Friday, July 31, 2015

What's Your Opinion?

"Everyone has a right to his or her own opinion." So says my eight year old daughter whenever she is asked to arbitrate a dispute between two people. My wife calls her the ACLU of the family. So strong and sincere is her conviction,  I don't have the heart to pose the question, "but what if that opinion is wrong?" The question at the center of all contemporary discourse I'm afraid will have to wait until she gets a little older and her judgement, more critical. By then she will come to realize on her own the hard truth that believing something, doesn't necessarily make it right.

Every fifth grader, (my daughter still has two years to go thank God) is taught there is a distinction between a fact and an opinion. It goes something like this:

A fact is something that can be proven.
An opinion is something that does not require proof.

Saying that Abraham Lincoln was the tallest US president is a fact. Saying that Abraham Lincoln was the most eloquent of all the US presidents, is an opinion.

Are you with me so far? OK how about this opinion: 

George W. Bush was not the most eloquent president.

Not to single out our 43rd president, you can correct me if I'm wrong, but facility with language was not one of Dubya's strong points, so according to most definitions of the word, he could not be considered the most eloquent president. Therefore by any reasonable standard, that opinion would also be a fact. Furthermore the opposite opinion, that Bush II was the most eloquent president, would be a falsehood.

Please note the operative words, "reasonable standard." This is certainly not a case of proof beyond doubt. One could make the argument that President Bush, despite his penchant for spouting off malapropisms like fireworks on the Fourth of July, was better at communicating what was on his mind than the current president, who may use the right words but also has a tendency of talking in circles and sometimes fails to get his point across. Since communication is the heart of writing and speaking, Bush may have been a more effective communicator than Obama, perhaps even eloquent in his own (to some) charming, unique way. It may not be a compelling argument but it's a valid point just the same.

So maybe it's not as simple as our grade school teacher would have us think; there is not a clear dichotomy between facts and opinions. Taking the point further, could there be truths that cannot be universally proven? I believe the answer is yes. They are our moral and ethical principles, the guideposts of our culture. This is a hotly debated topic, there are those who believe that morality is completely subjective, as moral and ethical principles vary from culture to culture. Truth on the other hand is purely objective, therefore as this line of reasoning goes, there can be no such thing as a moral truth.

This concept of moral relativism has been around for a long time, but gained steam since the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th century, the so called "Age of Reason", when the traditional doctrines of church and state were brought under close philosophical scrutiny. Moral relativism essentially states there are no universal rights and wrongs, as those things are determined by the culture in which you find yourself. Some go so far as to claim that moral principals have no more universal relevance than local customs such as whether to address your uncle in the familiar or how much to tip a waiter.

Living as we do in a pluralistic society, we need to give some credence to moral relativism as I touched upon in my post on gay marriage. But can we honestly say that all right and wrong is purely subjective?

Here's a test; is the following statement fact or opinion?

Slavery is wrong.

If you believe that morality is purely subjective, you would be forced to admit that the statement "slavery is wrong", is merely an opinion as there are cultures that exist to this day who still accept and practice human bondage.

Furthermore, one cannot make a definitive argument against slavery without using established moral principles, which the moral relativists would have us believe, are not universally agreed upon. One of these principles, a cornerstone of our society, is the idea that all people are created equal.

Like moral relativism, this idea has been around since antiquity, but came to fruition during the Enlightenment, and was spelled out by Thomas Jefferson in the American Declaration of Independence. As we all know, Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, and his words explicitly left out women and implicitly excluded all but white men who could own property. Those very words however were used as a springboard for subsequent generations to be inclusive enough to include all people regardless of gender, ethnicity, race, or creed.

Interestingly enough, Jefferson did not preface his most memorable words by saying: "We hold these opinions to be self evident..."

Those "inalienable" rights  that Jefferson enumerates, "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness", constitute what some philosophers would argue are universally recognizable rights inherent in human nature. This "Natural Law" as it has been dubbed, should not be confused with the law of nature, which does not concern itself in the least with values or individual rights, has no distinction between right and wrong, or reserves any place for the concepts of justice or ethics. Nature simply adapts. As inhabitants of nature, we are subject to its laws; we all need air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat and shelter from the elements. We all die. These are facts, universal to all life. But we humans also live in communities where we pool our resources, divide our labor and look out for one another. In order for this to work, we are also subject to the laws of the community. Morals and ethics are human constructs designed to enable human societies to survive; as such they are built around a very simple idea, that you should treat other people as you would want to be treated yourself. This idea, often erroneously attributed to Jesus, has been around for as long as humans gave up being exclusively hunter gatherers. The foundations of every legal system, be it religious or secular, are based upon this "Golden Rule", which comes as close to being a universal value system as any we have.

I would argue that by any reasonable standard, the basic moral standards and responsibilities we (hopefully) hold ourselves to as defined by the Golden Rule, are universal and must be regarded as moral truths. Anything less I'm afraid would result in the collapse of civilization as we know it.

But just as we need to understand the limits of moral relativism, we need to guard against absolutism of any color. We all know about the religious zealots, be they bible thumpers or jihadists, whose slogan might just as well be "my way or the highway." Political ideology has stepped in and now gives religion a run for its money as one of the most significant propagators of intolerance in our society.

A case in point is this article that has been making the rounds on social media. Its author makes some valid points about the problem of hiding behind falsehoods wrapped in the guise of opinions. In the end however, the tone of the article suggests its real motive is to present a forum for the author to air out his own ideological agenda. It's title leaves little doubt about the author's feelings about anyone who may disagree with him: "No, It's Not Your Opinion, You're Just Wrong."

