Thursday, January 14, 2016

Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty


. . . in which, along with Mr Cobb, appearances are made by Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Willie Mays and Michael Jordan, along with a brief explanation from Walter of The Big Lebowski regarding a key concept.


(Ty Cobb, Peconic public broadcasting)

How do we come to know what we know?

The burgeoning academic field of "memory" and "memory studies" proceeds along two tracks.  The first is exemplified by This Republic Of Suffering (2008) authored by Drew Gilpin Faust, now president of Harvard University, in which she explored how the dead of the American Civil War were remembered by the survivors and the next generation.  It examines how and why we choose to remember and shape those memories.

There is a second, trendier and more radical, track that rather than studying the process of memory, seeks to construct new memories.  Wilfred M McClay, a professor of history at the University of Oklahoma disapprovingly quotes the views of historian John Gillis (professor emeritus, Rutgers), to the effect that memory has "no existence beyond our politics, our social relations and our histories", adding "We have no alternative but to construct new memories as well as new identities better suited to the complexities of a post-national era".  In other words it is the duty of the historian not just to study memory but to construct new memories of the past so as to encourage others to want a future world in accordance with the historian's desire.

In The Killing Of History: How Literary Critics And Social Theorists Are Murdering Our Past (2000), the Australian historian Keith Windschuttle, critiques what he sees as a very disturbing trend in the Western academic approach to history:
. . . the newly dominant theorists within the humanities and social sciences assert that it is impossible to tell the truth about the past or to use history to produce knowledge in any objective sense at all.  They claim we can only see the past through the perspective of our own culture and, hence, what we see in history are our own interests and concerns reflected back at us.  The central point upon which history was founded no longer holds: there is no fundamental distinction any more between history and myth.
In one sense, the intellectual havoc wreaked on the study of history by the disciples of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and the nihilist approach of semiotics inspired deconstruction would seem to differ from either of the tracks of memory studies described before, but as Windschuttle notes, when combined with the rise of cultural studies the result is what Professor Gillis advocates; the erasure of the past and the construction of new memories consistent with current prevailing academic social theory.
Derrida main.jpgFoucault5.jpg(Derrida (L), third baseman, Amarillo, Texas League; Foucault (R), shortstop, Hamburg, Hanseatic League)  

This is also a topic touched on in this blog's Misremembering History series.

. . . and sometimes it's simpler

As a dedicated fan of baseball and its history, THC has always known that Tyrus Raymond Cobb, who played from 1905 to 1928, and is still considered one of the five or ten greatest players in baseball history, was possibly a psychopath or at least a sociopath, hated by all his fellow ballplayers, uncontrollably violent (killing at least one man and perhaps as many as three) as well as a virulent racist.  In a 2012 post (Take Me Out of the Ballgame), THC wrote of Cobb that he was "a generally unpleasant and violent guy . . he was also a virulent racist (even for a period when racism was not uncommon)".

How did THC come to that conclusion?  Well, for one thing, it was in the air.  It's the kind of thing that knowledgeable baseball fans say to each other when the subject of Cobb arises.  It comes up casually in books on other ballplayers and events; here's Timothy Gay in his biography, Tris Speaker: The Rough And Tumble Life Of A Baseball Legend (2006) which THC just completed reading:
"Cobb . . . was a scary sociopath.  The mere sight of black people so filled him with rage that, on several occasions, he brutally pistol-whipped African American men whose only offense was to share a sidewalk with him."
Cobb was not always considered an insanely violent figure from a Gothic horrow show, though he'd always had a reputation as a tough, fearsome ballplayer, known for getting into fights.  The turning point was sportswriter Al Stump.  In 1960, Stump was asked by Cobb to work with him on an autobiography published soon after Ty's death on July 17, 1961, My Life In Baseball: The True RecordMy Life presented Cobb as he wished to be remembered but in the December 1961 edition of True Magazine, Al Stump began publishing a very different account of the recently deceased ballplayer entitled Ty Cobb's Wild 10-Month Fight To Live:
The article, published in three installments, depicted Cobb as feisty and ill-tempered as ever, downing painkillers and scotch, and living in his Atherton, California, mansion without electricity because of a minor billing dispute with Pacific Gas and Electric Company. “When I wouldn’t pay,” Stump quoted Cobb as saying, “they cut off my utilities. Okay—I’ll see them in court.” Carrying more than a million dollars in stock certificates and bonds in a paper bag (he’d gotten rich investing in Coca-Cola and General Motors stock), as well as a loaded Luger, Cobb checked into hospitals and berated doctors and staff for treatment, only to demand that Stump smuggle in liquor for him or sneak him out on late-night visits to bars and casinos. Stump said he complied with Cobb’s wishes because he feared for his own life. (Smithsonian.com, August 30, 2011)
Stump also claimed Cobb told him: “In 1912—and you can write this down—I killed a man in Detroit.

