McCosky was born in Coal Run, Pennsylvania, the last of nine children. His mother died when he was one year old, and McCosky moved to Detroit at age 4 with his older brother Tony McCosky. McCosky grew up in Detroit in the midst of the Great Depression. He later recalled: "Nobody had any money. We took mustard sandwiches and ketchup sandwiches to school." (Richard Bak, "Cobb Would Have Caught It: The Golden Age of Baseball in Detroit" (Wayne State 1991), p. 285.) McCosky attended Southwestern High School in Detroit, Michigan, where he was All-City and captain in both baseball and basketball. McCosky had a .727 batting average his senior year—a Detroit public school record.
In 1936, McCosky was signed out of high school by scout Wish Egan. In 1936, he hit .400 for Charleston, West Virginia and led the Mid-Atlantic League his first year in professional baseball. He played next for Beaumont, Texas, and in 1939 the Tigers invited him to spring training in Lakeland, Florida. A photograph of McCosky as a rookie in spring training can be seen on the Lakeland Public Library web site. McCosky made the team and was the Tigers' starting center fielder on Opening Day in Detroit.
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