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

Question: Who is—or was—the smartest player in the history of \r\nbaseball?

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

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

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

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

\r\n Question:
Who is—or was—the greatest baseball player \r\never?

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

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

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

Say, ".367," you \r\nsay Ty Cobb, that’s the end of that conversation.  You tell a story on \r\nTy Cobb, and now it becomes more than a conversation, it becomes a \r\nmental note.  And really a romantic one, some of them, and some of them \r\nabout Cobb, dreadful, but still, it does more than "Well he batted .367 \r\nlifetime."  Okay, that was exciting. 

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

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

\r\nBabe Ruth, greatest player ever.  No question in my mind’s eye.

Recorded May 4, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

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."

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