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The Great Cobb

By: Mark Hendrickson
August 11, 2016

harles Leerhsen's Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty is the most important baseball book in decades. This definitive biography of the greatest baseball player from the deadball era, and one of the greatest players ever, is a welcome corrective to the egregiously dishonest portrayals of Cobb in previous pseudo-biographies. Leershen’s exhaustive research—he has clearly tracked down far more original sources than anyone who has written about Cobb—is a model any biographer, not just those writing about sports figures, would do well to emulate.

No film footage exists of Cobb at work—he appeared in his final game in 1928—so the only way to preserve the memory of this star who dominated the sport is the written word. Serious baseball fans know the generalities of pre-1920 baseball: a game of singles and bunts (what we today call "small ball") rather than home runs; pitches that would now be illegal, thrown with balls darkened by a pitcher's tobacco juice; cavernous stadiums; and the era's defining namesake, the “dead” ball.

Leerhsen's depiction of the period is far more illuminating. He shows us a time when many ballplayers had serious drinking problems, often taking the field impaired. Vicious hazing, consisting of both verbal abuse and physical violence, was pervasive. Players and even fans assaulted umpires: 335 incidents were recorded in 1909 alone. It was a shockingly brutal era, having little in common with today's carefully packaged, family-friendly version of the sport.

Much of what people think they know about Cobb is wrong. Leerhsen explodes the myths that Cobb was a dirty, spike-sharpening, racist player, hated by opponents and mean to children. His treatment of these subjects is satisfying—sometimes poignantly touching—and the reader might well feel offended by the injustices done to Cobb’s reputation.

Though he corrects popular misconceptions, Leerhsen does not whitewash Cobb's dark side or defend his faults. He was a high-strung man with a short fuse, which led him into numerous fights. He was touchy and moody, and would skip a game, or even most of spring training, if he felt like it.

He also had recurring health issues throughout his career: injuries, diseases, and something like nervous breakdowns. A sensitive man to begin with, Cobb never got over the trauma of his mother killing his beloved father—the courts ruled it a case of mistaken identity—the very month he joined the Tigers at age 18. His first teammates were often crude, surly lowlifes who, for the first two years of Cobb’s career, tormented and abused the abstemious young ballplayer. Rather than carouse, Cobb preferred to stay in his room at night to listen to violin music and read biographies, history, and literature—Victor Hugo's Les Misérables was his favorite novel.

Cobb set more baseball records than any other player. Some of them still stand, such as his .366 batting average over 23-plus seasons, his 54 thefts of home, and him being the only major league player ever to lead the league in singles, slugging percentage, and stolen bases in the same season (three times!). The first player elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936, Cobb received a greater percentage of votes than any player—including Babe Ruth—until Tom Seaver, 54 years later.

"The greatness of Ty Cobb,” remarked fellow Hall of Famer and former opponent, George Sisler, “was something that had to be seen, and to see him was to remember him forever." Similar statements have been made about Babe Ruth, and there has long been a debate about which was superior. The Boston Globe's Roger Birtwell wrote at the time of Cobb's retirement, "Ty Cobb could cause more excitement with a base on balls than Babe Ruth could with a home run." And who knows? Maybe Cobb could have put up Ruthian power numbers. Leerhsen recounts the fascinating story of how Cobb, who thought the new emphasis on slugging home runs violated the purity of the sport, announced one day near the end of his career, "I'm going for home runs [today] for the first time.” He hit three that game.

Cobb was a cerebral player who spent hours away from the ballpark devising new strategies for winning. After being named the Tigers’ player/manager in 1921, Cobb gave hitting clinics that resulted in the team having a batting average of .316—the highest in a quarter of a century, and still an American League record. During his six years as manager, two Tiger players won the American League batting championship a combined four times. One of them, future Hall of Famer Harry “Slug” Heilmann, said, “Cobb taught me more about hitting than I ever knew.”

There is no questioning Cobb’s skill on the diamond. What, then, accounts for his portrayal as a despicable monster? Money is part of the explanation. Once Cobb was dead—and couldn’t defend himself—unscrupulous writers concocted lurid stories, with no regard for accuracy or honesty, to sell their books.

Another reason is ideology. In the late-20th century, the depiction of an American hero as a vulgar racist fit the progressive template. Conditioned by years of educators' and intellectuals’ efforts to reduce the American story to a narrative of bigotry and exploitation, it was easy for reviewers to accept falsities contained in the books and the 1994 movie about Cobb.

One thing that stands out in Leerhsen's biography is how often the driven Cobb overcame injuries and ailments. One time, while being treated for bronchitis and what some sportswriters thought might be typhoid, Cobb left the hospital to go to the ballpark. He went three-for-three and stole two bases before returning to his doctors. On another occasion, he was stabbed in a shoulder in an attempted carjacking. He got his wound patched up and played that day, again banging out three hits. Once he had to miss a road trip with an inflamed eye, and his eye doctor found that Cobb was near-sighted in the other eye. He was batting over .380 when his impaired eyesight was discovered. Leershen also records a sportswriter’s shock on seeing the severity of the many raw wounds on Cobb's legs, the price paid for sliding hard into bases. Cobb shunned the protection of sliding pads because they might, however slightly, slow him down.

Leerhsen convincingly demonstrates that Cobb earned his astonishing success on the diamond through total commitment, study, and hard work. Off the field, he was, in the phraseology of Leerhsen's subtitle, "a terrible beauty"—a unique combination of pugnacity and gentleness, of explosive temperament and a deeply embedded sense of justice, generous in his efforts to help others, but stingy with affection in his own home. This book will henceforth be the definitive biography of the complex man and brilliant baseball player known as "the Georgia Peach." Like Cobb himself, Charles Leerhsen also has achieved excellence through diligence. Having rehabilitated the reputation of a true American hero—thereby correcting a grave historical injustice—Leerhsen merits a place in any future Biographers' Hall of Fame.