Cobb a Biography
- Book Review

Cobb a Biography - Book Review - Author Al Stump provides a stunning picture of Ty Cobb aka the "Georgia Peach" which became a movie starring Tommy Lee Jones.


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The Great Lakes Raconteur

The Legacy of the Georgia Peach 

As we approach the holiday season it is fitting that the baseball world is turning its attention towards the great Ty Cobb. If Santa is checking his list to see who's been both naughty and nice, Cobb's name is sure to come up. A career .366 hitter and an inaugural inductee into the Hall of Fame, Tyrus Raymond Cobb (the "Georgia Peach") was arguably the greatest ballplayer of all time. He was also, however, the most disliked. 

On December 16, 1994, the new Warner Brothers film about Ty Cobb, starring Oscar-winner Tommy Lee Jones in the lead role, opens in Toronto. The film is based is based upon Al Stump's outstanding new book, Cobb: A Biography. It is in these more personal portraits that Cobb's enduring legacy—that of a nasty, bitter, very private man—emerges. 

In 1961, Ty Cobb hired Al Stump to write the Hall of Famer's "official" biography. Entitled My Life in Baseball, the book was a sanitized version of Cobb's life and baseball career. However, in his newest work, Cobb: A Biography, Stump exposes Cobb's idiosyncratic and acerbic personality. 

Since Cobb had to approve what could go into the first biography, none of the graphic—almost horrific—incidents, which appear in the second volume have been detailed in such a manner before. After reading Cobb: A Biography, one understands why one of the greatest ballplayers of all time was probably the most disliked man ever to play major league baseball. 

The Lone Wolf 

Cobb's violent temper, racial intolerance, the death of his father and immense ego are themes that run throughout this biography. Stump recalls that the death of Cobb's father haunted the ballplayer until his own death in 1961. Though he had other ambitions for his son, the elder Cobb reluctantly gave his consent to allow Ty to play baseball. Ironically, Cobb's father was accidentally shot by his wife on the eve of Cobb's call-up to the Detroit Tigers. He never saw his son fulfill the dream of playing in the big leagues. 

Tormented by the fact that he never had a chance to impress his father with his baseball talents, Cobb was driven to succeed. Throughout his major league career Cobb was a social outcast, never being accepted by his teammates. It has often been suggested that Cobb put his own statistics ahead of his team's ambitions and, according to Stump, it is evident that this was indeed true. 

To Ty Cobb personal ambitions were paramount and he dealt harshly with anyone who stood in the way of what he wanted to accomplish. Consequently, Cobb had few, if any, friends either inside or outside of baseball. After he announced his retirement from baseball, Stump writes, "Someone remarked that the man who stood first in so many playing categories had been last in making friends." 

Comparing Cobb's popularity with his contemporary challenger for the title of best player in baseball, Babe Ruth, Stump notes that when Ruth died thousands attended Yankee Stadium over a two-day period to pay their respects to the Babe. However, when Ty Cobb passed away, three former major leaguers were the only baseball representatives in attendance at the small funeral. 

Unenlightened Intolerance 

Cobb's intolerance towards blacks is another theme which dominates Stump's biography. Although racial intolerance was unfortunately the norm during this era, Ty Cobb carried his bigotry to extremes. Stump details several instances where Cobb's hatred of blacks was evident. 

In June 1908, Cobb was leaving Detroit's Pontchartrain Hotel and a black worker, who was spreading asphalt on the street, spilt some tar on the cuff of Cobb's pants. An argument ensued and Cobb knocked the man down causing head injuries. Cobb was subsequently charged. 

Yet the judge, who happened to be a Tigers' fan, accepted Cobb's testimony that the black man had "spoke insultingly" towards him and gave Cobb a suspended sentence and ordered him to pay the man $75 to cover court costs. At the same time, it was reported that Cobb had kicked a black chambermaid in the stomach and knocked her down a flight of stairs at the same hotel because she had objected to him calling her a "nigger." 

In 1909, an event occurred which was far more serious than previous racist incidents in Cobb's life. In September of that year, the Tigers were playing in Cleveland. After dining out late one evening, Cobb returned to the Euclid Hotel where the team was staying. He became angry when a black elevator operator told him that he would have to use the stairs because the elevators did not run after midnight. After an argument, the man agreed to take Cobb up on the elevator.

However, the elevator operator took him to the wrong floor and Cobb yelled at the man and slapped him. The elevator returned to the main floor where George Stansfield—the hotel detective and also a black man—became involved. After a brief scuffle, Cobb pulled a knife and began cutting Stansfield. The detective pulled a gun, but Cobb disarmed him and continued slashing him with the knife. Only intervention from other hotel staff saved the detective's life. 

The injured detective swore out an arrest warrant charging Cobb with aggravated assault with the intent to kill. The Detroit club, however, left town for St. Louis before the Cleveland police could detain Cobb for questioning. The Tigers managed to pay off the detective, but Cleveland police kept the investigation open. 

Stump maintains that a Cleveland police officer told the owner of the Tigers "that with Cobb's record of violence, he was sure to be convicted in court. Police would watch future Detroit team travel and the next time a train carrying the Tigers entered Ohio, that train would be entered and the offender seized and brought to trial." 

This situation had a definite impact on the Tigers in their World Series clash that year with the Pittsburgh Pirates. In order to reach Pittsburgh, the Tigers had to travel through Ohio. However, Cobb took a more circuitous route to the World Series. He travelled through Canada to Fort Erie, where he re-entered the United States, and headed onto Pittsburgh, thus avoiding arrest in Ohio. 

Cobb had hoped that in 1909 he might redeem: himself for poor performances in the two previous World Series. (He hit .20() in 1907 and .368 in 1908, as the Tigers lost in five games to the Cubs both years). Whether the threat of arrest had any effect will never be known, but Cobb collected only six hits in 26 at-bats and had virtually no impact on the outcome of the series, which the Tigers lost in seven games.

To The Bitter End 

Al Stump experienced Cobb's violent temper first-hand, living with the Hall of Famer during the last year of his life and working on Cobb's authorized biography. During the winter of 1960, Stump was with Cobb at his resort near Lake Tahoe. State police had closed the roads due to a blizzard, but Cobb decided that he wanted to drive into Reno to visit Joe DiMaggio and gamble. When Stump suggested that, due to the weather, they remain where they were, Cobb went into a rage. 

"Don't argue with me!" he barked. "There are fee-simple sons of bitches all over the country who've tried it and wished they hadn't. 

"If you and I are going to get along," he went on ominously, "don't increase my tension." 

After Stump agreed to accompany Cobb to Reno, they stopped at a motel to spend the night. There, Stump discovered that Cobb regularly carried a gun with him and was not afraid to use it: 

“During the night a party of drunks made a loud commotion in the parking lot. In my room adjacent to Cobb's I heard him cursing and then his voice, booming out the window. 

"Get out here, you —heads." 

The drunks replied in kind. Groping his way to the door, Cobb fired three shots into the dark that resounded like cannon claps. Screams and yells followed. Reaching my door, I saw the drunks climbing one another's backs in their rush to flee.”

A prisoner of his own private demons, Ty Cobb never attempted to endear himself to fans or teammates. He saw no reason to curry favour when his performance on the diamond would prove his abilities. Unfortunately, while the character Al Stump sketches in his entertaining biography does not challenge Cobb's position as possibly the best ballplayer of all time, it does do little to dissuade fans that he was quite certainly one of baseball's darkest figures. 

A version of Cobb: A Biography by Al Stump, originally appeared in my Book Review column in Dugout magazine in the autumn of 1994.

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