In his old age, Ty Cobb grew increasingly sensitive over how he would be remembered. It was the chief reason he repeatedly turned down requests to sell his life story to Hollywood. After watching the director’s cut of Ron Shelton’s 1994 film, Cobb, on DVD the other night, I was reminded that the Georgia Peach had a legitimate concern.
It’s been nearly 20 years since I last watched Cobb, and the viewing brought back mixed memories. I’d worked as a paid extra in the Warner Bros. movie when its ballpark scenes were filmed at Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama, in the spring of 1994. Shelton, who wrote, directed, and produced Cobb, based his script on a book by Los Angeles sportswriter Al Stump. It happened that my first biography of Cobb was released at the same time. Shelton, perhaps attracted to an alternative (that is, more empathetic) view of the Peach, was using it on set as additional research material. I was invited down to Alabama to meet Shelton and work in the film, which was a unique opportunity and a lot of fun.
But as much fun as it was to have the wardrobe department dress me in a period suit, plus-fours, paper collar, bowtie, and straw boater, and to have a stylist spend 20 minutes cutting my hair to match the style of the 1910s, it was discouraging to watch the final film totally abandon such attention to detail when it came to Cobb’s life. Most of the myths surrounding Cobb were included in the flick.
Like many fans anticipating the film’s release, I expected great things from Tommy Lee Jones, who was fresh off winning an Academy Award for his supporting role in The Fugitive. As the title character of Cobb, however, Jones left nuance aside and chewed enough scenery to cough up splinters for a month. He shot off his pistol and filthy mouth at every opportunity and was portrayed as sexually assaulting a young woman in a hotel room – an incident that, like others in the film, never happened. Shelton had Jones/Cobb punching infielders, sharpening his spikes, throwing games, beating his wife, and generally abusing anybody who crossed his path. I’m convinced Jones prepared for the role by slapping nuns and roasting ants on his backyard grill.
Casual fans, then and now, might consider Cobb entertaining. It has all the old standbys: sex, violence, even the obligatory car chase. However, anyone hoping to catch an insight into Cobb’s genius as a player will be disappointed. For a baseball movie, there is precious little playing action. During his playing days, Cobb’s off-field altercations regularly put him in the news, but it was his on-field brilliance that made him so fascinating to watch and made him the first man named to the Hall of Fame.
The audacious base running, the offensive cunning, the raw physical courage – Shelton chose to overlook all that. Instead of seeing Cobb gracefully perform one of his patented fadeaway or hook slides, grabbing a corner of the base as the infielder swipes at thin air, he had Jones clumsily bowling over opponents. If Cobb had motored around the bases as Jones portrayed him, he would have broken an ankle or been shipped back to the minors. The viewer is left wondering exactly what it was that made Cobb a genuine hero during the game’s silver age.
Having spent a good deal of time researching and writing about Cobb’s life over the years, I’m convinced most people don’t know, or care to know, the whole story. Anecdotes about Cobb quietly taking care of the affairs of some down-on-his-luck player don’t advance the popular image. No one wants to hear about Cobb avoiding a collision on the base paths. The hospital he built and the educational fund he established, both still going strong, don’t stir the blood.
I’m no apologist for Cobb, whose warts are well-documented. But in the rush by Shelton and Jones to present a portrait of what is generally considered an unbalanced personality (I’m convinced Cobb suffered from bipolar disorder), the view itself became unbalanced. While director and actor both nobly proclaimed their intention to attack America’s propensity for hero worship, they chose to make their case by presenting a litany of myths, distortions, exaggerations, and outright lies. Tearing down heroes is one thing. Building a wholly irredeemable cretin out of a troubled genius is quite another.
In the final scene of the movie, Robert Wuhl, the actor who portrays Al Stump, is asked by his barfly friends: “What was Cobb like?”
“You want the truth?” Wuhl/Stump responds.
“Yes!” I wanted to yell. “Please!” But in Cobb, as in most biopics, the truth has been obliterated by pyrotechnics.