Academic journal article The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies

Ty Cobb Revisited - A Reminder of a Perennial Question: Whom Are We to Believe?

Academic journal article The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies

Ty Cobb Revisited - A Reminder of a Perennial Question: Whom Are We to Believe?

Article excerpt

Starting as a rookie in 1905, Ty Cobb played professional baseball, primarily as a right fielder for the Detroit Tigers, for over twenty-three seasons as the preeminent star of the "dead ball era." The livelier ball had not yet come in to center the game around homeruns, so the sport Cobb excelled at was the exciting "small ball" of shorter hits, bunts and daring base running. On the bases, Cobb wanted his opponents to see him as "dangerous to the point of dementia," making them throw in frantic haste as he tore around toward home plate. In one game, he stole bases on three consecutive pitches; in another, he scored from first base on a sacrifice bunt. He stole home 54 times - a record that still stands. Cobb's lifetime batting average was a remarkable .366. When all this was combined with his outstanding defensive play, it is no wonder he was the first person inducted into Cooperstown's Baseball Hall of Fame, established in 1936.

In his 2015 biography Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, Charles Leerhsen points to Cobb's other sides: he read constantly; it was a highly educated friend who called him "an intellectual giant." He used this intelligence as a meticulous student of the game. (This showed up in such small ways as when, coming into a base, "he would always watch the infielder's eyes to see which side of the bag the ball was headed toward, and then try to slide the other way.") But even though Cobb had "an air of aristocracy," a "taste for high culture," and a prominent, well-educated father, he was fully at home in a rough-and-ready time when "Alpha male fisticuffs" and the sort of earthy culture that is familiar today to readers of J. D. Vance's bestselling Hillbilly Elegy set the tone. We are surprised, but not totally so, when told that Cobb's mother shot and killed his father. Of baseball, Leerhsen says "cheating and fighting were believed to be central to the game." Players sometimes wrestled umpires to the ground, refused to leave a base when called out, and chased heckling fans up in the crowd (both Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth did this). Cobb's physical courage was evident when he volunteered to be a flame thrower, one of the most dangerous combat assignments, in World War I. (The armistice came just in time to prevent his going into combat.)

Leerhsen tells us that, despite all this, sensationalizing biographers and inventive journalists (one in particular) fashioned a public image of Cobb as an unsportsmanlike butcher, a racist, a "crabbed, sad soul," and overall detested and detestable individual who did great dishonor to his talent. This has long been gobbled up by a public eager to believe the worst. Leerhsen offers an insight into the psychology involved: If you told a fanciful story about Lincoln, he says, "historians would demand to know your sources. But if you tell the same exact story about Cobb, people embrace it gleefully and do not ask further details." Why? Because Cobb was "a villain who inspires self-congratulation." This psychology, evident even in so small a thing as an individual ballplayer's reputation, will play a role in several of the issues, some of them major, covered in this article.

We will leave it to those who read the book to see Leerhsen's disproof of the various points in the mythology, although it is worth mentioning the most famous item in the caricature, which is a 1909 photo of Cobb supposedly trying to injure Home Run Baker with sharpened spikes while sliding into second base. Leerhsen says Baker "later admitted that Cobb was sliding away from him" and tells us that "Cobb didn't sharpen his spikes that day or at any other time."

Baseball fans will find the biography engrossing for its own sake, but what attracted us to it was the extent to which it illustrates, in what might well be considered a "microcosm" relating just to one individual, a problem that bedevils society, probably in all ages but quite pronouncedly in our own. How much of what we think we know is either untrue or only partly true? …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.