Charles Leerhsen’s Ty Cobb A Terrible Beauty is an important book as much for what it says about society as it says about Ty Cobb. Reading this very well researched book about one of the greatest and in many circles infamous athletes of all time taught me new things about Cobb and was a reminder of how hard it is to trust the popular narrative.
In Ty Cobb A Terrible Beauty, Leerhsen examines Cobb’s controversial life not from the narrative we have been taught to believe about Cobb; rather, he does what he can to research the life of a man who died roughly sixty years ago to separate fact from fiction and set the record straight.
As a huge baseball fan, I have been aware of Ty Cobb since I was a child. I remember watching Pete Rose break Cobb’s career hit record and listening to people talk about Cobb’s amazing statistics. In 1994, I watched a movie about Cobb based on a book written by a man named Al Stump who supposedly followed Cobb around for months documenting their journey and describing Cobb’s life.
As a 20-year-old kid, I enjoyed the movie and believed its lies. I, like so many, accepted the idea that Cobb was a truly terrible person. I thought only three people attended his funeral. I accepted without a thought that he was a horrific racist. I was embarrassed by the scene where he threatened to kill a prostitute because he couldn’t get an erection. Even worse, I repeated some of the stories as truth when discussing Cobb with others.
After reading Leerhsen’s book, I now know Al Stump was a fraud. It’s true Stump was hired to write Cobb’s biography. But the two men spent little time together. Shortly before his death, Cobb, who was enraged by the manuscript’s inaccuracies and lies, was trying to sue stump and the publisher. But when Cobb died, the pack of lies was sold to the public as truth.
Newspapers and magazines praised Stump’s work in 1961 without bothering to consider its veracity. In the 1990s, when sports memorabilia took off, Stump rewrote the book and sold the movie rights and no one still bothered to check its accuracy. A production person involved in the making of the movie even told Leerhsen, with no corroborating evidence, that everyone knows Cobb murdered three people.
When the movie was released, it got good reviews. Again, no one was interested in the truth. Even though the scene involving the prostitute wasn’t in any of Stump’s writings about Cobb, it was added to the movie and no one questioned what else was wrong. Even when it was proved that Stump had been forging Cobb’s signature on items to make money, no one bothered to question the credibility of Stump’s writings about Cobb.
The truth, as Leerhsen carefully presents through sources is much more complicated than laziness and greed has encouraged generations to believe about Cobb.
Cobb had a terrible temper. He really did attack a man who couldn’t use his arms after the man heckled him for days. He got in fights with hotel clerks, teammates, opponents, a construction worker, and more. If he thought anyone was slighting him, Cobb was likely to start a fight.
Unlike how Cobb is portrayed in the movie Field of Dreams, many of Cobb’s teammates and contemporaries respected him. Some of them even liked him and defended him in newspapers and to the public.
I do believe Cobb was a racist. The vast majority of white people living in the late 1800s and early 1900s were racist. And there certainly is enough in Leerhsen’s book to convince me that Cobb was a racist. It’s not an excuse because all racism is terrible, but Leerhsen shows how Cobb may not have ben as racist as many whites in his generation.
Cobb was one of the few white baseball players to speak in favor of integration when Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line. Cobb said Willy Mays was the only player he would pay to see. He praised Roy Campanella’s ability as a catcher.
Most interesting when it comes to Cobb and the question of racism is the truth that he employed several black people during his life. Many of them spoke well of Cobb even after his death.
Did Cobb consider black people his equal, I wouldn’t bet on it. But I doubt Cobb considered many his equal. Did Cobb believe black people are the equal of white people, I wouldn’t bet on it. And while I hate the argument that people are a product of their time as a defense to excuse abhorrent behavior, Leerhsen makes a compelling case that Cobb was at least no more racist than were most people of his generation. While that’s nothing to be proud of it is a stark contrast to the portrayal of Cobb as a deeply racist man who abused and hurt black people for fun and in ways others simply don’t.
The truth is Cobb was a very complicated, troubled man. He was as violent and cruel as he was a great baseball player and investor. Even his own children had different views of Cobb. But Al Stump’s depiction of Cobb was clearly written to sell books, not to tell anything approaching the truth.
Unlike Leerhsen, who had the courage to question popular notions, every major publication that wrote about Stump’s work accepted it as true and helped sell the idea that Cobb was a monster who got away with being a monster because he was a truly great baseball player and a very rich man. Almost none of those accounts of Cobb’s story focusses on the hospital he built in his home town or the thousands of students who have benefited from the more than $19 million his scholarship fund has raised and donated.
Ty Cobb was not a man I would want to call a friend. Ty Cobb was not what anyone should want their children to become. But Ty Cobb was not so different from his peers to warrant the level of condemnation so easily sent his way. The common understanding of Cobb is much more what people want him to be than it is what he was as a person. Too often, the need to entertain couples with greed and laziness
to result in portrayals being badly researched garbage that regurgitates lies rather than seeking truth. In Ty Cobb A Terrible Beauty, Leerhsen sets aside what society teaches about Cobb and presents a much more nuanced picture of a contradictory man.