Ty Cobb: The Man vs. The Myth

Forget his reputation, Ty Cobb was an OK guy, according to new biography

As baseball’s first celebrity, Ty Cobb’s legend grew after his death in 1961. In a rotten direction. A new biography about one of the sport’s greatest talents, Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty” tells the story of how Cobb became wrongly known as a racist, violent monster.

Sandra Svoboda talks with author  Charles Leerhsen, who says Cobb is arguably the best baseball player of all time based on his stats.  They talk about Cobb’s life and athletics, the myths surrounding him, and how these relate to society today.  Some of the main points they discuss are:

  • Cobb’s reputation:  Ty Cobb is infamously considered a misogynist and racist, but Leerhsen says that this does not coincide with the evidence.  He blames Al Stump, a sportswriter.  Leerhsen says that the myth probably took hold because it was shocking and fascinating, fit assumptions people made about Cobb as a southerner born in 1886, and gave people someone to feel superior to. 
  • Entertainment culture: Leerhsen says that he was drawn to Cobb and his era in part because of the massive societal changes that took place at the time, such as the rise of mass entertainment, including vaudeville and sports.  He says that America was still working out baseball etiquette, and fans would often jump onto the field and chase umpires.   
  • Strategy: Leerhsen says that Cobb’s strategy was a “mental hazard” to his opponents.  He says that some fans claimed Ty Cobb walking was more interesting than Babe Ruth hitting a home run, and that Cobb’s strategic approach to the game made him the most interesting player in baseball.  He says Cobb enchanted audiences and filled stadiums.
  • Personal life: Leerhsen talks about Cobb’s personal life and personality.  He says two weeks prior to when Cobb arrived to play in Detroit in 1905, the player’s mother shot and killed his father.  In 1906 when he returned to Detroit, his teammates hazed him.  Leerhsen says that Cobb stuck up for himself against the hazing, and eventually had a nervous breakdown.  He says that baseball players at this time were not celebrities, but often were regarded more like carnies.  He says Cobb was smart and gentlemanly, and did not get along with many of his rougher teammates, who were frequently drunk. 

Click the audio link above to hear the full conversation.