People have been told that Ty Cobb was a bad man over and over, all their lives. The repetition has felt like evidence…

Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, by Charles Leerhsen (464 pages, Simon & Schuster, 2015)

Baseball fans familiar with major league records remember Ty Cobb for his .366 lifetime batting average during the dead-ball era. Some may even remember that he held more than 90 baseball records.

During his career, Cobb was the idol of millions of fans and received bushels of letters asking advice about how children could get into the game and other baseball-related questions. He answered most letters and sometimes sent a pamphlet with pointers in it or a picture. When someone asked for his autograph, he invariably said how flattered he felt.

Cobb died in 1961, and the story of his life was quickly re-written to cast him as a belligerent, southern, racist monster. Leerhsen, in a talk at Hillsdale College in 2016, said that he also thought this was true, that is until he began to research sources that previous Cobb biographers had ignored. That research revealed a totally different Cobb than portrayed in books and a Hollywood movie after his death.

(The 1960s were when American history was being re-written so as to make the abolition of slavery the reason for Lincoln’s War. Those were years when Marxists from within U.S. universities, as prescribed by Antonio Gramci, began to use deconstructionist attacks on American societal standards and history, which continue unabated today. Because Ty Cobb was a white man and from Dixie, careless news reporters and authors rewrote his history, too, and those that have since written about Cobb have repeated that misinformation.)

Leehrsen is a former editor of Sports Illustrated, People, and Us Weekly and former senior writer for Newsweek. He has also written for MoneyRolling StoneSmithsonianEsquire, and The New York Times Magazine. He has written several books, and his Ty Cobb book won the 2015 Casey Award for best baseball book that year. He is also an adjunct professor at City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism

He said, “I knew, going into the project, having been an editor at People magazine, that human beings take delight in the fact that the rich and famous are often worse and more miserable than they are. What I didn’t understand before was the power of repetition to bend the truth. In Ty Cobb’s case, the repetition has not only destroyed a man’s reputation, it has obliterated a real story that is more interesting than the myth.”

To research for the book, Leerhsen traveled to Detroit and Georgia and read contemporary newspaper reports about Cobb and many personal letters. He found Cobb was very different than reported since 1961 and criticized those that have created and repeated false and offensive reports.

Cobb was from Royston, in Georgia’s northeastern hills. He was good-looking, six feet tall, and weighed 190-lbs. He thought that baseball success was a result of intelligence, a revolutionary thought, at that time. He didn’t out-hit his opponents, he out-thought them, according to a longtime teammate. During games, Cobb studied rivals and noted their baseball and personal strengths and weaknesses, which he felt he could use when playing against them. After road games, while his teammates lollygagged in hotel lobbies (all games were day games then), Cobb would sit in his room and make notes about opponents and sketch plays, all while listening to gramophone records of classical violinist Fritz Kreisler. He was also an avid history reader.

Cobb’s philosophy was, “create a mental hazard for the other man,” and he was a fiery competitor. One sports columnist wrote that Cobb could cause more excitement with a base on balls than Babe Ruth could with a grand slam. In the batter’s box, he hopped around and changed his stance, as the pitcher threw. He reached first base more often than anyone else, and once there, fooled around, chattered, made false starts, feigned injury, and ran when it was least expected.

When on base, he kept pitchers on edge, and stole bases. He stole home, from third, 54 times, which is another career record that remains unbroken. He held a bat with a split-hand grip, which enabled him to choke, at the last minute, and hit over an infielder’s head or slide his hands together and swing for the fence. Another American League star, Eddie Collins, said, “Cobb was always exerting pressure, always searching out a weak spot here and there to display his seemingly inexhaustible and tireless energy.”

Many of his great contemporaries liked him. Those included Shoeless Joe Jackson, Tris Speaker, and Walter Johnson. There were also those players that did not like Cobb. Heywood Broun, a noted sports writer, wrote, in the New York Morning Telegraph, that Cobb was “perhaps the least popular player that ever lived,” because much less valuable players  “whom he had shown up, dislike him, third basemen with bum arms, second basemen with tender skins, catchers who cannot throw out a talented slider—all despise Cobb.”

In 1952, when African-American Jackie Robinson was hired by a Texas League team, a reporter asked Cobb his opinion about it. Cobb said he thought that baseball integration had been long overdue. He was quoted as saying, “I see no reason in the world why we shouldn’t compete with colored players, as long as they conduct themselves with politeness and gentility.” In a Sporting News interview, he said, “The Negro should be accepted wholeheartedly and not grudgingly. The Negro has the right to play professional baseball and who’s to say he is not?”

