Cobb: A Fascinating, Talented Jerk
Wednesday - August 20, 2008
Even after a third read, 14 years beyond its initial release and some 40 years following the interviews on which the book was based, Cobb: A Biography remains one of the best sports biographies ever published, and one that upon further review doesn’t lose its ability to fascinate, disturb, excite and entertain. While the book’s ranking against other such publications may be open to debate, that Ty Cobb was the game’s most ferocious, intelligent, conflicted, brutal and, in the end, tragic, figure is without question. Or as Ernest Hemingway said, “Ty Cobb, the greatest of all ballplayers - and an absolute sh—.”
Tyrus Raymond Cobb helped usher in baseball’s modern era when the sport moved from a supposed blight on American society where mothers were known to chastise their sons with comments that “you’re acting no better than a ballplayer” to a profession worthy of pursuit. Cobb’s father, William Herschel, an educator, farmer and politician in rural Georgia, was just such an opponent. The man whom Cobb called “the greatest man I ever knew” felt baseball was beneath the efforts of decent men, and initially forbade his son to take part. “There is nothing so useless on Earth as knocking a string ball around a pasture with ruffians,” quotes the author of William Cobb. It wasn’t until his father accepted the fact that his determined son was never going to enter medical or law school that he finally gave his consent to give baseball a try.
This show of support combined with unbelievable talent and a burning desire to not just win, but to completely dominate opponents, would lead the junior Cobb onto unmatched athletic achievement. His psychological problems that first began to appear as a child (at the age of 10 he beat a classmate for missing a word during a spelling bee) would only get worse as the years progressed, ensuring that the part of Cobb that drove away nearly everyone who ever knew or cared about him, and that caused him to die alone and practically unmourned, would occupy as much column space as his unmatched athleticism that produced a .367 batting average, 36 successful steals of home and, most likely, the lone ability to score from first base on an infield hit.
Author Al Stump’s work has been hailed for its depth and honesty, but his biggest achievement may not have come within the book’s 420 pages, but from surviving the process of documenting the life of a man who at his best was, according to Hall of Famer George Sisler, “the greatest and most amazing ballplayer I ever saw” and a paranoid megalomaniac who carried a loaded pistol with him at all times and who bragged about beating to death a would-be mugger in a Detroit alley with another pocket firearm. The Peach went on to collect two triples and a double before receiving medical help for the stab wound he suffered in the melee.
Recommended by screenwriter Gene Fowler and legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice, Stump signed on to ghostwrite the ballplayer’s official biography, My Life in Baseball: The True Record - a job that almost everyone familiar with the old ballplayer warned Stump to refuse. ACobb in-law warned Stump that the he may come under physical danger. The prediction prophetic amidst Cobb’s anger, suspicion and drug- and alcohol-fueled rage that caused the author to develop a “nervous twitch” and to “sleep with one eye open.” With Cobb having final editorial say over the book, most of the true story was left untold.
But after three decades, and perhaps after coming to terms with his conflicted feelings about a man whom he admired for his physical gifts, despised for his temper and treatment of others and pitied for his failing health that forced him to live in near-constant pain, Stump compiled the mass of unpublished information to the publication that Booklist called, “Alternatively chilling and oddly moving.” They got it exactly right.
Cobb was a bastard, yet created educational fund for underprivileged children and secretly supported dozens for former ballplayers for decades with anonymous checks. Cobb was as evil as he was talented and Cobb: A Biography takes you along for the confusing and exciting ride.
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