Charles Leerhsen Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty

ISBN 13: 9781451645767

Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty

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9781451645767: Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty
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Finally—a fascinating and authoritative biography of perhaps the most controversial player in baseball history, Ty Cobb.

Ty Cobb is baseball royalty, maybe even the greatest player who ever lived. His lifetime batting average is still the highest of all time, and when he retired in 1928, after twenty-one years with the Detroit Tigers and two with the Philadelphia Athletics, he held more than ninety records. But the numbers don’t tell half of Cobb’s tale. The Georgia Peach was by far the most thrilling player of the era: “Ty Cobb could cause more excitement with a base on balls than Babe Ruth could with a grand slam,” one columnist wrote. When the Hall of Fame began in 1936, he was the first player voted in.

But Cobb was also one of the game’s most controversial characters. He got in a lot of fights, on and off the field, and was often accused of being overly aggressive. In his day, even his supporters acknowledged that he was a fierce and fiery competitor. Because his philosophy was to “create a mental hazard for the other man,” he had his enemies, but he was also widely admired. After his death in 1961, however, something strange happened: his reputation morphed into that of a monster—a virulent racist who also hated children and women, and was in turn hated by his peers.

How did this happen? Who is the real Ty Cobb? Setting the record straight, Charles Leerhsen pushed aside the myths, traveled to Georgia and Detroit, and re-traced Cobb’s journey, from the shy son of a professor and state senator who was progressive on race for his time, to America’s first true sports celebrity. In the process, he tells of a life overflowing with incident and a man who cut his own path through his times—a man we thought we knew but really didn’t.

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About the Author:

Charles Leerhsen is a former executive editor at Sports Illustrated. He has written for Rolling Stone, Esquire and The New York Times. His books include Crazy Good: The True Story of Dan Patch, the Most Famous Horse in America and Blood and Smoke: A True Tale of Mystery, Mayhem, and the Birth of the Indy 500. He is the winner of the SABR Baseball Research Award. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, the writer Sarah Saffian.Visit him at CharlesLeerhsen.com.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Ty Cobb — CHAPTER ONE —


LEANING INTO THE FULL-LENGTH MIRROR, and using a stick of stage makeup, Ty Cobb painted a jagged crimson line above his eyes of robin’s egg blue. Meant to resemble a battle wound incurred at a moment of gridiron glory, it looked, alas, more like the fever chart for a failing business concern: cosmetology as practiced by a twenty-four-year-old, heterosexual Detroit Tiger. Next came the burnt cork. Black maintained a prominent place on the theatrical palette in 1911—Cobb himself had several times been called on stage to receive the semiofficial “Champion Batsman of the World” trophy from a minstrel dressed in full darkie regalia—but now he required just a smidgen, for the right side of his chin, a fake scuff to balance the bright greasepaint gash.

“My only problem,” he said, leaning closer still to the looking glass and mussing his thinning strawberry blond curls, “is that I ain’t got any football hair.”

“Say, Ty, who taught you how to do that?” said one of Cobb’s two dressing room drop-bys that evening, Harry Matthews, a squat, cigar-chomping ex-minor-league teammate who managed the Albany Babies of the South Atlantic League.

“Nobody,” said Cobb. “I just had to learn how myself. All you got to do is make up natural, see?”

But it was hard to see through the smoke Matthews was emitting, and the fat old catcher turned aside and coughed on Cobb’s makeup pots. “So you’re a painter, too, eh?” he said finally, chuckling and choking. “Ain’t I pretty!”

The other visitor to Cobb’s cramped quarters that evening, the person who recorded this sparkling dialogue for posterity, was Howell Foreman, a cub reporter for the Atlanta Constitution. To the then new Atlanta Theater on that long-ago Saturday, Foreman had brought a large supply of mostly inane questions (“How do you think the acting of a game of football compares with the playing of a real game of baseball?”)—but also, it would turn out, the admirable instinct, or maybe it was just the journalistic naïveté (he was only seventeen), to leave his notes largely unprocessed rather than shaping them into a conventional newspaper piece. The somewhat serpentine result, while not exactly a pleasure to read, provides something like raw security camera footage recording what it was like to be Tyrus Raymond Cobb as the Georgia Peach neared the height of his baseball prowess.

