Thursday, February 21, 2019

Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty by Charles Leerhsen

Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty by Charles Leerhsen



The great trouble with baseball today is that most of the players are in the game for the money and that's it. Not for the love of it, the excitement of it, the thrill of it. ~ Ty Cobb

Before I tell you about this book, let me tell you a little about the greatest baseball player ever – not Babe Ruth, not Hank Aaron, not Willie Mays – Ty Cobb. Not an opinion – just a fact.

Evidence: There are six important stats for a position player (non-pitcher). Cobb is in the TOP 10 lifetime for 5 of the 6: #1 all-time batting average .366; #2 all-time hits 4189; #2 all-time Runs 2246; #4 all-time stolen bases 897; and #8 all-time runs-batted-in 1937. He was not a power hitter and doesn’t crack the top 100 in Home Runs. Ty Cobb is the only player Top 10 in 5 of the 6 stats.  Only Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron are TOP 10 in 4 of 6. He also owns lesser records such as #1 stealing home, #1 stealing multiple bases in one plate appearance, #2 all-time singles, and #2 all-time inside the park home runs. From 1907-1919 he was the American League batting champion every year but 1916 (when he was second) and the MLB batting champion every year but 1908 and 1916. He holds the MLB record for the most MLB records. Finally, in 1936, first-ever Baseball Hall of Fame induction, Cobb was named on 222 of 226 ballots, ahead of Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, and Walter Johnson. Greatest of All-Time – BOOM!

He was also the most hated man in baseball – well, maybe not. Charles Leerhsen’s book Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty attempts to dispel that myth.

Tyrus Raymond Cobb – The Georgia Peach – played from 1905-1928. Popular legends about Cobb: He was universally hated by opponents and teammates, he was a racist, he was mean, he despised children (probably puppies as well).

In addition to presenting real evidence contrary to these myths, Leerhsen also offers insight as to how the legends were created and how they persist. It’s complicated to say the least but perhaps the most compelling is that we are intrigued by monsters.
…a villain who inspires self-congratulation makes for one hell of a tenacious myth
At least one biographer capitalized on, or perhaps more precisely created much of the myth. His fantastic accounts are conspicuously lacking in sources. But demonizing a legend is sure to titillate – and sell.

History became legend. Legend became myth and myth became fact.

And if an Academy Award winning actor portrays the myth – it must be fact. (The film Cobb was based on the unsourced biography noted above)

Oh, and one other thing – if Cobb was “hated” by opponents it was mostly because he made them look like silly. But this “hatred” was respect, bordering on awe of the greatest batter/baserunner ever. Leerhsen offers testimony after testimony from Cobb’s contemporaries that are generous in praise and almost completely lacking in criticism.

Another myth was that Cobb was a natural-born hitter – a description he detested. He was a student of the game and trained constantly. He was an innovator, rule breaker, and risk taker. According to Leerhsen
Almost everything he did on the field was a considered, conscious decision based on his theory of the game.
Cobb was no saint. He had an ego, a temper, and was a brawler – but this was true of most ballplayers at the turn of the century. Leerhsen simply attempts to set the record straight. He casts doubt on, if not outright disproves most of the infamous Cobb behavior with substantiated facts and first-hand testimony.

Just one example: In August 1909 while sliding into third, Cobb’s spikes cut the arm of A’s third baseman Frank Baker.  Connie Mack the legendary manager of the A’s raised Cain – probably trying to get Cobb ejected – which wouldn’t hurt the A’s chances. After much bluster, there was no ejection and Baker was able to continue play. However, the incident became a scandal with a handful of players and managers around the league asserting Cobb was a dirty player who tried to maim opponents, though there were more who came to his defense. The American League president, Ban Johnson publicly admonished Cobb after hearing only Connie Mack’s version of the incident, but a few days later, a photograph of the play surfaced that clearly shows Cobb sliding away from the tag, showing it was Baker who caused the minor injury – something Baker himself did not dispute.

But the damage was done – the reputation stuck. Cobb was a dirty player.

Leerhsen cites dozens of other incidents that similarly show Cobb’s villainous reputation is largely undeserved. Some dispute this of course, but for me at least, he presented conscientious, substantiated and unbiased evidence

But this biography is not only about disproving the less flattering aspects of the Cobb myth, it is also about his passion, his wit, his values, his foibles, his scholarly view of the game and his legendary accomplishments on the field.

It is about his wounded ego, at the end of his career and the end of the dead-ball era, when Babe Ruth emerged on the scene, and it is about his failed experiment as a player manager.

It is also about his failure to win a World Series. The Tigers made it to the series three years in a row 1907-1909, but never managed to win it all. In the final two years of his career, Cobb played for Connie Mack and the Philadelphia A’s. The A’s won the World Series the year AFTER Cobb retired.

And then there is the most bizarre chapter in his extraordinary life in which Cobb’s mother shot and killed his father, probably mistaking him for a prowler? She was acquitted but like the rest of the Cobb legend, some prefer a more scandalous explanation.

Oh and, Cobb was a voracious reader – enjoying biographies of Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon, and the novels of Victor Hugo, James Joyce, Henry James, Wilkie Collins, and others. On road trips to Washington D.C. he was known to visit the Library of Congress.

Quotations about Ty Cobb:

He didn’t out-hit the opposition and he didn’t out-run them; he out-thought them. ~ Sam Crawford

Cobb was the roughest, toughest player I ever saw, a terror on the base paths. He was not dirty, though. I never saw him spike a player deliberately. ~ Burt Shotton

I’ve been on top of many plays in which Cobb was the runner and I never saw him cut anyone intentionally. ~ Silk O’Loughlin (Umpire)

I would take Cobb. I like to see Ruth hit the long ones, but nothing has thrilled me more than the sight of Ty Cobb dashing around the bases, taking chances, outwitting the other side. You could never tell what he was going to do, and it was fine fun trying to figure out what he might do next. You don’t get that with Ruth. ~ Tom Yawkey, Boston Red Sox owner

I’d want him [Cobb] over Ruth on my team. Ruth would fill your stadium. Cobb would beat you in it. ~ Carl Mays

Cobb lived off the field as though he wished to live forever. He lived on the field as though it was his last day. ~ Branch Rickey

Every time I hear of this guy again, I wonder how he was possible. ~ Joe DiMaggio

Hornsby could run like anything but not like this kid. Cobb was the fastest I ever saw for being sensational on the bases. ~ Casey Stengel

I never saw anyone like Ty Cobb. No one even close to him. He was the greatest all time ballplayer. That guy was superhuman, amazing. ~ Casey Stengel

Let him sleep if he will. If you get him riled up, he will annihilate us. ~ Connie Mack

The Babe was a great ballplayer, sure, but Cobb was even greater. Babe could knock your brains out, but Cobb would drive you crazy. ~ Tris Speaker

The greatness of Ty Cobb was something that had to be seen, and to see him was to remember him forever. ~ George Sisler

When I get the record, all it will make me is the player with the most hits. I'm also the player with the most at bats and the most outs. I never said I was a greater player than Cobb. ~ Pete Rose

He was a man who needed a tremendous amount of love – but who nevertheless pushed everyone away. ~ Peggy Cobb Shugg, granddaughter


This is the first biography in a series of four that I will read on Detroit sports legends Ty Cobb, Gordie Howe, Bobby Layne, and Isiah Thomas. Besides playing in Detroit they also all share rather infamous reputations, though to varying degrees.

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