By Al Stump
464 pages, Algonquin, $24.95
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,
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. …