It was damn disconcerting. Cobb, who had no acting experience and who, despite being the son of a renowned orator, always felt ill at ease when required to speak in public, was nevertheless spending his early off-season touring the country, or at least a large swath east of the Mississippi, in The College Widow, a well-known comedy in three acts by the celebrated Hoosier humorist George Ade. He played Billy Bolton, a handsome halfback tempted to transfer from Bingham to Atwater College by the latter’s coach’s conniving blond girlfriend. Although Cobb surprised some people with his almost adequate acting skills, especially those who had expected him to hook-slide in from the wings, snarling, and spike his fellow thespians where they stood, and though tickets were selling briskly in venues North and South, the venture was turning out to be not as enjoyable as George M. Cohan, the famous “Yankee Doodle Boy,” had assured him it would be over a long, boozy dinner one very complicated (and eventually bloody) night in Cleveland two years earlier. Touring, instead, was strenuous and stressful work performed at a season when he would rather have been tramping through the north Georgia hills with his hunting dogs and his friends—say, George Stallings, the former New York Highlanders manager, and Honus Wagner, the star shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates, companions on previous bird-shooting trips.

But Cobb had made a commitment and because he wanted desperately to avoid disappointing both his audience and his promoters, he devoted much psychic and physical energy to what is supposed to be “the art that conceals itself.” From a seat near the footlights, you could see him sweat, and those who had spent as much as $1.50 for a ticket (about three times what it cost to watch him play the Cleveland Naps, the St. Louis Browns, or the Philadelphia Athletics) appreciated the sincere effort. In some of the same cities where, in the warmer months, he was booed and barraged with Moxie bottles for being such a danger to the aspirations of the beloved home team, audiences gave him a standing ovation at the end of each act and, as surely as if it was part of the script, shouted “Speech! Speech!” at the final curtain. But that only maximized Cobb’s misery.

On the field, he was an extraordinary improviser, and off it, in small groups, a raconteur of the first rank (the veteran catcher Moe Berg, a New Yorker who graduated from Princeton and Columbia Law school and was a frequent houseguest of Cobb’s in Augusta, would call him “an intellectual giant”). Yet at the podium—or beneath a proscenium, sans script—he lost his composure, and could sound like a typical tongue-tied jock. To avoid the nightmare of extemporaneous curtain-call oratory, Cobb would gesture extravagantly toward his heaving chest, the result of a 105-yard touchdown Billy Bolton had supposedly scored (offstage) in the play’s climactic moments, and mime a hero all too willing but alas far too winded to speak. His lame joke always worked, yet the groundlings’ groans of disappointment wore on him and made him envy the other ballplayer in the original cast, Joe Jackson of the Philadelphia A’s, who, despite being a raw rookie, had realized during rehearsals that he was not exactly born to tread the boards and had put on his walking shoes just before the Widow had opened in Trenton.

Cobb, who was making $500 a week, or more than twice as much as the relatively large sum he got to play baseball, had kept going, though, and by dint of strenuous concentration and dumb luck avoided disaster—until the players reached Pittsburgh, and in the upper right balcony, at the moment of the star’s opening night entrance, his twenty-two-month-old son, Ty Jr., had stood up and squealed “Daddy! Daddy!” The sea of twisting heads and waves of unexpected laughter had nearly capsized Cobb; Ade’s lines tapered to a palpitating point in his cortex, then vanished. They came back as soon as the house settled, thank goodness, and the show went on, but of all the nerve-racking moments he had endured in five-plus years of major league baseball—and these included fistfights, strained tête-à-têtes with President William Howard Taft (“Greetings, Citizen Ty!”), “black hand” letters threatening assassination (Cobb’s, not Taft’s), an endless presentation of watches, trophies, medals, books (he was known as a constant reader), and funereal flower-wreaths, as well as, of course, the occasional arrest for assault and battery—none was worse than that momentary Steel City meltdown.

