That’s the popular belief. Ty Cobb was certainly portrayed as a particularly nasty sort of racist in his posthumous biography by Al Stump (based off a long article in True Magazine that formed the basis for the Ron Shelton move, Cobb). Even careful thinkers and historically minded baseball writers like Bill James and Joe Posnanski regularly refer to Cobb as an especially racist sort of guy.
But why do people think that?
He was a white Southerner, from a well-to-do family, born in 1886, so we would expect he held some beliefs that would seem outdated today and may have used language that would now be considered inappropriate. But that wouldn’t make him unlike other ballplayers of his age. It certainly wouldn’t be enough to single him out for special approbation as a racist.
Cobb’s racist tirade from the stage depicted in Cobb…there is just no evidence that anything like that ever took place. That scene appears to have sprung from the combined creativity of filmaker Shelton and biographer Stump, who was at that point apparently making up a fair amount of stuff about the long deceased Cobb.
Cobb’s violent temper was indiscriminate, aimed at both whites and blacks. While several accounts mention a violent confrontation with an African American groundskeeper, he appears to have been every bit as likely to lash-out at white people as well, including a white fan in the stands during a game, and a confrontation in a Cleveland hotel with two employees – legend holds that the employees were black but a more careful examination suggests the employees were in fact white.*
At the time he was supposedly most dementedly racist (and penny-pinching), he founded – at great personal expense – a hospital that served many African Americans, and which had African American physicians on staff who provided medical care to white patients as well as African American patients.
None of this proves that Cobb was a racial visionary or was wildly ahead of his times in terms of racial sensitivity. These facts just raise a troubling question – how did this guy get labelled as somehow more racist than his contemporaries, and why were his deeds misreported to make them appear more racist than they were, while exculpatory evidence has been generally excluded from narratives about who Cobb was as a person?