Cobb as Role Model: Ty Cobb in Juvenile Periodical Literature: 1907-29. (Articles)

By Hathaway, Ted | Nine, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Cobb as Role Model: Ty Cobb in Juvenile Periodical Literature: 1907-29. (Articles)


Hathaway, Ted, Nine


Ty Cobb's image is pretty well set now in the minds of most fans and baseball writers alike. Despite efforts at rehabilitation, such as Richard Bak's recent biography, Ty Cobb: His Tumultuous Life and Times, the usual depiction of Cobb fits more closely with either the malevolent visage of Tommy Lee Jones or the words of a drunken, raving bigot streaming from the pages of Al Stump. (1) If Cobb's greatness is acknowledged, it is often done so grudgingly. A few years back Daniel Okrent suggested that the stain Cobb the man brought to the game was perhaps too high a price to pay for his greatness as a player; that perhaps it would have been better had we never had him at all. (2)

The stories of Cobb's violence, bigotry, hatred, paranoia, greed, and drunkenness are well known now and will not be described here. Many of these aspects of his behavior and personality were not unknown even during his playing career, although the precipitous decline in Cobb's celebrity stock can probably be dated to Stump's famous 1961 article in True magazine. (3) While Stump, and later others, revealed much about Cobb's dark nature, the reception these revelations received had as much to do with our current culture as with the knowledge of Cobb's many shortcomings. In Cobb's own time these shortcomings were seen differently. Cobb's achievements as a player were of much higher importance, so much so that his transgressions were downplayed or even ignored by many writers, particularly those who wrote about sports for children. For many writers Cobb was held up as the game's quintessential role model.

The issue of athletes as role models is controversial. Journalists and other writers have often claimed a need for athletes to act as positive examples for admiring young people. But many athletes will have none of this and, perhaps, with good reason. Several years ago Charles Barkley stated flatly, "Just because I can dunk a basketball doesn't mean I should raise your kids." (4) Considering what professional athletes actually do--play games for money--one might wonder what significance the "heroics" of someone like Cal Ripken actually have for anyone, let alone children. Yet it might be argued that the focus and commitment of Charles Barkley to developing his skills, or the dedication of Cal Ripken to supporting his team and playing the game, could well serve to motivate youngsters, even in areas unrelated to sport.

The sociologist Harry Edwards wrote that the idea that athletes might serve as role models grows from the public's erroneous assumption that it shares with its athletic heroes a common set of value ideals, that the great athlete must somehow also be a great human being. (5) On the other hand economist Tyler Cowen recently asserted that the whole modern concept of celebrity has by now largely been separated from assessments of merit, that the public no longer looks to the famous as models for virtue or behavior. (6) Old assumptions about greatness have been turned on their heads. Thus dreadful individuals, such as Allen Iverson, are lionized, and even athletes of doubtful accomplishment, such as Deion Sanders, manage to maintain their grasp on the golden ring of fame. A few years ago writers, including Roger Angell, sang praises to Mark McGwire for "saving" baseball through his exciting pursuit and eventual conquering of Maris's home run record. (7) The same adulation certainly did not attend Bonds as he in tu rn broke McGwire's record. Bonds has been vilified for years as a selfish, arrogant individual, yet many young people admire him. With such athletes serving as heroes for our young people, one might wonder why Cobb is so roundly despised.

ANTIHEROES

These modern athletes are better called "antiheroes"--a reflection of the American admiration for the maverick, the nonconformist. Cobb was surely a maverick as well, but his racism and violent behavior are now met with opprobrium, not admiration. …

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