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ty cobb

12 april 2016

I am just now getting to Charles Leerhsen's Ty Cobb, which was on my radar before its publication last year, and on my bedside table for much of the time since. There are just so many books. My motto remains "read at whim!" but the reality is that when publishers send me review copies, I bend my whim to their schedule, and the books I buy for myself often end up pre-empted for a while. I am very happy I got to Ty Cobb, though. It's whimsical too, an offbeat and contrarian look at a sport hero full of paradoxes.

Leerhsen's major innovation is to debunk the by-now-universal notion that Ty Cobb was a terrible racist. He does not go so far as to claim that Cobb was an angelic pacifist. But Leerhsen's thesis, supported by a fair amount of evidence both positive and negative, is that Cobb was an equal-opportunity belligerent who dealt comfortably with people both black and white, until he blew up and started smacking them around.

Leerhsen criticizes Charles Alexander's 1984 biography (also called Ty Cobb) and Al Stump's writing from 1961 through to 1994. He is careful to distinguish between Alexander's definitive academic work, which just seems hastily researched here and there, and Stump's popular writing, which seems mostly fabulated. Indeed, much of Leerhsen's closing chapters are devoted to a dismantling of Stump's bizarre assertions. Alexander revises the popular conception (largely Stump's creation, and peculiarly viral) that Cobb was a sociopath, but retains the idea that Cobb was bitterly racist. Leerhsen's research shows that the idea of a racist Cobb dissolves once you try to build a documentary foundation for it.

That's a welcome revision, but of course we're left with Leerhsen's subtitle, "a terrible beauty," a brawling, mercurial character who seemed unusually taken up with himself, even for a major sport celebrity. Cobb had other sides, as Leerhsen paints him. He could play the Southern gentleman, the outdoorsman, the businessman, even (as in Leerhsen's opening chapter) the actor playing a version of Ty Cobb. Alexander drew Cobb as haunted; Leerhsen shows him more as driven. The results are the same, whatever the hidden motivations.

Leerhsen's theme is that Cobb was the greatest there ever was in the game. Babe Ruth may have eclipsed him; Williams and Mays and Bonds would be contenders for the crown; but Cobb, for the early 20th century, exemplified baseball and became larger than his own sport, embodying it to a nation increasingly unified by newspapers, magazines, and newsreels. Indeed, American sports have often been reducible, in the public imagination, to a single player: Ruth, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods. Leerhsen implies that Ty Cobb was the pattern for such reduction.

It's a tendentious argument. Nap Lajoie was an earlier claimant to being the face of the American League, to the extent of having his teams named after him; though Lajoie was perhaps a far more local Cleveland phenomenon. Cobb was not objectively a greater player than Honus Wagner, and not far ahead of his eventual teammate and alleged partner in corruption Tris Speaker. Leerhsen, though, claims that Wagner and Speaker lacked "charisma," attributing that nebulous variety of brilliance to Cobb.

He may have a point. Ty Cobb died when I was two years old, and as Leerhsen notes, the years of his greatest fame preceded the sound-film and videotape eras that preserve the charisma of Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson, and later baseball icons (370). One rueful note in Ty Cobb is mention of an episode of I've Got a Secret where, as early as 1955, a panel of semi-professional celebrity-sleuths have no idea who the ex-Tiger could be. To re-imagine how much Cobb meant to American consciousness, we have to time-travel vicariously with someone as immersed in his legend as Leerhsen. Leerhsen talks us brilliantly through his imaginative recreation of Cobb, in prose that is admirably witty and densely allusive.

The baseball details in Leerhsen's Ty Cobb are nowhere near as ample as in Alexander's, and that's not really a problem. Pages of statistics don't make for good reading anyway, and at times Leerhsen even abandons blow-by-blow chronology, figuring you can get it elsewhere. At times, however, Leerhsen's grasp of the statistical basis for baseball history and analysis seems a little tenuous. He relies on a 1991 assessment of Cobb's peak seasons (252) that now seems antediluvian in sabermetric terms. And once in a while there's a baseball detail that seems thrown off without much critical thought, in hopes of adding some vividness to an already high-concept story. I'll embark on some baseball pedantry for the rest of this review, so feel free to abandon me on the note of high praise I've just sounded for this exciting, accessible book. I don't really mean to take it down much in what follows.

But, since I spend so much time poring over stats, and ought to put it to some sort of use … one item from Leerhsen's discussion of Cobb's managerial career bothered me. It's an offhand remark:

He made so many pitching changes that opposing managers complained to [league president] Ban Johnson that he was delaying games. Not infrequently, he would pull his ostensible starting pitcher after one batter and replace him with a man who threw from the other side, forcing his counterpart to remake his lineup or suffer the consequences. (326)
Now, at Baseball-Reference.com, you can check how many times Cobb pulled a pitcher after one batter while he was managing the Detroit Tigers. Turns out he did it twice in six years: 25 April 1921 and 29 September 1923, both times against the Cleveland Indians, managed by Speaker. Overall, in those six seasons, big-league managers pulled a pitcher after one batter seven times, and Cobb was the only manager to do it twice, so at least he did it more frequently than anybody else. Overall, though, Cobb wasn't the quickest manager to pull a pitcher in the first inning during the 1920s. That would be Branch Rickey: the wheels were always turning in Rickey's baseball mind.

Did Cobb make an inordinate number of pitching changes – enough that opponents would complain to the league office about him? In 1921, the Tigers were third in the AL in the number of relief appearances, third again in 1922. In 1923, they led the league, were second in 1924, and then fourth in 1925, before leading the league again in Cobb's final year, 1926. Cobb did use a lot of pitchers, but it wasn't like anyone would have special grounds to complain about him in particular. And the Tigers had the next-to-worst ERA in the American League by starting pitchers from 1921-26. A manager would be derelict if he didn't pull those guys regularly.

It's an almost infinitesimal point, but shows that Leerhsen himself, on a fractal scale, isn't hasty to check an assertion against the data, as long as the assertion makes for good theater.

Of course, it's still possible that opposing managers would complain to Johnson about Cobb just for the heck of complaining about Ty Cobb.

Leerhsen, Charles. Ty Cobb: A terrible beauty. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015. GV 865 .C6L44

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