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.