When you hear the name of Ty Cobb, what comes to your mind?
Perhaps it’s his .366 career batting average, the highest in the history of baseball. More likely, if you know his name, it’s as a vicious racist, a bigot who sharpened his spikes.
As Charles Leerhsen demonstrates in his compelling biography, “Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty,” none of that is true. Cobb wasn’t an uneducated brute. He was a sensitive man, a voracious reader and a lover of classical music.
He was also, as his nickname “The Georgia Peach” testifies, a southerner, and in his day, that mattered. In the early 20th century, when he broke into the game with the Detroit Tigers, baseball was a northern game, and animosities formed by the Civil War still lingered.
Cobb was a fine athlete, but not a natural batter. In style, he was like Ichiro Suzuki, combining meticulous preparation with good speed, an excellent eye, and a barrage of poked base hits.
He was also — Leerhsen makes no effort to sugarcoat this fact — completely unwilling to back down from a challenge. The America he was born into tolerated and even welcomed a level of casual violence that we today would find shocking, and Cobb fought on and off the field.
If his style finds comparison with Ichiro, his attitude toward team-mates and opponents was like Michael Jordan’s: impatient with failure, and competitive to a fault. When you add in the jealousies Cobb provoked as a successful southerner, that led to fights.
So what of the charges against him? Yes, he ran the bases hard — and more excitingly than anyone before him. And yes, he believed that baserunners had a right to slide into a bag, whether an opposing player was there or not. But he wasn’t a deliberate, dirty spike-sharpener.
Was he a racist? Cobb came from an abolitionist family, a rare thing in mid-19th century Georgia. He did fight with several African Americans, but he fought with quite a few whites, too.
When, long after his retirement in 1928, baseball began to integrate, Cobb supported it publicly, saying in 1952, “The Negro should be accepted and not grudgingly, but wholeheartedly . . . no white man has the right to be less of a gentleman than a colored man.”
Cobb’s way of saying that wasn’t ours. But we shouldn’t condemn a man for the age into which he was born. And Cobb showed his basic decency. He threw out the first ball at a Negro League park, praised Willie Mays, and treated Negro League stars with respect.
And no, he didn’t die alone. Cobb’s life after baseball wasn’t always happy, but he entered the Hall of Fame with more votes than Babe Ruth. He wasn’t universally popular — who is? — but he was widely respected, if slowly forgotten, as a man and a player until his death in 1961.
So why the myths? As Leerhsen shows, they stem from a hack journalist named Al Stump, who found an easy payday by slandering Cobb after he died, and who kept on slandering him (and forging his signature and faking his memorabilia) into the 1990s.
Even though Stump’s story was a tissue of lies, it found an eager audience. At the start of the tumultuous 1960s, many people were ready to start tearing down heroes, and glad to believe the worst of a southerner when it came to race.
Very few people are as simple as the nasty Cobb of myth. Indeed, the simplicity of that one-dimensional caricature should have been a tip-off that it wasn’t true. Our eagerness to accept that caricature says a lot more about us than it does about Cobb.
This isn’t just a book for baseball lovers. It’s about the making and breaking of myth, and the history of an unjustly maligned American icon. Buy it for the truth. But read it for Cobb.
Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Thatcher Center for Freedom.