· · ·

Ty Cobb didn’t need this kind of aggravation. Getting invited to appear in cold-weather vaudeville was, after all, no particular honor. Ballplayers of every stripe had been dabbling in what George M. Cohan would have called “the show business” since the 1890s, when Adrian “Cap” Anson, the longtime Chicago White Stocking, then down on his luck, performed a depressing baseball-themed act with two of his grown daughters (he actually did slide into a base secured at center stage). In the months after the 1911 World Series (won by Connie Mack’s Athletics over John McGraw’s Giants in six games), while Cobb was appearing in The College Widow, Rube Marquard of the Giants was doing stand-up; the Pirates’ Marty O’Toole had a part in a Wild West show; three A’s (“Chief” Bender, Cy Morgan, and Jack Coombs) were appearing with the singing Pearl Sisters; Leonard “King” Cole of the Cubs, the inspiration for Ring Lardner’s “Alibi Ike” stories, was making the rounds in Chicago doing something vaguely theatrical, and Herman “Germany” Schaefer, one of Cobb’s former Tiger teammates and now a Washington Senator, was touring, with Cobb’s apparent blessing, with a satirical recitation called “Why Does Tyrus Tire Us?” For his acting talents, Cobb was probably pulling down much more than any of them, but by exploiting his fame in that fashion he was aligning himself with a crew composed mostly of prodigals, mediocrities, has-beens, and clowns. (Perhaps all one needs to know about Germany Schaefer is that he was personally responsible for major league baseball’s rule 7.08i, which forbids running the bases in reverse.)

Cobb in 1911 was still a young man wrestling with the question of what it meant to be this new thing called a celebrity—that is, when he was not down under the grandstand, postgame, wrestling with an umpire, teammate, or rival. If he was in fact the greatest player in the history of baseball, as no one less than Charles Comiskey, the president of the Chicago White Sox and one of the founding fathers of the modern game, had declared recently in a syndicated newspaper essay that was the talk of the sports world, then how did that status translate to his day-to-day existence? Cobb could not figure out whether, in real life, he should play the ultrasensitive Southern cavalier or the courtly, gregarious Georgia gent, and he wavered between the two roles his whole career. Yet coming off the 1911 campaign, he was fairly certain that the annual festival of postseason stunt casting was beneath his dignity.

· · ·

Some people, some Sabermetricians, will tell you that 1911 was not the best of Cobb’s 231/2 seasons, and it’s true that in such esoteric categories as “run production” and “batting average relative to the rest of the league,” it demonstrably wasn’t. But you needn’t be a baseball nerd to know it was pretty wonderful. Cobb batted .420 that year, and set records for RBI (127), hits (248), runs (147), stolen bases (83), and longest hitting streak (40 games), all despite suffering for much of the summer from a hacking cough and stomach problems, which he thought might be typhoid but which were more likely nerves, and often playing against doctor’s orders. The numbers, naturally, never tell the full story and in Cobb’s case they fail to convey what an exciting player the haunted-looking, light-hitting rookie of 1905 had become: part Wee Willie Keeler (“Hit ’em where they ain’t”), part Freud, part Puck. Art history majors might also compare him to Caravaggio, the conflicted, creative firebrand of whom it was written in 1604, “he will swagger about . . . with a sword at his side, from one ball-court to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument, so that it is most awkward to get along with him.” Cobb, though, never had to go looking for people to tussle with; they usually came (to speak like Cobb for a moment) a-calling.

