Ty Cobb and the Hotel Pontchartrain Incident of April 1919, Part I

There is this odd story about Ty Cobb. It appears in print first in Baseball: The Golden Age by Seymour and Seymour (1989). The story is seemingly based on the Seymours’ original research, in which they found a news item from May 3, 1919 in the Chicago Defender – a periodical serving the African American community – about Ty Cobb viciously attacking an African American chambermaid in the Hotel Pontchartrain in Detroit.

The headline “Ty Cobb Brutally Assaults Woman – Ball Player Kicks Chamber Maid Down Flight of Steps” summarizes the story pretty well. The Seymours’ go on to note that the Defender asserted that baseball officials worked with the mainstream press to suppress the story, and the Seymours’ say that the victim was paid off in exchange for dropping a $10,000 civil suit.

The Seymours’ did not set out to write an in depth book on Ty Cobb, and they mention Cobb in passing as they paint a sweeping portrait of baseball during the early part of the century. They wrote only a few pages about Cobb’s off-field troubles and it wasn’t central to their narrative, so, I suppose, the Seymours’ could be forgiven for not caring too much about the details.

But, that said, the Seymours’ don’t appear to have been particularly careful historians. These few pages on Cobb’s off-field troubles contain a series of factual errors, some small, some larger:

  • In telling the story of Cobb’s fight with a night watchman at the Euclid Hotel in Cleveland, they got the name of the night watchman wrong.
  • The Seymours’ repeated a now discredited story – that they appear to have accepted without further research – of Cobb beating a hoodlum to death (or near death) with a pistol.
  • The Seymours’ said that Cobb “clouted” the wife of the groundskeeper in Augusta. But that’s wrong on two counts. The Seymours’ first mistake was minor – Cobb was accused of choking the woman, not punching her – but their second mistake was significant – contemporary accounts refute the choking assertion entirely.
  • Concerning the same incident, the Seymours’ then mistakenly said Cobb “nearly” got into a fight with a Tiger’s back-up catcher named Schmidt over the groundskeeper’s-wife incident. There was no nearly about it. More accurately, Schmidt accused Cobb of choking the woman (whether Schmidt cared about the veracity of the accusation or just wanted a pretext for pummeling Cobb is unknown), and the two fought over the incident twice, with Schmidt getting the better of the exchange.
  • And the Seymours’ misreported the location of the Fred Collins incident of 1908. The incident happened when Cobb was leaving the Hotel Pontchartrain, not the baseball stadium that was more than a mile away.

These errors appear in serial order in the space of a few paragraphs.

So, then, what are we to make of the Seymours’ original contribution to the Cobb-as-Monster litany: the Pontchartrain Hotel Incident of April 1919? More on this next week.

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