Given the reaction to this article, I'm afraid the piece will only contribute to the demise of intelligent discourse between un-like-minded folks, emboldening them to preach the "correctness" of their own points of view while further encouraging intolerance for the points of view of others.

The glory of modern technology is that it has opened up the world and given us exposure to cultures and ideas literally at our fingertips. Ironically, or perhaps because of that, we seem to have become more entrenched in our own intellectual ghettos, distancing ourselves from any thought or opinion that might challenge or offend us.

Intellectual discourse involving as many points of view as possible is the means by which we progress as a society. It is not something to shy away from but something to welcome and embrace. We may not always like what we're hearing, but to put it tritely, no pain, no gain.

It's true that we have no business hiding behind opinions that support falsehoods, but at the same time we must allow others the room to err, and hopefully they will do the same for us.

In the end, the best we can hope for is that reasonable judgement will sort out it all out.

After all that stewing, I can't help but believe that my daughter's belief in allowing everyone his or her opinion is pretty spot on. Ah the pure wisdom of an eight year old; perhaps they should be the ones running the show.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Excellent teachers

A powerful image emerged last week from a day of protests outside the South Carolina Statehouse in Columbia. The protests all centered around the removal of the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds. On one side of the barriers set up by law enforcement officers, marched an assortment of white supremacist groups including representatives of the KKK and The National Socialist Movement, on the other side an assortment of people protesting the protesters.

A photograph snapped from a smartphone showed an African American state trooper helping an elderly white supremacist protester who was on the verge of collapsing due to heat exhaustion. It turned out the officer was no rank and file trooper, he was Leroy Smith, the director of the South Carolina Department of Public Safety. He put himself in uniform and on duty that day, as is his custom, because he likes to show his employees that he "has their backs."

Smith's attention was directed to the ailing protester by the fire chief of Columbia, who also happens to be black. Smith grabbed the man, (who was wearing a Nazi-style swastika emblazoned on his tee shirt), by the arm and led him up the steps and into the air conditioned statehouse. The two were followed by a woman also wearing a swastika, who kept asking Smith if the man was going to be alright.

I can't speak for Mr. Smith, I can only assume what was going through his head at the time was that he was simply doing his job by helping out a fellow human being who was in trouble. I can say he was amazed at the overwhelming positive response the photograph received worldwide, When asked about what he felt generated that response, his answer was simple: "love."

Like the families of the victims of the Emanuel AME Church massacre who forgave their loved ones' killer, I believe that Mr. Smith's actions, and even more so his response, is not sending out a signal of acceptance, submission or weakness, far from it. His is a powerful message of strength by looking directly into the face of hatred and saying no, you have no power to make me hate you back. 

One look at the photograph of the powerful Smith helping the pathetic marcher, and you cannot help be overwhelmed by the feeling that love wins.

We all have much to learn from these magnificent people.

Saturday, July 25, 2015


The other day I listened to an NPR interview with the woman who first put the hashtag in front of the slogan "Black Lives Matter", making those three words a public call to arms against the assault on the lives of African American people (mostly men) at the hands of the police and other individuals or groups entrusted with law enforcement. She expressed her discontent with the fact that the slogan has been appropriated by other groups who have replaced the word "Black" with whatever particular group they care to call out injustice against. The most recent controversy around the slogan has been the replacement of "Black" with the word "All". Several presidential candidates have made the mistake of proclaiming something so obvious that it doesn't need to be said at all. Those candidates, including Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, have been put in the peculiar situation of having to retract their claim that all lives matter.

This may sound like political correctness taken to its most ridiculous extreme but the funny thing is this, I get it. This country has a sad history of proclaiming that black lives do not matter, and there continues to be to this day, a divide between the treatment of black people in this society, and everybody else.

The righteous indignation over far too many deaths of individuals, most of them black, at the hands of the police, is justified in my opinion, The slogan, black lives matter rings loud and clear, standing on its own.

What I don't get is this. If black lives matter, why is the discussion of black people killed by other black people considered irrelevant to this conversation?

As an example, last year, 2014, Chicago had a total of 459 homicides. 353 of the victims, or 78.1 percent, were black. This in a city whose black population is around 32 percent. Of those murders that resulted in an individual being charged, 68.8 percent of the suspects were black.

In the same year, 17 people were killed by the police in Chicago. (I don't have the racial breakdown of the individuals involved or the circumstances of those killings). 17 deaths at the hands of the police in one city is certainly not a number to be discounted, but it is a drop in the bucket compared to the total number of homicides in Chicago last year.

To me anyway, these numbers suggest an epidemic of violence particular to the African American, and to a lesser extent the Hispanic communities of Chicago, which is a microcosm of the United States. We've been through this before, the causes of this epidemic are deeply rooted in history, racism, poverty, drugs, lack of opportunity, poor education, the dissolution of the family, lack of self-respect, and self-responsibility, the list goes on and on, depending upon the ideologies of the people you talk to.

The killing of black people by the police speaks to a brutal past, traces of which tragically exist to this day. But the grim reality of the present is that black people are dying at the hands of other black people at a staggering rate. All the indignation in the world directed at the police is not going to change that. Addressing one issue without addressing the other is either naive of intellectually dishonest.

