Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

Just Reviewed “Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty” at SBR

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Folks, I wanted to point your attention toward my latest book review of Charles Leerhsen’s TY COBB: A Terrible Beauty, which is up right now over at Shiny Book Review (SBR for short, as always).

Now, why am I so proud of this review?

I think it has to do with two things. One, Mr. Leerhsen’s baseball scholarship is superb. And two, I was pleased to realize, after reading Leerhsen’s  book, that Cobb was not at all the virulent racist he’d been portrayed to be.

See, all of the stuff I thought I knew about Cobb was wrong — well, except for the actual baseball facts. (I knew Cobb hit .367 as a lifetime batting average, for example, and was the all-time hits leader until Pete Rose moved past him in the mid-1980s.)

Basically, Ty Cobb, since his death in 1961, has been the victim of a shoddy narrative. Apparently his “biographer” Al Stump was no such thing; instead, Stump invented the wildest flights of fancy about Cobb, figuring that as there was almost no film or still pictures or even radio accounts of Cobb’s play, Stump could do as he liked and no one would be the wiser.

Besides, monsters sell. So Stump made Cobb a monster.

Leerhsen proved just how fallacious Stump’s account actually was by going back and reading all of the various newspaper reports, which were readily available in the archives. (Thank goodness for archives, eh?) Stump made so many erroneous assumptions that it’s hard to believe Stump didn’t know what he was writing was dead wrong; in fact, Cobb himself was in the midst of a lawsuit at the time of his death, because he’d gotten wind of what Stump was about to do to him in the guise of Cobb’s “autobiography” (which was ghost-written by Stump), and wanted no part of it.

The most egregious fallacy of Stump’s was to paint Cobb as a racist. Cobb was anything but — in fact, according to Leerhsen, Cobb used to sit in the dugout with players like Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige during Negro League games, and famously remarked that “The Negro (ballplayer) should be accepted, and not grudgingly but wholeheartedly.” And Cobb was a big fan of Roy Campanella’s, plus he enjoyed Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson.

And as far as being a mean, nasty, vicious old cuss — well, how mean, vicious and nasty could Ty Cobb have been if he was willing to help the young Joe DiMaggio out when Joe D. signed with the Yankees? (Cobb understood baseball contracts, and young Joe didn’t.) How mean was Cobb when he helped Campanella and his family out after “Campy” became paralyzed? And how vicious was Cobb when, after his playing days were over and he had nothing at all to gain by it, he and Babe Ruth became fast friends?

Leerhsen has dozens of stories about Cobb, and very few of them depict anything close to the man Stump portrayed (and Tommy Lee Jones later masterfully acted in the movie version, Cobb).

While Cobb was a difficult man to know — he was prickly, quick to anger, and settled things with his fists more than once — he was not a monster.

Instead, Cobb appears to be the victim of one of the worst narrative frames in the history of all narrative-framing.

So do, please, read my review of Charles Leerhsen’s book TY COBB: A Terrible Beauty. Then please, if you have any interest whatsoever in early 1900s to the “Roaring Twenties” Americana, baseball history, or just want to find out what’s actually the truth about Ty Cobb, go read his masterful book for yourself.

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