Diamond Demon Cobb's Troubled Life Still Fascinates

Article excerpt

COBB

A Biography

By Al Stump

464 pages, Algonquin, $24.95

TY COBB

His Tumultuous Life And Times

By Richard Bak

194 pages, Taylor, $29.95

TWO-THIRDS of a century after he took his last at-bat in the major leagues, Ty Cobb continues to engage - indeed vex - the imagination of baseball fans.

Cobb is widely believed to have been the meanest, most foul-tempered, bellicose man ever to play major-league baseball - in short, a sociopath. He may also have been the most talented ballplayer of the century.

There's the rub. Americans have never been wholly willing to assess performance in any public arena detached from what we know - or can discover - about private character and behavior. It is a standard that we apply to actors, poets, musicians, industrialists, generals and, yes, presidents. Doubtless, the nation would sleep more soundly (and publishers would be measurably pooredozens of biographic articles on the troubled Cobb. Moreover, director Ron Shelton has now made a movie biography of Cobb, featuring Tommy Lee Jones in the title role.

Al Stump's study of Cobb comes close to an inventory of the ball player's aberrant behavior, on and off the diamond, but it cannot be said that the author did not honestly earn the privilege of revealing the most unseemly facts of Cobb's life. In 1959, just two years before Cobb's death, Stump accepted an invitation to ghostwrite an autobiography for the aging and ailing Hall-of-Famer. It was published in 1961 as "My Life in Baseball: The True Record."

The assignment required Stump to move into Cobb's Lake Tahoe home, where the old man lived alone - clearly because no one would live with him. Stump remained for almost a year.

Harrowing scarcely describes the writer's experience in the Cobb household. The volcanic, unbalanced Cobb was given to making wild demands, which he expected to be satisfied immediately. He was also never without a loaded Luger, which he not infrequently brandished in Stump's direction. Cobb drank heavily, kept impossibly unhealthful hours and ate irregularly if at all. And he expected Stump - or any other houseguest - to share his lifestyle.

Late one winter night, Cobb, on impulse, decided that they must go to Las Vegas for excitement. He ordered that Stump follow in his own car down miles of icy, twisting mountain roads at life-threatening speeds. The writer lived to tell of it, of course, but barely.

The true strength of Stump's book is that the author is able to offer Cobb's version - in the old man's own words - of the many scrapes and controversies that checkered both his baseball career and his private life.

The event that most biographers agree tipped the scales in undermining Cobb's mental health was the unfortunate shooting of his revered father, William Herschel Cobb, by his mother, who mistook a shadowy figure outside her bedroom for an intruder. …