But what do I know, I'm just an old white guy who should probably keep my mouth shut on this topic.

Here's what a black man has to say.

OK maybe this sports commentator doesn't have any more right to spout off on the issue than I do but I think his concern is valid: many seem to believe that the only black lives that matter are the ones that are taken by non-black people.

I'll add a new twist to the slogan. Saying that all black lives matter does not let anyone off the hook, not the police, the criminals or the politicians, not the community, its leaders, or the clergy, and not you or me. We don't live in a vacuum and that goes for our problems too. Pointing fingers or arguing about slogans won't solve anything. Only when we're able to honestly look at ourselves and talk to each other, especially those with whom we disagree, will we be able to start to address the issues that shape our community.

So far we're failing.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Off with the gloves...

Donald Trump is a horse's ass, of that I'm certain. Heaven knows what makes the guy think he could possibly be elected President of the United States, given his temperament, the ostentatious way in which he flaunts his wealth, and his propensity for making unbelievably stupid comments. He's a joke to the electoral process, at least according to the Huffington Post who has vowed to relegate their coverage of his campaign to the entertainment section rather than their political pages. Referring to his own resignation from his daily TV show called appropriately enough "The Daily Show," comedian Jon Stewart christened Trump: “the patron saint of topical comedians who are just running out the clock.”

But if you look at the polls, the numbers are no joke. Trump leads his closest rival in the Republican race for the party's nomination by a factor of two. Well at least he did before his latest bout with foot-in-mouth disease, his comment that Senator John McCain was not a war hero. My first reaction, (in cleaner, texting jargon) was WTF??? After all, McCain is not a candidate this time around, so why in the world would Trump waste his time with the Arizona senator?

Well it turns out that Trump's hair-trigger anger got the better of him, yet again, after McCain called a thousand or so of his own constituents who turned out for a Trump rally in Phoenix, a bunch of "crazies." The subject came up in a TV interview where Trump jokingly said he didn't like McCain because he lost the (2008 presidential) election to Barrack Obama. The interviewer then said (for reasons unknown to me) that McCain is a war hero, to which Trump retorted, "he's not a war hero." Then a back and forth ensued, "he is too a hero, is not, is so..." Trump suggested that McCain is considered a war hero only because he was captured by the North Vietnamese. He then added, (for reasons only he can tell you), "I like people that weren't captured, OK? I hate to tell you."

This brief tête-à-tête went viral and Trump has been excoriated from all sides of the political spectrum for what amounted to nothing more than a meaningless hissy fit.

In response, The Washington Post published this article addressing the issue: "What Donald Trump was up to while John McCain was suffering as a prisoner of war." You can read the article to find out but I'll save you the time and tell you that Trump was not suffering, in fact, far from it.

It's a feel good article for anyone who thinks The Donald deserves his comeuppance, but when you stop and think for a minute, the content of the article begs the question, so what?

John McCain, the son and grandson of four star US Navy admirals, was destined for a military career. Donald Trump had a different destiny, following in his father's footsteps as a real estate developer. Despite all his foolish rantings during the interview and in subsequent explanations, I didn't hear Donald Trump once claim himself to be a war hero. He like countless other American men of draft age in the sixties who could afford it, avoided military service by getting college deferments. Then in the draft lottery, Trump happened to receive a very high number, meaning that his chances of being drafted were incredibly slim. As if that weren't enough, he was found to have a bone spur in one foot (he couldn't remember which one), making him physically ineligible for the draft if all else failed. True, he did make sure all his bases were covered, but you'd be hard pressed to find any wrongdoing along those lines.

There's a lot of hypocrisy these days as we pass judgement on those who did and did not serve in the Vietnam War. While I was a young teen in the early seventies, I was very conscious of the most unpopular war in this nation's history and had absolutely no intention when the time came, to go off and fight in it. Had push came to shove, I probably would have done everything possible to avoid going into the armed services, even moving to Canada if necessary. I might even have had the support of my parents, well at least my mother.  Frankly, everyone I knew at the time felt the same way. Well it so happened that dumb luck intervened, the US pulled out of Vietnam in 1973 when I was 15, and for my contemporaries and me, avoiding the war never became an issue.

I'm not proud of that, nor am I ashamed. Feel free to judge me, but I was simply the product of my highly skeptical, cynical generation, and the urban, liberal community in which I lived. Given all that, I don't consider myself to be in any position to judge people who chose not to serve in the armed forces during the Vietnam War, not even Donald Trump. Nor do I feel any right to stand in judgement of people who did serve.

Donald Trump apparently doesn't share that feeling.

As much as it pains me to say it, unseemly as Trump's comments about McCain were, there might be a hint of truth to them; it all depends upon what your definition of hero is. Lately, that word has been bandied about quite liberally, being used to describe everything from sports stars, to reality TV contestants, to a former Olympian who changed his sexual identity. Personally I'm quite happy allowing everyone his or her own definition of the word, but there are some among us who insist that the term hero has very specific requirements. There are those for example, who refute the claims that the folks inside the Twin Towers and Pentagon when they were attacked on 9/11 and the people in the planes that slammed into them, were heroes. No, the naysayers insist, those people were victims, not heroes, as they did not willfully choose to be in the tragic situation they found themselves in. The first responders on the other hand were unquestionably heroes because they entered the burning buildings of their own will in the hopes of saving others, with little or no regard for their own well being.

