Who Was Ty Cobb? The History We Know That’s Wrong

Charles Leerhsen
Author, Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty

Charles Leerhsen is a journalist, author, and adjunct professor at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism. He has been an editor for Sports Illustrated, People, and Us Weekly, and spent eleven years as a senior writer at Newsweek. He has also written for Esquire, Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, Smithsonian, and Money. He is the author of several books, including Crazy Good: The True Story of Dan Patch, the Most Famous Horse in America and, most recently, Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, which won the 2015 Casey Award for best baseball book of the year.

The following is adapted from a speech delivered at Hillsdale College on March 7, 2016, during a program on “Sports and Character” sponsored by the College’s Center for Constructive Alternatives.

Ty Cobb was one of the greatest baseball players of all time and king of the so-called Deadball Era. He played in the major leagues—mostly for the Detroit Tigers but a bit for the Philadelphia Athletics—from 1905 to 1928, and was the first player ever voted into the Hall of Fame. His lifetime batting average of .366 is amazing, and has never been equaled. But for all that, most Americans think of him first as an awful person—a racist and a low-down cheat who thought nothing of injuring his fellow players just to gain another base or score a run. Indeed, many think of him as a murderer. Ron Shelton, the director of the 1995 movie Cobb, starring Tommy Lee Jones in the title role, told me it was “well known” that Cobb had killed “as many as” three people.

It is easy to understand why this is the prevailing view. People have been told that Cobb was a bad man over and over, all of their lives. The repetition felt like evidence. It started soon after Cobb’s death in 1961, with the publication of an article by a man named Al Stump, one of several articles and books he would write about Cobb. Among other things, Stump claimed that when children wrote to Cobb asking for an autographed picture, he steamed the stamps off the return envelopes and never wrote back. In another book—this one about Cobb’s contemporary Tris Speaker—baseball historian Timothy Gay wrote (implausibly, if you think about it) that Cobb would pistol-whip any black person he saw on the sidewalk. And then there were the stories about how Cobb sharpened his spikes: before every game, numerous sources claim, he would hone his cleats with a file. In the 1989 film Field of Dreams, Shoeless Joe Jackson says that Cobb wasn’t invited to the ghostly cornfield reunion of old-time ballplayers because “No one liked that son of a bitch.” The line always gets a knowing laugh.

When I pitched my idea for a book on Cobb to Simon and Schuster, I was squarely in line with this way of thinking. I figured my task would be relatively easy. I would go back to the original source material—the newspaper accounts, documents, and letters that previous biographers had never really looked at. I would find fresh examples of Cobb being monstrous, blend them with the stories that Al Stump and others wrote, and come up with the first major Cobb book in more than 20 years. But when I started in on the nuts-and-bolts research with original sources—the kind of shoe-leather reporting I had learned working at Newsweek in its heyday—it didn’t even take me ten minutes to find something that brought me up short.

Cobb being from Georgia—he grew up and is buried in Royston, a town in Georgia’s northern hills—I had begun by searching old issues of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I quickly came across a curious article written in late 1911, after the baseball season had ended, when Cobb was touring in a three-act comedy called The College Widow. (In those days, ballplayers were tied to their teams by the reserve clause and couldn’t sell their services for their true market value; to make extra money, they often capitalized on their fame by appearing in plays or vaudeville.) The writer of the article was recounting a backstage visit with Cobb, and described him as a man who very much wanted to please the audience. Cobb was also going out of his way to accommodate the interviewer (who was asking tedious questions) while simultaneously being hospitable to a second guest—a catcher he had played with in the minor leagues—who showed up in the small dressing room smoking a cigar. It was like the crowded stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera, and meanwhile the play was in progress, Cobb was trying to make costume changes, and the stage manager was barking at Cobb to be on his mark in 30 seconds.

* * *

What did this story say about Ty Cobb? On the one hand, he was just doing what any decent person would do—being as polite as possible under trying circumstances. But on the other, Cobb’s ordinary decency was exactly the point. For me, with this one story, the myth of the evil Ty Cobb began to crumble.

As I proceeded I found many more stories contradicting the myth. Was he widely hated? An old newspaper clipping reported that the Chicago White Sox gave Cobb an award—remarkably, a set of books; Cobb was known as a voracious reader of history—for being Chicago’s most popular visiting player. And it turns out that when the Detroit Tigers were in town, Ring Lardner, Chicago’s smartest and best sportswriter, bought cheap seats in the outfield so he could spend the game bantering with Cobb.

Did he steal stamps from children? Letters in museums and private collections make abundantly clear that Cobb responded to his young fans, sometimes with handwritten letters that ran to five pages. And he always told them he was honored by their autograph requests.

What about race? It is “common knowledge” that Cobb was “an avowed racist”—but when and where did he make such a vow and where is it recorded? A 1984 biography of Cobb, written by a college professor named Charles Alexander, is typical. It describes three people who fought with Cobb—a night watchman, a bellhop, and a butcher—as being black. Such evidence was enough for documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, whose made-for-PBS series Baseball described Cobb as an embarrassment to the game because of his racism and cast Cobb as the anti-Jackie Robinson.