The True magazine article won the Associated Press award for the best sports story of 1962.  Biographies in the intervening years, while not as outrageous in style as Stump's True article, reinforced the image it created - the best known being Ty Cobb, by Charles Alexander, published in the 1980s, which emphasized Cobb's racism.

Three decades later, Stump, who always claimed My Life In Baseball was a "cover-up", went back to the well again to write a full biography of Cobb which contained even more lurid tales, Cobb: The Life And Times Of The Meanest Man Who Ever Played Baseball (1994), a book in which a later biographer describes Stump as portraying Cobb as a "monster in superstar's clothing".  It was this book that became the basis for the 1994 movie, Cobb, starring Tommy Lee Jones and directed by Ron Shelton (who also wrote and directed the best baseball movie ever made, Bull Durham).  The movie depicts Cobb as a vicious, racist, violent, crude, out of control and a generally horrible person who commits a murder and, as a 74 year old suffering from cancer, attempts to rape a Reno cocktail waitress.  It certainly influenced THC; he left the theater thinking it was probably a bit exaggerated but seemed to capture the essence of the man.

By the time Charles Leerhsen began researching his terrific 2015 biography, Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, which THC highly recommends, the Cobb as monster image was embedded in our consciousness.  Leerhsen recounts that when he spoke with Ron Shelton about his film, Shelton confidently assured him that "It is well known that Ty Cobb may have killed as many as three people".

Possibly contributing to all this was that Cobb was a southerner from Georgia (a rarity in baseball in those days, dominated by players from the northeast and midwest), raised during the peak of Jim Crow and lynchings, known to have quite a temper and so those tales we all heard fit into our preconceptions of what someone from that milieu must have been like.

Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty is proudly revisionist and achieves its goal in forcing the reader to rethink their views of Cobb.  Along with being a straight forward biography it is also a personal assault on the credibility of Al Stump, with the author scathingly commenting "The only things coauthor Al Stump explored deeply were Cobb's reserves of Scotch and bourbon".  The book is well researched, using original sources and to the extent THC has been able to double check citations and based on his review of other baseball historian's reactions, it appears accurate.

Cobb was fiercely competitive, reacted quickly to any perceived insult, intimidated fellow ballplayers, fought often and was disliked by many, but did not kill anyone, was not an attempted rapist, didn't wave a gun at hospital staff during his final illness, didn't pistol whip African-American men and had no antipathy towards African-Americans beyond the nonetheless appalling normal amount of racism of white Americans in that era. He was equal opportunity when it came to violence.  While in THC's view, Leerhsen occasionally goes too far in trying to rehabilitate Cobb - there are some specific instances in the book where he tries too hard to absolve or explain away Ty's behavior - THC is willing to grant the premises in the first sentence of this paragraph though after a while the reader gets it - Stump made a lot of stuff up - so he could have eased up on the Stump-bashing once he established that point.  But there was also a core of violence in him, and many who encountered him, including fellow ballplayers, feared Ty Cobb.  And yes, maybe he was a little crazy though he clearly does not meet the definition of a psychopath or sociopath.

In this interview and video Leershen summarizes his conclusions.

So, if Cobb was not a monster, who was he?

While reading the book, two athletes kept coming to mind: Willie Mays and Michael Jordan.

