Martin: Q&A with Ty Cobb biographer Howard Rosenberg

From Philip Martin at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on July 1, 2018, with mention of SABR member Howard Rosenberg, Charles Leerhsen, and Tim Hornbaker:

dozen years ago I wrote about a four-volume biography of Adrian Constantine “Cap” Anson, a 19th-century baseball player some believe is the most important figure ever — bigger than Babe Ruth or Jackie Robinson. Anson was not only the game’s first great hitter, but the man primarily responsible for the color line that existed in major league baseball until Robinson and Branch Rickey broke it.

Still, most readers might be forgiven for finding a four-volume biography of anyone — much less a player from baseball’s dead ball era — exhausting. What I found remarkable about Howard W. Rosenberg’s work was his combination of scrupulous scholarship with an almost eerie absence of authorial ego. Rosenberg’s methods were refreshingly basic. He relied most heavily on contemporary newspaper accounts from which he quoted at length. While he occasionally expressed opinions, he was quick to offer documentary evidence both for and against his suppositions.

His style could be abrupt, but for the reader already interested in the subject Rosenberg could be revelatory. His judgments were nuanced. He pointed out that while Anson was certainly racist and on a number of occasions refused to take the field when other teams used black players, he was also a well-known hothead. His influence on teams other than his own has probably been overstated.


Now Rosenberg has turned his attention to another baseball figure, one much better known than Anson, and delivered the comparatively breezy single-volume Ty Cobb Unleashed: The Definitive Counter-Biography of the Chastened Racist (Tile Books, $32). Cobb is famous for a couple of things: He was baseball’s best hitter before the emergence of paradigm-shifting Babe Ruth and for being a horrible, violent racist. That was exploited in Ron Shelton’s myth-embracing 1994 film Cobb, which starred Tommy Lee Jones as a wife-beating, game-throwing spike-sharpener who sexually assaults a woman in a hotel room and confesses to murder.

Rosenberg, as much as is possible, assays these myths and returns a portrait of a man of his time as well as a useful and insightful critique into the literature surrounding Cobb. The author has not only produced his own scrupulously sourced biography — he fact-checked all the other major biographies of Cobb since 1961’s My Life in Baseball, Cobb’s autobiography written with sportswriter Al Stump (whose 1994 book Cobb: The Life and Times of the Meanest Man Who Ever Played Baseball was the basis for Shelton’s movie).

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Originally published: July 3, 2018. Last Updated: July 3, 2018.