Clark: Has Ty Cobb’s truth gotten lost in Ty Cobb’s myth?

From Anna Clark at the Detroit Free Press on June 9, 2015, with SABR member Charles Leerhsen:

t wasn’t just baseball that was new. There was also the widespread use of electricity. The typewriter. The airplane. Moving pictures. And in those early years of the 20th Century, for the first time in history, people had enough leisure time and resources to seek out mass entertainment.

What did they choose to do? They watched baseball. And Detroit Tigers center fielder Ty Cobb was its first star.

But more than 50 years after his death, Cobb is remembered less for his astonishing ability on the field than as a monster fans love to hate. Books, plays, radio shows and newspapers have told and retold stories about Cobb as a mean-spirited egoist who sharpened his spikes to cut infielders on a slide, made racist taunts and beat up fans who looked at him funny. In the 1994 film “Cobb,” starring Tommy Lee Jones, the ballplayer is introduced as unshaven, surrounded by bottles of pills and booze and recklessly shooting his gun at a guest who knocks on his door. Woozy with painkillers, the Cobb character spins himself into a fury when he can’t get his biographer to describe him as “a prince among men.” The Free Press itself described its hometown hero as “dangerous to the point of dementia.” “No one came to his funeral,” is an erroneous but oft-quoted belief.

At the same time, a small contingent of fans has argued that Cobb is misunderstood: that his bad behavior should be understood as a product of his time, and in context of the trauma of his mother killing his father in Georgia just days before he shipped north to play ball in Detroit. And, revisionists say, his good deeds — like using money he made via savvy investing to finance a hospital in Georgia and a college scholarship fund — have been unjustly unheralded.

Cobb’s complexity has made it possible for fans to see in him whatever it is they want to see — and for writers, historians and filmmakers to emphasize the sides of Cobb they most want to present. It is not all that different from how the city of Detroit has experienced the public eye in the years since Cobb’s death in 1961. Just as Detroit’s best and worst characteristics have made it an object of fascination, Cobb’s story is one we just can’t drop. His talent alone would be enough to make him a legend — from the time he stole second, third and home on three consecutive pitches to the time he went on a 40-game hitting streak. But vile portrayals of the first player to be inaugurated into the Hall of Fame have lingered in our cultural memory for far more than his unmatched batting records.

Read the full article here:

Originally published: June 9, 2015. Last Updated: June 9, 2015.