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Occasional Dispatches from the Republic of Anhedonia: Part 1

Ty Cobb as Detroit

The darkest man in baseball and the city that still loves him.

The old liquor store on Trumbull Avenue was abandoned until a handyman turned it into a hip bar about three years ago. Motor City Ghettoblaster is now on tap at Woodbridge Pub, located on the outer edge of the once-crumbling Detroit neighborhood that bears its name. The Woodbridge Community Garden is across the way, home to tomatoes, lettuces, and outdoor art. Not far from here, at the corner of Commonwealth and WillisAlexandrine, you’ll find the Charbonneau house: A shabby but regal place, rich with gables and terraces, built by a turn-of-the-century condiment magnate. It overwhelms the pretty but forgettable red-brick duplex next door, the one with wooden swings hanging from the roofed porch. On one side of that duplex lives the young co-founder of City Bird, a shop that sells handmade wares from Rust Belt cities. On the other, the memory of Ty Cobb.

One hundred years ago, Cobb moved into the north side of the three-story duplex on Commonwealth. The fields of Woodbridge were filling fast with an eclectic collection of Victorian homes, built densely to accommodate the city’s booming population. The star center fielder brought with him his pale and plump-cheeked wife, Charlie, and their son, Ty Jr., who was barely a year old. Daughter Shirley would be born that June. Ash and elm trees, front porches and expansive windows: These were treasured by the aspiring middle and upper-middle class families moving into Woodbridge, including the Cobbs. Developed as a “streetcar suburb,” Woodbridge was only a short ride on the rail to downtown. And their Commonwealth home was close enough to the Tigers ballpark for Cobb to make a habit of walking his dogs down Trumbull to home games.

It was a good year for Cobb, who died 50 years ago this month. In 1911, he was in the middle of a three-year contract with the Tigers for one of the highest salaries in the league. Cobb had just begun buying stock in General Motors, a shrewd business move that would make him a millionaire within the decade. His face was appearing on Coca-Cola advertisements and tobacco cards. And he was on the brink of his greatest season in baseball. He became the first American League MVP and reached 1,000 hits. He was 24 years old.

The brick duplex on Commonwealth wasn’t Cobb’s only Detroit home, but other structures in which he lived are long gone. Even locals are forgiven for not knowing a thing about the house in Woodbridge. The only indications that Cobb lived here are the framed black-and-white photos in the dining room: Cobb with his bat, Cobb with his family, Cobb almost smiling on a promotional poster for a home tour. These are part of the collection of Cindy Lozon, the social worker who owns Cobb’s half of the house. A tidy and talkative woman, she long supplemented her salary by selling beer and greeting fans at the Kansas City and Detroit ballparks. She moved into the Cobb house in 2001, tried to sell it, rented it to a couple she now calls “the pigs,” and moved back in this June, bringing along Harley and Rudy, her Bassett hounds. Lozon plans to stay for good. “Let’s face it,” she says. “I’ll die here.”

The ballclub, however, played its final game at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull in 1999. Outside their new home in downtown Detroit, pristine Comerica Park, you can find a bronze plaque honoring Cobb, the original member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. First displayed nearly 50 years ago, the plaque reads: “Greatest Tiger of All. A Genius in Spikes.” A statue captures Cobb in a slide. His numberless jersey is as “retired” as it logically can be.

Although Cobb lived at the Commonwealth home through the three most monumental years of his career, neither the Tigers franchise nor the city of Detroit has ever approached Lozon about elevating its legacy. Its history instead spreads through word of mouth — if it spreads at all. Contradictory details percolate in online message boards. Lozon herself found out about its past when she overheard the previous owner mention it at a party hosted by her employer. Two tourists from Japan got word, and showed up on Lozon’s porch to pose for photos. Someone left a photo of Cobb at her doorstep; she displayed it because “I feel like I owe it to the house to do that.” When a workman came to the house, he was struck still when he learned of its history. “Do you think those are spike marks on the stairs?” he asked Lozon, wide-eyed. “I hardly think his wife would allow him in the house with his spikes!” she huffed. The man refused to finish his job. He considered the walls sacred, and wouldn’t disfigure them with a drill. He left the house quietly.