One of the best aspects of the book is it rekindled THC's interest in Ty Cobb, the ballplayer who at the time of his retirement, had more hits, doubles and stolen bases than anyone, who still holds the record for highest career batting average (.366) and in the first election to the Hall of Fame in 1936 received more votes than Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Honus Wagner and Christy Mathewson.  Leerhsen brings his accomplishments and, more importantly, his style of play to life.   It must have been thrilling to see the man in his prime and as exciting as it is to read about it, one is left wishing we had more than the few surviving fragments of film of Cobb in action.  In particular, his daring and disruptive base running reminds THC of reading (and watching the limited video) about the base running exploits of Willie Mays, who decades later was greatly admired by Cobb.  The book is full of vivid and exciting descriptions of Cobb's disruptive style of play and is worth reading just for these.  Here's one example from the 1911 season:
"Cobb singled, went all the way to third on Crawford's routine infield groundout, 'easily beating Pat Newman's hurried and inaccurate throw', then trotted home on Jim Delahanty's sacrifice fly.  Two innings later, he turned a badly handled infield roller into a double, went to third on a fielder's choice, and scored the tying run on a Delahanty single . . .  The following week . . . Cobb had three steals, including a swipe of home that succeeded despite the four Clevelanders who had him trapped in a rundown - until he spun away and slide across the plate . . . ".
Leerhsen recovers for us the many statements of admiration for Cobb from his fellow ballplayers.  Few considered him a friend but they did respect him.  As George Sisler remarked "The greatness of Ty Cobb was something that had to be seen and to see him was to remember him forever", Explaining why Cobb had fans in every rival city, famed sportswriter Heyward Broun wrote: "because he gave them more for their hard-earned ticket than any man alive or dead".

To understand Cobb as a student of the game, listen to his insights when interviewed in 1930 by Grantland Rice, the most famous sportswriter in America in those days:



THC thinks Leerhsen correct in his observation regarding Ty's approach to the game that "the role he assigned himself as an offensive player - to be the cause of worry in the opposition.  He did this not by running wild on the base paths but by seeming to run wild. "  Ty believed it was useful to be wild, unpredictable and a bit crazy out there.  The trouble was two-fold; it led players and other watching to think he really was that way and, in fact, he really was that way even though he didn't think of himself that way.

The resemblance to Michael Jordan is in his obsessive competitiveness.  Jordan thrived on the rage he built upon encountering any slight, real or imagined, as did Cobb.  Both were hypersensitive to criticism, even if not meant as criticism.  In his lunatic and brilliantly entertaining epic, The Book Of Basketball, Bill Simmons describes Jordan as having a "competitive disorder" and being "pathologically competitive".  Simmons compares the men he considers the two greatest players in NBA history, Bill Russell (#2) and Jordan (#1) this way:
Russell embraced his biggest foe [Wilt Chamberlain], befriended him and allowed him to shine in meaningless moments, even as he was secretly ripping out the guy's heart without him realizing it. Jordan settled for tearing out hearts and holding them up like the dude from [Indiana Jones and the] Temple of Doom.  He wanted his rivals to know it was happening.  That's what he loved most - not the winning as much as the vanquishing.  Russell just loved winning.
When Leerhsen writes of A's manager Connie Mack warning his players "Don't get Cobb mad" it brings to mind Simmons comment on Jordan:
Jordan's opponents learned to leave him alone by the mid-nineties, leading to a phenomenon unlike anything else we've witnessed before of since: Michael became basketball's version of a sleeping tiger.  In a league full of smack-talkers, chest thumpers and yappers, incredibly, he remained completely off-limits. 
Simmons tells of an exhibition game when a rookie started talking smack to Jordan and his coach pulled him aside with the admonishment, "Never talk to him.  You hear me?  That's the one guy you don't talk smack to!"

Cobb had notoriously shaky relations with his teammates though by 1912 Leershen tells us "They had come to realize that for their own mental health, they just had to accept that he'd always be drawing lines in the sand, overreacting and generally making things more complicated".

