statistics. 

Say, ".367," you say Ty Cobb, that’s the end of that conversation.  You tell a story on Ty Cobb, and now it becomes more than a conversation, it becomes a mental note.  And really a romantic one, some of them, and some of them about Cobb, dreadful, but still, it does more than "Well he batted .367 lifetime."  Okay, that was exciting. 

But I think the greatest player ever was Babe Ruth.  Not just his home runs.  Because every home run hit after him has his DNA in it.  But when he was basically transferred from the pitcher’s mound to the outfield, and the reason for that was quite simply: the Red Sox had lost all their outfielders to World War I and they had this pitcher that could hit.  He hits 11 homeruns, which at the time with a dead ball, led the league in homeruns.  So they put him out in the field.  And in his contract later with the Yankees, he only played the non-sun field; right field in Yankee stadium, left field in a lot of other places. 

But, when he left the mound, he had 89 wins at the age of 23.  That’s more wins than any pitcher in the Hall of Fame at the age of 23, except Feller and Kid Nichols.  And he wins five more games with the Yankees.  They just put him in the last day of the season.  And he wins all five appearances while still hitting home runs, while still hitting .342.  This man was a hell of a player.  And so I give him "greatest ever" because of pitching and hitting.  Sure, George Sisler pitched. Cobb even got into a game pitching.  He wanted to pitch against Sisler, who had been a pitcher before he became a... so had Bob Lemon had become a fielder before he became a pitcher.  Sometimes you shift position. 

Babe Ruth, greatest player ever.  No question in my mind’s eye.

Recorded May 4, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen