Burnishing Cobb ... to a Fault?
Beyond baseball prowess, Ty Cobb is basically known for two things: being 1) a spikes-sharpening SOB who tore up opponents' legs, and 2) a virulent racist. In his bio “Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty,” Charles Leerhsen attempts to burnish Cobb's tarnished image.
To exonerate him of the former charge, Leerhsen quotes contemporaries who said Cobb was a fighter within the basepaths but not beyond that. He was fierce and feared but a professional. He didn't take cheap shots. And he took as well as he gave.
It's a little tougher to exonerate him of the latter charge but Leerhsen gives it a go. Cobb was involved in many incidents, many brawls, that could be construed as race-related. Leerhsen argues, though, that either race wasn't a motivating force in the incident or it wasn't present at all. I.e., his combatant wasn't black.
It's an interesting angle and it would be easier to take if Leerhsen didn't occasionally slip up himself.
Example. In a game against the Red Sox in 1915, Cobb is facing Carl Mays, who would, of course, infamously kill a batter, Ray Chapman, with an inside pitch in 1920. Apparently there was bad blood between Cobb and Mays, too. Leerhsen writes:
Mays started him with a fastball very near his face. Cobb said nothing. But when the next pitch came just as close, Cobb yelled “Yellow dog!” and flung his bat, which flew over Mays and came down near second base.
Nothing much happens; Mays simply retrieves the bat and hands it to Cobb. Then Leerhsen writes:
With the count now 0–2 ...
I'm like, “Wait a minute. Two pitches near his face, and both strikes? Who's screwing up here: the ump or Leerhsen?”
He also takes cheap shots at Christy Mathewson for no reason I can fathom.
It's a minor thing. But if I don't have to leave Leerhsen's pages to find his own contradictions, why do I take the rest of it without at least some grains of salt?
Leerhsen does bring to life the lively, helter-skelter style of Cobb's playing and baserunning—what made him what he was. I'm near the end of the book now, and looking forward to seeing if—and if so, how—Leerhsen tears into the 1994 Ron Shelton bio, “Cobb,” and Ken Burns' “Baseball,” both of which, for modern fans, did great harm to Cobb's reputation.