Jordan was the same way, brutally demanding and grating on his own teammates (you can read more about that in The Jordan Rules by Sam Smith).  And, like Cobb, Jordan could sound unhinged at times, ranting about the dark forces arrayed against him; even in his induction speech at the Basketball Hall of Fame he couldn't let it go Simmons called it"an off-the-cuff, uncomfortable, petty, biting, rambling, vindictive, score-settling speech during what's meant to be nothing more than a celebration".  On second thought, even Cobb wouldn't have gone as far as Jordan in his HOF speech.
Ty Cobb Terrile Beauty - Conlon photo of Cobb stealing third base(Charles Conlon's famous photo of Cobb stealing third base in 1909)

The reader is left with the impression that Cobb found playing in the majors to be a grind. Ty was very smart, observant and a constant student of the game, always looking for a little edge.  "I believe in putting up a mental hazard for the other fellow", he said, " Every play was a problem of some sort".  He didn't engage in the partying and drinking common among ballplayers of that era (though he was a gamber), concentrating on thinking about the game and planning his next gambit.  Fielder Jones, manager of the St Louis Browns, remarked of Cobb, "Every time we have a [team] meeting I hold him up as an example of what quick thinking and intelligence will do for a man."

"He fought for every point and fought his fellows if they did not battle as hard for victory as he had", wrote sportswriter Hugh Fullerton, "I sat behind Cobb on the clubhouse porch . . . watching him instead of the game.  He moved before each pitch, and leaped in one or another direction each time a ball was thrown, never still for an instant and always tensely observant of every move on the field."

The basics of Cobb's personality were in place before he joined the Detroit Tigers in 1905.  Leerhsen's research on Cobb's family and upbringing brings us a new perspective on that personality.

Cobb's father, William Herschel (WH) Cobb was descended from hill country Cobbs in North Carolina.  WH's grandfather, William Alfred Cobb "was a Methodist minister who tested the patience of his parishioners by preaching to Indians and white alike, then pushed the congregation around the bend by preaching against slavery" which led to being run out of the county in 1848.  Ty's grandfather, John Franklin Cobb, was an antislavery Republican.

Unusually for those times, Cobb's father was a college graduate, first in his class, and went on to enter politics.  His attitudes about race were unusual for that time and place.  In 1901 at a meeting of the Georgia Agricultural Society he explained, "History teaches that three systems of controlling people have been tried: slavery, serfdom and education and that the first two have been dismal failures."

Elected to the State Senate, WH Cobb opposed a bill that would have forbid tax revenue generated by whites from being used to pay for Negro education stating, according to Leerhsen, "the negro had contributed to the upbuilding of the state, and that he had an interest in our government.  . . He said that we ought to be generous with the negro and help him to become a useful and helpful member of society".  The proposal was narrowly defeated.

WH Cobb later became editor of his hometown paper, the Royston Record, owned by a self-described abolitionist and printed on the owner's brother's press, a man who boasted of having been "the only man in Georgia who voted for Abraham Lincoln."

Obsessed with baseball, at an early age Ty displayed the temperment problem which was to plague him for his entire life.  In 1901, his father, whom Ty idolized, wrote his 15-year old son advising him to "Conquer your anger and wild passions that would degrade your dignity and belittle your manhood."

And then, while playing in the minor leagues and only three weeks before being elevated to the majors by the Detroit Tigers, Ty's mother shot and killed his beloved father on the night of August 8, 1905.  What precisely happened that night remains murky more than a century later.  What is known is that WH Cobb had told his much younger wife that he was leaving to visit an outlying farm and would not be returning home that night, but he came back that evening and was outside the family home when his wife shot him from inside.  Unlike the portrayal in the Stump book and the movie Cobb, his father was killed by a pistol shot, not a shotgun, and was on the ground, not second floor balcony.

Rumors were rampant that Amanda Cobb had been having an affair and WH's announced overnight visit to the farm was just a ruse to obtain evidence of her infidelity.  His family demanded justice and Amanda was indicted for voluntary manslaughter with her husband's family telling people they would present evidence of her cheating at trial.  However, when the trial occurred in March 1906 (with Ty in attendance), no such evidence was presented and in a single day it was over and Amanda acquitted.  Ty never spoke publicly of the matter during the rest of his life.

It was with this additional burden that 18-year old, sensitive and quick to take offence Ty Cobb entered the major leagues.  The game he entered was a much more violent one than we are accustomed to today.  One observer counted 355 assaults on umpires by players and fans in the course of the 1909 season and brawls between rival teams and even teammates were frequent occurrences.

