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If Babe Ruth hadn’t been a star pitcher as well as a record-setting slugger, you could make a compelling case for Ty Cobb as the greatest player ever. Many old-timers who saw both play insist the Georgia Peach was greater than Ruth. Cobb was the first and foremost inductee in the initial Hall of Fame class, pulling seven more votes than Ruth. Cobb fit the mold of the ideal dead- ball-era player, as Ruth fit the ideal in the home-run era he created, and led the Detroit Tigers to three straight World Series, starting in 1907. Cobb’s .367 lifetime batting average over 24 seasons remains the highest on record; he led the American League in slugging eight times; and he stole nearly 900 bases, creating havoc on the base paths that wouldn’t be seen again until Jackie Robinson’s arrival. Of Cobb, Casey Stengel declared, “No one even close to him as the greatest all-time ballplayer.” Stengel had seen them all in his six decades in the big leagues as a player and manager, and claimed, “I never saw anyone like Ty Cobb.”
No one else has either, thank goodness.
Cobb was a violent psychotic on the diamond, delivering deliberate spike wounds to short- stops. Off the field, he claimed to have killed a mugger in a back alley. Luger in his pocket, Cobb generally directed his violence at blacks, kicking chambermaids down stairs, slashing a house detective, and even beating a man with no arms. He stayed out of jail thanks to the connivance of the Detroit Tiger ownership, large cash settlements, and the admiration of racist judges.
Author Al Stump, ghostwriter of Cobb’s autobiography, begins this new unauthorized profile, Cobb (Algonquin Books, 464 pp., $24.95), with his award-winning magazine piece on Cobb’s final year. Wracked with cancer and a handful of other ailments, the 74-year-old Cobb persisted in alcoholic violence against domestic help, erstwhile friends, casino croupiers, police, and all varieties of medical attendants; he shuttled between residences in Lake Tahoe and Atherton, the San Francisco suburb Willie Mays later called home, with an old bag of financial documents worth $1 million joining the gun as a constant companion.
Thanks to early investments in General Motors and Coca-Cola, plus endless hawking of his name and personal services during his playing days, Cobb had a bankroll sufficient to render him eccentric, not crazy. So what if he had the electricity turned off in Atherton over a $16 disputed charge, then strung extension cords from a neighbor’s house for essentials, such as the high-voltage fence around the mansion? In an almost continuous drunken, paranoid rage, the aging lion awoke bank presidents at 3 a.m., insisted on driving icy mountain roads during blizzards, and refused medication. Cobb could get away with more than the average person because of who he was; even with one foot in the grave, he kept seeing how far he could push a situation. “The edge in this world means everything,” he claimed.
He played baseball the same way. “When he’s at bat, you can hear Cobb gritting his teeth,” a rival recalled. In an age of ruffians, Cobb was the roughest. But in the dead-ball era, scoring was scarce, games turned on small edges, a stolen base, a successful hit-and-run, a well-placed ground-out. Cobb mastered these so-called scientific techniques, and substantially expanded the technology. Once the ball was in play, Cobb reasoned that there were five ways the defense could fail. Constant attack became his game plan, increasing the pressure on the defense in hopes of creating a misfire in one of the five areas. Like Roberto Clemente, Cobb didn’t play baseball; he assaulted it. Cobb’s greatest weapons were a baseball mind sharper than his spikes, a high enough threshold of pain to take as much as he gave, and a sprinter’s speed.
While Stump is absolutely chilling in his eyewitness reports of Cobb’s final days, he is vague, occasionally inaccurate, and seemingly unaware of some key issues in his cliché-riddled account of the ballplayer Cobb he didn’t see. To understand the athlete, Charles Alexander’s Ty Cobb is far superior, as are dozens of other secondary sources. Stump relies on eyewitness accounts from Cobb five decades after the fact, the rocking-chair ramblings of other old geezers or largely pedestrian newspaper accounts. He fails to explore modern controversies about Cobb, most notably his batting crowns of 1910 and 1914,which many historians now believe belong on other heads.