Likewise that line of thought goes, John McCain who was doing his job at the time, flying in a bombing raid on Hanoi in 1968, was a victim of the missile that shot down his aircraft. Now one could argue that the very act of flying a bombing mission across enemy lines is heroic, but of course that depends which side you're on. I'm sure the people of Hanoi didn't regard the fighter pilots who were dropping bombs on their city to be particularly heroic.

As for McCain's five years as a guest in the infamous prison dubbed the "Hanoi Hilton," there is unequivocal agreement that his was a harrowing experience. However there is a difference of opinion over whether he did or did not under duress, hand over military information to his captors. The Washington Post article from the other day in no uncertain terms claimed he did not. An article that appeared in Rolling Stone during the 2008 election claimed he did. That article suggests McCain has character flaws of his own, including a volatile temper, a boundless ego, ceaseless ambition, and an insatiable appetite for the pursuit of members of the opposite sex. In other words, he's not all that different from Donald Trump, minus the hair.

Like him or not, given that McCain is now an elder statesman who is no longer likely to run for president again, that Rolling Stone article today reads like a vengeful, unnecessary case of character assassination. But when it first came out, just like the Washington Post piece on Trump vis-à-vis McCain, it was read with relish by opponents of the McCain/Palin ticket, myself included.

In the end we all believe what we want to believe and the truth gets lost somewhere in the margins.

It remains to be seen whether the McCain comments will have a detrimental effect on Trump's presidential bid. The people who respond to his message actually relate to his other foolish rants such as the one about Mexican immigrants being rapists or how he prefers little guys wearing yarmulkes handling all his money, But dissing a vet and a five year POW is a whole other matter.

I have a friend who insists that Trump is a shill for the Democratic Party as he is throwing the entire Republican Party into damage control. Perhaps he's right. Maybe as a return volley, the Republicans had McCain make his "crazies" remark to provoke Trump into one of his forays into foolishness.

Conspiracy theories aside, I believe Trump doesn't really care what comes out of his mouth, as long as it gets him attention, which is what his campaign is all about. Unlike all the other candidates, he has the money to bankroll his own campaign with plenty to spare, so he doesn't have to worry about offending his benefactors. If he's right about his followers being a "silent majority" of Americans, as long as he doesn't piss them off with too many POWs not being heroes gaffes, he'll probably do OK. Despite his big lead and endless supply of cash, I can't see him winning the Republican nomination, let alone the presidency, but this country has surprised me over and over again in what it capable of achieving, both good and bad. A good example, never in my life did I think I'd live to see a black president.

On the flip side of that, as unlikely as it may seem, the thought of a President Trump depresses the hell out of me.

Come to think of it, once again, Canada's not looking so bad.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Georgia Peach

Ty Cobb, left, and Joe Jackson.
Contrary to the quote from the movie, the two had a great mutual admiration.
Ty Cobb wanted to play...but none of us could stand the son-of-a-bitch when we were alive, so we told him to stick it.

-the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson from the film Field of Dreams

Ty Cobb could cause more excitement with a base on balls then Babe Ruth could with a home run.

-Roger Birtwell

Yes, he's a prick, but he sure can hit. God Almighty, that man can hit!

-Babe Ruth

The greatness of Ty Cobb was something to be seen... and to see him was to remember him forever.

-George Sisler

In 1994, Ken Burns released his epic, reverential ode to the national pastime, a documentary film titled simply, Baseball. It aired on PBS serendipitously at the same time as the longest strike in baseball history, the strike that forced the cancellation of the World Series. Consequently tens of millions of baseball-starved fans tuned in to watch the eighteen and one half hour film which covered the history of the game up to that point, broken up into nine chronological segments or innings as Burns called them, each inning devoted to a specific era of the game.

As is his custom, Burns employed several on camera "experts" who added bits and pieces of detail to the narrative of the story. One of those was writereditor and passionate baseball fan, Daniel Okrent.

In the episode titled, Third Inning: the Faith of Fifty Million People, a segment was devoted to one of the greatest players in the history of the game. On that player, Okrent sanctimoniously proclaimed that Ty Cobb was "the great black mark on the history of baseball." Speaking matter-of-factly as if he personally knew the man, Okrent called Cobb "brutal" and " a terrible racist."

He continued: "The more his fires burned, the more that provoked him on the field, and I suppose one could say that the happy byproduct was the extraordinary baseball that he gave the fans at the time, but ... there's a moment when you have to say it's not worth it. I think that Ty Cobb in his totality is an embarrassment to baseball."

Much later in Burns's film, he has narrator John Chancellor proclaiming that Cobb was so despised, only three people associated with the game attended his funeral. "If I had to do it over again..." said Chancellor quoting Cobb, "...I'd have made more friends."

That last comment closing the final chapter on Cobb I suppose was an attempt to give a trace of humanity to the man after portraying him as the most inhuman person to ever set foot on a baseball diamond.

I knew about the great Detroit Tiger outfielder's bad reputation twenty one years ago when I first watched Burns's series in its entirety with my friend in his home in Brooklyn, but I never knew he was THAT bad. Not that there was anything original in Burns's portrayal of Cobb, I just had yet to read the biography of him by Al Stump.  Burns's treatment of Cobb made him look practically saintly compared to Stump who portrays Ty Cobb as a paranoid, sadistic, psychotic, racist, sociopath, who probably murdered one or two people along the way.

And that was on his good days.

