Friday, May 15, 2015

Review: Ty Cobb - A Terrible Beauty (2015)

By Charles Leerhsen

Baseball great Ty Cobb never needed much help on the baseball field. This name from a century ago is all over the record book, as he is one of the great hitters and base stealers in history.

What he needed was someone who knew something about public relations and marketing. Somewhere along the way, it became accepted that Cobb was a racist madman who skirted the edge of the rules while compiling such an incredible record.

Author Charles Leerhsen investigated the facts extensively for his new book, "Ty Cobb - A Terrible Beauty." It turns out that Leerhsen is just about as much of a game-changer as Cobb was in his time.

Cobb was raised in Royston, Georgia. His father was William Herschel Cobb, an educator and politician who seems to be an intelligent, rational man and who tried to make sure his family followed the same paths. You can guess his reaction when Cobb announced that he wanted to try his hand at playing baseball for a living. But Ty did it anyway, and stayed with it even though early in his career he heard that news that his mother had shot and killed his father, believing that he was an intruder lurking outside the house.

Cobb always said that the incident drove him for his baseball career, and he did play a certain amount of fire at all times. There were fights and feuds along the way, but these weren't uncommon. In fact, Leerhsen does some of his best work in describing what baseball was like in the first two decades of the 20th century - a time that was not for the faint of heart. Educated players were a rarity at that point, and gambling and hazing surrounded the game. As for baseball itself, it was the so-called "dead ball era," when runs were hard to find. Cobb was a perfect fit for that time, ripping line drives to all fields. Then when he was on base, he drove fielders to distraction as he presented a constant threat to catch the opposition by surprise. But the author couldn't find any evidence that Cobb was a dirty player, the sort who filed his spikes before a game in order to inflict more damage to opponents. Put it this way - it's easy to understand why he was such an attraction.

By the time the 1920s arrived, Babe Ruth had turned baseball into a slugging contest. Cobb was player/manager of the Tigers for a few years, was involved in a vague betting scandal that also affected Hall of Famer Tris Speaker, and ended his career in Philadelphia. His place in history was assured, to the point where he received more votes for the initial Hall of Fame class than Ruth - which pleased Cobb throughout his life.

It's easy to stereotype someone coming out of rural Georgia in the early 1900s as a racist, and Cobb picked up that reputation along the way. Yet there are no signs of that here. Cobb defended Jackie Robinson's right to be a big leaguer, and apparently had good relations with blacks from childhood on. He was fierce when it came to defending himself and opinions, a smart man who didn't suffer fools easily. The picture Leehsen paints of Cobb is more complete and nuanced, and more interesting than we could have imagined.

The only minor complaint that could be made here is that the book qualifies as "revisionist history" and the author isn't subtle about pointing that out. There are a couple of relatively famous books about Cobb that have been printed in the past, and Leehsen found them after investigation to be full of inaccuracies. He points them out with a certain amount of, well, glee. That can be a little uncomfortable to read. But it's probably necessary, since the point of the book is to change minds.

And "Ty Cobb - A Terrible Beauty" does exactly that. Our perception of one of the top 20 baseball players in history, and that might be too liberal an estimate, moves a bit with publication of this book. That makes it more than just another biography; it's almost a public service.

Five stars

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