In his prime Tyrus Raymond Cobb was a good-looking man—six feet tall and 190 pounds—who believed something fairly revolutionary for his time: that success in baseball went to the smart. He held the bat with a split-hands grip—unusual but not unique—that allowed him to make a last-second decision, to choke up and poke the ball over an infielder’s head—or slide his top hand down and swing for the fences (which, in the deadball era, were roughly a million miles away). Employed over the course of nearly two dozen major league seasons, this technique allowed Cobb to achieve a lifetime batting average of .366, amazing in his day and still the highest ever. But it was his philosophy of the game, not the bat-grip he shared with Honus Wagner and a few others, that accounted for his greatness.

That philosophy could be pared down to two words: pay attention. “He didn’t out-hit the opposition and he didn’t outrun them,” Cobb’s longtime teammate and onetime tormentor “Wahoo” Sam Crawford said. “He out-thought them!” Cobb spent his days studying his baseball rivals and mentally cataloging their tendencies, strengths, and faults, both as players and human beings, since he felt he could exploit both to his professional advantage; many evenings, while his teammates hung out in the hotel lobby (the pastime within the pastime in those potted-palmy days) or hoisted beers, he would sit in his room making notes and sketching plays while listening to classical violinist Fritz Kreisler on the gramophone. His “personal batboy”—Cobb could be more than a bit of a diva—Jimmy Lanier, said, “Cobb would lay awake in bed engrossed in plots to out-smart opposing members of other American League clubs.” “Some of my best ideas,” Cobb himself said in a syndicated newspaper series that appeared in 1914, “have come to me at night just before I fall asleep, when, they say, great poems often come to their authors. I get up and write them down.”

He was intrigued by the unpredictability of baseball, he often said, but it was perfecting ways to influence the proceedings and control the outcomes of various game situations that gave him the most satisfaction. He loved, for example, to find himself on third against the Highlanders (who were just starting to be known also as the Yankees in those days) because he knew that by dancing off the bag he could almost always draw a risky cross-diamond throw from their first baseman Hal Chase after a routine putout—and dash for home if the peg went awry. (It was pliable rivals like Chase that allowed Cobb to steal home 54 times in his career, another record that still stands.) Stepping into the box, Cobb liked to see a catcher staring at his feet to determine if he was thinking “pull” (feet spread wide apart) or “opposite field.” When under such scrutiny, Cobb would often assume one kind of stance, then hop to another as the pitcher released the ball, a fake-out move that some old-timers considered dirty pool.

Nothing pleased Cobb more, though, than the way he was able to handle the future Hall of Famer Walter Johnson, ace of the Washington Senators, the hardest thrower in the American League. After he noticed how upset the good-hearted Big Train got when he beaned batters, Cobb stood in against him as he did against nobody else, hunching over the plate and sticking his head into the strike zone. He could have gotten killed; instead, very often, he got walked.

But the Peach’s “pay attention” approach worked both ways. As much as he studied you he wanted you to think about him, so he could mess with your composure and your expectations, exploit your laziness or lack of focus, expose your particular and perhaps very personal fears. The hyperbolic sportswriters of the day credited Cobb with bringing psychology to a game previously packed with Bunyanesque bumpkins swinging rough-hewn clubs at saliva-sodden spheres—and hailed what he was doing as “scientific baseball.”

Or at least some of them did, some of the time. Journalistic standards were different then, and wildly inconsistent. Scandalous or embarrassing off-the-field incidents might be overlooked or played down as a favor to one of the participants. That Cobb’s mother had shot and killed his father a few days before Ty’s major league debut, that the minor league player the Tigers wanted over Cobb, Clyde Engle, was hampered by gonorrhea, that Cobb missed time early in the 1906 season because he had what was then called a nervous breakdown—such things were obscured by euphemisms if they were written about at all. In other cases, though, controversies might be concocted or exaggerated to please the sports editor and the reading public. Quotes were frequently manufactured, or so polished you could see the writer’s face in them; throw-pillow-worthy aphorisms and corny jokes, sometimes corny coon jokes, were credited to players who had never said such things, and almost everyone seems to have...

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