“You wouldn’t believe how many guys wanted to play here. We had to beat ’em off with a stick. Ty Cobb wanted to play. But none of us could stand the son of a b—- when we were alive, so we told him to stick it!” —Shoeless Joe Jackson, in the film Field of Dreams
Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty by Charles Leerhsen (464 pages, Simon & Schuster, 2015)
It’s rare that an author billing his work as a piece of revisionism ends up, seemingly unwittingly, reinforcing the traditional interpretation of his subject. But Charles Leerhsen accomplishes this unusual feat in his biography, Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty.
Tyrus Raymond Cobb (1886-1961) was one of the greatest baseball players of all time, ending his twenty-four-year career (the first twenty-two of which he spent with the Detroit Tigers) with a lifetime batting average of .367. He set some ninety records as a hitter and baserunner between 1905 and 1928, many of which still stand today—such as his mark of stealing home fifty-four times, and his total for the most combined runs scored and driven in (4,065). He was also, until Babe Ruth arrived on the scene, “unquestionably the biggest draw in baseball,” as Mr. Leerhsen asserts, “the only player worth $100,000 to his team each season at the gate.”
As the statistics cited above suggest, Cobb made his reputation as an outstanding hitter—he used an unusual grip on the bat, separating his hands and choking up several inches from the nub—and as an aggressive, unpredictable baserunner. The first part of his career was spent in the so-called Dead Ball Era, when home runs were a rarity (Cobb once led the league in home runs with a mere nine), and when hitters tried to put the ball in play at all costs, aiming to advance runners and make the defense work to record outs. Cobb excelled at this type of baseball, leading the league in hitting in all but one season from 1907 and 1919, with his average peaking at .420 and .409 in 1911 and 1912. He was a terror on the base paths, a constant threat to steal, jumping around like a jack-rabbit to unnerve pitchers. “Baseball is 50 percent brain, 25 percent eye, and 25 percent arm and leg,” he opined. Cobb often did the unexpected. He would sometimes break from third base on infield pop-ups when the fielder started to lob the caught ball back to the pitcher, often successfully scoring before the pitcher could throw the ball to the catcher. He once stole home when the opposing Yankees were arguing a call around home plate: Sneaking down from third base, Cobb weaved through the crowd of umpires and players and lunged at the plate at the last second.
As he earned a reputation as a great hitter and baserunner, Cobb also became known during his lifetime as a particularly mean player and man, both on and off the field. He never hesitated to slide into fielders, feet first, with spiked shoes (he was said to have filed his spikes to make them even sharper), when trying to make it safely to a base. “The Good Book says, ‘Turn the other cheek,” Cobb said in an interview after his career ended, “but you know I never believed in that much. It doesn’t prove out. I happen to have believed more in ‘An eye for an eye’ when I played baseball.” Cobb also got into more than his share of fights with both opponents and civilians, as he possessed a hair-trigger temper that flared at any perceived slight, or any sign of a lack of deference on the part of menial laborers—waiters, night watchmen, elevator operators, maids, newsboys—with whom he came in contact. A few of his altercations with civilians indeed landed Cobb in court, and Cobb’s fights with African-Americans would lead later biographers and commentators to conclude that he was a racist who stood out even in his own time for his hatred of blacks.
Mr. Leerhsen’s stated mission is to challenge the veracity of many of the stories of Cobb’s viciousness and to paint a kinder, gentler portrait of the man’s character. Mr. Leerhsen attributes the inaccurate modern image of Cobb first to author Al Stump, who was commissioned in 1960 by Doubleday & Company to co-write Cobb’s autobiography, My Life in Baseball: The True Story. Stump was a noted sensationalist, Mr. Leerhsen asserts, and he did not hesitate to include unfounded legends about Cobb’s meanness and even to invent stories of his own. Stump thus repeated the legend that Cobb sharpened his spikes, that he attacked black people out of an innate hatred of their race, and that he was hated by almost all his fellow players. Stump’s portrait, Leerhsen argues, seeped into popular culture, so that modern, popular portrayals of Cobb, from Ken Burns’ series, Baseball, to the hit movie Field of Dreams, have fortified our negative portrayal of Cobb as a talented, but beastly, perhaps even unbalanced, human being.
To his credit, Mr. Leerhsen is successful in challenging the credibility of some of the more outlandish stories about his subject. He demonstrates, for example, that it is almost certain that neither Cobb, nor any other baseball player, sharpened his spikes in the era, though some pretended to do so in order to intimidate opponents. Mr. Leerhsen also points out that modern biographers have sometimes assumed the victims of Cobb’s rage to have been black when there is no evidence to confirm such assumptions. The author admits that Cobb had a bad temper and helpfully points to elements of Cobb’s life experience that may have stoked this trait: Cobb’s mother, for instance, shot his father to death in what she claimed was an accident; Cobb was also hazed mercilessly as a teenager while a rookie with the Tigers, perhaps because he was, almost uniquely among players of the period, a bibliophile, who often kept to himself reading during off-hours on the road.
