Monday, February 8, 2016

Book Club: Ty Cobb - A Terrible Beauty

OK, football season is finally over. The last football has been turned over, the last pass not caught and the last stupid penalty has been made (I'm talking of course about Super Bowl 50).

Now let's get back to baseball.

I like to read the ocassional baseball book, especially during the off-season. I just finished this (actually during the 1st quarter of the Super Bowl).

 So what do you know about Ty Cobb? I knew that he is one of the greatest baseball players of all time. That he was universally reviled for his style of play (spikes high to cause maximum damage), that he got into a lot of fights on and off the field. He is also believed to have been an unmitigated racist. Charles Leerhsen goes to considerable lengths to disprove much of this 'common knowledge' about Cobb.

I love reading about baseball in the early 20th century. It's so much like the game I love today but there are so many surprise things that are different. Not so much about the rules but the atmosphere and the time in which it was played.  You get a lot of that in this book.

That Cobb is one of the greatest players of all time, and that he had a hair-trigger temper and got into a lot of fights, is not disputed by Leerhsen. That he was hated, that he went out of his way to spike and injure players and that he was a racist, Leerhsen disputes. He uses testimony from players who played with him, people who knew him off the field, and contemporaneous news reports.

He gained a lot of this bad reputation while he played but never did much to dispel it. The newspapers often wrote embellished stories (maybe even untrue stories) to sell papers. When he played, Cobb was the most popular player in the game, at least in terms of stadium draw. Leerhsen estimates that in his early years he added 200,000 attendees a year across the American League.

Cobb didn't do much to save his reputation after he retired until late in life. He got a book deal to write his autobiography ("Ty Cobb: My Life in Baseball") which was ghost written by Al Stump and published after his death in 1961. Leerhsen and others have pointed out the many errors and lies in this book but it did everlasting damage. The Ty Cobb movie which came out in 1994 was largely based on this book and other writings by Stump about Cobb. At least not many people saw it.

In a lot of ways Cobb was one of the first modern players. He believed players deserved more (like no reserve clause, Cobb was about 70 years too early on that, and coverage for medical expenses when players were hurt). He studied opposing pitchers, keeping detailed notes. He had an odd batting style but he found what worked for him. In the so-called dead ball era he made the best out of bunts, slap hits and base running, but he could hit a home run when he wanted. One catcher is quoted as saying, if Cobb took off to steal second, he'd throw the ball to third. Cobb understood the psychology of getting into the other players' heads. He'd dance around on 1st base daring the pitcher to pick him off. When the pitcher tried, Cobb would often steal second and then third on the same play. Cobb holds the record for stealing home base at 54 times.

Regardless of your preconceived notions of Ty Cobb, I recommend this book.


Hackenbush said...

I never get tired of reading about the early days of baseball. Or the middle days for that matter. I think the last one I read was "The Game Must Go On: Hank Greenberg, Pete Gray, and the Great Days of Baseball on the Home Front in WWII" by John Klima.

Julie Owens said...

Ty Cobb is my most collected HOF player. I've always felt a bit sad for him, but so awed by the talent he was. I am about to read the Stump book, and actually saw the movie a couple of weeks ago. It was a hard film to swallow. I look forward to reading A Terrible Beauty. Thanks for the recommendation!!