Consider Ty Cobb, one of American sports’ legendary characters, whose greatness on the baseball diamond—he played from 1905 to 1928, mostly for the Detroit Tigers—was eventually overshadowed by stories about his fanatical racism and violence, which, in some accounts, even included homicide. Over two generations, Cobb has been portrayed as a virtual psychotic in articles, books, and films, including Ron Shelton’s 1994 feature starring Tommy Lee Jones and Ken Burns’s epic, 18-hour documentary, Baseball, in which Cobb plays the villain to Jackie Robinson’s hero.
There’s only one problem: this venomous character is predominantly fictional. In Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, published last year, Charles Leerhsen documents how Cobb’s wicked reputation largely dates to the years after his death in 1961, when sportswriter Al Stump created a mythical Cobb—“Ty the Ripper,” Leerhsen calls him—who displaced the real man in the public mind. Stump’s motives for spinning tall tales seem to have been financial. He had ghostwritten a careless autobiography for Cobb, who tried to stop its publication before his death. The book sold poorly, but Stump earned a handsome fee for a lurid magazine article filled with falsehoods, dubious quotes, and made-up incidents. Other writers repeated or expanded on these untruths over the years. “The repetition felt like evidence,” Leerhsen says. It was “well known,” director Shelton told Leerhsen, that Cobb had killed “as many as” three people, though the director didn’t explain how this was known. Drawing on Stump’s work, as well as a 1984 biography by Charles Alexander, Burns also helped enshrine Cobb’s demonic image.
Time and again, what Leerhsen discovered through exhaustive research undermined the Cobb created by Stump, who didn’t source his work (“because he produced fiction,” as a contemporary said). Leerhsen could find no tangible evidence that Cobb hated blacks. On the contrary, he spoke in support of baseball’s integration when asked—and he wasn’t asked, as best Leerhsen can tell, until 1952. “The Negro should be accepted and not grudgingly but wholeheartedly,” Cobb said then. “The Negro has the right to compete in sports and who’s to say they have not?” On another occasion that year, he said: “No white man has the right to be less of a gentleman than a colored man. In my book, that goes not just for baseball but for all walks of life.” The virulent racist of legend, supposedly driven to derangement if even touched by a black man, attended Negro League games, threw out a first pitch, and often sat in the dugouts with black players. He came from a family of abolitionists. He endowed educational scholarships for students of all races.
Leerhsen concedes that Cobb was complex and troubled, and while he debunks many incidents, he confirms others, such as an awful episode in 1912, when Cobb rushed into the stands to pummel a handicapped fan who had abused him verbally. Cobb was no one’s idea of easygoing, and his notoriety as a fiery (and fighting) competitor was well earned. But he didn’t sharpen his spikes before games to slash his opponents, as the myth has it. His peers didn’t regard him as a dirty player and they didn’t universally despise him, though many disliked him. The old ballplayers whom Lawrence Ritter spoke with for his 1966 oral history of baseball’s early days, The Glory of Their Times, criticize Cobb—mostly for being short-tempered and too quick to take offense—but none suggests that he was racist or otherwise hateful, and some liked him fine.
19 May 2016
Finding the Real Ty Cobb
Last month, City Journal published a review by Paul Beston of a book published last year, Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, by Charles Leerhsen (Simon & Schuster, 2015). Beston's review, titled A Wronged Man: Taking the spikes off Ty Cobb, outlines how the legend of Ty Cobb made him out to be someone far worse than he was, as each "documentary" account repeated and embellished stories that were completely fictional. Here's a taste of the review: