erik lundegaard

Monday August 31, 2015

Books: Two Authors Rehabilitate the Reputations of Ty Cobb and Billy Martin

Billy Martin and Cesar Tovar, Met Stadium, 1969

Billy Martin, with Cesar Tovar, at Met Stadium in Bloomington, Minn. in 1969.

It's been a good year for well-researched biographies on quick-tempered baseball players with tarnished historical reputations. 

First, we got Bill Pennington's bio on Billy Martin, the fiery skipper of the '69 Twins, '71-'73 Tigers, '73-'75 Rangers, '80-'82 A's, and of course various Yankees iterations from 1975 to 1988. Almost every team he managed had a losing record before he arrived and a winning record once he began to run things. He turned teams around. Every time.

His stint with the Oakland A's may have been the most amazing. By 1979, the once-powerful A's had been depleted by owner Chuck Finley in a rebuke of free agency and fandom, and the team went 54-108. Then Martin got them, recognized the talent (including future Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson), and, without much change in roster, the team went 83-79.

Pennington, in fact, argues that Martin may have been the greatest baseball manager of all time, but he spends most of the book trying to rehabiliate him. Martin was known as a drunk, a brawler (see: “marshmallow salesman”), a manager who abused the young arms of his A's staff, and according to some, a racist. Pennington's defense: 1) Martin was alcoholic, so 2) he spent a lot of time in bars, and as a famous scrawny guy with a fighting rep, rarely started fights. He also suggests, 3) was greatly exaggerated, and 4) was just Reggie Jackson and he was full of shit. Both Rickey Henderson and Rod Carew dismiss the charge out of hand. 

Charles Leerhsen, author of “Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty,” has the tougher task. Cobb's negative rep has grown so much in my lifetime that he's almost seen as a monster. The main strikes against him: 1) he was a dirty ballplayer (sharpening spikes, etc.), who was also 2) a virulent racist. Oh, and he might have killed somebody, too.

Leerhsen dismisses the first charge with quotes from Cobb's contemporaries who basically say he fought hard but within the parameters of the game. As to the second charge, Leerhsen breaks down each incident. He sticks to the facts and uncovers others from primary sources. Basically he argues that Cobb had both a high level of propriety and a quick temper. He expected service people, whatever their race, to keep their places, and when they didn't he got angry. He was EOC: an Equal Opportunity Curmudgeon.

So why did Cobb's rep get so besmirched? Because he tried to correct it. He didn't like being known as a spike-sharpener and agreed to a late-life autobiography to set the record straight. His publisher then chose as his ghostwriter a freelancer named Al Stump, who spent some time with Cobb, and who then delivered an autobiography full of wild inaccuracies. Cobb despised it but there was little he could do. He died a few months after publication. A few months after that, Stump published an article in True magazine entitled, “Ty Cobb's Wild 10-Month Fight to Live,” which later became the basis for Ron Shelton's awful 1994 film. In it, Cobb is a pistol-packing, pistol-whipping, booze-and-pill-swilling maniac. It's a lurid, sensationalistic tale befitting the magazine in which it appeared. But it took on a life of its own. In the era of “Ball Four,” it began to be believed. 

What awful irony. In trying to correct the record, the record became completely unrecognizable. Cobb began to be viewed as the opposite of the Southern gentleman he always imagined himself to be.

There's a different kind of irony in Pennington's book—one the author doesn't remark upon.

Martin was raised in the “gritty, crowded, downtrodden streets of West Berkeley,” according to Pennington. They were “homes without lawns” with “tattered backyard fences.” Nearby, Pennington says, the hills climbed upwards until you arrived at more stately mansions. The kids from West Berkeley called the rich kids “the Goats,” and there was resentment both ways. Some of Billy's resentment fueled his career. He wanted to prove he was just as good, or better, than the kids who had everything. And how did he do this? I would argue he lent his talents, first as a player and then as a manager, to the richest, most stately mansion in Major League Baseball: the New York Yankees. Billy Martin succeeded by becoming a goat.

Both biographies are highly recommended, by the way.

Ty Cobb and Don Newcombe

Ty Cobb, with Don Newcombe, in the 1950s.

Posted at 05:54 AM on Monday August 31, 2015 in category Books  
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Twitter: @ErikLundegaard