The major league life was wild and woolly on a daily basis.  As Bill Veeck noted years later:
"Wake up the echoes at the Hall of Fame and you will find that baseball's immortals were a rowdy and raucous group of men who would climb down off their plaques and go rampaging through Cooperstown, taking spoils, like the Third Army bustling through Germany".
One of the normal components of that life was hazing by veterans of rookie players.  This could often be brutal, but in Leerhsen's account, "What seems certain is that Cobb's hazing was harsher and went on for far longer than the typical rookie's".   In 1906 it got so bad manager Bill Armour took the unusual step of intervening to stop the harassment of the Tigers young star.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8f/Ty_Cobb_HOF_plaque.jpg

Ty's background and personality contributed to triggering the intense hazing.  He was a southerner in an ethnic northern game, in an era where regional differences were more pronounced than today.  He was relatively well-educated and well-read compared to most ballplayers - on his first visit to Washington with the Tigers, Ty visited the Library of Congress (and he was an astute investor and businessman, becoming the first millionaire ballplayer by the time he retired).  He was just different in his attitudes. Sportwriter EA Batchelor observed "that Ty came from a higher social plane than had spawned the bullies made them all the more determined to drive him off the squad".  And further feeding his antagonists was that it quickly became clear to them that their needling, pranks and insults really got to Cobb.  Leershen writes, "He never rolled with life's punches, rather, he led with his chin . . .  Sticks and stones broke his bones and names would always harm him".  In the view of his teammate, future fellow Hall of Famer and long-time rival, Sam Crawford "He came up with an antagonistic attitude, which in his mind turned any little razzing into a life-or-death struggle".

It all led to Ty's still mysterious absence from the club for six weeks late in the season for which, in Leerhsen and others, the likely explanation was an emotional collapse leading to hospitalization.  Whatever happened, Ty's innate character combined with his terrible first full year in the major leagues made for combustible mixture.  As Grantland Rice, a friend and admirer, wrote years later:
When I first met Cobb I found him to be an extremely peculiar soul, brooding and bubbling with violence, combative all the way, a streak, incidentally, he never lost.    
Throughout his career, though much less after he retired, he reacted quickly to any perceived insult.  In commenting on his penchant for fighting Leerhsen writes:
. . . he provided such a dizzying array of examples to choose from - fights with complete strangers, fights with teammates, fights with rival players, fights with hotel employees shopkeepers, and rowdy cranks [fans] . . .
The author goes on to provide an account of his behavior over a short period during the 1916 season; fighting with Buck Herzog of the Giants both on and off the field; an incident in Comiskey Park when, angered by a called third strike, he threw his bat into the stands; flinging a handful of dirt into the face of a Senators pitcher; and being pulled out of stands in St Louis by teammates and police before he could pummel a heckler.

There are also the stories of Cobb sharpening his spikes and deliberately spiking other players.  For the most part, Leerhsen debunks that successfully but he also makes it clear that as an opposing player you had best not get in what Ty thought was a space he had a right to and quotes a number of players to the effect that Cobb did not deliberately injure other players.  As Burt Shotton put it:
"Cobb was the roughest, toughest player I ever saw, a terror on the base paths.  He was not dirty, though.  I never saw him spike a player deliberately.  But if you ever got in the way of his flying spikes, brother, you were a dead turkey."
http://www.sportscollectorsdaily.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Cobbphoto.jpg(from sportscollectordaily)

A story told by Ossie Bluege best captures Cobb's personality on the field. Early in his career, Ossie, third baseman with the Washington Senators from 1922 to 1939, encountered Cobb, then in his late 30s when Ty made a base running error and was caught dead between 2nd and 3rd. Bluege came over to tag him when:
". . . he just threw himself at me with spikes in the air.  He didn't slide.  He just took off and came at me in midair, spikes first, about four or five feet off the ground, so help me just like a rocket.  He hit me in the upper part of the arm, and cut my shirt sleeve".  Bluege hung on to ball.  Next day, Cobb comes up to him during batting practice "sweet as apple pie".
"Son", he said "I hope I didn't hurt you"
"I'm alright", I said
"Good", he said.  Then the look in his eyes changed just a little, his face got mean, and he said, "But remember - never come up the line on me."
It was being potentially humiliated in front of everyone as a result of his baserunning mistake that led to the spiking.  Cobb simply could not abide the embarrassment.

