Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks…Ty Cobb?
That was the order of things in pre-Hollywood cinema when baseball’s most thrilling player became one of the brightest stars in motion pictures. Even if for a brief, shimmering, moment.
Motion pictures have a surprisingly long history, dating back to the years of the Civil War, when a slew of inventors and photography buffs were tinkering with the nascent technology. In 1870, a fellow named Eadweard Muybridge worked on an action photography method for his benefactor to prove that a horse has all four feet off the ground when it runs, even if for a brief moment. He was correct, of course.
By the early twentieth century, films had advanced beyond the barnyard. The first plot-driven movies had been produced, though they were stilted, simple, and absent sound. These were the silent picture days.
The first movie star to become an international celebrity was Chaplin, a gifted ball of energy from England, a man of a million expressions and just as many physical abilities. Chaplin invented many of the techniques that became commonplace in film making: he was in many ways the father of motion pictures. While Charlie was the greatest comedian and filmmaker of his day, his good friend Fairbanks was the first action star. Fairbanks played swashbuckling lady-killers, and people lined up around the block to see his silent movies. In 1917, the dawn of The Great War, later to be prefixed World War I, Chaplin and Fairbanks were motion picture royalty. That same year, baseball’s devilish demon joined them on the big screen.
By 1917, Ty Cobb was clearly baseball’s best performer, despite his unpopularity among his peers. Cobb was irascible, a hard-edged man who usually humorless on the baseball field. While others, like the emerging man-child Babe Ruth in Boston, could have a good time while on the diamond, Ty was a serious minded man. To Cobb, the game was akin to war.
“When I began playing the game,” Cobb said, “baseball was about as gentlemanly as a kick in the crotch.”
The players he competed against and even many of the men on his own team, disliked Cobb. But they had a respect for him as one of the geniuses in sport. Cobb played with a cunning display of aggression and guile. As one newspaper man wrote, “He has brains in his feet.”
If you were a superstar in sports in the 1910s, people would pay to rub elbows with you. They would toss a nickel in a hat to hear you tell stories. Several stars traveled the vaudeville circuit in the first decades of the century, making appearances and talking about their exploits. Some even sang, danced, acted in plays, or read great works of literature. “STEP RIGHT UP! CHRISTY MATHEWSON READS SHAKESPEARE!” It was an interesting time for entertainment.
It was only natural that as motion pictures emerged as a popular medium, athletes would appear on the screen. After his stellar 1911 season when he batted over .400 and set a league record for hits, Cobb was signed to star in a play that ran in theaters in his native Georgia. But after the 1916 season, Ty received a lucrative offer to be a film star from an old friend.
“Grant Rice sent me a letter,” Cobb would later explain, “and he offered me a leading role in a screenplay. I wasn’t an actor, but I could negotiate, and after Rice agreed to my financial demands, I tackled the job in earnest.”
Rice and Cobb had a history. When Ty was a fledgling ballplayer in the sticks of Peach Country, he wrote letters to Rice, then the sports editor of the Atlanta Journal. Cobb did not sign his letters, carrying off a charade that fans were sending the glowing praise about a teenage baseball star on the rise. The ruse worked, and Rice published a brief mention of Cobb in the newspaper. After he became a batting champion, Cobb admitted his clever trick, and the two men maintained a respectful friendship the balance of their lives.
Rice was prolific: he wrote daily columns, weekly notes columns, and answered reader mail. He also loved to write stories, and he accumulated a desk-full of short stories, all of them centered on the sporting world. He invited Ty to be the leading man in a film based on a series of his short stories. Cobb agreed after procuring a $25,000 salary (close to half a million dollars in 2019 money).
During the 1916 offseason, Cobb reported to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where filming would take place under the eye of Rice and British-born director George Ridgwell, who would later gain fame for his work on a series of Sherlock Holmes films. Stage actress Elsie MacLeod was hired to play Cobb’s romantic interest. The 23-year old beauty was already a veteran of more than two dozen films. With a rookie actor as her leading man, MacLeod helped Ty learn his lines and find his way around a movie set.
The movie was called “Somewhere in Georgia,” and the plot was pretty simple. Cobb played a banker in rural Georgia who also has a talent for the game of baseball. He earns a contract with the Detroit Tigers, heading north and leaving behind his sweetheart, a teller at the bank (played by MacLeod). After he gains stardom in the game, Cobb returns to Georgia for a game against the local team. But a crooked bank cashier, who also loves MacLeod, kidnaps Cobb to keep him away from the girl and the ballpark. In the climax, Cobb breaks free, fights off the cashier, races to the diamond, and wins the game for Detroit in heroic fashion. The final scenes shows him reunited with his adoring sweetheart.
“Somewhere in Georgia” was released during the 1917 baseball season. In the summer, Cobb viewed the film at a screening in Detroit which he attended with his wife and Frank Navin, the owner of the Tigers. Reportedly, Navin fretted that Cobb might abandon baseball to concentrate on a lucrative career as a movie star. But Ty had no such plans, and “Somewhere in Georgia” was panned by critics, effectively killing Cobb’s career as an actor.
The end of his movie career didn’t really matter to The Georgia Peach: in 1917, Cobb earned $20,000 from the Tigers, making him baseball’s highest-paid player. Four years later, Navin gave Cobb $25,000 to play and manage the “Ty-gers.”. The money was good for a baseball legend, and it didn’t require makeup.