Sunday, September 17, 2017

Enjoy the movie but...

For those of you eagerly awaiting Ken Burns's documentary on the Vietnam War as I am, consider this. Burns is a fabulous storyteller, that much is certain. Unfortunately he has a problem with not letting facts get in the way of a good story. One of the central characters in his 1994 film "Baseball" was one of the greatest ballplayers of all time, Ty Cobb. In his film, Burns cast Cobb as the villain: "a great black mark on the history of the game" and "an embarrassment to baseball." Over and over again, Cobb comes up as a mean spirited racist who hated black people and "deplored the integration of the game." Burns and quite honestly just about everyone else who wrote about Cobb after his death, based everything they said about the man, on the work of Al Stump, who ghost wrote Cobb's autobiography, and later, three scurrilous pieces, a magazine article, another book, and the screenplay for a movie, on the ballplayer which portrayed the man as a nothing less than a racist monster, on his good days. Burns's treatment of him was in fact, quite tame by comparison.

Two of the greatest ballplayers of all time, Willie Mays and Ty Cobb
Looking at this picture of Cobb and Willie Mays, it's a little hard to imagine there's much credibility behind Stump's and Burns's characterization of Cobb. In fact, their version of Ty Cobb is a lie. Far from "deploring the integration of the game", Cobb was one of its champions. Commenting on the subject in 1955, when only half of MLB teams had yet to sign a black player, Ty Cobb said this:

"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?"

At the time the Associated Press called Cobb's comments " a home run for the negro ballplayer." In his excellent 2015 biography: "Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty" Charles Leerhsen debunks virtually everything Stump wrote about Ty Cobb. Stump it turns out, was simply bent on making money on the by then, dead ballplayer to recoup for the lackluster sales of his original "autobiography", Leerhsen makes a very compelling case that Stump's portrayal of Ty Cobb was a terrible injustice that ruined Cobb's good name..

But Leerhsen was not the first to call out Al Stump, there are many pieces of evidence from other sources that the myth of Ty Cobb we have so whole heartedly accepted for so many years, in entirely the imagination of one unscrupulous man.

As the newspaper man of old once said, "when facts get in the way of a legend, print the legend." Despite the plethora of evidence to the contrary, even back in 1994, Ken Burns stuck with the legend. What has Burns to say about his treatment of Ty Cobb, after Leerhsen's very strong evidence that it was all false? So far nothing.

Another reputation who is the victim of Burns's baseball documentary is that of the former owner and founder of the Chicago White Sox, Charles Comiskey. You can read about him here.

So enjoy Burns's story of the Vietnam War tonight and the rest of the week, but
bear this in mind: take in all the information you hear with a huge lump of salt.

No comments: