Ty Cobb and the World War I Gas and Flame Division

Jim MorisetteCorrespondent IIIJune 19, 2012

Army Captain Ty Cobb with Major Christy Matthewson During WWI (Frank Ceresi)
Army Captain Ty Cobb with Major Christy Matthewson During WWI (Frank Ceresi)

Within the Motor City and throughout the baseball world, Tyrus Raymond Cobb remains a household name.

Considered half genius, half madman, Cobb was the Charlie Hustle of the early 20th century.

A gruff, gritty, resolute man with a fiery temper, Cobb was by no means a man who ran from a fight.

At times Cobb’s outrageous bursts of anger, hyper-vigilance and fist to blows with players and hecklers was enough to make people of all walks of life shake their heads.

But for all of Cobb’s great achievements, one key element of this legendary man’s turbulent life has all but escaped Hollywood scripts and internet biographies.

Cobb was an American patriot.  

More specifically, Cobb was Captain in the United States Army during the First World War.

According to Frank Ceresi, author of Chemical Warfare Service: World War One’s House of HorrorsCobb served on the front lines of America’s fight against German tyranny.

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Cobb, along with Christy Matthewson and Branch Rickey, was a member of a special elite combat unit called the “Chemical Warfare Service,” otherwise known as the “Gas and Flame Division.”

More simply put, Cobb and company was the gashouse gang before the gashouse gang.

In a disturbing scene taken straight from a barbaric war movie, the mission of Cobb’s unit was to:

Anticipate German gas attacks where the heaviest trench fighting would be, then turn the tables on the enemy by quickly spraying their flanks with jets of flame from tanks strapped onto their backs. Then, once their tanks emptied they were to lob special “gas grenades” at fallen Germans and clear the area.

As a member of the Armed Forces, reading this made me shiver, for it points to the sheer brutality of trench warfare. It also made me wonder if Cobb suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder before the psychologists actually labeled it PTSD.

Not to mention, Cobb and Matthewson inhaled Mustard gas during the war. Per Ceresi, while Cobb survived, Matthewson endured torturous life of poor health, before dying of Tuberculosis in 1945.  

Not forgotten in this story, Rickey—who served as Cobb’s and Matthewson’s commanding officer—also breathed “sweet death.” He went on to break baseball’s color by signing Jackie Robinson to a big league contract in 1947.

While history has often labeled Cobb a heartless and reckless man, this man’s war story proves the old adage—sometimes there is more than meets the eye.  

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