Ken Burns’ Baseball first premiered on PBS in the fall of 1994. For many, it marked their birth for the love of the game. The documentary, however, is not without flaws. Burns’ portrayal of some ballplayers angered historians. The worst was his portrayal of Ty Cobb, who he painted as a racist and self-centered ballplayer. In light of an insightful biography debunking many of the myths surrounding Cobb, Ken Burns owes it to Cobb’s legacy to revise the episode containing flawed information.
Released in 2015, Charles Leehrsen’s Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty was met with praise. Allen Barra of The Boston Globe called it “a major reconsideration of a reputation unfairly maligned for decades.” What makes Leehrsen’s biography strong is its detail to accuracy and corrections. Baseball fans were abhorred by Cobb when they saw in Burns’ documentary. Burns’ documentary claimed that Cobb assaulted blacks, bullied his teammates, and abused his wife and children. These inaccurate claims stemmed from a biography released in 1994 called Cobb: A Biography. Its author, Al Stump, worked as Cobb’s ghost writer for his autobiography before Cobb’s death in 1961. Initially, Stump’s biography gave readers a look into Cobb’s turbulent life and quickly became a bestseller. Since Stump’s death in 1995, however, historians have discovered a number of issues with the book. Stump allegedly fabricated details to create interest and drive up sales.
Among the biggest inaccuracies is that Cobb opposed integration. In fact, he championed it. He said the Giants’ Willie Mays was the only ballplayer he’d pay money to see play. Additionally, Cobb likely didn’t sharpen his spikes to intimidate opposing players. These myths were born out of Ken Burns’ Baseball. However, it’s not fair to fault Burns. Like many baseball fans at the time, he trusted Stump’s biography and used it as a basis for the documentary. In fact, one baseball expert recently stated he would welcome the opportunity to explain himself. According to a Facebook message posted by Ty’s granddaughter, Cindy Cobb, writer Daniel Okrent, who initially commented on Cobb for the documentary, wrote that Leehrsen’s 2015 biography of Cobb “led me to re-assess my view of Cobb, and if Burns ever does an update, I’ll insist on the opportunity to say so!”
Ken Burns Owes It To Cobb’s Family To Set the Record Straight
In 2010, Ken Burns released “The Tenth Inning” as the next chapter in the series. After the Cubs won the 2016 World Series, Burns hinted he might add their historic win to the next chapter. If Burns were to create another chapter, it would be the perfect time to address the inaccuracies of “The Third Inning” that include the inaccurate details about Cobb. It is only fair to Cobb’s legacy and surviving family members.
Ken Burns owes it to Cobb’s family to revise his documentary to reflect newfound information.