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

Charles Leerhsen
Author, Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty

Charles LeerhsenCharles 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.

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.