The following review of Charles Leerhsen’s book “Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty” was published in the February issue of SABR’s Deadball Era newsletter. Please join SABR.
When Charles Leerhsen began working on this book, he tells us in its pages, he believed Ty Cobb to be “a racist and a mean, spikes-sharpening son of a bitch.” Leerhsen came by this belief honestly, from the popular Cobb biographies, from Ron Shelton’s movie Cobb, from Field of Dreams (which idealizes an entire era of ballplayers, except Cobb, who was a “son-of-a-bitch”), from Ken Burns’ documentary on the game’s history. As he begins his research, a lot of the standard Cobb stories begin to ring false, especially Al Stump’s absurd accounting of Cobb’s final days, first published as an award-winning magazine article in 1962 and later as a book in 1994.
Leerhsen comes to believe, and reports to us, that Cobb was not a racist, or at least no more so than the America of his time, that he did not sharpen his spikes, and that he was liked and respected by many of his contemporaries. Can the author’s change of heart be chalked up to growing too close to his subject? Not solely. The author has done first-rate research, and presents a solid case that Cobb was much more complicated than the monster of Stump’s largely made-up book or Shelton’s related movie. He probably did not sharpen his spikes. There is no evidence that he killed anyone (a claim made by Stump and others). He performed many acts of kindness throughout his life, to black and white people. He could be a charming man who, on occasion, would just snap.
A drawback of the book, at least for me, is that the author frames the narrative around telling us what prior authors or moviemakers got wrong, who Cobb was not, as opposed to telling us who Cobb was. There is more in this book about Al Stump than there is about Cobb’s wife of forty years.
A staple of the oft-told Cobb story is that he spent much of his life beating the crap out of people, usually people of a lesser station, and many of them black, with little or no provocation. What we learn here is that several of these people were actually white, which somewhat reduces Cobb’s sin (he did not discriminate in who he beat up) but hardly eliminates it.
Of course, Cobb did have some famous confrontations with black innocents. In June 1908 Cobb attacked a black worker who had the temerity to tell Cobb and his companions not to cross the street because of newly poured asphalt. According to a newsman on the scene, Cobb used racial language before the fight. Leerhsen mitigates the charge of racism by citing some of Cobb’s racially liberal relatives as evidence that he was not a typical Southerner.
In April 1919, as far as can be determined, Cobb pushed an 18-year-old black chambermaid into a hallway, kicked her in the stomach, and knocked her down a flight of stairs, causing her to be hospitalized for several weeks. Cobb was not arrested and it was barely covered in the mainstream press other than a note, weeks after the event, that Cobb was being sued. Leerhsen researches the Chicago Defender, a black newspaper, to try to find out how it was resolved. It is not actually clear, though at one point the Tigers team was trying to settle with the victim. Wrapping up the episode, Leerhsen informs the reader that the Defender was kind to Cobb in his obituary 42 years later, and that Cobb had complimentary things to say about black players in the 1950s. What remains is this: Ty Cobb, a large physical professional athlete, pushed a young woman down a flight of stairs. The rest hardly seems to matter.
A point Leerhsen repeatedly makes is that Cobb’s kindness to black people at a particular time and place suggests that his cruelty at another time and place was not racially motivated. Is it not possible that Cobb liked black people well enough, but demanded they treat him with a degree of deference and became enraged when they did not? (It is perhaps interesting that all of Cobb’s physical altercations took place during the season, and not back in Georgia where he spent every winter.) Is it also not possible, even likely, that he held many views in 1952 that he did not hold in 1918?
Cobb was tremendous ballplayer, a very intelligent man on and off the field, and the most interesting person in nearly every room he ever walked into. Leerhsen captures this Cobb very well. He was not a hardscrabble backwoods Southerner, he was a learned well-to-do man who dressed well, and carried himself like a kingly figure even as a young man. Cobb did many good things in his life.
The takeaway of all Cobb biographies, including this one, is that he was a somewhat sad figure. Despite all his gifts, he lived much of his life angry and bitter with someone or something. He did not seem to have any real friends, people that could tell him the hard truths about what he was doing. His relationships with his five children—one of whom later said she was afraid of him her entire life—were, to be kind, complex. He spent the end of his life essentially alone. In baseball’s long history, Cobb has few peers as a player. But off the field, there is very little happiness in this book or in this life.