New book shatters myths of Ty Cobb’s meanness and racism

I’ve always been skeptical of the characterization of Ty Cobb as a monster.

I don’t remember that image of Cobb being prominent in my youth. Well into the 1960s, Cobb was hailed as one of the five original members of the Baseball Hall of Fame, the “Georgia Peach” who held some of baseball’s most cherished and important records—for career batting average, total hits, runs, and stolen bases. He was still considered by some a top candidate for the greatest player in baseball history, a “genius in spikes.”

Though the batting mark will probably never be broken, Pete Rose and Rickey Henderson have demolished Cobb’s other most famous records. In addition, new analysis devalued some measures of his greatness and Babe Ruth was rightly elevated about him as a universally recognized superior offensive player.

As Cobb’s records were falling, so was his reputation. From being widely known as cunning and disruptive, a brilliant practitioner of “small ball” tactics from the Dead Ball era, a smart and aggressive player who caused havoc on the base paths, he started to acquire an overlaying veneer of villainy. It was said he would sharpen his spikes before the game so as to injure opponents when he slid with feet high into others’ legs while running the bases—an assertion that was largely apocryphal. But, even today, if you ask most casual fans about Cobb, that is one of the first things they will say about Cobb.

Other even more damning assertions became more widespread: he climbed into the stands in Philadelphia to attack a crippled man who was heckling him, he beat up or killed one or more black men in the alleys in Detroit, he was a virulent and unrepentant racist to the bitter end of his life, he was universally despised by other players. These images morphed into most potent form in Ron Shelton’s movie Cobb, with a memorably lunatic performance by Tommy Lee Jones cementing the deranged misanthrope image firmly in the public mind. Since then, when you mention Cobb’s name, the most common association is “evil racist.”

The movie was based largely on Al Stump’s biography, purportedly fashioned from many lengthy interviews with Cobb in his dying days. It turns out, however, that Stump spent only a few hours with Cobb and fashioned his memorable villain out of whole cloth, drawing largely on popular but unproven legends about him. At least that’s one of the revisions promulgated by journalist Charles Leerhsen, who has just published a new biography, Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty.

I’ve written about Cobb in Queen of Diamonds and in a few other articles. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Ernie Harwell, who as a fellow Georgian and fellow Detroit Tiger luminary was interested in the subject, wanted to tackle Cobb, and he and I discussed collaborating on that project and even shopped a proposal around. My own limited research made it clear to me that the Stump and Shelton version of Cobb was a distortion close to parody.

The question I always had was this: if Cobb really was so hated in his day, why did every one of his teammates go on strike in 1912 when he was suspended for that fight with a fan? That’s quite a strong level of support for a despised teammate.

Leershen’s book appears, finally, as a welcome corrective to the corrosive Cobb myths. He went into the project expecting his subject to be the terrible monster of the popular imagination, but several things he discovered soon opened his eyes to a more balanced view.

Among Leershen’s new revelations are that Cobb’s grandparents were staunch abolitionists and his father was a fair local judge known in his segregationist Southern town in the 1890s for being a defender of minority rights. Cobb was a regular attendee at Negro League games, several times throwing out ceremonial first pitches there, and a supporter of major league integration. And far from being hated universally by fellow players, he was, Leershen asserts, more like Ted Williams, an often reticent and sometimes prickly superstar who was admired, envied, and sometimes feared. He wouldn’t have won a popularity contest, but neither would have many of the game’s greats.

And this is indisputable: By our new most-loved statistic, Cobb is fourth in career total WAR, with 151, behind Ruth (163), Barry Bonds (162), and Willie Mays (154), and comfortably ahead of Hank Aaron (142.6). So, if you demote Bonds for his steroid use, Cobb is near the very top of the pantheon. And it’s high time we regarded him fairly, warts and all, as a bygone superstar but not as a caricature. One thing that’s clear, and that all his biographers agree on, is that Ty Cobb had an unmatched will to win.

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