But Burns, like so many others, was letting himself be misled by the oft-repeated myth. Looking into census reports, birth certificates, and contemporary newspaper accounts, I found that all three of the black fighters cited by Charles Alexander were in fact white. Yes, Cobb had also fought with two black men during his life, but those fights didn’t have racial overtones, and Cobb—who had an extremely thin skin—fought with many more white men. So how did such a distinguished author make such obvious mistakes? When I asked Alexander about this, he simply replied, “I went with the best information I had at the time.”

But what about Cobb’s 19th-century Southern roots? How could someone born in Georgia in 1886 not be a racist? What I found—and again, not because I am the Babe Ruth of researchers, but because I actually did some research—is that Ty Cobb was descended from a long line of abolitionists. His great-grandfather was a minister who preached against slavery and was run out of town for it. His grandfather refused to fight in the Confederate army because of the slavery issue. And his father was an educator and state senator who spoke up for his black constituents and is known to have once broken up a lynch mob.

Cobb himself was never asked about segregation until 1952, when the Texas League was integrating, and Sporting News asked him what he thought. “The Negro should be accepted wholeheartedly, and not grudgingly,” he said. “The Negro has the right to play professional baseball and whose [sic] to say he has not?” By that time he had attended many Negro league games, sometimes throwing out the first ball and often sitting in the dugout with the players. He is quoted as saying that Willie Mays was the only modern-day player he’d pay to see and that Roy Campanella was the ballplayer that reminded him most of himself.

Cobb was, like the rest of us, a highly imperfect human being. He was too quick to take offense and too intolerant of those who didn’t strive for excellence with the over-the-top zeal that he did. He did not suffer fools gladly, and he thought too many others fools. He was the first baseball celebrity, and he did not always handle well the responsibilities that came with that. And yes, he once went into the stands and repeatedly punched a man who had been heckling him for more than a year, and who turned out to have less than the full complement of fingers—hence the story of him attacking a handicapped fan. This is a mark against him. But was he a racist and an embarrassment to the game? Far from it.

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Cobb’s mind-boggling statistics don’t tell half the story of the ballplayer he was. It is often not remembered, because there is very little motion picture footage of him, but Cobb was likely the most exciting player of all time. Yes, he got thousands of hits with his unusual split-hands grip, and that in itself was entertaining; but it was what happened after he got on base that set him apart. “Ty Cobb getting a walk is more exciting than Babe Ruth hitting a home run,” a sportswriter once said.

When Cobb made it to first—which he did more often than anyone else; he had three seasons in which he batted over .400—the fun had just begun. He understood the rhythms of the game and he constantly fooled around with them, keeping everyone nervous and off balance. The sportswriters called it “psychological baseball.” His stated intention was to be a “mental hazard for the opposition,” and he did this by hopping around in the batter’s box—constantly changing his stance as the pitcher released the ball—and then, when he got on base, hopping around some more, chattering, making false starts, limping around and feigning injury, and running when it was least expected. He still holds the record for stealing home, doing so 54 times. He once stole second, third, and home on three consecutive pitches, and another time turned a tap back to the pitcher into an inside-the-park home run.

“The greatness of Ty Cobb was something that had to be seen,” George Sisler said, “and to see him was to remember him forever.” Cobb often admitted that he was not a natural, the way Shoeless Joe Jackson was; he worked hard to turn himself into a ballplayer. He had nine styles of slides in his repertoire: the hook, the fade-away, the straight-ahead, the short or swoop slide (“which I invented because of my small ankles”), the head-first, the Chicago slide (referred to by him but never explained), the first-base slide, the home-plate slide, and the cuttle-fish slide—so named because he purposely sprayed dirt with his spikes the way squid-like creatures squirt ink. Coming in, he would watch the infielder’s eyes to determine which slide to employ.

What of the stories about him sharpening his spikes and injuring opposing players? Cobb believed strongly that the runner had the right of way in what he called “my little patch,” in front of the bag. The opposing players who were asked to comment on him respected his ability and consistency, and agreed with his “little patch” theory. “It was no fun putting the ball on Cobb when he came slashing into the plate,” said Wally Schang, who caught for almost every American League Club. “But he never cut me up. He was too pretty a slider to hurt anyone who put the ball on him right.” Infielder Germany Schaefer, a teammate of Cobb, called him “a game square fellow who never cut a man with his spikes intentionally in his life, and anyone who gets by with his spikes knows it.” And if Cobb could dish out the punishment, he could also take it. Catcher Steve O’Neill of the Cleveland Naps once favored Cobb with the greatest compliment a catcher can give: “He came home on a base hit and I was blocking the plate. I got him in the kidneys and knocked him out. When he came to he didn’t say a word. He just got up and limped out to his position.”

There is a famous photograph that is often used to indict Cobb. It shows Cobb and St. Louis Browns catcher Paul Krichell in 1912. Cobb appears to be flying foot-first into Krichell’s crotch while the catcher squints in pained anticipation. But there is a 1950s interview with Krichell, then a scout for the Yankees, and by his own testimony, Cobb was aiming his foot at the ball in Krichell’s glove, and succeeded in knocking it to the backstop. Here is Krichell’s account: “The ball hit the grandstand on the fly. I was mad and stunned. Cobb was mad and shaken. In a way it was really my fault. I was standing in front of the plate, instead of on the side, where I could tag Ty as he slid in. But out of that mix-up I learned one thing: never stand directly in front of the plate when Cobb was roaring for home.”

