Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, by Charles Leerhsen

As a near life-long fan of the Detroit Tigers I was more than a little happy to find this book. It puts a tinge on rooting for a team, or at least in its full history, with the thought that its greatest player was one of the great violent racists in the game. That was the reputation of Ty Cobb before this book, which does detailed research to restore a great player to a rightful status as hero.

Ty Cobb set more records in baseball than anyone in the history of the game, and still holds several nearly 100 years after leaving the game. This is especially remarkable as he played most of his career during what is known as the “dead ball” era of the game. This was a time when a rubber interior covered with yarn was still used. Cork, introduced in 1911, made the ball more resilient. Baseball owners, always notoriously cheap, also kept the ball in play for longer, to the point where the ball would be flattened and “squishy”, even fans were required to throw balls back if they went into the stands. This was also the era when the strike foul rule was introduced and when pitchers were still allowed to use spitballs, emery boards, and other methods for changing how the ball acted when hit.

It was this dead ball era when Ty Cobb, a redhead from Georgia in his late teens, first joined the Detroit Tigers team. Near the time of his death Cobb was working on an autobiography with the help of a ghostwriter named Al Stumpp. Cobb died before the book was published. Cobb had already sent in notes to the publisher on inaccuracies in the book. When Cobb died Stumpp spiced the book up with false stories, unattributed quotes, and other misinformation about Cobb portraying him as a virulent southern racist and a violent psychopath. Many of these were carried forward, even into Ken Burns’ documentary on the game.

Leerhsen revises many of the non-historical tales of Cobb, scouring contemporary accounts, interviewing survivors, and even going so far as to check the weather in some account to discredit storytellers who said it was snowing on days when newspapers reported it was sunny and warm. What comes out is an intellectual southerner who stayed in his room reading, listening to classical music, and strategizing the next day’s game while his teammates were out drinking. This doesn’t leave Cobb as totally angelic. Some stories are true, including violent attacks on people in the stands, most notably a man with no hands who had been swearing and baiting Cobb through several games even though Cobb had asked that the fan be expelled. He was a cranky perfectionist, a brawler at a time when “defending one’s honor” was considered a basic of manhood. He also was in fights with at least two African-Americans in the book, though he was in fights with teammates, members of other teams, and many white strangers during his career. When the color-barrier was finally broken with the introduction of Jackie Robinson, Cobb was fully supportive and said that other races should be treated fairly and supported. That was a better attitude than half of Robinson’s own teammates had.

With the slanders out of the way, a fan is given space to again appreciate the first person elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame for what he was, an aggressive and immensely talented player who still holds several records, including stealing home and first base, something rarely seen in the modern game. Contemporaries said he had to be seen to be appreciated but the few bits of surviving film are short or shown at a distance. He invented a psychological game of intimidating the other team and could sit with other players and list the weaknesses and quirks of every player on the opposing team. His unique stance and bat handling allowed him to disguise whether he was planning to bunt or go long and gave him the ability to drop the ball where “the other guys ain’t”. He made it clear, and the other players understood, that the baseline was his, and if anyone was stupid enough to stand between him and the base the results were not Cobb’s fault. Cobb developed a way of sliding around a player to touch the base with his hand but sometimes collisions were inevitable, and Cobb had enough leg injuries at retirement that walking was becoming difficult.

It’s refreshing to see anyone, particularly a player of his brilliance, pulled out of the muck rather than being pushed into it. Leerhsen is far from the only sportswriter to have come to Cobb’s defense but this thoroughly-researched biography comes across as honest without having to be an apology.