Ty Cobb wanted to play. But none of us could stand the son of a bitch when we was alive, so we told him to stick it!
Those words, spoken by Ray Liotta’s Shoeless Joe Jackson, are among several memorable lines in the classic baseball movie Field of Dreams. They point to a generally known, but potentially untrue, portrait of one of baseball’s greatest players.
I’ll admit, when I first started writing this article, I was going to talk about how Ty Cobb was a miserable person that nobody liked, and, in the end, he died alone and with regret. Though, as I began to read more about him, it became clear that Cobb may well be one of the most misunderstood players in baseball history. That is not to say that he was a saint, but that the stories and legends of Cobb as a miserable son of a bitch that nobody could stand may not tell the whole story.
Ty Cobb was among the first players elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, alongside Babe Ruth, Christy Mathewson, Honus Wager and Walter Johnson. Cobb received all but four of the votes that were cast on that first ballot.
Upon his retirement, Cobb held career records for games played (3,035), at bats (11,434), runs (2,246), hits (4,189), total bases (5,854), and batting average (.366). Cobb also retired with the twentieth century record for most career stolen bases, with 892. (Society for American Baseball Research)
While most of those marks have since been eclipsed (Cobb is second in runs and hits, fourth in stolen bases, and fifth in games played, at bats and total bases), it may be fair to say that his career batting average will not be threatened. Ted Williams is the only player born in the 20th century that has even come within 25 points of Cobb’s career batting average. Nobody has even hit .350 for a season since Josh Hamilton hit .359 with the Rangers in 2010.
However, the story of Ty Cobb goes far beyond what you will read on the stat sheets. As with any player, the statistics only tell one part of the story. Certainly, when it comes time for Hall of Fame voting, that is the story that most people look towards, but they say nothing about the quality (or lack thereof) of one’s character.
Ty Cobb may be one of the most slandered players in baseball history. This is, in no small part, due to author Harry Stump, whose relationship with Cobb is outlined in the movie Cobb starring Tommy Lee Jones as the titular figure. However, in recent years, Stump’s portrayal of Cobb as an egocentric, out of control, “son of a bitch” that nobody could stand, has come into question. There are those who claim that Stump’s work on Cobb was nothing more than overblown sensationalism made up to sell a few stories. Certainly, it has worked.
The rumors of Cobb’s less than stellar personality have grown through the years to the point that some are more fiction and legend than actual portrayals of a once living, breathing man.
In Ken Burns’ epic documentary series Baseball, Ty Cobb is portrayed as a rough man, who didn’t take any crap from anybody, who played the game hard, and died without a lot of friends. There’s the story of the heckler he beat up during a game with the New York Highlanders.
Cobb was the target of unrelenting heckling from a New York fan by the name of Claude Luecker (or Lucker, depending on the source). Cobb had enough when his heckler referred to his “mother’s color and morals”. He went into the stands and started attacking the man. Now, as sensationalized as this story has become, it wasn’t all that uncommon in those days for players to go into the stand to confront fans. The difference here: AL President Ban Johnson suspended Cobb indefinitely.
The suspension only lasted 10 days because his teammates ended up refusing to play until Cobb was reinstated. Not necessarily because of their fondness for Cobb (that, too, is a matter for debate), but because they believed it set a bad precedent for future players.
Cobb was aggressive on and off the field, and, as a result, did not rack up a lot of friends. Allegedly, at the end of his life, Cobb told comic Joe E. Brown that he made a lot of mistakes in life and that he would do things differently if he could. Of course, I imagine that is a sentiment many people have.
Stump’s portrayal as a terrible racist has been under scrutiny. In an interview, Buck O’Neil, former Negro League player, said that Ty Cobb was very hostile to people, not only black people. O’Neil goes on to talk about how any white man from the South was going to have prejudice against black people because that is what they were taught growing up. “God never made anything ugly. Somebody had to teach Ty Cobb to be prejudice.”
That being said, it is clear, at least later in life, that Cobb held no such sentiments regarding black ballplayers and integration in the game of baseball. In fact, Cobb publicly spoke up in support of African American players in baseball, saying they should be accepted, “not grudgingly, but wholeheartedly.”
Stumps’ writing about Ty Cobb following his death, with the benefit of hindsight and better research, comes off as nothing more than a hit piece and a vendetta against a person who, while not necessarily likable, wasn’t the total monster he was portrayed.
Again, I’m not saying that Cobb was the darling of the American Pastime, but perhaps the stories that have been shared through the years don’t really give us an idea of who the man really was.
Cobb was a fascinating character and undoubtedly one of the greatest players to have ever put on a uniform. Just know that the person you think you know may not really be the man that was.
As for me, I’ll be putting a new book on my reading list, Charles Leerhsen’s Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty (not an affliate link) to get a better understanding of this baseball great.