Sunday, May 01, 2016

Ty Cobb, An Unfairly-Maligned Man

Everyone knows that Ty Cobb was violent and racist.  Except, a biography of him by Charles Leehrsen published last year claims he wasn't. Looking at the evidence, Paul Beston at City Journal concludes that Leehrsen has a better case than conventional wisdom. The conventional wisdom seems to be based on a single biographer, the sportswriter Al Stump, who had "issues," as we say now.  When one digs back to contemporary sources, all that emerges is that Cobb was short-tempered. There's a better case he was anti-racist, and little case that he was violent.

I feel personally embarrassed because I am one of the few who read Lawrence Ritter's 1966 oral history The Glory of Their Times, which was much more complimentary to Cobb, yet seem to have been unaffected by it.  Worse, Cobb actually did do something nice for my brother-in-law Ande when he was a boy in Atlanta in the 1950's.  Had his picture taken with him;  an autograph; ruffled his hair - I forget what.  But my father-in-law always defended him on that basis, and I dismissed that as weak tea.

Time and again, what Leerhsen discovered through exhaustive research undermined the Cobb created by Stump, who didn’t source his work (“because he produced fiction,” as a contemporary said). Leerhsen could find no tangible evidence that Cobb hated blacks. On the contrary, he spoke in support of baseball’s integration when asked—and he wasn’t asked, as best Leerhsen can tell, until 1952. “The Negro should be accepted and not grudgingly but wholeheartedly,” Cobb said then. “The Negro has the right to compete in sports and who’s to say they have not?” On another occasion that year, he said: “No white man has the right to be less of a gentleman than a colored man. In my book, that goes not just for baseball but for all walks of life.” The virulent racist of legend, supposedly driven to derangement if even touched by a black man, attended Negro League games, threw out a first pitch, and often sat in the dugouts with black players. He came from a family of abolitionists. He endowed educational scholarships for students of all races.
It made for a great bit in "Field of Dreams," and I am certainly familiar with all the accusations of Cobb sharpening his spikes. But if it's not really so, we can't keep it.


Mark Stoler said...

Though I think Leershen went a little overboard in trying at times to present Cobb as a nice guy he did a convincing job of showing he was not guilty of the worst charges against him, though I am still not sure I'd invite him to dinner in my home during his playing days. I was able to check a couple of his cited sources and they back his conclusions. The book made me ponder how is it we come to know what we think is the true story. in which I explain why the athletes he most reminds me of are Willie Mays and Michael Jordan.

herfsi said...

i highly recommend reading Leerhsen's book at the same time as hornbaker's ty cobb book (also published in 2015), for the full ty cobb experience. both excellent books, & between the 2 of them they cover all the bases (as it were:)

for a good but truly overly positive & therefore boring book, the 1995 walter johnson biography by henry thomas - where every positive thing that was said by anybody about walter johnson was hauled out & printed. i desperately hoped for 1 negative statement somewhere. so nice that he's boring!

i recommend downloading both of those fairly recent ty cobb books on kindle & reading them side by side!!

my interest in ty cobb was "kindled" b/c a museum in our town has a letter ty cobb wrote to a fan in the 1950s, & it is a very sweet & kind letter - it didn't jibe with the view of him as a terrible person.