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To the extent that the myth of Ty Cobb is connected to his aggressive style of play, it has seeds in his playing career. People in those days were fascinated by spikes—an adult fan in the early days of baseball had almost certainly not played the game, and thought of spikes as exotic. The legend of “the man who sharpened his spikes” had been around since at least the 1880s, and had been attributed to many, including John McGraw. And some sportswriters—understanding that sports is less about scores than about storylines, and that without antagonists stories fall flat—were willing to fan the flame and depict the aggressive, unpredictable Cobb as a dirty player. Many of the quotes I found from opposing players defending Cobb’s style were in response to charges that he was a spiker. To a man, they said he wasn’t. And in 1910, Cobb wrote to the American League president asking that players be forced to dull their spikes so that he might be free of the dirty-player charge.

In that sense Cobb was always controversial. But how did he come to be portrayed as a monster? After he retired in 1928, he stayed out of Major League Baseball, and the game changed to a slugger’s sport. It became the game of Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle, and Cobb faded from memory. By the late 1950s, when Cobb went on the TV quiz show I’ve Got a Secret, the panelists not only didn’t guess his “secret”—“I have the highest batting average of all time”—they couldn’t identify him by sight. Cobb didn’t like that, and he disliked even more being remembered as a dirty player. As he grew older and less healthy he became obsessed with setting the record straight, and he started to shop around an autobiography. Doubleday & Co. agreed to publish it and assigned a ghostwriter, Cobb being too ill to write it himself. For this job they picked a man who was known for quantity over quality, a hard-drinking hack newspaperman named Al Stump.

Stump, who had never met Cobb, spent only a few days with him before setting off to write. For several months he refused to show Cobb the work in progress, and when Cobb finally prevailed upon the publisher to give him a look, he was angry. Stump was filling in the gaps by making up stories out of whole cloth, and Cobb’s voice in the book sounded suspiciously like Stump’s own. Cobb wrote letters threatening a lawsuit if the book wasn’t cancelled or rewritten. But he died soon thereafter, and the book—entitled My Life in Baseball: The True Record—came out a few months later.

Stump also struck a deal with a sensationalist barber shop magazine called, ironically, True. For $4,000, a tidy sum in 1961, he would write a seamy tell-all about what it was like to live and work with Cobb in his final days. Stump had negotiated the fee by pitching the tale of a wild man drinking to excess and driving around the Lake Tahoe area waving a gun at (unnamed) people, cursing at (unnamed) emergency room doctors, flinging drinks at (unnamed) bartenders, and waking up an (unnamed) bank president in the middle of the night—in person, with a gun—to stop a $5 check. All the women in Cobb’s family feared him, Stump wrote, again without naming names. Furthermore, he may have killed some unnamed person, though he was never prosecuted and the story never made the newspapers. Everyone in baseball had hated him, Stump claimed, adding meanly and dishonestly that only three people went to Cobb’s funeral.

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It didn’t matter that sportswriters rushed to Cobb’s defense, saying they had visited his homes in Tahoe and Georgia during this same period—had spent more time with him than Stump, in fact—and never witnessed such behavior. It didn’t matter that all of Stump’s sources were anonymous, all his quotes unidentified, and that Stump himself had been banned from several newspapers and magazines for making things up. It didn’t matter that Cobb’s family had put out the word that his funeral was a private service, or that four of his closest friends in baseball did attend, or that thousands of people packed the church and lined the way to the cemetery. Despite all this, people thrilled to the story of the monstrous Cobb. And the story got a lot of attention because no one had ever written anything like this before about a major sports figure.

The next big development came in 1984, when Charles Alexander published his book. The word “racist”—non-existent in Cobb’s time—was by then very much a part of the lexicon, and people were eager to make assumptions about a Southern white man. A decade later, director Ron Shelton bought the screen rights to Stump’s True magazine article and urged Stump, still alive, to write yet another book—a biography this time—that would serve to promote the movie. This 1994 book, also entitled Cobb, was a huge bestseller and was excerpted in Sports Illustrated. Then came Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary, which parroted Stump and Alexander. And the myth grew further with the rise of the Internet—search for “Ty Cobb” on Twitter and see what you find.

I knew going into this project—having been at one time an editor at People magazine—that human beings take delight in the fact that the rich and famous are often worse and more miserable than they are. What I didn’t understand before was the power of repetition to bend the truth. In Ty Cobb’s case, the repetition has not only destroyed a man’s reputation, it has obliterated a real story that is more interesting than the myth. Is it too late to turn things around? John the Evangelist said, “The truth will set you free.” But against that there is the Stockholm syndrome, whereby hostages cling avidly to what holds them in bondage.

I guess it’s me versus Al Stump. Who knows who will win? What I know for certain is that the greatness of Ty Cobb was something that had to be seen, and to see it was to remember it forever.