Then there was the ridiculous bio-pic based loosely upon Stump's work where Tommy Lee Jones's portrayal of Cobb is virtually indistinguishable from the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Fortunately for Cobb's reputation I suppose, Burns' film was seen by far more people than all the other scurrilous works on Ty Cobb combined, and for those like me, the final word on Cobb was that he was merely a run of the mill racist-asshole, rather than a bona fide monster.

I became intrigued with the idea that there was more to Cobb than meets the eye after reading the entry on him in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. While not denying the racist-asshole part, James's portrayal of Cobb is nuanced. He concludes his section on Cobb with this bit of home brew psychology:
Ty Cobb's racism and his anger I believe, were fueled not by smugness or even resentment, but by an unusually intense fear of his own limitations, No one is more macho than a man who feels inadequate,; no one walks straighter than a man who is half drunk. When Ty Cobb felt threatened he lashed out at the world. He felt threatened a lot-but as long as he wasn't challenged, he was a very nice man.
Nice man or not, in today's world we can forgive the occasional asshole, but there is zero tolerance for the racist.

Here's a little more insight into Ty Cobb's racism from the great Buck O'Neil:

Notice how Mr. O'Neil puts the interviewer in her place when she asks him why he doesn't condemn Ty Cobb for his racist ways.

Ty Cobb got into a lot of fights in his life, brutal, inexcusable bursts of violence, where his rage, along with his fists, feet or any other part of his body he could flail about, were directed sometimes even at women. Seldom did he pick a fight, but when he felt offended even in the slightest, he went ballistic. Some of his rage was directed at black people. Far more often it was directed at white people. Buck O'Neil was right, Ty Cobb could be mean to anyone, not just blacks. "That was Ty Cobb" he said.

Despite all the wisdom in O'Neil's comments, he did get a few things wrong. Ty Cobb did not come from a poor background, nor did he have only a fifth grade education. Cobb's family was comfortably middle class, and his father was an educator and later a state legislator who placed a very high value on his children's education. He pushed his firstborn, Tyrus Raymond, in the direction of either law or medical school, and discouraged young Ty from his passion of becoming a ballplayer, which at the time was considered a disreputable profession.

No one can say exactly what Ty Cobb was taught as a child about what his relationship with black people should be. True, he grew up in the post-Reconstruction South where anti-black sentiment was especially rampant, but his father in his role as legislator, fought for the rights of black people, and other ancestors were conscientious objectors during the Civil War because of their abolitionist beliefs.

After I saw this clip and read James's piece, I became interested in what made the man called "The Georgia Peach" tick. Searches on the web turned up numerous sites which addressed the question: "Was Ty Cobb a racist?" I thought, "well of course he was, everybody acknowledges that, even Bill James and Buck O'Neil."

Then I came across a quote from Ty Cobb. In 1952, reporters asked his opinion of African American Americans playing baseball with whites. This is what he said:
I see no reason in the world why we shouldn't compete with colored athletes as long as they conduct themselves with politeness and gentility. Let me say also that no white man has the right to be less of a gentleman than a colored man. In my book, that goes for baseball but for all walks of life...
The Negro should be accepted whole-heartedly and not grudgingly into baseball. The Negro has the right to professional baseball and who’s to say he has not?
To today's ears, Cobb's language sounds archaic, condescending and patronizing. Some claim his words are disingenuous as they were uttered twenty five years after Cobb retired from the game, and was no longer threatened by black players taking his job away. Others claim the words are meaningless because by the time Cobb made his comment, Jackie Robinson had been in the major leagues for five years and the integration of baseball by 1952 was a fait accompli.

But it must be remembered that in 1952, fewer than half of the teams in the major leagues had brought up a black player. It would be another seven years before every major league team had a black player on its roster. Several minor leagues in 1952 had yet to integrate at all. In 1952, the integration of baseball was still a hotly debated, emotional topic.

When Cobb made his comment, he was no longer affiliated with baseball, he was financially well off, and perfectly free to speak his mind. In 1952 there was hardly the stigma of being viewed as a racist as there is today. Personally Ty Cobb had little to gain by expressing his support of integration, while he had plenty to lose in terms of respect from many of his fellow Southerners. He chose not to mince his words or equivocate; his comments in support of the integration of baseball came out loud and clear, blasting, in the words of the Associated Press at the time, "a home run for the Negro player."

Cobb also was known to have attended several Negro League games often throwing out the first pitch and sitting in the dugout with the players. He also lavished praise on many of the black players who came up to the big leagues in the fifties and saved the biggest praise of all for Willie Mays who he said was the only ballplayer of any race he would pay to see play.

Cobb's are not the words and actions of a virulent racist. Considering the source, given the fact that they were uttered before most of the major milestones in American Civil Rights history, his words could be considered downright revolutionary. So what gives? Was Cobb trying to prove something, perhaps showing the world his softer side? Was he mellowing in old age, or was he in fact not as bad as we thought?

In his painstakingly researched new biography, Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, author Charles Leerhsen attempts to answer that question by separating fact from fantasy.

Leerhsen's conclusion, and I don't think I'm giving too much away here, is that while a complex man capable of excessive violence as well as considerable benevolence, most of the really bad stuff that we associate with Cobb today, especially concerning his relationship with and feelings about black people, did not come to light until after he died in 1961. Ironically, the propagator of the ill will attributed to Ty Cobb after his death was none other than the man whom Ty Cobb hand picked to help write his autobiography. Cobb would learn shortly before he died that he picked the wrong man for the job.

That man was Al Stump.

