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.
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. 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.
And it’s not just about Cobb
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.