A former A's pitcher, Rube Bressler, interviewed in The Glory Of Their Times, best summarized Cobb's approach to the game:
"'I never saw anybody like him.  It was his base.  It was his game.  Everything was his.  The most feared man in the history of baseball.'"
As to race, Leerhsen does not uncover anything unusually virulent about Cobb's attitude.  It is also probably safe to assume that while Leerhsen cannot find any statements by Cobb on race during his playing days, he likely had the same attitudes of most whites that blacks were inferior.  He did have fights with blacks, but then he fought with everybody.  Moreover, the author debunks the motivating factors in several of these instances and, regarding two of the most brutal cases, discovered that Cobb's opponent were white and not black as had always been reported. As an aside, the book reports the typically awful and bigoted way blacks were reported on in the white media of the time. 

Whatever his attitudes about race when he was younger, by 1952 he was telling a reporter:
 "I see no reason in the world why we shouldn't compete with colored athletes as long as they conduct themselves with politeness and gentility.  Let me say also that 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".  
He praised Roy Campanella as a "great catcher" and after Campanella was paralyzed in a auto accident and the Dodgers played a benefit game for him, Cobb wrote Dodger owner Walter O'Malley thanking him "for what you did for this fine man".  He also called Willie Mays "the only player I'd pay money to see".
http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-CQLMkkYgV4c/TiI9PvzT4YI/AAAAAAAAAS8/E-BjAq2ht88/s1600/ty_and_don_newcombe_of_the_broo_crop_340x234.jpg(Cobb with Don Newcombe, 1950s)

Aware of his reputation for toughness and how people regarded his behavior, Cobb was forever protesting he was misunderstood but seemed incapable of fundamentally changing that behavior.  "It wouldn't be far off the mark to say that Cobb spent the first half of his life trying to seem unhinged" Leerhsen comments, "and the second half explaining he had been acting deliberately the whole time".

He was consistent to the end.  Leerhsen interviews someone who was a medical student at the time of Cobb's last hospitalization at Emory Hospital in Atlanta and with him daily for those last two months.  He confirms that Cobb did not keep a gun in his room nor cash and securities on his night stand, contrary to Al Stump's assertions but goes on to add, "He was a real redhead with a hair-trigger temper" who couldn't tolerate incompetence or "the lack of that drive for excellence that was so much a part of the Cobb philosophy.  He was an unusual man with a keen mind and yet he could never put up with people who didn't, like him, strive to excel."'

While Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, effectively debunks the worst of the Cobb stories and recreates the vitality and excitement he brought to baseball, he remains someone you might not want to invite to your dinner party and there is an underlying sadness to the tale.  "He was a man who needed a tremendous amount of love", one of his grandchildren told Leerhsen ,"but who nevertheless pushed everyone away".

One of the big things that the movie Cobb got wrong about the man is the Tommy Lee Jones portrayal of him as someone who was arrogant and wanted crowds and opponents to hate him.  In The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (2001), James may have come closer to the truth, writing of photographs he'd seen of Cobb with a crazy look on his face:
It is not an angry look; it is, rather, a look of acute embarrassment, a look of inadequacy.  Ty Cobb's racism and his anger, I believe, were fueled not by smugness or even resentment, but by an unusually intense fear of his own limitation.  No one is more macho than a man who feel inadequate; no one walks straighter than a man who is half drunk.  When Ty Cobb felt threatened he lashed out at the world.  He felt threatened a lot - but as long as he wasn't challenged, he was a very nice man.
Well, maybe Bill went a bit far with that last phrase.  Now, go read Leerhsen's book.





2 comments:

  1. So I've been keeping my eye on stuff about Ty Cobb since I read your post. Here's a lecture Mr. Leerhsen gave at Hillsdale about him.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OjbPzoboilM

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  2. nice blog
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