Cobb's so called autobiography, My Life in Baseball: The True Record, ghost written by Stump, was published shortly after Ty Cobb died. Cobb's intention was to write a book that would set the record straight about his career, and put aside the common notion that he was a dirty ballplayer who routinely slid into bases sharpened spikes high, with the intention of maiming his opponents. In the end however, with little actual contact with Cobb, Stump wrote the book he (Stump) wanted to write, with a few concessions to his subject. Once he got hold of the manuscript after a long struggle with Stump, Cobb hated it and tried to sue to stop its publication. But it was too late, Cobb's health failed him and he died before he could do anything to stop the book.

At the time of his death, Ty Cobb, according to Leerhsen, was not a controversial figure and the sales of his ghost written autobiography were mild to say the least. Most of the comments on the book were about its inaccuracies. Then there was the book's voice. Leerhsen sites one passage from the Cobb autobiography which to him sounds more like the words of a "jaded sportswriter than an old ballplayer." You decide for yourself from this little tidbit about an alleged incident that was reported in the Ken Burns film as if it were God's honest truth:
No I didn't once attack Nap Rucker the pitcher in the bathroom and try to throw him out of the tub in which he was relaxing. That phony fable has dogged me for more than half a century and I doubt there are enough fans to fill a broom closet who don't believe it happened--which it never did. I don't know who constructed that particular piece of Limburger, but it has an odor I first concocted with certain New York writers--never exactly simpatico to me--who've made certain it appeared in every language but the Sanskrit.
Reading that made me sadly realize that my all time favorite Cobb quote also came from the autobiography and was written in exactly the same voice as the above passage:
Baseball is a red-blooded sport for red-blooded man. It's no pink tea, and mollycoddles had better stay out. It's a struggle for supremacy, survival of the fittest.
Maybe it's the mollycoddle in me but I've read and listened to several interviews of Ty Cobb and have to say, as much as I want that to be Cobb himself speaking, that's just not him coming through those words.

Not satisfied with the paltry amount he made off the Cobb autobiography, Stump forged ahead with a new project that was sure to milk some money out of the dead ballplayer. That move, Leerhsen contends, "is the key to the destruction of Cobb's good name."

Stump followed up the book with the publication of an article describing his relationship with Cobb while the two men supposedly worked together on the "autobiography." If the public wants dirt, one can hear Stump's thoughts going through his head, "I'll give them dirt"

In the introduction to Stump's article reprinted in an anthology called "The Greatest Baseball Stories ever Told", the editor complained that the Cobb autobiography was "self-serving... a white wash from cover to cover..." and that "Cobb wrangled final approval over everything" (which come to think of it, as Cobb's supposed autobiography, wasn't that his prerogative?). Stump himself claimed that his conscience compelled him to show the public the "true" Cobb.

In 1962, Stump's article, Ty Cobb's Wild Ten Month Fight to Live, appeared in True, a men's adventure magazine. The article portrays Cobb in the last year of his life as a paranoid, pill popping, half-insane drunkard who never left home without carrying a huge amount of cash in a paper bag and a pistol. Stump claimed that when he told people of his book deal and his plans to spend time with Ty Cobb, in no uncertain terms he was told that he was taking his life into own his hands.

Stump's Cobb terrorized everyone he came in contact with, including the doctors and nurses who tended to him during his frequent visits to the hospital. Stump's Cobb also proudly boasted to the author that he killed a man in Detroit, one of three assailants in an armed robbery. In his story, after the three fled from an enraged Cobb after they stabbed him, the ballplayer followed one of his attackers into a dead end alley where proceeded to use his Belgian pistol (which wouldn't fire) to pistol whip the hapless would-be villain until:
 ...he had no face left. Left him there not breathing, in his own rotten blood. 
From there the ballplayer proceeded to catch a train for a ballgame he next day, where he happened to get three hits. It was only after the game when he got medical treatment for his stab wound.

On and on the article went relaying tales of hair-raising middle of the night journeys through snow covered mountain passes in order to satisfy one of Cobb's many whims like visiting Joe DiMaggio, or contest a payment on a measly check. Despite being a millionaire many times over, Stump's Cobb is a mean spirited tightwad who would remove (and re-use) the stamps on the self-addressed return envelopes from countless fan letters, before tossing the rest of the letters into the fire, as it saved on firewood.

In his article, Stump also elicited comments from contemporaries of Cobb, fellow ballplayers who insisted that Cobb was indeed as dirty a player as the rumors had him to be.

By doing so, Stump refuted virtually everything he wrote in his previous book on Cobb.

The article is a barn burner, a real page turner. The only problem according to Charles Leerhsen is that Al Stump made most of it up. Leerhrsen methodically debunks much of what Stump writes:
  • According to Leerhsen, the doctors and nurses who treated Cobb during the last year of his life had nothing but good things to say about him. 
  • Police reports from the city of Detroit have no record of a faceless body found in the city on the day Stump claimed Cobb killed the robber. 
  • Ty Cobb was known for answering virtually all of his fan mail, sometimes even apologizing for being overly verbose in his responses. 
  • Cobb also was very generous with his money, founding an educational fund and a hospital which both benefit the disadvantaged. 
  • The ultimate debunker of the piece is that Stump more than likely only spent a couple of days alone with Ty Cobb, not the several months claimed in the article.
The above mentioned film titled Cobb, was loosely based upon the True article. It's maker, Ron Shelton, admitted that he added scenes that were not in the article. One particularly ghastly scene has Cobb attempting to rape a woman in Las Vegas, but is thwarted by his own impotence. When Charles Leerhsen asked Shelton about the scene, the writer-director told the author that he and his screenwriter (Stump), made the scene up because "it sounded like something Cobb would have done."

