Ty Cobb — Correcting the Record

Mark Hendrickson has a great review of the above book at the Claremont of Review of Books

“The greatness of Ty Cobb,” remarked fellow Hall of Famer and former opponent, George Sisler, “was something that had to be seen, and to see him was to remember him forever.” Similar statements have been made about Babe Ruth, and there has long been a debate about which was superior. The Boston Globe’s Roger Birtwell wrote at the time of Cobb’s retirement, “Ty Cobb could cause more excitement with a base on balls than Babe Ruth could with a home run.” And who knows? Maybe Cobb could have put up Ruthian power numbers. Leerhsen recounts the fascinating story of how Cobb, who thought the new emphasis on slugging home runs violated the purity of the sport, announced one day near the end of his career, “I’m going for home runs [today] for the first time.” He hit three that game.

Cobb was a cerebral player who spent hours away from the ballpark devising new strategies for winning. After being named the Tigers’ player/manager in 1921, Cobb gave hitting clinics that resulted in the team having a batting average of .316—the highest in a quarter of a century, and still an American League record. During his six years as manager, two Tiger players won the American League batting championship a combined four times. One of them, future Hall of Famer Harry “Slug” Heilmann, said, “Cobb taught me more about hitting than I ever knew.”

There is no questioning Cobb’s skill on the diamond. What, then, accounts for his portrayal as a despicable monster? Money is part of the explanation. Once Cobb was dead—and couldn’t defend himself—unscrupulous writers concocted lurid stories, with no regard for accuracy or honesty, to sell their books.

Another reason is ideology. In the late-20th century, the depiction of an American hero as a vulgar racist fit the progressive template. Conditioned by years of educators’ and intellectuals’ efforts to reduce the American story to a narrative of bigotry and exploitation, it was easy for reviewers to accept falsities contained in the books and the 1994 movie about Cobb.

One thing that stands out in Leerhsen’s biography is how often the driven Cobb overcame injuries and ailments. One time, while being treated for bronchitis and what some sportswriters thought might be typhoid, Cobb left the hospital to go to the ballpark. He went three-for-three and stole two bases before returning to his doctors. On another occasion, he was stabbed in a shoulder in an attempted carjacking. He got his wound patched up and played that day, again banging out three hits. Once he had to miss a road trip with an inflamed eye, and his eye doctor found that Cobb was near-sighted in the other eye. He was batting over .380 when his impaired eyesight was discovered. Leershen also records a sportswriter’s shock on seeing the severity of the many raw wounds on Cobb’s legs, the price paid for sliding hard into bases. Cobb shunned the protection of sliding pads because they might, however slightly, slow him down.

Leerhsen convincingly demonstrates that Cobb earned his astonishing success on the diamond through total commitment, study, and hard work. Off the field, he was, in the phraseology of Leerhsen’s subtitle, “a terrible beauty”—a unique combination of pugnacity and gentleness, of explosive temperament and a deeply embedded sense of justice, generous in his efforts to help others, but stingy with affection in his own home.

Here’s a bit more from the author in Hillsdale College’s speech digest Imprimis.

But what about Cobb’s 19th-century Southern roots? How could someone born in Georgia in 1886 not be a racist? What I found—and again, not because I am the Babe Ruth of researchers, but because I actually did some research—is that Ty Cobb was descended from a long line of abolitionists. His great-grandfather was a minister who preached against slavery and was run out of town for it. His grandfather refused to fight in the Confederate army because of the slavery issue. And his father was an educator and state senator who spoke up for his black constituents and is known to have once broken up a lynch mob.

Cobb himself was never asked about segregation until 1952, when the Texas League was integrating, and Sporting News asked him what he thought. “The Negro should be accepted wholeheartedly, and not grudgingly,” he said. “The Negro has the right to play professional baseball and whose [sic] to say he has not?” By that time he had attended many Negro league games, sometimes throwing out the first ball and often sitting in the dugout with the players. He is quoted as saying that Willie Mays was the only modern-day player he’d pay to see and that Roy Campanella was the ballplayer that reminded him most of himself.

Cobb was, like the rest of us, a highly imperfect human being. He was too quick to take offense and too intolerant of those who didn’t strive for excellence with the over-the-top zeal that he did. He did not suffer fools gladly, and he thought too many others fools. He was the first baseball celebrity, and he did not always handle well the responsibilities that came with that. And yes, he once went into the stands and repeatedly punched a man who had been heckling him for more than a year, and who turned out to have less than the full complement of fingers—hence the story of him attacking a handicapped fan. This is a mark against him. But was he a racist and an embarrassment to the game? Far from it.

10 comments to Ty Cobb — Correcting the Record

  • Scandalous mis-reporting after a person’s death??? Well, I never!!!

    Especially liked and appreciated the familial history of abolitionists.

  • stosh from the Sticks

    A couple of months back, I read the entire Imprimis article – it was very revealing, and I recommend it to all who have an interest in either baseball or the propagation of falsehood by the media (that would be you, Ken Burns) until it becomes “conventional wisdom”. Much of the view we have had of Cobb is apparently based on the writings of a specific biographer, who appears to have been a world-class hack. Brought to mind all the adulation thrown at Walter Duranty, until it was revealed he was little more than a big-time liar.

  • “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” Mark Twain

    • Rufus

      Very true. Another of my favorites on the same topic is also often attributed to Twain. I think research shows he did say it, but it pre-exists him and did not originate with him. Regardless, it’s a great statement and philosophy.

      “If you don’t lie you never have to remember anything.” I try to live my life that way and I heard some folks talking about Andrew Breitbart (Nolte?), who said that he went through life in that manner.

  • Rufus

    This should in no way be seen as an attempt to compare my middling athletic feats with the great athleticism of Cobb, but I had some of my best performances in football, track and basketball while injured and/or ill. Before what turned out to be my best basketball game statistically, I knew I was ill, but didn’t tell anyone so I could play. After the game it became obvious how ill I was. Turns out I was running a fever of 105! Similar thing with injuries. I think most of us tend to focus more when we know we aren’t quite all there. When you can’t rely on all your faculties you pay closer attention to use what you do have.

    I would not be surprised at all to learn many other people have similar stories.

    • Rufus

      I always assumed it was a similar phenomenon with that pitcher who threw the perfect game after taking LSD. He was messed up and didn’t want anyone to find out he was doing drugs so he really focused.

      • Wrong assumption with Dock Ellis. Highly recommend “No-No: A Dock-umentary,” available on Netflix streaming and beyond, for the full story.

  • kishke

    Not a criticism of this post, which I enjoyed, but I am so, so deeply tired of society’s endless blather and bother about race and privilege. Is there nothing else to think about and discuss? Will people never understand that there are no redos of the past? Enough already. Time to just get on with living.