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.

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