Leehrsen said, “People have been told that Cobb was a bad man over and over, all their lives. The repetition felt like evidence.”

As a result of his research, Leehrsen pinpointed the source of initial false information about Cobb: an “autobiography” written by a ghost writer named Al Stump. When Cobb saw the manuscript he threatened to sue if it was not cancelled or re-written, but he died shortly thereafter, and Doubleday & Co. published the manuscript. Stump subsequently wrote a story for a sensationalist, “barber shop” magazine called True, in which he further maligned and distorted Cobb’s life.

The next big development came in 1984, when Charles C. Alexander’s book Ty Cobb appeared. Leehrsen said the word racist was by then part of the lexicon “and people were eager to make assumptions about a Southern white man.” In 1989, a slur about Cobb was included in the film Field of Dreams. Ten years later Ron Shelton bought the rights to Stump’s True magazine article and urged Stump to write a biography about Cobb to promote the movie. The biography, entitled Cobb, was a bestseller and was excerpted in Sports Illustrated. Then Ken Burns produced the TV mini-series Baseball, “which parroted Stump and Alexander.” It included a statement that Cobb “was an embarrassment to the game,” because of his racism (Baseball won Burns the 1995 Emmy Award for Outstanding Informational Series). Since then, the myth has grown further on the Internet.

Leehrsen closed his talk by saying that, in Ty Cobb’s case, repetition of lies has “not only destroyed a man’s reputation, it has obliterated a real story…Is it too late to turn things around? St. John the Evangelist said (John 8:32), The truth will set you free. But against that there is the Stockholm syndrome, whereby hostages cling avidly to what holds them in bondage.”

That left me wondering how average Americans can begin to understand the need to break their information-hostage condition and search for truth beyond easily available radio, TV, and Internet news, which propagates false history and partial current truth. To use Luke 14:34-35 as an inspiration, I wonder, “How shall the people’s understanding be restored, if their information sources are corrupted?”

Republished with gracious permission from The Abbeville Review (October 2018). 

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Published: Oct 23, 2018
Norman Black
Norman Black is a former Navy journalist and author. His news stories, feature articles, and commentaries have appeared in newspapers and magazines in many countries. He holds a diploma from the U.S. Navy’s Journalist “A” School; the degrees of B.A. and M.S. from Wagner College; and an M.S. degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, which he attended on a full scholarship.
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5 replies to this post
  1. Glad to see that one of the all time great baseball players is starting to receive some much deserved redemption.

  2. Excellent illustration of character assassination, and a timely one at that, considering that the “idea” that fake news now occupies a great portion of journalism and education. I believe fake news is real, and proliferates over time to become a believed truth.
    An example from my days in college in the 80’s, English 101 was centered around writing a ten page, researched paper, about a person chosen by me, from a prepared list of names. We were instructed that our thesis did not have to be true, nor did we have to believe it. All our quotes or paraphrases were to support the “truth” of the thesis statement. My thought at that time was, oh, how easy is this going to be!!! And, it was.
    I read not too long ago, that the belief of a flat earth originated from within the Church. That belief, of a flat earth, was actually lifted out of a book of fiction, by an atheist author who falsely portrayed it as the reason of an argument between Christopher Columbus and Church officials, before one of his voyages. The atheist wanted to prove that the Church cannot be trusted in any of their teaching because they taught the people that the earth was flat! Columbus would fall off the edge! This idea spread and lasted hundreds of years that everyone of that era believed the earth was flat. It was taught in public education, and probably still is. Only a very few people believed in a flat earth, and some still do. The Church did not believe in a flat earth, and the argument with Columbus, in reality, was about the length of time the voyage would take, not about falling off the edge of a flat earth. Pulling a quote out of fiction and spinning it as truth, has far reaching effects. About two years ago during a meeting with a financial advisor, something was said that prompted the advisor to say, ” after all, everyone once believed that the earth was flat.”

  3. Fortunately Cobb entered the baseball Hall of Fame in the first entry of that honor, along with greats like Tris Speaker and other greats. I forget what his statistics wound up being but I think he had a lifetime batting average of around .360 or so, amazing.

  4. Great read.

    Regarding your last point which motivates some of us, I am also reminded (biblical pile on I know) of the warning found in Isaiah 9:16 “For those who guide this people mislead them, and those they mislead are swallowed up”. Its seems to be a mandatory daily goal to not be mislead with all the dis-information. Most people will never find the truth because of all their fitful habits. When you approach people now who are comfortable in their bubble with the reality of something that would help them out, your conversation goes something like this: “where did you get that, off the internet? No, its in a book I read, I can give it to you to read if you’d like. “What, like I have time to read!”

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