A Cobb biography with a fuzzy view of the diamond is like a Liberace bio without the word piano. Stump chooses to focus on what made Cobb such a miserable bastard, zeroing in on the relationship between Cobb and his father, William Herschel Cobb, a poverty-line schoolteacher and planter with an illustrious pedigree who titled himself “Professor.” Stump writes of how the Professor took a 12-year-old bride from a better-to-do family in backwater Georgia and sternly raised three children, emphasizing education and fierce pride in their Confederate heritage. Cobb and his father disagreed about signing a professional contract at age 17. The elder Cobb relented and began to appreciate his son’s growing fame, spread in part through Ty’s faked fan letters to big-city sportswriters.
On the eve of Cobb’s call to the majors, the Professor had his head blown off by his wife. He believed she had taken a lover and hoped to catch her in the act; she believed him to be a prowler. Two shots from her shotgun ushered him to his reward. Cobb supported his mother through her trial, which ended in acquittal on charges of voluntary manslaughter, despite rumors of an extramarital affair, but he rarely spoke of her or the incident again, except to say, “I never got over it.” Following conventional wisdom, Stump contends that this incident stoked Cobb’s fury, adding the incentive to prove something to his dead father.
Stump makes a better case for revenge as Cobb’s motivation. Distraught, grieving, and more than a little scared, the 19-year-old Cobb entered Union territory for the first time, and received the usual rookie hazing from the Tiger veterans. Cobb took exception, so the Tigers laid it on thicker, as good bullies will, especially when the victim is rail-thin and hotheaded enough to fight the clubhouse. Cobb’s compulsive, violent crusades on and off the field can be seen as an extension of his battles with teammates as easily as some homage to his father. When Cobb’s play made him top dog in the clubhouse, he never lost his disdain for his teammates, or for the game of baseball. “He was all for himself,” teammate Davy Jones said.
Avarice, arrogance, and acrimony also made Cobb a regular baseball bettor. At the height of his standing in the game, a sportswriter told Cobb about an investigation of Hal Chase for throwing games. “Why tell me?” Cobb responded, indicating neither shock nor any obligation to protect the game’s good name. American League President Ban Johnson forced Cobb to step down as player/manager of the Tigers after the 1926 season when pitcher Dutch Leonard made public seven-year-old allegations of a scandal involving Cobb, the Cleveland Indians’ player/manager and fellow future Hall of Famer Tris Speaker, and others. According to Leonard, Managers Cobb and Speaker, who had also resigned mysteriously in the fall of 1926, conspired to fix the final game of the 1919 season to help Detroit secure third place and a share of the World Series pot (Cleveland had already clinched second place), and placed bets with bookies to back the fix. Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis eventually acquitted both superstars, as Stump reports via newspaper accounts and testimony transcripts that shed little insight. The dogeared, faded scandal had become the battleground for a final power struggle between Landis and Johnson, who resigned days after the commissioner’s verdict. However, Stump evades the issue of whether Cobb was culpable.
Gambling scandal, fury between the lines, nonstop self-promotion…sound familiar? While Cobb was dying in an Atlanta hospital, the player who would break his all-time hit record was unloading trucks to strengthen his forearms. The parallels between Cobb and Rose are stunning and scream for a modern biographer to at least touch on them. Stump doesn’t even offer a Lincoln-Kennedy assassination commemorative plate. One striking difference is that Cobb’s teammates responded to his combativeness, arrogance, and flair by cutting up his glove and beating the crap out of him; Rose’s contemporaries laughed and said, “There goes Charlie Hustle.”
Exploring those comparisons, or shedding new light on Cobb the player, demand far more than Stump the reporter brings to the biographic art. Unsurprisingly, this work, heavy on melodrama and violence but light on critical thinking, becomes a major motion picture this holiday season.