A few days before Josh Hamilton had his historic four-homer game, I had written a post asking readers to vote for the greatest day by a hitter in major league history.
After Hamilton set an American League record with his 18 total bases, I was on an email chain in which the writer Allen Barra posited the greatest game ever wasn't one of the guys who hit four home runs or drove in 12 runs. "The best game ever was Ty Cobb on May 5, 1925, Detroit Tigers against the St. Louis Browns, when Cobb hit three home runs in one game," Allen wrote. "The Tigers team had just 50 home runs that season, and the entire AL had just 533."
Cobb went 6-for-6 that day in St. Louis, adding a double and two singles. The next day he hit two more home runs. Cobb's power outburst has long been presented as evidence of his desire to show he could hit home runs like Babe Ruth, that he was tired of everyone praising Ruth and dismissing his mere singles.
In Charles C. Alexander's biography of Cobb, he cites a story of Cobb sitting in the dugout before the game and telling a sportswriter, "I'll show you something today. I'm going for home runs for the first time in my career."
See? Cobb could have hit 40 or 50 home runs, just like Ruth. Alexander writes, "He had ... made his point: There were different ways to play baseball. He still loved the old game, still preferred most of the time to 'nip' at the ball, as Walter Johnson had once described his hitting style. But he could also clout with the musclemen when he chose."
You know what? I think the whole notion is a bunch of rubbish. The quote that Alexander cites comes not from a contemporaneous account, but from a 1961 article in The Sporting News that ran a few months after Cobb died. The story was told by Sid Keener, a former sportswriter and then the 73-year-old director of the Hall of Fame. You don't think that perhaps a little myth-making was at work here?
Aside from that, there are two other major loopholes in this legend.
Ruth first cracked the 50-homer barrier in 1920. Why did Cobb wait until 1925 -- when he was 38 years old -- to show he could "clout with the musclemen" if he wanted? There's also the fact that after that five-homer outburst, Cobb hit just seven home runs the remainder of the season, finishing with 12 to match his career-best.
Why did he suddenly stop hitting home runs? The Tigers won those two games in St. Louis, scoring 25 runs. Cobb didn't homer again until June 1, even though the Tigers went just 13-12 in games he played. From July 12 through Aug. 22, the Tigers went 8-16 in games Cobb played and he went homerless. Surely, a few home runs may have helped the Tigers win another game or two, no?
Look, I'm sure if Cobb had arrived in the major leagues in 1920 he would have adopted more easily to the modern game and hit a few more home runs. He was a big guy for his era -- 6-foot-1 -- and had extra-base power. But in the end, this tale doesn't add up. Ty Cobb had a great game -- or a great two games. But the idea that he could have matched Ruth's power approach is absurd, as ridiculous as those who suggest Ichiro could hit more home runs if only he wanted to.