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Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, by Charles Leerhsen

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By now my readers know I’ve always been interested in the so-called “Deadball Era.” Two other books—Diamonds in the Rough by Joel Zoss and John Bowman, and of course the incomparable The Glory of their Times by Lawrence Ritter—ushered me quite a few years back into the bygone world of baseball as it damnwell oughtta have been.

A component of my interest in the early days of the game is that so little of it was filmed or even photographed, you have to generate your own memorial ignis fatuui out of mere text to envision it. Ty Cobb: a Terrible Beauty blends detail and narrative pace smoothly enough to abet the readerly process of imagining the past.

Leerhsen, who has done such a commendable job of research and investigation in the course of writing this book, laments the scarcity of film records periodically. We have scant footage of Cobb in action and still photography, while evocative, can only impart a hint of the style and panache of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century ballplayers. Our presumption of Cobb’s greatness is mainly based on two sources: stats, as usual, and the testimonials of his peers. From all reports nobody radiated style and panache like Cobb. George Sisler, himself a ballplayer in Cobb’s class in many ways, said that if you saw him play you had to acknowledge his greatness, nor would you ever forget it. The problem is there’s hardly anyone left who actually saw him play.

Cobb’s approach to the game was the archetypal two-edged sword. He thrilled fans with his hitting, fielding and especially his baserunning. On the other hand, his all-out style invited injuries to himself as well as opposing infielders. He was to the basepaths what Evel Knievel was to motorcycle jumping, taking insane risks in pursuit of the extra base and waging psychological warfare with opposing pitchers and infielders. Leerhsen, though, discusses extensively Cobb’s reputation as a basepath bully, and dismisses the belief that he filed his spikes or that he intentionally attempted to injure players from opposing teams.

A unique batsman, he took advantage of his superb reflexes and hawklike eyesight to keep his hands a few inches apart on the neck of the bat until the last second when he decided, based on the pitch, whether to choke up for the swat or bunt, or drop them together to the knob and crush the ball to the fence. One might also view him as baseball’s first scientist. Cobb studied his opponents obsessively. He studied the pitchers for their styles, motions, “tells” but just as obsessively studied both infielders and outfielders to understand their weaknesses and help him decide where to drop his hits.

Opposing batters found themselves immured in his notebooks too, as he built a compendium of information about where their line drives were most likely to fall, under what circumstances they might bunt, how well or badly they ran and how likely they were to try to stretch a hit. Sam Crawford, Cobb’s teammate with the Detroit Tigers during his heyday, said in his wonderful interview in Ritter’s book that Cobb didn’t merely outplay his rivals, but rather he ”outthought” them. ”You had to think fast in those days to play baseball or you didn’t play at all,” Crawford notes. No one, in Leerhson’s depiction of the Peach, thought faster. Incidentally, Cobb’s relationship with Crawford was often contentious and not often friendly, and even though the Peach campaigned actively to have Crawford inducted into the Hall of Fame you can detect in his teammate’s ambivalence the lingering of animosities. Leerhsen deals with Crawford’s mixed feelings in this book as well. As always, Cobb emerges from Leerhsen’s discussion of his relationship with his teammate as a complex figure whose complexities were apparently contagious.

One of the most controversial episodes of Cobb’s life was his mother’s shooting and killing of his father when Ty was 18 years old, having mistaken him for a prowler outside of their home. This is another tangled narrative the threads of which Leerhson does a commendable job of unravelling. In an age when so much of journalism has degenerated into the worship of the sensational for its own sake, the author performs another of many terrific jobs of research into the lurid hysteria of the local Georgia press. He contrasts it with what proved a lack of evidence that Cobb’s mother acted with malice to cover up her infidelity—or, for that matter, that she ever was unfaithful to Cobb’s beloved father at all. W. H. Cobb, scholar, public servant and “exemplary man,” as his son described him, had immense influence on the young Tyrus’ view of the world. Cobb emerges in all his complexity as a ferocious ballplayer but also as a highly literate and intellectually active man whose brainy reputation preceded him. So much so, in fact, that he was often gifted with books, history and historical biography foremost, instead of baubles or big toys among his frequent honoraria.

Leerhsen’s biography is, then, an exercise in what I’ll call reverse iconoclasty. Cobb has come down to us as a mean, racist, aggressive if not vicious bully as well as a great ballplayer. As he researched his book, the author was repeatedly surprised to find that the worst stories about his subject, especially the assertions of racism, just didn’t add up when the facts and accounts were compared and weighed against each other. It is an odd species of racist who applauded so conspicuously Jackie Robinson’s integration of the major leagues, or who invited his Black valet or batboy to dine with him in segregated dining rooms to the consternation of his teammates.

The great ballplayer’s prickliness remains intact, but the excesses of violence often prove to be exaggerations if not outright fabrications. None of Cobb’s detractors or image-constructors comes in for as much of a bollocking as A.L. Stump, ghostwriter of what Leerhsen demonstrates to have been a largely fictitious “autobiography.” Leerhsen goes after Stump’s mine of deliberate misinformation with a scalpel in one hand and a claw hammer in the other. He re-investigates episodes misrepresented by Stump, exposing their utter baselessness with reference to newspaper articles or interviews with those who were witness to situations that turn out to have been very different from how Stump reported them, if they ever happened at all.

Literary assassin at work: Stump’s fabricated “autobiography” of Cobb

Near the end of his life Cobb badly wanted to set the record straight on his career but unfortunately chose an opportunistic and disreputable partner to tell his stories. While the ballplayer’s health declined as cancer ate away at him, Stump kept finding excuses not to let him see the manuscript the author was filling with sensational lies meant to boost its sales. Cobb died without having ever read or approved it, and Stump published his hatchet job to considerable profit.

Now, decades later, Cobb’s authentic champion has caught up with him. This is a relentlessly entertaining book. It’s deliciously readable, no mean feat considering how big a book it is. Written by a highly literate biographer who doesn’t wear his learning on his sleeve, it will keep you engrossed all the way through its nearly 440 pages. Step back into a storied era in the company of one of its greatest titans. You’ll be glad you did.