Nearly a century after playing his final big-league game, outfielder Ty Cobb is still considered among the best players to ever set foot on a diamond. He also has one of the worst reputations, as a caustic and virulent racist, who succeeded despite erratic behavior and hatred. However, as author Charles Leerhsen discovered when writing his groundbreaking book Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, a lot of what was thought to be “commonly known” about the baseball legend is not actually supported in fact—with a major exception being his skill as a player.
In a 24-year playing career spent with the Detroit Tigers (1905-1926) and Philadelphia Athletics (1927-1928), Cobb hit an all-time best .366. He also had 4,189 base hits, 112 home runs, 1,944 RBIs and 897 stolen bases. He consistently played the game several gears faster and more aggressive than anyone else, catching opponents slack jawed time and time again as he tore around the bases and in the outfield in a way nobody else could replicate. Not surprisingly, he was part of the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s first class in 1936.
Despite his achievements as a player, he has been linked for years to petulant, violent and racist behavior; in sum a personality that made him strongly disliked by teammates and opponents alike. Multiple books have been written about him in the past, touting the same story lines, but Leerhsen dug deep with his research and discovered that much of this was the result of numerous inaccurate details and claims included by author Al Stump in his two books about Cobb; likely in a desire to sell more copies.
Leerhsen found that Cobb was indeed an intense individual, who was prone to entitled behavior and occasional violent outbursts when provoked, but that he also loved children, was a shrewd businessman and generous philanthropist. While he wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, he also wasn’t universally hated as general memory seems to recollect. Most importantly, the record does not support the charges of racism that have so long been attached to his name. To the contrary, he is on the record supporting integration of baseball. This book doesn’t argue as much that Cobb wasn’t a racist as much as available evidence doesn’t show that he was.
A Terrible Beauty is an impressive body of work that forces the reader to completely re-evaluate the way they think about the complicated Cobb, who even today should be considered one of the top five or ten players of all time. As it turns out, stories and rumors are often more fun and easier to digest. Unfortunately, they can distort reality, which appears to have been the case with Cobb.
Recently, I caught up with Leerhsen to discuss his career and his book that has turned the legacy of a baseball legend on its ear.
What was your involvement in baseball growing up, and did you have a favorite player?: I grew up in the South Bronx, in a neighborhood that was a long walk from both Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds. I was always a National League fan— first Giants (as an eight-year-old I saw their last home game in New York) and then Mets (I also saw their last game at the Polo Grounds). I went to a couple of dozen games every year and spent many mornings outside the players entrance at Yankee Stadium trying to get autographs (there was no NL team in NY during my prime autograph-hunting years). My favorite player was Willie Mays.
What was your inspiration to becoming a professional writer?: I don’t know. My father sold parts over the counter for the Mack Truck Company and my mother was a waitress. There were no writers in my family (though my parents read a lot of newspapers). But for as long as I can remember I was fascinated with books, liked to hang out in the public library, etc.
What prompted you to write about Ty Cobb?: I was casting about for a book topic and after writing about a racehorse and the first Indy 500 I wanted to try a subject that had a large built-in following as well as fans who were readers. I thought baseball would be less of an uphill battle. I like to read and write biographies and so I searched for a subject who was well known but who hadn’t had a major book written about him for a long time. Cobb fit the bill.
Is Al Stump solely responsible for Cobb's negative reputation?: No. He is largely but not solely responsible. He had a lot of help from the rank and file baseball fans who embroidered on his lies and made up some of their own—and from the other writers who lazily passed along both the original Stump lies and the fan-manufactured lies.
Why has the real story of Cobb eluded so many historians?: Because the false version has so much appeal that no one wanted to look beyond it and go far back in baseball history to a time when there was very little film and broadcast evidence and you had to dig for the nuanced truth. The false version is so powerful because it’s titillating and because it makes the tellers of the tales feel superior.
What other prominent players do you believe have been misconstrued over time?: Offhand, I don’t know. I didn’t know Cobb was misunderstood until after I had a book contract and had started to do the research.
Is there any particular baseball figure or event that you would like to research and write about, but haven't to date?: I feel guilty saying this, but nothing comes immediately to mind. The subjects that would interest me most have all been taken. My friend Kostya Kennedy already wrote a great book about Pete Rose. He and Richard Ben Cramer wrote excellent books about Joe DiMaggio. And Jane Leavy wrote much-lauded books about Mickey Mantle and Sandy Koufax. Now that I think of it, there might be a great, surprising book to be written about Barry Bonds—which goes to the question of other misunderstood players, above. But like most baseball books it probably wouldn’t sell enough copies to make it financially feasible for a professional writer.
How much push back did you receive for presenting the Ty Cobb that you uncovered?: A fair amount. The push back comes mostly from people who haven’t read the book and seen the evidence. People cherish the myths that they learned as children, often from their parents. Some think that by defending Cobb I am minimizing the amount of racism in baseball, which was not at all my intent. When it comes to racism, baseball has a sick and sorry history. In my book I’m focused on one man about whom many false things have been said.
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