The red-brick duplex on Commonwealth Street remains one of those curious little secrets in a city that is proud of its secrets.

Bennett Park was in its last year of life in 1911. The single-deck wooden structure sat 14,000 and it hosted World Series games in 1907, 1908, and 1909 (none of which the Tigers won). Team owner Frank Navin would tear down the park at season’s end and build the Navin Field grandstand — eventually called Tiger Stadium — out of concrete and steel on the same site. These days, with the legendary ballpark demolished, about 20 volunteers show up every Sunday to care for the empty field at the Corner. They call themselves the Navin Field Grounds Crew. They mow grass, collect litter, and play pickup ball before they leave. This spring, they planted sunflowers and corn around the outfield, an idea inspired by Field of Dreams — a film in which Cobb is absent. “Ty Cobb wanted to play,” Shoeless Joe Jackson explains in the movie, “but none of us could stand the son-of-a-bitch when we were alive, so we told him to stick it.”

Navin liked to say that Cobb wasn’t bigger than baseball. But the man who signed the skinny kid from Georgia could be reduced to tip-toeing around the fiery star. As 1911 spring training was about to begin, Navin pleaded in a letter to Cobb: “If you will try your best to have harmony on the team this year, and will report on time, and will help [manager] Mr. Jennings in every possible way, I will show you in a very substantial way my appreciation of your service.”

Unfazed, Cobb arrived to camp late. But he was quick about affirming his dominating presence on the team. The Tigers won the first six games of the 1911 season, on their way to a 21-2 start. Cobb hit a grand slam against the Red Sox in May, and proceeded to power the Tigers into midsummer with the longest hitting streak of his career. In July, Cobb scored from second on a fly ball. Three times Cobb stole home. Once he stole second, third, and home on three consecutive pitches in the first inning. Sour reputation aside, the city of Detroit turned kindly upon Cobb: When the athlete got a speeding ticket during the season, he told the judge he “wasn’t going any faster than he steals second base,” according to a local paper’s account. The judge suspended his sentence.

It was not a sleepy season. In a mid-June matchup, the Tigers flailed behind the Chicago White Sox 13-1 before roaring back to win, 16-15. In the spring, Johnny Evers of the Cubs suffered a nervous breakdown. And Addie Joss, star pitcher for the Cleveland Naps, abruptly died just before Opening Day; he was 31. The tragedy cued baseball’s first All-Star game, hosted to raise money for Joss’ family. Besides the local team, seven American League franchises lent top players to play a game against the Naps, who were led by Cy Young in his last year on the mound. Cobb brought excitement to the experiment when he wired his agreement to play nine days before game day. It so happens that Joss had been one of the toughest pitchers against Cobb. At his funeral in Toledo, Cobb led a crew of Tigers to the ceremony.

Cindy Lozon won’t call them ghost stories — she doesn’t believe in that. They are simply “experiences.” Like the times the television changed the channel by itself. Or when one of her Basset hounds showed an unusual interest in the attic stairs. The dog, who could barely walk in its old age, would limp over to the steps, pace there, wag its tail expectantly, and wait. Once Lozon noticed her gingham curtains hanging backwards, the dull pattern facing inside. She scolded herself before realizing: “Perhaps it wasn’t me. Perhaps it was my little friend.” Another time, Lozon heard the television on in the basement; a static-y and obnoxious hum murmuring below the floor. She went down to turn it off but couldn’t find the remote or the power button. She went to unplug the television, she says, but the cord was already out of the socket. “That time, I ran out of the house,” she said. “Didn’t look back.” When she and a friend later lightheartedly discussed hosting a séance at the house, the friend demurred. “Don’t do it!” she admonished. “Ty Cobb’s a bad guy!”

Indeed. Let’s be clear — Ty Cobb was an asshole. He was a racist who didn’t believe he was racist. He once slapped a black elevator operator at Cleveland hotel for being “uppity,” and when a security guard intervened, Cobb cut the guard with a knife. (He paid $100 to settle the case.) He also beat up a disabled fan who heckled him from the stands in New York, and he challenged umpires to postgame bouts under the bleachers, some of which his young kids had to watch before walking him back home. Cobb had a reputation for sharpening his spikes (the better to draw blood when he slides into the bag), and while that is likely hype, Cobb was untroubled by the rumor (the better to psych out his opponents).

