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Ty Cobb: Inconvenient Truths

Ty Cobb: Inconvenient Truths


Cobb as Mon­ster: “Give peo­ple some­thing they want to believe and they will take it and run with it and make it their own. After all, who doesn’t like a mon­ster story—especially one that allows the teller to express his own superiority—to say, ‘I’m not a slave to feel­ings of racism and anger like this pathet­ic man was; I look down upon that kind of behav­ior.’ A scary sto­ry that is also a feel-good sto­ry is hard to beat.”

Charles Leerhsen has done a rare thing: bucked pop­u­lar cant and human nature to deliv­er a breath­tak­ing reap­praisal of the great­est base­ball play­er of all time. Click here to watch his bril­liant lec­ture at Hills­dale Col­lege. I also strong­ly rec­om­mend his book, A Ter­ri­ble Beau­ty—which teach­es us a lot, and not just about base­ball. (Click here for Cobb’s num­bers.)

“The Anti-Jackie Robinson”

Leerhsen set out with the typ­i­cal view of Ty Cobb, only to encounter scores of incon­ve­nient truths missed or ignored by ear­li­er biog­ra­phers, whose work inspired the sick por­trait in Ken Burns’s doc­u­men­tary, Base­ball. Cobb was no saint—Leerhsen doc­u­ments his flam­ing tem­per and readi­ness for brawls—but most of the oth­er alle­ga­tions are either vast­ly exag­ger­at­ed or demon­stra­bly false.

Cobb was 180 degrees from the pop­u­lar image of a racist, mur­der­ing, spike-fly­ing, child-hat­ing mis­an­thrope, who steamed stamps off the envelopes kids sent him for his auto­graph. Re the lat­ter: Leerhsen found that Cobb replied to all who wrote, often send­ing mul­ti­ple auto­graphed pho­tos, writ­ing five-page let­ters to some, and telling them all how hon­ored he was that they had writ­ten to him.

CobbBorn in Geor­gia in 1886, Cobb was descend­ed from abo­li­tion­ists. His great-grand­fa­ther preached against slav­ery. His grand­fa­ther was a con­sci­en­tious objec­tor who refused to fight in the Con­fed­er­ate Army because of slav­ery. His father was an edu­ca­tor and state sen­a­tor who once broke up a lynch mob. Leerhsen oblit­er­ates the pre­vail­ing pic­ture of Cobb as the “anti-Jack­ie Robin­son”:

Cobb was not asked about race until In 1952 when the Texas League was inte­grat­ed. He said: “The negro should be accept­ed whole­heart­ed­ly and not grudg­ing­ly. The negro has the right to play pro­fes­sion­al base­ball and who’s to say he has not?”

At that time oth­er play­ers were keep­ing mum, or say­ing they didn’t think mixed-race base­ball was a good idea….[But Cobb] attend­ed Negro League games, some­times toss­ing out first balls, some­times sit­ting in the dugout with the play­ers. He said Willie Mays was the only play­er he’d pay to see, and that Roy Cam­panel­la was the play­er who remind­ed him most of him­self.

“Sports is not so much about scores as it is about sto­ry lines,” Leerhsen con­tin­ues: “And with­out antag­o­nists, sto­ries fall flat.” To a man, oth­er play­ers he quotes denied that Cobb was a “spik­er,” fly­ing spikes-first toward catch­ers or infield­ers, intend­ing to do them harm. Cobb even wrote to Ban John­son, pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can League, ask­ing that play­ers be told to dull their spikes, to rid them of the spik­ing charge. “But the sto­ry was too appeal­ing. The idea of a Jack the Rip­per in base­ball flan­nels too tit­il­lat­ing to go away.” It nev­er did went away. Ken Burns pro­mot­ed it, and “the Inter­net goosed the game to hyperspeed—just search for Ty Cobb and see what you find.”

And it’s not just about Cobb

Cobb is a base­ball story—but this book teach­es us much about human­i­ty in the Inter­net age; and is not with­out par­al­lels to the way the Web treats Win­ston Churchill.
When next you hear Churchill, Cobb, or even some polit­i­cal can­di­date, exco­ri­at­ed with pop­u­lar charges every­body else is throw­ing around, con­sid­er the pos­si­bil­i­ty that they may all not be true. As Charles Leerhsen warns us:
A scary sto­ry that is also a feel-good sto­ry is hard to beat. But I knew that going in….I under­stand that humans like gos­sip and to wag their fin­gers and take delight in the sup­po­si­tion that the rich and famous are pos­si­bly more mis­er­able than they are.


Read this book and reflect.

Washington Nationals: Wait Till Next Year

Washington Nationals: Wait Till Next Year

Our Hero: Denard Span (CF) bat­ted .302, stole 31 bases, had a fran­chise record 184 hits, made impos­si­ble catch­es all year.

Long-suf­fer­ing Nats fans hoped 2014 would be The Year.

After play­ing door­mat to the Nation­al League East for ages; after blow­ing a sure Divi­sion Series in 2012, we all expect­ed our Wash­ing­ton Nation­als to put a stamp on the 90th anniver­sary of 1924—the last year Wash­ing­ton won the World Series.

Instead we lost the NL Divi­sion Series to a wild card team that had won only 88 games in the sea­son. We lost three games out of four, all by one run—games that could have gone either way. But the San Fran­cis­co Giants are pros, vet­er­ans of the play­off sea­son. We’re not. We’re young. We choke.

