Monday, April 05, 2010

Revisit: Cobb - by Al Stump

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Revisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that now deserve a second look.

An "absolute shit" was how Ernest Hemingway described him. "He had a screw was like his brain was miswired so that the least damned thing would set him off," the American writer remarked. To Harold Seymour, he was "temperamental, humorless, egocentric." "With Detroit he had no friends...they hated his guts," the historian once wrote. Philadelphia A's manager Connie Mack colorfully summarized him as a "back-alley artist" and a "no-good ruffian." Perhaps player Fred Haney said it best: "He had spells, fits. Unimportant things made him blow. Some of the boys thought it was a case of brain fever."

Such is the image of Ty Cobb that dominates Al Stump's stellar 1994 biography, now rightly regarded as one of the finest sports biographies ever penned. Expertly written and meticulously researched, Cobb is as close to legitimate historical writing as a sports-based biography can get. Stump, who previously acted as ghostwriter for Cobb's one-sided and deceptively titled autobiography My Life in Baseball: The True Record, produced the definitive and most objective examination of the ballplayer yet with this study. Written fluidly and with a flair for the both the mundane and dramatic aspect's of Cobb's life, it belongs on any serious list of the last century's best biographies.

The Ty Cobb that emerges from the pages of this biography was most often a bastard. Not in the literal sense - the ballplayer was the son of a teacher father and underage teenage bride mother - but in ways that such a term cannot possibly fully capture. Cobb was deeply flawed, both on and off the diamond; it's no wonder only three players attended his funeral in 1961. Despite his obvious admiration for Cobb as an athlete, Stump is brutally direct when examining Cobb as a person. The depiction is not pretty: short-tempered, excessively racist even by the standards of his time, negligent as a father and husband, frequently brawling with fans, teammates, opponents and even umpires upon the slightest perceived insult, Cobb comes across as a loose cannon and live wire rolled into one.

His sins were many and were almost so frequent as to border on the type of fisticuffs-infused excess usually reserved for a violent Hollywood blockbuster. Often his victims were black; in 1906 he choked a black woman, while in 1909 he somehow managed to escape serious jail time after an altercation with a hotel employee resulted in the employee being stabbed numerous times by Cobb. Whites weren't exempt from such outbursts either; in one infamous incident, Cobb climbed into the stands to rough up a crippled fan who had been jeering him during a game. The man, who only had two fingers on one hand and none on the other, was defenseless as Cobb pounded him. The crowd's cries for mercy were met with none. "I don't care if he has no legs" Cobb reportedly snarled during the attack.

But goddamn he was a fantastic player, as Stump demonstrates throughout this biography. Still today Cobb's stats - his career batting average, number of hits, stolen bases, batting titles, to mention but a few - defy believability, even though the outfielder played most of his career in the so-called deadball era. Stump convincingly shows that Cobb was essentially a scientific ballplayer, with an emphasis placed on precision hitting, sometimes-reckless base stealing and mental warfare waged against opponents and, in some cases, teammates, officials and club owners. Cobb mastered the art of antagonism on the diamond; trash talking was part of his repertoire long before it had a formal name, while his spikes-out slides frequently left opponents' legs bloodied or worse. To Stump's credit, he never gets bogged down in regurgitating Cobb's gaudy career numbers, instead carefully weaving specific plays and events into the broader narrative of the player's life.

Though Stump offers an unflinchingly honest summary of Cobb's often reprehensible actions, the author still manages to evoke some degree of sympathy for the baseball legend. The burden of coping with his father's death - shot to death by Cobb's mother under mysterious circumstances in 1905 - apparently weighed heavily on Cobb throughout his life. The degree to which that event influenced the player's actions in both his personal and professional life is of course open to conjecture, but Stump suggests the impact on Cobb's psyche was severe. Cobb in some ways was a forerunner to the modern athlete: he invested and endorsed wisely, becoming a millionaire in the process, challenged baseball's restrictive labor policies decades before free agency would become a reality, glad-handed with politicians and presidents and even established a college fund for underprivileged Georgia students. Essentially, Ty Cobb became a brand unto himself, with all the positive and negative connotations that brand evinced.

In his final years Cobb cut a pathetic figure; still prone to spasms of violence and unpredictability, his last days were spent battling the effects of cancer, diabetes and overconsumption of booze as his health - but apparently not his acerbic tongue - declined. He died with none of the fanfare and goodwill afforded his rival Babe Ruth - whose brawny, long-ball style of play Cobb loathed - and will likely be remembered as much for his sandpaper personality as his various baseball achievements. No one will ever truly know what made Cobb tick; maybe he was mentally tweaked as those who encountered him - or who otherwise felt his physical or mental wrath - him stated.

Though Cobb remains inscrutable in many ways over a century after his first professional game, Al Stump's biography offers the most complete understanding of the man that we are likely to ever have. As sports fans we sometimes tend to romanticize our sports giants and ignore any unsavory aspects that cloud such a mythical ideal. Al Stump's biography glosses over nothing; impartial as any such book should be yet written with an appreciation for Cobb's on-field accomplishments, Cobb is a brilliant, and often troubling, account of a man whose fame - and infamy - are still etched in both baseball's and America's history.

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