Another biography of Cobb came from a more respected source, professor of history Charles Alexander whose book, Ty Cobb, (where DO authors come up with such original titles?) was published in 1984. Unlike Stump's work, Alexander's is thoroughly researched and extensively foot noted. Unfortunately, many of Alexander's cited sources come from you guessed it, Stump's Cobb autobiography, which Stump himself refuted shortly after he wrote it. Alexander also cited numerous passages from the True article

Stump still wasn't done with Ty Cobb. He went on to write yet another biography published in 1994 called Cobb: The Life and Times of the Meanest Man Who Ever Played Baseball. Stump begins that book by reprinting the True Magazine article, then goes on with the body of the book which brings up many of the ugly incidents in Ty Cobb's life but with a significant twist. The victims of virtually all of Cobb's violent acts in the new biography are black.

Leerhsen goes through all of the incidents cited by Stump and also Alexander, and finds that in the majority of them, the victims of Cobb's assaults were actually white. Leerhsen got his information either from checking birth certificates or by deducing that the lack of specific details of their race in news reports from the time (i.e.: no mention of them being black which  in those days, was always the case if they were black), strongly implies that they were in fact, white. This is not to excuse Cobb's transgressions, he had many; but it does bring up yet again Alexander's and Stump's credibility by asking the question, why would they claim Cobb's victims were black when there is no evidence of that?

An obvious answer is that by 1984 and beyond, race had become a contentious issue, far more than it was in 1961. By portraying Cobb as a racist, whether or not it was really true, the authors created sensational interest in their works where it wouldn't have existed before.

Charles Leerhsen was not the first person to discredit Al Stump. In an article first published in 2010 in The National Pastime, Wiliam R. Cobb, no relation to the ballplayer, writes a very detailed account about a shotgun that once belonged to Ty Cobb which ended up in the possession of a famous baseball memorabilia collection. The shotgun was claimed to be the weapon that killed Ty Cobb's father. It also had an interesting provenance as it once was in the possession of Al Stump.  In Stump's works on Cobb, he claims the ballplayer told him that his father's head was blown off by a shotgun. (Cobb's mother accidentally shot and killed her husband, mistaking him for an intruder). But William Cobb checked press accounts around time of the incident, police and court records from the trial of Amanda Cobb which all point to her having used a pistol to accidentally kill her husband, not a shotgun.

In none of the accounts of the death of Ty Cobb's father written before Stump's, was there any mention of a shotgun.

Why would Stump insist that Mr. Cobb was killed with a shotgun, and not just any shotgun but the one he happened to have in his possession? You don't think it could have been so he could sell the gun for a vastly inflated chunk of change do you? Well Stump did happen to put a good deal of Cobb's personal effects in his possession up for sale, many that supposedly had Cobb's signature, which later were proven to be forged. Eventually the auction houses refused to list any piece of Cobb memorabilia with the name of Al Stump listed on the provenance. Small wonder.

Incidentally, the shotgun in question was engraved with Ty Cobb's name and Stump claimed Cobb used it on numerous hunting trips. Not only would it be quite bizarre for Cobb to have his name engraved on the weapon that killed his father, not to mention use it to shoot ducks, but it seems unlikely that a murder weapon would have left been in the possession of the family of both the deceased and the perpetrator. Nonetheless, Stump went with the story probably assuming if his readers would buy all the other crap he wrote about Cobb, they'd buy this cockamamie story too.

Ken Burns obviously bought Stump's story, lock, stock and barrel. In his film he got off a final dig at the ballplayer, describing Ty Cobb's last days with words that came straight out of the pages of Stump's True Magazine article, including an interesting revelation that Cobb "deplored" the integration of baseball.

Maybe it's just me, but I'll take Ty Cobb's word on that matter over Al Stunp's any day.

Why wouldn't Ken Burns? As much as I enjoyed his baseball film, with its incessant sentimentality combining images of long lost players and fields of dreams, backed by a soundtrack of The Star Spangled Banner and Take Me Out to the Ballgame played on every conceivable instrument from a marching band to a flageolete, I couldn't help be struck by how much the story he told resembled a fairy tale. Just as every good Brothers Grimm story needs a witch who eats little children, Ken Burns's baseball tale needed a dark, despicable villain as the perfect foil to heroes such as Christy Mathewson and Jackie Robinson. The mythical Ty Cobb created by Al Stump perfectly fit the bill, while the complex, real people behind those myths would never cut the mustard. A reasonable Ty Cobb advocating near the end of his life for the inclusion of African Americans in baseball, would never do, any more than a Christy Mathewson taking time off from spring training to witness the public hanging of a black man in Alabama, or a Jackie Robinson taking time off from being a demigod to act like a prima donna.

In his book, Leerhsen recalls the famous movie line: "When legend becomes fact, print the legend."

Much has been written about Charles Leerhsen's book being "revisionist history", an attempt to rehabilitate the image of a man about whom much has been written. Bill James begins his piece on Ty Cobb this way:

If one were to take the time to document a thousand times in which Ty Cobb went out of his way to be kind to other people, including black people, would this change his image? I fear it would not.