The romantics smooth away Cobb’s edges by invoking the product-of-his-time defense. He was racist because everybody was racist back then. Besides, Cobb had good reason to be troubled: Just weeks before his 1905 debut with the Tigers, Cobb’s mother fatally shot his father. The incident was legally determined to be an accident — a case of a mistaken intruder. In his later years, he buried two adult sons. Meanwhile, Cobb’s kindnesses are overshadowed by his surly reputation. Mention that Cobb hit a black groundskeeper because he didn’t like the state of the facilities — and then choked the groundskeeper’s wife when she tried to break up the fight — and romantics will counter with stories of Cobb’s goodwill. Cobb used his fortune to establish a college scholarship program for Georgian students, and quietly supported several retirees in need, often anonymously. His smile was goofy and charming.

The foil to the romantics are the nostalgics: People who revel in Cobb as an archetypal mean-old-cuss, weirdly morphing the man into a brutal darling. Nostalgics get downright lurid about how Cobb’s own teammates hated him, and how his relationships were strained. (Charlie would divorce Cobb after about 40 years of marriage, charging “extreme cruelty from the date of marriage to the present time.”) Nostalgics also point to Cobb’s penny-pinching, his gambling, his loud resentment of the home run flash of Babe Ruth, and the aching addictions that darkened the last years of his life. A tough and tortured man from the cutthroat old days: He is horribly awe-inspiring.

This is not unlike today’s storytellers of Detroit. During the nadir of the car and housing industries, during the worst of joblessness, Detroit was an epicenter for gawkers and talkers. Commentators, pundits, researchers, and journalists pontificated about the urban crisis with Detroit as Exhibit A, whether or not they had spent more than a day here. “Detroit Disassembled” is the exhibition of photography that is touring the nation with images of plants overtaking empty homes and books decaying in libraries. Ruin porn became a common complaint among Detroiters for what others were taking from the city. And that is the crux: We know people get a grim thrill out of seeing Detroit’s pain pulsing before them, just as they delight in Ty Cobb’s nastiness. It is so extreme. It is so colorful. It is so interesting.

The other kind of Detroit storytellers are the cheerleaders. These champions are usually people who chose to move into the city, and who are dug in with its transformation. The cheerleaders argue that the ruin-porn people have it all wrong: Detroit is a vibrant place. They boast of the entrepreneurial culture, the inspired artists, the substantial network of urban farms. Creativity abounds in Detroit, and the momentum isn’t turning back. Ruin-porn people, say the cheerleaders, are missing context. Like those who romanticize Cobb’s meanness, Detroit’s cheerleaders try to balance negative press by powering uncomplicated positive stories: a café opened here, an art installation opened there. Unfortunately, this is a story too simple and stagnant to be honest.

Ty Cobb can be a cruel man, and at the same time be a misunderstood hero. Detroit can be both a ravaged, bleeding city and an inspired place where creative people are imagining new ways for an urban center to be successful. In fact, that’s exactly what is true.

Woodbridge today is one of the few corners of the city that remains from the days before the auto industry made “Detroit” synonymous with “cars.” It has been on the National Register for Historic Places since 1980, a move catalyzed by the Citizens’ District Council to stave off the wrecking ball from Wayne State University, which wanted to develop the area for its campus. It is one of Detroit’s most diverse and dynamic neighborhoods, peopled by students, professors, artists, bike mechanics, musicians, and teachers. Cindy Lozon has become its unofficial historian. People, she says, give her things: photos, negatives, posters, brochures. “Cindy will take care of it,” she says, mimicking her neighbors. They also give her stories. She’s heard rumors of a neighbor who lives alone in the mansion next door. According to Lozon, the woman prefers to keep her porch and backyard looking ominously disheveled so intruders will not think she has anything of worth to steal.

