Growing up, I lived in a house that loved baseball. I remember anytime the Big Red Machine was on T.V. my Mom and Dad were watching. My father absolutely loved baseball and I remember spending hours playing catch in the yard with my Dad. Baseball cards were a big part of my childhood, as was a fascination with baseball history and men like Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, Shoeless Joe Jackson and many more–but the one that always intrigued me most was Ty Cobb and not just because of the unfathomable .366 lifetime batting average.
The thing that really stuck with me were the stories of the cleat sharpening, the drunken brawls and, of course, the racism. I grew up admiring the player but abhorring the man. In the past year or two, that perspective has changed for me because of a book that I read that told the truth about the great Ty Cobb. The book is Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty by Charles Leerhsen. The book dispels almost everything I had ever learned about the all-time great.
The myth of Ty Cobb
Cobb was said to have sharpened his spikes in hopes to maim opposing players. I remember hearing a story that the player known as “The Georgia Peach” was so depraved that he would steam the stamps off fan letters to reuse them later. Now to me, I always wondered why they would call a man this mean the “Georgia Peach”? I also heard stories about how Cobb would routinely pistol-whip black men he encountered while walking down the street.
According to the legend, Ty Cobb, the player with the all-time highest batting average [.366], stabbed and killed a black waiter in Cleveland for being what he called “uppity.”
In Cincinnati, anytime Pete Rose is brought up and why he is not in the Hall of Fame, Reds fans without fail almost always bring up that Ty Cobb was a racist and killed a man, and if he is allowed in then so should Rose! So I find great personal pleasure in dedicating this article to all those people who blindly believe that Rose can do no wrong. Because in the end you will find out the Cobb was not a monster and that he was also a far superior baseball player and person when compared to “Charlie Hustle”.
How did the Ty Cobb bad-guy myth gain traction?
The myth came from one man, and that man was Al Stump, a sportswriter with a less than sterling reputation. Stump did not spend as much time with Cobb as he had claimed and was trying to get more people to read his book by generally lying about Cobb.
Thirty years later, however, Stump published a new book (Cobb: The Life and Times of the Meanest Man in Baseball), which offered a very negative portrait of Cobb. In 1994, this book was used as the basis for Cobb–a film starring Tommy Lee Jones as Cobb and Robert Wuhl as Stump. The film was a flop at the box office, but major damage had been done to the reputation of Cobb. The book in the early 60s had a lot of lies and the book that was written in 1994 was nothing but lies.
Al Stump forgery accusations
In 2010, an article by William R. Cobb (no relation) in the peer-reviewed The National Pastime, the official publication of the Society for American Baseball Research, accused Al Stump of extensive forgeries of Cobb-related baseball and personal memorabilia, including personal documents and diaries.
Stump even falsely claimed to possess a shotgun used by Cobb’s mother to kill his father (in a well-known 1905 incident officially ascribed to Mrs. Cobb having mistaken her husband for an intruder). The shotgun later came into the hands of noted memorabilia collector Barry Halper.
Despite the shotgun’s notoriety, official newspaper and court documents of the time clearly show Cobb’s father had been killed by a pistol.
The article, and later expanded book, further accused Stump of numerous false statements about Ty Cobb, not only during and immediately after their 1961 collaboration but also in Stump’s later years, most of which were sensationalist in nature and intended to cast Cobb in an unflattering light. I guess in the end the only low-life bitter man in this whole scenario was Al Stump, not Ty Cobb.
Did Ty Cobb sharpen his spikes?
Quite the contrary: In 1910, already tired of being smeared as a dirty player, Cobb wrote a letter to then-American League President Ban Johnson suggesting that major leaguers be required to dull their sharp new spikes with a file, and that every man’s spikes be checked for excessive sharpness before each game by an umpire. “This would be a good way,” he told Johnson, “to eliminate the accidents caused by spikes.” So it’s hard to believe that Cobb was out to hurt anybody.
Was Ty Cobb a racist?
A lot of people have made assumptions about Cobb based on the date of his birth and where he was born, which was 1886 in Royston, Georgia or near Royston, Georgia, and so people just assume that he must have been a racist.
But what they don’t know is that Cobb descended from a long line of abolitionists. His great-grandfather was a preacher who railed against slavery and was chased out of town. His grandfather refused to fight in the Civil War for the Confederacy because of the slavery issue. His father was a state senator who spoke up for his black constituents and broke up a lynch mob in town and had a very short political career because of it.
Ty Cobb himself never said anything publicly about race until 1952, when he told the Sporting News that “the Negro has the right to play professional sports,” he said, “and who’s to say he has not.”
Did Ty Cobb kill a black man?
The story goes that Cobb killed a black waiter at a restaurant. The problem with the story is that Cobb didn’t kill the man, he got in a fight with the man. The other problem with the story was that the man Cobb got into a fight with was actually white. By now this shouldn’t surprise anybody reading this.
The ignorance of the media
As we know full well today, the media can turn a false story into a news story that everybody believes. Look at Field of Dreams, a baseball movie which also perpetuated the myth of Ty Cobb being a bad person and dirty player. When Shoeless Joe Jackson is asked why Ty Cobb is not playing he responds with none of us can stand the SOB. Ken Burns’ documentary baseball also stated that Cobb was a disgrace to the game. Come on, can’t guys like Burns, with a ton of money to make his series, do some of his own research? Is that too much to ask?
Freedom of the press vs. destroying a reputation
Freedom of the press is a very important part of what makes America a great country, but when that press spreads lies for their own gain and notoriety innocent people can get hurt. Cobb’s reputation has been beaten on ever since 1961 and the problem is the falsities told by Al Stump, Ken Burns, etc. will be hard to overcome.
I do know this, though: From my own research, Ty Cobb was a generous man, the greatest hitter in baseball history and on top of all of this, probably the most exciting player to ever run the basepaths. Ty Cobb deserves to be remembered for what he was, rather than what some failed reporter wrote that he was.