He's probably right, so ingrained is our image of the man as a monster, we're afraid to let go, even when confronted with the truth. Leerhsen's theory is that we all need people like the mythical Ty Cobb because they make us feel better about our own inadequacies. We say to ourselves, I may be bad, but hey, at least I'm not a violent racist prick like Ty Cobb.

Leerhsen pulls no punches in describing Ty Cobb's many shortcomings. His book does not attempt to rehabilitate the man by giving us a new window into those shortcomings in order to understand them. Instead he addresses Cobb's real-life issues in detail while at the same time making a very good case that much of what we think we know about Ty Cobb is dead wrong, a contrived set of falsehoods set in motion by one unscrupulous man whose motivation was nothing more than his own fame and fortune. In that vein, Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty does not attempt to revise history;  it tells the story of a real man while at the same time puts to rest an outrageous lie.


Now that's out of the way, what makes Charles Leerhsen's Cobb biography such a great read are the accounts of Ty Cobb the ballplayer. It's true that he did spike a number of infielders who made the foolish mistake of getting in his way on the base paths, but not with any greater frequency than other ballplayers of his era. While he spent much of his post-career, trying to clear his name as a dirty player, when he actually played, he didn't seem to mind his opponents thinking that he actually sharpened his spikes before each game (he really didn't). He readily admitted being a "mental hazard" to his opponents while running the bases, as the seed that he might do something crazy, planted in the minds of his opponents, was sometimes all it took. Part of his success stemmed from the fact that Ty Cobb was probably the most opportunistic ballplayer in the game's history.

Here's a quote from one of his teammates if not one of his biggest fans, Sam Crawford:
...Ty was dynamite on the base paths. He really was. Talk about strategy and playing with your head, that was Cobb all the way. It wasn't that he was so fast on his feet, although he was fast enough. There were others who were faster, though, like Clyde Milan, for instance. It was that Cobb was so fast in his thinking. He didn't outhit the opposition and he didn't outrun them. He outthought them!   
A lot of times Cobb would be on third base and I'd draw a base on balls, and as I started to go down to first I'd sort of half glance at Cobb, at third. He'd make a slight move that told me he wanted me to keep going -- not to stop at first, but to keep on going to second. Well, I'd trot two-thirds of the way to first and then suddenly, without warning, I'd speed up and go across first as fast as I could and tear out for second. He's on third, see. They're watching him, and suddenly there I go, and they don't know what the devil to do. 
If they try to stop me, Cobb'll take off for home. Sometimes they'd catch him, and sometimes they'd catch me, and sometimes they wouldn't get either of us. But most of the time they were too paralyzed to do anything, and I'd wind up at second on a base on balls ....
In his epilogue Charles Leershen recounts a story that pretty much sums up Ty Cobb. On a hot miserable day in Detroit with two out in the last of the ninth and the Tigers down by a bunch, Ty Cobb reached first on a single. Even the home town fans groaned. Wally Pipp the Yankee first baseman suggested to Cobb that he put an end to everyone's misery by letting himself get picked off. Cobb agreed, and took an "accommodating" lead off first. When the pitcher threw to Pipp, Cobb took off for second and got himself in a rundown. Needless to say, after a few bobbled balls, Cobb ended up on third. The next batter popped up to end the game. Now the ump at first heard the conversation between Cobb and Pipp and asked Cobb why he crossed up Pipp. Cobb, surprised as anyone in the ballpark said he didn't mean to do it, but as soon as he saw Pipp reaching to tag him out, "something exploded inside of me. I just couldn't stand there and take it without a fight."

I thought of that the other day while attending a major league game with my kids. The home team was down by a bunch with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. The batter was a weak hitting infielder, batting from the left handed batters' box. The infield played this guy with a significant shift towards right field where this batter was most likely to hit the ball, a move usually reserved for power hitters. They would never have played Ty Cobb, another left handed hitter that way because he would have had a field day against such a shift. But today even weak hitters swing for home runs rather than trying to place a hit in the spot vacated by the infielders. Cobb would have been appalled. Sure enough, the batter struck out, but the catcher dropped the ball. While he fumbled around for what seemed an eternity looking for the ball, instead of taking off for first base as he was entitled, our batter just stood there looking perplexed as if to say, "what do I do now?" Finally the catcher found the ball and tagged the batter out as he never left the box, game over.

Ty Cobb's fight for every base style of baseball died out when Babe Ruth came along and popularized the home run. The so called "deadball era" style of baseball survived in the Negro Leagues where players routinely scored from second base on a bunt, ended up on second after a walk, and executed the most exciting play in all of baseball, the stealing of home, incidentally a record for which Ty Cobb holds to this day.

Once the Negro Leagues became absorbed into the major leagues, that style of play died out altogether in professional ball.

Ty Cobb became a dinosaur while he was still a player, as the fans and later the analysts deemed it should be so. They all seemed to believe that every player, even weak hitting middle infielders are better off swinging for a home run, even if it means a greater likelihood of striking out, rather than choking up on the bat and trying to place the ball, "hitting it where they ain't" for a base hit. (Cobb by the way was no weak hitter, he proved time and again that he could hit home runs when he wanted to. Even then he hardly ever struck out).

Sabrmetrically speaking, this all or nothing approach may be a more prudent strategy in the long run, but it sure is a heck of a lot less fun to watch.

Oh to have the chance to see Ty Cobb play again, if only once.

Fortunately, reading Charles Leerhsen's superb book Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, is the next best thing.