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.
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.