A century later: Did Ty Cobb kill a man?

One hundred years ago today, baseball’s biggest star left a carjacker dead on the streets of the Motor City.

“In 1912 — and you can write this down — I killed a man in Detroit,” Ty Cobb told his biographer.

Maybe.

It has been a century since the attack and more than 50 years since Cobb told his life story to sportswriter Al Stump, and to this day, no one is 100 percent sure what happened near Tiger Stadium. Did Cobb really kill someone? Was it a story he exaggerated in his dying days? Or was it Stump that changed the tale to help book sales?

What we do know is that something did happen that day. Cobb and his wife were driving to the train depot, where he would be meeting his teammates for a trip to New York. As they drove down Trumbull Avenue, they could see the skeleton of the giant Michigan Central Station rising in the distance. Maybe they even mentioned it — how Detroit’s brand-new baseball stadium was going to joined on the skyline by the world’s tallest station. Or maybe they were chatting about the same things that any married couple discusses when one is going out of town on business.

Things changed as they approached Bagg (now Temple) Street — now the location of a parking garage for the Motor City Casino. As Cobb stopped at the intersection, three men came out from behind a small building and jumped onto the running boards of his Chalmers. They demanded the car and money, and a scuffle broke out. Despite a knife wound, Cobb fought off the attackers, continued to the train station and played in Detroit’s exhibition game the next day in Syracuse.

That much is established fact. The story was on the Associated Press wire before the train even reached upstate New York, and the papers in Syracuse reported on Cobb playing the game with blood soaking through his uniform. Even if that was exaggerated — photos didn’t show any blood — there was no question that he had sustained at least a minor wound.

What, though, happened to his attackers? Throughout the years, the stories have agreed that two fled unharmed, but the fate of the third has changed many, many times.

In Cobb’s first interview, given to a Syracuse paper, he said that the men recognized him, and realized they had cut him with their knife, they fled. No one was injured, other than Cobb.

By the next day, though, things were already starting to change. Cobb now said that he had knocked one of the attackers down with the butt of his gun. Still no major injuries, but now the infamous third mugger had gotten down on his knees to beg for forgiveness.

That’s where the story rested until the late 1950s until Cobb, by then suffering from cancer, contacted Stump about ghostwriting his autobiography. That’s when Cobb supposedly told Stump that he had killed the third mugger — beating him with his gun and then using the gun sight as a blade “until the man’s face was faceless. Left him there, not breathing, in his own rotten blood.”

However, that story never appeared in Cobb’s “autobiography.” By the time the book came out, Cobb had left the mugger unconscious and driven away. After Cobb died in 1961, Stump began writing about his crazed last days, filled with stories about alcohol-filled rages and wild trips to the Tahoe casinos. Eventually, Stump wrote “Cobb: A Biography,” a quite unsympathetic view that included Cobb bragging about killing his attacker way back in 1912. Stump’s biography was the basis for the movie “Cobb,” which furthered the legend of Cobb as a killer.

So what really happened? There’s no question that Cobb was a violent person. He had fights with teammates, once went into the stands to beat up a heckler that had no hands — “I don’t care if he has no feet,” Cobb yelled when people tried to stop him — and was charged with assault on several occasions. If the situation arose, especially with someone threatening his wife, it is entirely possible to see Cobb killing someone.

The story, though, didn’t survive some basic research. Doug Roberts of the Society for American Baseball Research searched autopsy records and newspapers from 1912 and found no evidence of anyone being killed by trauma to the head or, as Stump claimed, an unknown body being discovered in that part of Detroit.

Stump’s credibility also took a hit when he tried to sell Cobb memorabilia that included a forged diary and a shotgun that was supposed to be the weapon that Cobb’s mother used to kill his father in a case of mistaken identity. In reality, Amanda Cobb shot her husband with a pistol.

The last man who might have known the truth, Al Stump, died in 1995. The odds seem to be that in the 1950s, and possibly as early as 1912, Cobb exaggerated the violence of the story.

It’s hard to imagine the reaction of Detroit and the country if Justin Verlander or Miguel Cabrera were carjacked and wounded in the process. Twitter and cable TV would explode and a citywide manhunt would dominate the news every night until the attackers were found.

That’s not how life worked in 1912 — after a couple of days, the story fell away from the newspapers and the Detroit Police Department never got involved in the case — but if the attacker’s knife blade had slashed a little deeper, baseball history might have been changed forever.