Yogi Berra was a cheating sociopath; Stan Musial a hardcore user of performance-enhancing drugs; and Jackie Robinson a gutless wimp.
All of these preposterous propositions are easier to accept than Charles Leerhsen’s in “Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty” — that Cobb was a loyal teammate and straight-arrow ballplayer, tough but fair, something of an intellectual (or what passed for same in World War I-era baseball), and — please pause after reading this so you can absorb it fully — a racial moderate in favor of fairness for black ballplayers.
But if veteran sportswriter Leerhsen is correct about Cobb — and his book is assiduously researched and his points lucidly expressed — then “A Terrible Beauty” is not only the best work ever written on this American sports legend: It’s a major reconsideration of a reputation unfairly maligned for decades.
To start with the small stuff, Cobb was not, as commonly believed, a dirty player, at least according to men he played against. “I don’t know how many times I tagged Ty out at second base,” said Roger Peckinpaugh, a shortstop of the period, “yet he never so much as spiked me.”
Burt Shotton, another contemporary, called Cobb, “the roughest, toughest player I ever saw, a terror on the basepaths . . . He was not dirty, though.”
Intellectually curious, he loved biographies of Jefferson and Napoleon; his favorite fiction was “Les Miserables”; and he was razor sharp with a buck. (His investments in companies such as Coca-Cola made him financially secure.) He was far from the Scrooge-like miser depicted in books and articles. He did a lot of charity work and was often seen slipping dollar bills into the hands of ragged-looking children. While the story is true about Cobb going after a fan who was harassing him, Leerhsen says, he also jumped into the stands to check on a woman who had been hit by a foul ball.
Here, though, is perhaps the most stunning revelation: Evidence that Cobb was a virulent bigot is slim to nonexistent. To be sure, Cobb, who was born and raised in the Jim Crow South, shared many of the racial views of his contemporaries, but in a sensational job of detective work, Leerhsen has tracked down the famous stories of Cobb insulting and assaulting African Americans, and in some cases discovered that the targets of Cobb’s alleged wrath were not black.
As for his publicly expressed attitudes, late in life he told one interviewer, “I see no reason in the world why we shouldn’t compete with colored athletes . . . In my book, that goes not just for baseball but for all walks of life.” Were those just the views of a somewhat mellowed older man? Perhaps, but in all of the interviews he gave during his playing years there is no hint of the racist hate monger he was alleged to be.
“The Negro,” he told another publication, “should be accepted and not grudgingly but wholeheartedly.” He called Willie Mays “the only player I’d pay money to see.”
But Leerhsen is no apologist for a man whose hair-trigger temper forced dozens of confrontations. “Ty Cobb,” says Leerhsen, “was a deep pool of brackish water.”
As a rookie, he did not take hazing from veterans well, and throughout his whole career he was easily goaded to anger. Cobb’s defenses, “though constantly up, were anything but impermeable. Indeed — and this I think is the key to understanding Ty Cobb — his defenses stunk. Sticks and stones broke his bones and names could always harm him.”
Nonetheless, most of the stories that sprung up about him were exaggerated or just plain nonsense. No other player in the game’s history had a career so clouded by malicious gossip and just plain lies; many of the tales were invented in articles and in a famous biography by a sportswriter who hated him, Al Stump. Leerhsen thinks that the only things Stump explored deeply about the Georgia Peach “were Cobb’s reserves of scotch and bourbon.”
Leerhsen’s version of Cobb reads true because, for the first time ever, he is presented as a fully rounded human being with a sense of humor and a genuine capacity for making friends (even Babe Ruth, whom he criticized as a player) as well as enemies.
I have a harder time accepting Leerhsen’s sweeping judgment that “Tyrus Raymond Cobb was the greatest hitter of them all.”
Cobb has the highest career batting average, .366, in baseball history, a fairly impressive argument, I admit. But he played in an era when great players hit for higher averages (1905-1928) while Ted Williams, who had a .344 lifetime average, played in a time of power hitters (1939-1960). Yet Williams not only hit 404 more home runs than Cobb, he posted a career on-base percentage nearly 50 points higher. And pretty much the same argument could be made for Babe Ruth’s superiority over Cobb.
I’m probably quibbling a bit, but that’s what baseball fans do, and Cobb is a fun player to quibble about.
What I can’t quibble about is Leehrsen’s conclusion that statistics don’t tell Cobb’s true story, and that, as Cobb’s contemporary George Sisler put it, the “greatness of Ty Cobb was something that had to be seen . . . and to see him was to remember him forever.”
“Ty Cobb, A Terrible Beauty” is the first book to make me feel that I missed something by not seeing him play.
A Terrible Beauty
By Charles Leerhsen
Simon and Schuster, 464 pp., illustrated, $27.50Allen Barra writes about sports for The Daily Beast. His latest book is “Mickey and Willie: Mantle and Mays, the Parallel Lives of Baseball’s Golden Age.’’