But a more likely explanation for Cobb’s severe hazing was that he was, as the fictionalized Shoeless Joe Jackson says in Field of Dreams, a “son of a b—-,” who annoyed most people. Though Mr. Leerhsen chafes at this movie line, he often makes statements and cites evidence that back up its sentiment. “The admirable—and maddening—thing about him,” Mr. Leerhsen admits, “was that he could never take it easy.” Both on and off the field, Cobb seemed to relish getting under people’s skin. His minor-league manager found him “too annoying… to embrace wholeheartedly.” Despite his obvious promise as a young major leaguer, Tigers management explored trading him for a lesser, older player due to his difficult persona. As a player-manager for the Tigers in the latter part of his career, Mr. Leerhsen says, Cobb “simply could not go very long as the placid, perfect player-manager without, as they say in the theater, breaking character and letting his real self show through.”
And that self could be quite ugly. Though Mr. Leerhsen is forced to concede some cases of Cobb’s brutality—such as the case of his beating up a newsboy hawking papers in the street, his kicking the face of a semi-conscious player he had knocked to the ground several minutes earlier, his attack on a black road worker who simply asked him not to step in freshly-laid asphalt—he looks to undermine other stories of Cobb’s brutality whenever he can, usually unconvincingly. So, when Cobb was accused in 1919 of assaulting a black maid at a hotel for objecting to a racial slur he made against her, Mr. Leerhsen at first admits that hush money was paid to the maid by Tigers’ management, but then weakly tries to question the veracity of the maid’s account by pointing out that an African-American newspaper that assailed Cobb at the time for his actions and called for justice spoke glowingly of Cobb forty-two years later (!) in its obituary to the baseball great.
Mr. Leerhsen credits the stories of Cobb’s alleged racism to those “who can’t get over the fact that he was… born in Georgia, in 1886, and therefore must at some point have been severely prejudiced.” Though Mr. Leerhsen is to be commended here for not indulging in the usual anti-Southern bias of historians, the truth is that Americans born anywhere, North or South, East or West, between, say, 1820 and 1920, were likely to carry with them some level of prejudice. And even if Cobb, as Mr. Leerhsen is fond of pointing out, expressed the opinion that blacks should be allowed into the major leagues and commended individual black baseball players, this does not mean he might not also evince racist feelings in his day-to-day interactions with working-class African-Americans. The circumstances of Cobb’s birth into an upper-middle-class Southern family in the last quarter of the nineteenth century certainly does suggest that he expected deference from those he considered his social inferiors, both black and white. And once he established himself as baseball royalty, Cobb expected to be accorded similaly royal treatment from the common man.
Indeed, Mr. Leerhsen often bends over backward to find an alternative explanation for a story that seems to cast a negative light on Cobb’s personality and and his resultant unpopularity among his peers. Perhaps the best example of this tendency of the author is the story of the 1910 American League batting title race. Cobb and Napoleon Lajoie of the Cleveland Naps (the team was named after its star player from 1903 to 1915) were locked in a close race for the title with two games to go in the season. Cobb sat out the last two games of the schedule, as he seemed assured of winning, unless Lajoie did the unthinkable and collected eight hits in Cleveland’s final two contests. But Lajoie did just that, but only because the opposing St. Louis Browns’ infielders played so deep at their positions that Lajoie was able to execute seven successful bunt singles. It was obvious to most that the Browns had allowed Lajoie to collect these hits, and perhaps just as obvious to observers then and now that the reason was their hatred of Cobb. (Lajoie claimed to have received a telegram from eight of Cobb’s teammates, congratulating him on winning the batting title over Cobb.)
Yet Mr. Leerhsen, in his effort to paint Cobb as someone who was not universally despised, posits an entirely speculative theory that the real reason for the Browns’ behavior was that they had been involved in a gambling scheme, receiving a cut of the take from racketeers who had laid money on the long-shot Lajoie in the season’s final days. Though not an entirely implausible theory, Mr. Leerhsen offers not a single piece of evidence to prove his theory.
And so Mr. Leerhsen’s book goes. It is an engaging biography to be sure, and Mr. Leerhsen is surely correct that some of the more outlandish stories of Cobb’s nastiness and racism are exaggerated or even entirely fictional. And yet the author himself paints a picture that is little different from the traditional one of Ty Cobb that has come down to us. If not a monster or maniac, he was at least one of the meanest—albeit greatest—men to have ever played the game of baseball.
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