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.
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.