A small part of the Cannonball Dick Redding mythology/hagiography is that the famous (or infamous, perhaps) Ty Cobb refused to take batting practice from a Redding, a blossoming speedball artist and future Negro League great from Atlanta.
Since both Cobb and Redding hailed from Georgia, it certainly could be feasible for such a showdown — or lack of a showdown — to take place. Tracking down the possible veracity of the story, however, has proven very difficult.
It seems to have first come to life in a relatively early, and relatively brief, biography of Redding by influential Negro Leagues historian John Holway. In the piece, written for the Society of American Baseball Research, Holway interviews several of Redding’s African-American contemporaries, teammates and opponents, who regaled the writer with tales of Redding’s mastery over all hitters, black and white.
Fairly early along in the bio, Holway writes this: “Dick was so good that his fellow Georgian, Ty Cobb, reportedly refused to hit against him in batting practice.”
But despite Holway’s very thorough, lively and enlightening interviews with the former players, the author doesn’t directly attribute the above quoted statement to any one of the athletes he talked to for his article, or any other source for that matter.
I did a little database digging, as well as quickly reviewed various Cobb biographies — and there’s a lot of them — and found no references to any direct pitcher-batter confrontation between the two hardball greats, certainly none that went down in batting practice as Holway described. Granted, I was unable to go into extremely extensive depth in this pursuit, but so far, I’ve found no conclusive evidence that Cobb spited the Cannonball.
However, that certainly doesn’t mean the pair never crossed (base)paths. I discovered the above article from the Dec, 10, 1932, Chicago Defender. The article is an absolute revelation, and a gem of a tale. Why? Because it features Redding himself directly detailing an encounter with Cobb and the Tigers. It’s fantastic.
The article, written by A.E. White, is basically one huge direct quote from the Cannonball. Toward the end, Redding says this:
“We used to play the big leagues down in Cuba during the winter. I remember pitching a no-hit game against the Detroit Tigers, hooking up with George Mullins in that battle. Remember Mullins? I also pitched against the late Wild Bill Donovan, later manager of the New York Yankees. What we used to do to Ty Cobb in those games was a-plenty. We just kept him off the bases to make him sore. And you haven’t seen a man sore until you see Ty Cobb raving mad because he couldn’t hit the ball safely. Incidentally, they were the world’s champions at the time.”
That was in 1912. But there definitely could have been an earlier fracas between Cobb and Redding, back when Redding was in all likelihood still a semipro hurler on the ATL sandlots. (However, as a side note, while some historians assert that one of the sandlot teams for which Cannonball played was the Atlanta Deppens, I’ve again had trouble confirming that, even though the Deppens were a fairly long-running and successful semipro club.)
In the mid-to-late 19-oughts, the Tigers help spring training at various cities in Georgia, enterprises that often included exhibition games in at Atlanta or against Atlanta-based aggregations. Were any of those contests against any sort of African-American team? It’s not immediately clear, but it’s hard to imagine that there wouldn’t be at least a couple like that.
And it’s not like the media, baseball fans and Georgia residents weren’t aware of the likelihood that it would happen, or at least that the Tigers would encounter a fair amount of black citizens during their spring-training treks across the state of Georgia. Take this from an April 1, 1906, dispatch the the Detroit Free Press by writer Joe Jackson:
“One section of the Southern population always has its welcome warm for the baseballist. The colored odd jobs man is there strong with the City-of-Welcome stuff on all occasions. Ever our Afro-American friend has his eye out for the visitor from the North, who tips more often and more stronger than his Southern cousin, and who doesn’t get one-half of efficient service as the latter, as has well been brought out by divers [sic] occasions by Tyrus Cobb. The latter, born and bred in the South, knows the ways of the Negro perfectly, and is ever ready to prove that the colored man more readily responds to the requests or demands of those in the South, who maintain the old relation of master and man between the races, than to those of the Northerner, who proceeds on lines that indicate that he believes the fourteenth amendment means just what it says.”
It’s hard (at least for me) to fully grasp the tone of the paragraph. Is it sarcastic? Is it patronizing? Paternalistic? Tongue-in-cheek? Snarky? Or completely straight-faced (and rather clueless)?
At the very least, it’s quite intriguing, especially given the racial dynamics of the time and Cobb’s notorious (though recently disputed by some) racist reputation. But it also raises a valid point: in many ways, Southern whites were less hesitant about interacting with blacks, with whom contact was frequent, than white Northerners, who, despite allegedly progressive beliefs, were often reluctant to relate to African Americans and shunned them because Northerners weren’t as used to being around minorities.
In fact, that situation still exists, to a certain point. While Southern and Northern racism might take on different forms and subtleties, at the core they could very well be the same.
But I digress. So did Tyrus Cobb refuse to take BP from Richard Redding Jr.? Dunno. Could it very well have happened? You bet. Will we ever know for sure? Probably not. As a result, the tale will continue to be enshrined in baseball lore as a juicy what-if and what-could-have-been.