For no obvious reason, 2015 has become the summer of Ty Cobb. Two new books about the famously belligerent outfielder are in print this year, one from SI editor Charles Leerhsen and another, more ambitiously-subtitled one—War on the Basepaths: The Definitive Biography of Ty Cobb—by independent historian Tim Hornbaker. Both are reclamation projects, attempts to mitigate the more infamous bits of the Cobb mythology. Hornbaker wrote a similar book about White Sox owner Charles Comiskey, and while showing the world that Comiskey was no cartoon villain is good work, doing the same for the Georgia Peach is more difficult. As protagonists go, the petty, vindictive Cobb, whose recorded acts of (often) racially-motivated violence are plenty, is a revisionist baseball historian’s Everest.
Still, there exists a fear of misremembering Cobb. The major popular accounts of the last 20 years are Al Stump’s Cobb, on which the Tommy Lee Jones biopic was based, and Ken Burns’s time-sucking documentary series Baseball. In the former, the author leaned on inside knowledge gained from ghostwriting Cobb’s official memoirs to tell stories that could never be confirmed, like the one about how the Tiger (apparently?) killed someone in 1912. In the latter, the moralistic tone of Burns’s American Epic demanded a villain, and Cobb, who spiked infielders and fought pitchers and sided with ownership over the reserve clause, fit enthusiastically, even without the murder. You can almost hear Burns goading Jody Powell, the voice actor who played Ty in re-enactments (and in an earlier life, served as Jimmy Carter’s press secretary) to intensify his sneer as the episodes progressed. The message from both projects was that Cobb was an unusually competitive man and that, moreover, his competitiveness may have harbored something darker. What if Cobb was a sociopath who also happened to play baseball?
Hornbaker’s new book attempts to chronicle that competitiveness but toss aside the evil. If Burns and Stump have Cobb as Floyd Mayweather, an awful human with revelatory talent that makes supporting him an exercise in complicity, Hornbaker counters with him as Kobe Bryant, a competitive purist who is willing to use every nuance of the rules (and early baseball, with all its unspoken agreements and traditions, could be said to have more nuances than rules) to leverage his natural ability to its absolute. Such pure competitors find insult wherever they see a lesser effort, or anyone beholden to the social mores that competition should offer an escape from. Joyful idiots are their enemy, and Cobb hated Ruth just like Kobe hated Shaq.
So fine, says Hornbaker, Cobb once ran into the stands to fight a fan. But so did the Babe. Sure, Cobb admitted to spiking second basemen, but he never complained when his own legs, according to a physician “from his hips down … were a succession of spike wounds and strawberries.” Sure, as a coach he worked pitchers into early retirement, but this was before the era of full bullpens, and quick careers were the norm. He wasn’t so bad, Hornbaker counters, it was just a different time.
On racial matters, was Cobb any more explicit in his biases than another white, upper-class rural Georgian of the era? To make a relativist argument against Cobb-as-racist requires a knowledge of social history that neither Hornbaker nor I possess, and while the author takes this as an opportunity to recuse himself from the question, I as a reader am willing to guess: Probably. Cobb’s father was a liberal state senator who worked against punitive education-funding bills aimed at bankrupting black schools. But that didn’t stop his son from growing up to simply say he thought “differently about the Negros, being from the South.” Moreover, almost every time Cobb’s temper flared beyond proportion, his target was a young black man, like Bungy Cummings, the park groundskeeper who once tried to shake his hand and caught a savage beating for the gesture.
The eyes of a man who was basically who you think he was. Photo via AP
For all the modesty of Hornbaker’s humanizing project, his results are tellingly unconvincing. Over and over, the author recounts Cobb’s actions, drawing in quotes from players and journalists on the subject of his bad behavior, but then floats one softball over the plate at the end, letting an old friend like Tris Speaker save the day by noting that while he, too, has heard all those stories, Ty always struck him, personally, as courteous and polite. No mention, of course, that Speaker was a Klansman.
This tactic returns every time credible doubt is required, and so the book leaves us with whole acres of well-manicured hagiography. For example, Ty’s first wife Charlie declares her intention to divorce him twice, on the grounds of physical and psychological abuse, and while there’s ample evidence in Cobb’s public life to suggest this might be true, Hornbaker doesn’t pursue confirmation. A little journalistic humility is good when telling 100-year-old stories, especially given the issues with the Stump biography, but too often these plot holes take advantage of Hornbaker’s natural tendency to pluralism, and this stops him from coming to the kind of conclusions that (while they’d be ruinous to his thesis) would make for a more definitive biography.
Though purists like to think of it as a goofy diversion from mainstream scholarship, the kind of thing your nerdy sociology prof does on weekends, baseball history is quite difficult to do well, and a lot of that comes from mistaking a sport for a story. Baseball has such a pronounced self-mythologizing streak that it’s difficult to talk about events and people separately from their place in a larger social narrative. This probably helps explain why we’ve lost so much of Cobb the person to the mythic antagonist others have made of him. Ty Cobb, of course, was halfway to villainy even without baseball historiography there to get him over the hump. The present irony is this: good historians like Hornbaker tend to be revisionists at heart, in that they look for ways to walk public opinion back from extremes. In this specific case, they end up too handcuffed to call a spade a racist, cheating, spade.
War on the Basepaths is addled by the kind of cognitive dissonance where obvious extrapolations from individual behavior to type (from “Ty Cobb did these several dozen bad things” to “Ty Cobb was not a very good man”) are ignored. If the way fans talked about baseball players, or even the way they talked about athletes, was allowed some distance from its mythopoetic ancestry in fable or epic, or if they stopped validating their fandoms on moral grounds, then maybe they could leave poor Tim Hornbaker alone to write a book about Ty Cobb that cast reasonable judgement on his subject. Instead, he reacts to the narrative instinct to paint Cobb as a kind of base-stealing trickster figure, sets out to make him a perfectionist anti-hero instead, and fails. Because he’s not that. Sometimes our villains are just lesser, blander villains.
War on the Basepaths is well-researched and well-told, but it respects its subject too much. As an attempt to reclaim Cobb the man, it succeeds only when it makes a mediocrity of him. The thing about bad men is they can’t be made heroes through normal storytelling, and Hornbaker doesn’t embrace the amorality he’d need to succeed here. His book is too polite to be the truth. He should blame Bob Costas for its troubles.
Jacob McArthur Mooney reads books and writes poems in Toronto. He is on Twitter at @McArthurMooney. Top photo via AP.