Will the Real Ty Cobb Please Stand Up?

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 Terriblereal ty cobb 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.

Pete Rose Denied Induction Into Hall of Fame For Final Time

Pete Rose, the all-time hits king at 4256, was denied eligibility for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame for likely the final time. Many applauded the decision handed down by the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Board of Directors. In their mind, Rose accepted, and must abide by, a lifetime ban he received in 1989. Others say it’s too stringent. With Pete Rose denied induction into the Hall of Fame for likely the final time, baseball fans will surely become more divided over the issue.

Then-commissioner Bart Giamatti banned Rose in 1989 for placing betts on baseballPete Rose Denied Induction games. Rose denied any involvement in gambling for many years before finally admitting it in 2004. Despite his confession, which he thought would exonerate him, the path to Hall of Fame induction only narrowed. In fact, it’s Rule 3(E) that continues to block Rose’s path to Cooperstown. The Baseball Writers Association of America election rules state that anyone who is permanently ineligible by Major League Baseball may not be considered for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame. This is the rule the Board of Directors cited in their decision to shut the door forever on Rose’s induction.

But is the Board of Directors being too stingy? Yup!

It’s Hypocritical To Deny Rose Induction

There’s no denying Rose gambled on baseball. It’s a crappy thing to do. Some say it’s no big deal but keep something in mind. You’re profiting off the hard work of your teammates. Then there’s the whole being illegal thing. But if the writers inducted Rose into the Hall of Fame then he would be in good company. Legendary New York Giants manager John McGraw allegedly threw games after the Giants were eliminated from the playoffs. Rumors about Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker’s connections to gamblers continue to this day.

Then there’s Hall of Famer John Clarkson. Clarkson won 50 games in 1885 (Yes, you read right) for the Chicago White Stockings. He’s in the Hall of Fame despite the fact that he murdered his wife with a razor. Let’s not forget Cap Anson and Kenesaw Mountain Landis, two more inductees who are directly responsible for introducing, and maintaining, respectively, segregation in baseball. So we can let other gamblers in, along with murderers and bigots, but not Pete Rose? That’s definitely a double standard.

Pete Rose Denied Induction For Final Time

Seeing Pete Rose denied induction is disappointing. It’s also somewhat hypocritical. Of course, Rose is no saint. But there are very few in the Hall of Fame whose character can’t questioned (Brooks Robinson comes to mind). This isn’t to dismiss what Rose did. But 25 years is enough.

Let Rose into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

These Baseball Records Will Never Be Broken

Baseball records fall almost every season. Most of them are obscure and don’t get much attention. Former Atlanta Braves second baseman Mark Lemke holds the record for most plate appearances (3664) without being hit by a pitch. Hall of Famer Hughie Jennings holds the record for most hit-by-pitches (287). While these records are interesting, they’re not the kind that players set out to break. There are some baseball records, however, that will never be broken. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

Cal Ripken Jr.’s Consecutive Game Streak

Cal Ripken Jr. made history on September 6, 1995 when he passed Lou Gehrig’sbaseball records consecutive games-played streak of 2130. That’s 2130 straight games that Ripken didn’t miss despite broken bones and sprains. With the clauses and stipulations in contracts nowadays, you’ll never see another player come close to breaking this record.

Cy Young’s Record of 511 Wins

Cy Young holds the record for most wins, and losses, for a pitcher at 511-316. Young played for 21 years during a time when relief pitching was rare and a pitcher threw all nine innings. Nowadays it’s a monumental feat if a pitcher wins 300 games in his career.

Joe DiMaggio’s 56-Game Hitting Streak

This is a record historians and Yankee fans stubbornly defend as one that’ll never fall. In 1941, DiMaggio hit safely in 56 games. Since then, Pete Rose is the only player to come close to breaking that record with a 44-game streak in 1978. Many players have reached the 20 and 30 game plateau. With modern technology utilized by almost every pitcher to analyze opposing batting stances, it’s likely no player will ever surpass DiMaggio.

Ty Cobb’s .366 Lifetime Batting Average

The best players today can barely reach this average in a season. So the idea of a player coming anywhere close to breaking Cobb’s lifetime batting average record is nonexistent. Cobb batted over .400 three times and won nine consecutive batting titles. He’s also only one of two players with more than 4,000 hits in his career. Like a pitcher winning 300 games, getting 3,000 hits is hard enough. To accumulate enough hits to pass Cobb’s .366 average will never happen. This is one of those baseball records that players will find difficult to come within 50 points of reaching.

Batting Records Aren’t What They Used To Be

Technological advancements are putting a dent in the pursuit of records. Pitchers and hitters now have hundreds of different types of media they can analyze to gain an advantage over their opponents. Medical advances are prolonging baseball careers, but they’re also revealing flaws in practices that pitchers and hitters have relied on for years. Whereas it was once common for pitchers to throw all nine innings and go past 150 pitches, it is now proving detrimental to their arms.

Better designed base gloves also play a role in setting and breaking baseball records. For example, Ty Cobb holds the American League record with the most errors by an outfielder with 271. Those errors account for a lot of base hits. But baseball has seen a huge drop in errors by outfielders now that gloves are better designed with a wider net and stronger grip.

While the records listed above will likely remain standing for years to come, baseball could use a shot in the arm in the form of their pursuit. Ripken’s pursuit of Gehrig’s record excited baseball fans in the wake of the 1994 strike. It brought fans back to the ballpark. While attendance isn’t an issue right now, seeing someone like Mike Trout pursue Barry Bonds’ single season HR record would make the game even more exciting to watch.

Ken Burns Owes Ty Cobb’s Family a Redo

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 Leerhsen’s Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty was met with praise.Ken burns owes Allen Barra of The Boston Globe called it “a major reconsideration of a reputation unfairly maligned for decades.” What makes Leerhsen’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.