November 18, 2017

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The Much-Maligned Ty Cobb: A New Biography for Sports Fans | Adult Books 4 Teens

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“The more his fires burned the more that provoked him on the field and I suppose one could say that the happy byproduct was the extraordinary baseball that he gave the fans at the time, but … uh, there’s a moment when you have to say it’s not worth it. I think that Ty Cobb in his totality is an embarrassment to baseball.” —Daniel Okrent, in the documentary Baseball (1994) by Ken Burns

 

“Ty Cobb wanted to play…but none of us could stand the son-of-a-bitch when we were alive, so we told him to stick it!” —Shoeless Joe Jackson, as portrayed in Field of Dreams (1989); screenplay by Phil Alden Robinson

 

According to almost any criteria you care to use, Ty Cobb is—along with Willie Mays, Tris Speaker, and Mickey Mantle—one of the four greatest center fielders in baseball history and a a strong case can be made for him as one of the five to 10 greatest players in the history of the game.

But Cobb’s legend has been eclipsed by a number of factors—some of them his doing but most of them far beyond his control. It is true that he was at times an unpleasant person to be around and his temper sparked a share of fights. True, he also lacked the personal charisma of a man like Babe Ruth.

More important than his personal qualities, Cobb’s greatness has been obscured by the changes that baseball underwent just at the end of his career, starting around 1920. Much in the same way silent film was cut down in its prime by the technical development of synchronized sound, “deadball” baseball—a style Cobb almost singlehandedly redefined in the 1910s—was destroyed by the introduction of the “lively ball” style and the legend that was Babe Ruth. Cobb’s style of playing—aggressive baserunning, short bloop hits, heavy use of bunting—was largely replaced in the 1920s by focus on the home run as the prime attraction of the game. And even during periods, like our own, when offense has waned, the game has never been quite the same.

Cobb also had the extreme misfortune of being immortalized in print—in his own autobiography no less—by a hack writer named Al Stump who created—not quite out of whole cloth, but close to it—the “Myth of Ty Cobb”” the racist, barely literate, dirty-playing Southern hick. The quotations at the beginning of this article—one from a fictional movie, one from a respected sportswriter filmed by one of our most celebrated documentarians—give a taste of the kind of disdain Cobb has inspired, both in the popular imagination and in the opinions of those who should know better.

This is why two brand-new biographies of Cobb are so crucial. I’ve only chosen to review one of these books, for reasons I’ll explain below, but both titles are welcome correctives to the received wisdom about Cobb. Both depict the man as a much more complex, interesting human being than the monster he’s been portrayed as. And they rightly focus on his relentless drive to be the greatest player of his day.

War on the BasepathsTim Hornbaker’s War on the Basepaths: The Definitive Biography of Ty Cobb (Sports Publishing) and Charles Leerhsen’s Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty tell largely the same story but in completely different styles. Both debunk the myths I’ve described above, demonstrating that while Cobb was certainly an unpleasant person with a penchant for brawling, he was far less racist than is generally assumed (the biographies differ as to how much less); that he was a literate, cultured man; and that his image as a “dirty” player was merely one he cultivated to scare opponents.

Leerhsen’s biography is the one I’ve chosen to review for teens. He takes an unapologetically apologist approach, marshaling all the evidence he can find to clear his hero’s name. Indeed, at times, he very clearly protests too much—trying to absolve Cobb of deeds which cannot and should not be absolved—but it is Leerhsen’s very obvious nature as an advocate that makes these sections of the book work: it’s clear that he has an opinion about Cobb, and teens can easily separate the facts from Leerhsen’s opinions.

Hornbaker’s work, on the other hand, while more “definitive,” as his title has it, is dry as dust. Those who have not read Leerhsen may never realize what evidence Hornbaker is relying on, and his pronouncements come across as holy writ rather than well-reasoned arguments. On top of that, Hornbaker skips a some essential details that Leerhsen includes—from small points such as Cobb’s obsessive reading habit to huge points in Cobb’s defense, including his vociferous defense of Jackie Robinson and the integration of baseball—which made this reader wonder how much independent research Hornbaker had done.

Why should anyone care? Beyond simply appreciating baseball and learning about the great players of the past, readers can certainly appreciate Hornbaker’s “definitive” biography because it is “definitive”—finally giving a real picture of Cobb. But teens should read Leerhsen’s book because it is a veritable master class on how to write a biography. Rather than simply pronouncing the facts from on high, Leerhsen collects all the evidence he can find about each controversial issue and presents it to the readers. To be sure, he make a strong and persuasive case for his opinion about each issue, but by grappling with the evidence in print, and by wearing his prejudices on his sleeve, he gives readers—especially adolescent readers—a rare glimpse into how history is created. History—and biography—are not simply a regurgitation of known facts about a subject, but a careful balancing of facts, opinions, and questionable sources—and at best an approximation of what could have, might have, or probably did happen. And that is critical knowledge for teens, who are too often required to memorize names and dates by rote without critically engaging with the practice of history.

Ty Cobb a Terrible BeautyLEERHSEN, Charles. Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty. 352p. S. & S. May 2015. Tr $27.50. ISBN  9781451645767. LC 2014041478.

The conventional wisdom about Ty Cobb holds that he was a vicious baseball player who spiked infielders on purpose, a vicious racist who couldn’t be in the same room with a black person, and an all-around vicious human being who died friendless and hated. While never sugar-coating Cobb’s enormous temper and willingness to brawl—facts Cobb himself never disputed—Leerhsen’s remarkable new biography reaches back to primary documents that stand this wisdom on its head. The grandson of one of the few courageous abolitionist politicians in Georgia, Cobb was among the first to applaud the breaking of the color barrier, and there seems to be no evidence of his racism. The myth of Cobb’s supposedly violent play was largely based on a handful of very minor affairs, which all the principals agreed were overblown, coupled with his psychological style, which tended to scare opponents but not hurt them physically. And his legend as a hated man is belied by the fact that he was truly baseball’s first superstar, beloved by the nation and only eclipsed when the lively ball (a style of baseball with an emphasis on home runs) and Babe Ruth supplanted his version of the game. Leerhsen finds that the myth of Cobb was perpetuated almost entirely by a single man, Al Stump, the ghostwriter of an autobiography commissioned by Cobb but never approved by him, as he was too sick to review it. No knowledge of Cobb or his myth is necessary, although it will help. VERDICT This eminently readable biography is a fantastic piece of research and a perfect starting point for teens interested in the early years of baseball.—Mark Flowers, Rio Vista (CA) Library

 

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Mark Flowers About Mark Flowers

Mark Flowers is SLJ’s Adult Books 4 Teens cocolumnist and a supervising librarian at the Rio Vista (CA) Library.

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Comments

  1. kent burgert says:

    Tim Hornbaker’s book on Ty Cobb is the best book on Ty I have ever read. It is very well written and very descriptive. He states the facts and backs them up. He gets to the inner Cobb to explain why he acted the way he did. I felt like I was at Navin Field watching the action live.
    Thanks for a great read Tim.