By Ron Keurajian
When I was a young kid, I heard two things about Ty Cobb. First, he was the greatest player there ever was, so said my neighbor, Mr. Sinclair. Second, Cobb was evil incarnate. He was an unbalanced racist, bigot and violent drunkard who enjoyed inflicting pain against opponent and teammate alike. He was someone you probably wouldn’t want living next door. In short, Tyrus Raymond Cobb was nothing short of an American nightmare.
I started collecting autographs in the late 1970s. Back in those days, many of Cobb’s contemporaries were still alive and kicking. I received many a letter from those who actually played against the Peach. Their recollections were far different from the monster that popular culture created.
Hall of Famer Joe Sewell stated that Cobb was a kind and friendly person. Ernie Harwell said that Cobb was a gentleman every time they met. How could this be? The man who “filed” his spiked down to a razor’s edge was actually likeable? He didn’t pistol whip spectators? Drown kittens?
I received a copy of Ty Cobb, A Terrible Beauty, authored by Charles Leerhsen (Simon & Schuster, 2015). Leerhsen, former executive editor at Sports Illustrated, has produced the most thorough and in-depth study of Cobb that has ever been put into print. The amount of research Leerhsen undertook for this book is amazing. Unlike other books about Cobb, this one takes an unbiased look at the old Tiger warhorse. The text is a result of research and not poetic license of the author, commonly found in other writings about Cobb. Raise your hand, Al Stump! With the exception of one glaring faux pas (discussed more fully below), this book is spot-on.
What I like most about this book is Leerhsen’s wit and snappy writing style. It makes the book such an enjoyable read. The reader is immersed, not only in the life that is Ty Cobb, but also the era in which he achieved baseball immortality. Leerhsen takes you back to the cotton fields of rural Georgia where young Ty spent his childhood and to the sleepy little towns across the deep south where he first embarked on his career as a professional baseball player.
Leerhsen’s description of early 20th century Detroit is like a trip back in time. So vivid is the author’s writing that you feel you’re right there in the wild-cat bleachers at old Navin Field or sauntering down Woodward Avenue (the main thoroughfare in Detroit back then) watching Detroit transform from a marginal port town into the Motor Capital of the world. Leerhsen’s writing grabs you and won’t let go. Once you pick this book up it is very hard to put it down!
The book is a balanced study at the inner workings of Cobb’s mind. As the author points out, Cobb was no angel, as documented by the many dust-ups Ty had with opponents and the occasional vulgar-mouthed bug. “There is no denying that Cobb was a born battler,” Leerhsen writes, but the author also points out that this was more a product of the time in which Cobb lived. Baseball, and life in general, was a lot rougher back in the olden days. A fist was an essential tool back then just, as the cell phone is indispensable in today’s world.
“If there had been an ESPN in those days, Cobb would have hogged the daily highlight reel,” writes the author. Cobb’s wizardry on the base paths is well documented in this book. Lightning fast? Yes! But did he intentionally cut up opponents?
Much has been printed about Cobb’s reckless, if not dirty, style of play. Cobb, it is rumored, would come in spikes high with the intent of slashing some poor baseman’s thigh. Leerhsen quickly dispels this myth. He cites many of Cobb’s contemporaries.
“Cobb never spiked anybody!” said teammate and fellow Hall of Famer “Wahoo” Sam Crawford. “Cobb slides hard,” the book quotes Cubs shortstop Joe Tinker. But Tinker quickly comes to Cobb’s defense in the face of such scandalous accusations. Aggressive? Yes. Dirty? No.
The book also details the early days of Cobb’s tenure with the Bengals, where veterans (trying to protect their jobs) made the rookie’s life a living hell. Cobb’s main tormentors, the book points out, were Matty McIntyre and “Twilight Ed” Killian, a brilliant but often drunk moundsman. The personalities of Cobb’s teammates come to life. From the fun-loving Germany Schaefer to team elder statesman, Wild Bill Donovan, all are in here for the reader’s taking.
There are many delightful anecdotes to be found herein. I particularly like the tidbit about how Cobb, before his days as a big leaguer, struck up a conversation with a 12-year-old boy on the train. He told the youngster that he was heading back home to rejoin the Augusta Tourists. Sparking the youngster’s interest, the chubby 12-year-old asked Cobb: “Are you the batboy?” Cobb, rather set back by the comment, invited the kid to watch him play that day at old Warren Park. That young kid turned out to be Oliver Hardy, of Laurel & Hardy fame.
A point of contention
As a Detroit Tigers fan, I feel obligated to challenge an odd little (and twisted) factoid found in the pages of this book. I have memorized all of Cobb’s lifetime stats. Early on in the book, the author sates that Cobb’s lifetime batting average is .366. What? Wait a minute! Must be a typo. Everyone knows Cobb’s average was .367.
I quickly e-mailed the author to alert him of this egregious error. Leerhsen replied that he and his publisher decided to go with the .366 after consulting a baseball historian, likely one of those revisionist historians with way too much time on his hands. As a certified Cobb nut, it was like getting a knife plunged deep into my chest. Hacking off a whole point from Cobb’s average! I can gloss over this oversight, just as long as we all understand that Cobb’s official batting average is .367, as recognized by MLB.
Cobb remains one of the most famous (and controversial) figures in history. He was a product of the dark and mysterious dead-ball era. The Georgia Peach is an almost mythical being in the eyes of today’s baseball fan. Ty Cobb, A Terrible Beauty tells the story of Cobb in an enjoyable and balanced fashion. It’s a great read and destined to become one of the truly great baseball books of recent times. It is a must-have for any library of great sports books. Congrats, Mr. Leerhsen, for writing this baseball gem.
Just to be clear, it’s .367!
Ron Keurajian is a long-time contributor to Sports Collectors Digest and the author of "Baseball Hall of Fame Autographs – A Reference Guide" (McFarland Publishing 2012).