Many baseball fans don’t know who the real Ty Cobb was. They’re familiar with the stats he posted season after season and how they reflected the intensity with which he played. 4,189 hits, 897 stolen bases, and a lifetime batting average of .366 are only a few of the numbers Cobb posted during his career. Unfortunately, Cobb’s reputation has suffered from outright lies. Al Stump, who ghostwrote an autobiography with Cobb, later wrote a deeply flawed biography about The Georgia Peach. Initially a New York Times Notable book, Stump’s biography fabricated much of the book’s stories to increase sales. Many of those stories, regrettably, remain true in the mind of many baseball fans.
Fortunately for Cobb’s memory, Charles Leerhsen’s 2015 biography Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty discredits most of the false stories about Cobb while stressing other facts about the Hall of Famer that include his endorsement of integration, the $15.8 million in college scholarships to Georgians that came from his estate after his death, and his deep and sincere appreciation for his fans. Leerhsen’s book debunks most of the slanderous stories about Cobb with amazing detail. But despite Leerhsen’s fresh take on Cobb, many still have their doubts about who the real Ty Cobb was.
Last year I wrote an article arguing that Ken Burns Owes Ty Cobb’s Family a Redo. Leerhsen’s biography, which won the 2016 Casey Award, persuaded me to challenge the purported stories about Cobb in Burns’ documentary. Despite his best intentions, I argued that Ken Burns should revise his take on Cobb. There were, however, a few issues with my article. I made the assumption that Burns and his research staff relied heavily on Stump’s biography of Cobb. That was inaccurate. I also assumed that most of the inaccuracies in Burns’ documentary were primarily in the Third Inning episode. The Sixth Inning episode also made questionable claims about Cobb. Many of the stories baseball fans have heard about Ty Cobb are not true, including the story that Cobb once assaulted a black man who tried to shake his hand.
The Real Ty Cobb Could Be Brutal, But He Wasn’t Alone
Although Cobb wasn’t the man Stump’s portrayed, he was violent at times. During a game against the New York Highlanders in 1912, Cobb assaulted a fan named Claude Lucker, a disabled man who had lost all but two fingers in a printing press accident. Lucker allegedly called Cobb a “half-nigger” and insulted his mother. In his rookie year, Cobb’s mother accidentally shot and killed his father after she mistook him for a prowler. The shock of his father’s death stayed with Cobb for the rest of his life. After enough heckling, Cobb charged into the stands where he violently assaulted Lucker. It’s easy to criticize anyone who beats up a man with no hands. It’s also easy to understand why Cobb assaulted Lucker for what he said. Many historians and critics alike, however, see this incident as the sum of Cobb’s character. Opposing viewpoints centered around this incident make it difficult to know who the real Ty Cobb was. Some see it as an attack by a lunatic on a defenseless man. Others see it as a man defending his honor.
In response to the beating, American League President Ban Johnson suspended Cobb. Cobb’s disregard for Lucker’s disability is the primary source many of his critics have wielded in their contempt for him. But Cobb’s defenders point out that Lucker was also a well-known heckler among Highlander fans who targeted Cobb. Did Lucker assume Cobb wouldn’t retaliate because of his disability? While nothing can excuse hitting a man who has physical disabilities, the words with which he accosted Cobb would likely have made anyone retaliate violently. Additionally, many of Cobb’s critics omit the fact that other Hall of Fame players, including Babe Ruth and Cy Young, also assaulted fans at one time or another.
Many Still Find The Real Ty Cobb Objectionable
“I’m convinced that an attempt to whitewash Cobb’s playing years by ascribing charitable works to him in his retirement years doesn’t quite do it,” John Thorn, Major League Baseball’s official historian told me in a January 2018 phone interview. “Ballplayers who were on his team with him, his opponents, they said he didn’t have a friend in baseball.” Thorn, who said he hasn’t read Leerhsen’s biography, made it clear “not to presume that I have a horse in this race.” Thorn’s opinions on Cobb are based on the primary sources, specifically the baseball classic The Glory Of Their Times by Lawrence Ritter. Ritter’s book is a collection of vignettes told by veteran players like Harry Hooper and Sam Crawford and is regarded as one of the finest books ever written about the game.
Former public editor of the New York Times and baseball writer Daniel Okrent is one whose views of Cobb have changed after reading Leerhsen’s book. “Leerhsen…rattled the support for the arguments that Cobb was the truly horrible person that many people, including me, have assumed for many, many years,” Okrent told me in a January 2018 phone interview. “His research was phenomenal, and his revelation of Al Stump’s unreliability was wonderful. Particularly, the number of stories about Cobb’s behavior … A lot of people believe what they believe about Cobb because Stump’s portrayal makes it seem so possible. Leerhsen really demolishes Stump, in that book.”
Cobb Remains Complex
“I think there’s a difference between the version of Cobb that we have created, over the years, and the version that should exist,” Okrent added. This dichotomy makes it difficult to know who the real Ty Cobb was. Cobb’s behavior during his playing days will always be a source of debate. But baseball fans and scholars alike should examine multiple sources on Cobb, especially Leerhsen’s book, if they want a strong idea of his overall character.
Other scholars like Thorn remain unmoved.
“My position on Cobb is largely unchanged. I do not think that Ken Burns or anyone else who’s ever written about Cobb…has anything to retrench.”
People who share Thorn’s views will likely continue to see Cobb as an unstable individual. For others, while Cobb’s endorsement of integration signals the idea that he did not share the same views on race as many of his contemporaries did, they might argue that “a zebra doesn’t change its stripes,” and still may have harbored prejudiced views regardless of his comments. But that’s only true if Cobb was as bigoted as Stump claimed.
While I’d like to see Burns revise his episodes about Cobb based on Leerhsen’s scholarship, it’ll likely never happen. Burns’ Baseball is still an amazing series that I could never grow tired of watching. In fact, it’s the primary reason why I became a baseball fan. But Burns’ documentary isn’t a reliable source about Cobb. Baseball fans have the right to hold any opinion they want about any particular player. But if they balance Burns’ documentary with Leerhsen’s sound scholarship, as well as other biographies written by scholars like Charles Alexander, they’ll be in a better position to construct a solid and composed opinion of Cobb.
Cobb Will Remain A Highly Debatable Subject
In my opinion it’s wrong to assume Cobb wasn’t a good person. In a time when many were denouncing integration, Cobb was praising black ballplayers like Hank Aaron and Willie Mays. He left millions of dollars to charity in his will. He answered all his fan mail. Do these good deeds vanquish any of Cobb’s wrongdoings? Of course not. No one is perfect. But if we can’t recognize the good in people, especially when much of what’s been written about them is later discredited, we’re sending a message to the youth of America that we should only judge people by their transgressions and disregard the good they contributed to society.
Okrent is right in saying there’s a difference between the Cobb we have created and the version that should exist. But Thorn’s opinions carry just as much weight. Recognizing the good deeds that anyone performs later in life does not excuse any questionable acts they committed.
The Real Ty Cobb Was A Good Man
The real Ty Cobb wasn’t a saint, but he wasn’t a monster either. Thanks to Leerhsen’s biography, baseball fans can now see Cobb in a more honest light. Cobb was a legendary baseball player who played with ferocity. With that fierceness, however, also lay a genuine effort to be a good man.