To explain what went wrong, let’s start with what went right. In the reg­u­lar sea­son, the Wash­ing­ton Nation­als were the…

  • win­ningest team in the Nation­al League (98-66), tied for the sec­ond-win­ningest in base­ball.
  • best by far in the NL East, fin­ish­ing 17 games ahead of our near­est rivals.
  • win­ningest team in the last three years (280-206)—better than the Giants, Car­di­nals, Angels, Roy­als, Pirates, Braves, Tigers, Ath­let­ics and Dodgers.
  • best in finales: a spec­tac­u­lar no-hit­ter the last day of the sea­son.
  • best in rota­tion: the top ERA and WHIP in the majors.
  • stingi­est in allow­ing earned runs, home runs, stolen bases and walks.
  • arguably the best bal­anced: our start­ing pitch­ers won 69 games, an aver­age of near­ly 14 each; four of our start­ing eight posi­tion play­ers had over 80 rbis.

“Dlock­fan,” a con­trib­u­tor to the Nation­als mes­sage board, explains what went wrong:

  • When Zim­mer­man was side­lined and Antho­ny Ren­don had to play third, we got lit­tle offense from our sec­ond base­men.
  • The bench gave us noth­ing.
  • We had no Cy Young or MVP can­di­dates.
  • Our clos­er imploded—couldn’t get any­body out.
  • Our short­stop struck out 183 times, bat­ted .255 and had 24 errors.
  • Our catch­er dropped crit­i­cal throws and pitch­es, and is so slow he can be, and was, thrown out from the shal­low out­field.

The Nation­als’ Matt Williams was declared “Man­ag­er of the Year” by the Sport­ing News. Giv­en what he was work­ing with, some peo­ple think he earned it. Me, I dun­no.

In 2012, our pre­vi­ous let-down year, Dav­ey John­son was vot­ed MoY too. We seem real­ly good at devel­op­ing “the best X [fill in the blank] in base­ball” while fiz­zling when the chips are down.

It was dis­cour­ag­ing to hear con­stant­ly from our man­ag­er: “That’s baseball…I’m proud of the guys…I wouldn’t do a thing dif­fer­ent­ly.” But I won­der if they don’t all mouth such pab­u­lum in a kind of PC, Par­tic­i­pa­tion-Award kind of approach, rather than telling it like it is. Most man­agers speak in plat­i­tudes in pub­lic.

The dif­fer­ence is how they run the team off-cam­era, and how they strate­gize. Most stick with rote-think strate­gies. Inno­v­a­tive man­agers will­ing to take a chance or try a sur­prise are rare. Guys who will try a squeeze play once in a blue moon; who demand a left-hand­ed vet­er­an hit to a vacant left side now and then, against ridicu­lous infield shifts to the right; who will talk to a cruis­ing ace start­ing pitch­er before yank­ing him with two outs in the 9th, and set up a blown game;  who’ll pinch run when his slow­est run­ner gets on late in a tight game; who’ll bring in his most reli­able relief pitch­er with a game in the bal­ance, instead of an incon­sis­tent rook­ie, to save his “set­up man” for a set­up that nev­er comes—such man­agers are rare. Most of them play it safe nowa­days.

Old time fans dat­ing back to the Wash­ing­ton Sen­a­tors days are used to this. We’re long suf­fer­ing. We come back for more. Heck, Washington’s had bet­ter reg­u­lar sea­sons the last three years than any three Nats teams dat­ing back to the 1920s.

As for our fiz­zle in the play­offs, I offer the post­war Brook­lyn Dodgers. In 1951-55 they played in the post-sea­son four out of five years—and were denied a World Series ring the first four times. “Wait till next year” was the mantra. Brook­lyn fans nev­er gave up. They were reward­ed on their fifth try.

2015 marks the 90th anniver­sary of anoth­er Wash­ing­ton pen­nant. (Nev­er mind that we blew the World Series that year after win­ning three of the first four games.)

Today’s Nats have had only two tries at the ulti­mate prize. We have a sharp gen­er­al man­ag­er in Mike Riz­zo, a good farm sys­tem, and with­al, a pret­ty good team. Just keep improv­ing and win­ning the divi­sion. The rest will hap­pen. Or so we keep telling our­selves.






Ryan Zimmerman and the Curse of the Goose

Ryan Zimmerman and the Curse of the Goose

Ryan Zimmerman
Ryan Zim­mer­man

On June 23rd Wash­ing­ton Nation­als star third base­man Ryan Zim­mer­man went out with a ham­string injury that may side­line him for the rest of the sea­son. The effect on the team’s play was aston­ish­ing. At the close of play on August 1st the com­pa­ra­ble W-L sta­tis­tics were:

With­out Zim (first time): 21-24, .467 (equates to 76-84)
With Zim: 34-19, .642 (equates to 104-58)
With­out Zim (since 7/23): 3-6 .333 (equates to 53-109)

Mark Zuck­er­man of Nats Insid­er wrote on July 23 that from June 30th when they all came togeth­er, the Nation­als were the Nation­al League’s most pro­duc­tive team. “That was in no small part due to Zim­mer­man, who since that date was hit­ting .387 with a 1.050 OPS.

“Now, there are oth­er fac­tors in that equa­tion. Zimmerman’s time in the line­up has coin­cid­ed with gen­er­al­ly good health across the board for the Nation­als. But to think this team can con­tin­ue to play at this impres­sive pace with­out one of its key stars would be fool­ish.”

Well, since Zuck wrote that the Nation­als have zucked—and that’s WITH the rest of the team healthy, and our lead-off guy on a roll.

Is it true? Can one man make that much dif­fer­ence? Are we a dif­fer­ent team with Zim out, afford­ing less “pro­tec­tion,” invit­ing pitch­ers to han­dle the line­up dif­fer­ent­ly? Have we any­one to sub for Adam at 1B who can real­ly hit?


Goose Goslin

*Curse of the Goose: Back in the days when they were peren­ni­al con­tenders, the Wash­ing­ton Sen­a­tors fell off when they trad­ed Goose Goslin—and won anoth­er pen­nant when they got him back.