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. He deliv­ers 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”

CobbLeerhsen set out with the typ­i­cal view of Ty Cobb, only to encounter scores of incon­ve­nient truths missed. Many were ignored by biog­ra­phers who 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.

For equality

Born 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. Ty’s 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.

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