The Great Ty Cobb

Editor’s note: A version of this review first appeared at the Claremont Review of Books.

Charles Leerhsen’s “Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty” may be the most important baseball book in decades. It is historically significant in two respects: First, it is the definitive biography of the greatest baseball player from the deadball era and indisputably one of the greatest players of all time. No film footage exists of Ty Cobb playing baseball, so the only way to preserve the memory of this superstar of superstars is the written word. Second, this book corrects a great historical injustice, namely, the egregiously dishonest portrayal of Cobb in previous pseudo-biographies and in film. Leerhsen’s book was exhaustively researched; indeed, over the course of its 400-plus pages, it becomes clear that he tracked down far more original sources than anyone else who has written about Cobb, and in doing so, sets the standard for all biographers (not just of sports figures) going forward.

“Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty” provides valuable insights into four areas: the deadball era, Cobb the man, Cobb the player, and the libelous treatment of Cobb after his death.

The deadball era.

Serious baseball fans know the generalities of pre-1920 baseball—a game far more reliant on singles and bunts (what we now call “small ball”) than home runs—after all, the ball was comparatively quite dead; pitches that are now illegal, balls darkened by a pitcher’s tobacco juice, etc. Leerhsen’s depiction of the era is far more illuminating. He rips off the veil of time and shows us a time when many ballplayers had serious drinking problems, often taking the field in an impaired state; a time when hazing against teammates was vicious and pervasive; when players and fans would assault umpires (335 recorded incidents in 1909 alone); when games were wars in which the combatants would show no mercy, but rough each other up. In short, a shockingly brutal era far different from our tamer modern era.

Cobb, the man.

Much of what people “know” about Ty Cobb today is flat-out wrong. Leerhsen explodes the myths that Cobb was a dirty player, that he sharpened his spikes, was hated by his opponents and a vile racist who, for good measure was also mean to children. None of it is true. Space doesn’t allow me to give you the specifics, but you will find Leerhsen’s treatment of these subjects satisfying (and sometimes poignantly touching) and you might even feel offended by the injustices done to Cobb.

Although he corrected some of the popular misconceptions about Cobb, Leerhsen does not view him through rose-colored glasses. Cobb had faults. He was a high-strung, combative man with a short fuse who got into numerous fights. He would skip a game or most of spring training if he felt like it.

We also learn that Cobb had recurring health issues throughout his career ranging from injuries to diseases to something similar to nervous breakdowns. Cobb was a sensitive man who never got over the trauma of his mother killing his beloved father (the courts ruled it a case of mistaken identity) the very month he joined the Tigers at age 18. Cobb’s first teammates were crude, surly lowlifes who, for the first two years of his career, persecuted and abused the abstemious young ballplayer who preferred to stay in his room at night to listen to violin music and read biographies, history, and literature, Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables” being his favorite. Rather than carouse, Cobb visited the Library of Congress when the Tigers went to Washington to play the Senators.

Cobb, the player.

Ty Cobb set more baseball records than anyone in history. Some of those still stand, such as his career .366 batting average over 23-plus seasons and stealing home 54 times. Cobb was the first player elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, receiving more votes than all other players, including Babe Ruth.

Hall of Famer George Sisler, who competed against Cobb, remarked, “The greatness of Ty Cobb was something that had to be seen, and to see him was to remember him forever.” Similar statements have been made about Babe Ruth, and there have always been debates about who was greater. Despite being a lifelong Tiger fan, I have made the case for Ruth, but many favor Cobb. The Boston Globe’s Roger Birtwell wrote at the time of Cobb’s retirement, “Ty Cobb could cause more excitement with a base on balls than Babe Ruth could with a home run.” And who knows? Maybe Cobb could have put up Ruthian power numbers if he wanted to. Leerhsen recounts the fascinating story of how Cobb, a product of the deadball era who thought the modern emphasis on slugging home runs violated the purity of the sport, announced one day near the end of his career, “I’m going for home runs [today] for the first time in my career,” whereupon he hit three that day.

A quick note about Cobb, the manager. Leerhsen shows Cobb to have been a cerebral player, spending hours of his time away from the ballpark devising new strategies for winning games. When he was past the stage when he was winning the league batting title (he led the American League in hitting a record 12 times), Cobb, once he was appointed player/manager for the Tigers in 1921, gave hitting clinics that resulted in the Tigers having a team batting average of .316 (the highest team average in a quarter of a century). During his six years as manager, Tiger players won the batting championship four times, and at least one of them credited Cobb’s tutelage.

The libelous treatment of Cobb.

What explains the portrayal of Ty Cobb as a despicable monster? Sadly, one reason appears to be money. Once Cobb had died and was no longer around to defend himself, unscrupulous writers decided that sensationalism would sell books, and so they concocted lurid stories with no regard for accuracy or honesty.

I think another reason was ideology. It was just too easy for the book and movie reviewers to accept the false narrative contained in the books and the 1994 movie about Cobb, and so they never bothered to check the veracity of those accounts.

Ty Cobb deserves our admiration, not for every single deed in his life, but for overcoming mountains of adversity to achieve so much in his chosen career. One thing that really stands out in Leerhsen’s biography is how often the driven Cobb would overcome physical adversity. One time he was being treated for bronchitis and what some sportswriters thought might be typhoid, but he left the doctors to go to the ball park, where he went three-for-three and stole two bases, then returned to the hospital.

On another occasion, Cobb was stabbed in a shoulder when three muggers tried to steal his car. He got his wound patched up and went out and banged three hits. Once he had to miss a road trip with an inflamed eye and the eye doctor found that he was near-sighted in his other eye. Afflicted with impaired eyesight, Cobb was batting over .380. One writer was shocked when he saw the many raw wounds on Cobb’s legs. Those wounds were the price Cobb paid for sliding hard into bases. He could have spared himself the pain by wearing sliding pads, but Cobb shunned that protection because he believed that the pads would slow him down slightly.

“Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty” demonstrates convincingly that Cobb earned every one of the astonishing successes he attained on the field of play through total commitment, study, and hard work. That is why Cobb deserves to be an enduring American hero. Similarly, with this book—henceforth and forever the definitive biography of the complex man and brilliant baseball player known as “the Georgia Peach”—Charles Leerhsen, like Cobb, has achieved greatness through commitment, study, and hard work. Having rehabilitated the reputation of a true American hero—thereby correcting an unconscionable historic injustice—Leerhsen merits a place in any future Biographers’ Hall of Fame.