The Real Ty Cobb

A Review of Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, by Charles Leerhsen, (Simon & Schuster, 2015).

Baseball fans familiar with major league records remember Ty Cobb for his .366 lifetime batting average during the dead-ball era. Some may even remember that he held more than 90 baseball records.

During his career, Cobb was the idol of millions of fans and received bushels of letters asking advice about how children could get into the game and other baseball-related questions. He answered most letters and sometimes sent a pamphlet with pointers in it or a picture. When someone asked for his autograph, he invariably said how flattered he felt.

Cobb died in 1961, and the story of his life was quickly re-written to cast him as a belligerent, southern, racist monster. Leerhsen, in a talk at Hillsdale College in 2016, said that he also thought this was true, that is until he began to research sources that previous Cobb biographers had ignored. That research revealed a totally different Cobb than portrayed in books and a Hollywood movie after his death.

(The 1960s were when American history was being re-written so as to make the abolition of slavery the reason for Lincoln’s War. Those were years when Marxists from within U.S. universities, as prescribed by Antonio Gramci, began to use deconstructionist attacks on American societal standards and history, which continue unabated today. Because Ty Cobb was a white man and from Dixie, careless news reporters and authors rewrote his history, too and those that have since written about Cobb have repeated that misinformation.)

Leehrsen is a former editor of Sports Illustrated, People, and Us Weekly and former senior writer for Newsweek. He has also written for Money, Rolling Stone, Smithsonian, Esquire, and The New York Times Magazine. He has written several books, and his Ty Cobb book won the 2015 Casey Award for best baseball book that year. He is also an adjunct professor at City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism

He said, “I knew, going into the project, having been an editor at People magazine, that human beings take delight in the fact that the rich and famous are often worse and more miserable than they are. What I didn’t understand before was the power of repetition to bend the truth. In Ty Cobb’s case, the repetition has not only destroyed a man’s reputation, it has obliterated a real story that is more interesting than the myth.”

To research for the book, Leerhsen traveled to Detroit and Georgia and read contemporary newspaper reports about Cobb and many personal letters. He found Cobb was very different than reported since 1961 and criticized those that have created and repeated false and offensive reports.

Cobb was from Royston, in Georgia’s northeastern hills. He was good looking, 6-ft tall, and weighed 190-lbs. He thought that baseball success was a result of intelligence, a revolutionary thought, at that time. He didn’t out-hit his opponents, he out-thought them, according to a longtime teammate. During games, Cobb studied rivals and noted their baseball and personal strengths and weaknesses, which he felt he could use when playing against them. After road games, while his teammates lollygagged in hotel lobbies (all games were day games then), Cobb would sit in his room and make notes about opponents and sketch plays, all while listening to gramophone records of classical violinist Fritz Kreisler. He was also an avid history reader.

Cobb’s philosophy was, “create a mental hazard for the other man,” and he was a fiery competitor. One sports columnist wrote that Cobb could cause more excitement with a base on balls than Babe Ruth could with a grand slam. In the batter’s box, he hopped around and changed his stance, as the pitcher threw. He reached first base more often than anyone else, and once there, fooled around, chattered, made false starts, feigned injury, and ran when it was least expected.

When on base, he kept pitchers on edge, and stole bases. He stole home, from third, 54 times, which is another career record that remains unbroken. He held a bat with a split-hand grip, which enabled him to choke, at the last minute, and hit over an infielder’s head or slide his hands together and swing for the fence. Another American League star, Eddie Collins, said, “Cobb was always exerting pressure, always searching out a weak spot here and there to display his seemingly inexhaustible and tireless energy.”

Many of his great contemporaries liked him. Those included Shoeless Joe Jackson, Tris Speaker, and Walter Johnson. There were also those players that did not like Cobb. Heywood Broun, a noted sports writer, wrote, in the New York Morning Telegraph, that Cobb was “perhaps the least popular player that ever lived,” because much less valuable players  “whom he had shown up, dislike him, third basemen with bum arms, second basemen with tender skins, catchers who cannot throw  out a talented slider—all despise Cobb.”

In 1952, when African-American Jackie Robinson was hired by a Texas League team, a reporter asked Cobb his opinion about it. Cobb said he thought that baseball integration had been long overdue. He was quoted as saying, “I see no reason in the world why we shouldn’t compete with colored players, as long as they conduct themselves with politeness and gentility.” In a Sporting News interview, 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 is not?

Leehrsen said, “People have been told that Cobb was a bad man over and over, all their lives. The repetition felt like evidence.”

As a result of his research, Leehrsen pinpointed the source of initial false information about Cobb: an “autobiography” written by a ghost writer named Al Stump. When Cobb saw the manuscript he threatened to sue if it was not cancelled or re-written, but he died shortly thereafter, and Doubleday & Co. published the manuscript. Stump subsequently wrote a story for a sensationalist, “barber shop” magazine called True, in which he further maligned and distorted Cobb’s life.

The next big development came in 1984, when Charles C. Alexander’s book Ty Cobb appeared. Leehrsen said the word racist was by then part of the lexicon “and people were eager to make assumptions about a Southern white man.” In 1989, a slur about Cobb was included in the film Field of Dreams. Ten years later Ron Shelton bought the rights to Stump’s True magazine article and urged Stump to write a biography about Cobb to promote the movie. The biography, entitled Cobb, was a bestseller and was excerpted in Sports Illustrated. Then Ken Burns produced the TV mini-series Baseball, “which parroted Stump and Alexander.” It included a statement that Cobb “was an embarrassment to the game,” because of his racism (Baseball won Burns the 1995 Emmy Award for Outstanding Informational Series). Since then, the myth has grown further on the Internet.

Leehrsen closed his talk by saying that, in Ty Cobb’s case, repetition of lies has “not only destroyed a man’s reputation, it has obliterated a real story…Is it too late to turn things around? St. John the Evangelist said (John 8:32), The truth will set you free. But against that there is the Stockholm syndrome, whereby hostages cling avidly to what holds them in bondage.”

That left me wondering how average Americans can begin to understand the need to break their information-hostage condition and search for truth beyond easily available radio, TV, and Internet news, which propagates false history and partial current truth. To use Luke 14:34-35 as an inspiration, I wonder, “How shall the people’s understanding be restored, if their information sources are corrupted?”

About Norman Black

Norman Black is a former Navy journalist and author. His news stories, feature articles, and commentaries have appeared in newspapers and magazines in many countries. He holds a diploma from the US Navy’s Journalist “A” School; the degrees of B.A. and M.S. from Wagner College; and an M.S. degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, which he attended on a full scholarship. More from Norman Black

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