Lozon welcomes the strangers who show up at her door. She’ll take a photo of you standing next to the smooth green porch columns or sitting on the cool stone steps. In her home, she points out original woodwork and original molding. And she doesn’t just mean original to when the house was built; she means original to Cobb. She took me to the upstairs bathroom and pointed to the claw-footed porcelain tub: “Ty Cobb took a bath in there,” she says. I snap a picture.

Lozon also tells me about her dogs, her medical woes, and the grease she cleaned up after kicking out her former tenants. She tells me of the “experiences.” She points out the windows in the cellar that have been there for a century, and she shows off her collection of cow figurines. She mentions that she and Cobb share the same birthday. And I love it. The blurring of her own story with Cobb’s story, her passionate sense of being part of a narrative that is greater than any one person: Despite a taste for precision, this is the core of the baseball experience.

The Tigers have long revealed more about Detroit than it might want exposed. The rise of Ty Cobb coincided with the rise of the industry that would transform the city and the world: Both Cobb and cars were permanent game-changers. Detroit became the “Arsenal of Democracy” throughout World War II, producing vehicles for the Allies. It seems fitting that, around the same time that Cobb was playing in “old-timers” games to benefit war-related charities, the Tigers won the 1945 World Series in seven games. Meanwhile, the success of the Tigers was long limited by fear of signing a black player; shamefully, the team was second-to-last to do so, in 1958, a year before Cobb moved back to Georgia. Likewise, racism in Detroit has long choked the city. Borders such as 8 Mile, the road snaking between the city and the suburbs, are famous for the metaphor they carry. Integration is undone.

In the 1960s, Cobb’s Woodbridge neighborhood was declared an urban renewal site and slated for total demotion. Detroit burned the summer of 1967 in what some people call the riot and others call the rebellion, a five-day fight that broke open at a “blind pig” less than four miles from the Cobb house on Commonwealth. That hot summer, the Tigers played games of dramatic comebacks, winning 30 in their last at-bats. The 1968 Tigers won the World Series in another set of seven. Shortly later, Woodbridge residents formed the council that would preserve and revive their neighborhood.

In the ’70s and early ’80s, the hollowing out of Detroit began to resonate. In 1975, the Detroit Lions moved out of the city proper. The baseball team was somewhere between mediocre to terrible.

In 2006, a year after it hosted the All-Star game for the first time in 30 years, the Tigers played in the World Series for the first time since its “Roar of ’84” championship. It was three years after the team posted the most losses in AL history, and the team had just completed its first winning season since 1993. Justin Verlander won Rookie of the Year. Although the Tigers gave up the series 1-4 to the Cardinals, the team thrilled a city that was tired of losing.

Since then, Comerica Park — which Detroit struggled to love after leaving Tiger Stadium — fills up for most games. In 2009, as the car industry contracted, General Motors dropped its sponsorship of the giant iconic fountain in center field — right by the Ty Cobb statue — that sprays its celebration of home-team home runs. The Tigers donated the sponsorship to GM — and added Ford and Chrysler’s logos to the fountain, along with a sign that read “The Detroit Tigers Support Our Automakers.” It was a display of faith in the city’s future, and in the fans whose lives are tied up with it.

“When they talk about there being no fans like Detroit Tigers fans,” says Cindy Lozon, “it’s true.”

I didn’t move to Detroit until a year after the Series, but I understand that this was about the same time that the tempo changed in the city. The 2006 Super Bowl was played downtown at Ford Field, the new home of the Lions; it gave locals a reason to puff their chests. Newly crafted green spaces downtown gave reason for people to linger, rather than rush their commute. Restaurants like the Woodbridge Pub opened, and stayed open. Public transit is part of the conversation in the Motor City. Communities of artists made whole neighborhoods their canvases. People began, slowly, moving into the city. The Woodbridge neighborhood is one of the fastest-growing in Detroit. These days, Detroiters are showing up. We are all its authors. And while the Tigers are unlikely to be serious contenders for this year’s World Series, they might be someday. Maybe sooner than we think.

Anna Clark is a writer from Detroit. She edits the literary blog Isak. Follow her on Twitter at @annaleighclark.