Author says Cobb's reputation built on tales

Harsh history associated with legend traced to erroneous stories

May 17th, 2016

CLEVELAND -- The building that housed one of Ty Cobb's most famous fights is gone. The old Euclid Hotel was razed long ago. In its place stands a glass-and-granite high-rise, gleaming in the spring sun.
Were we to believe the legend, then right here, mere steps from the spot where a café now serves tofu bowls and green smoothies to people on their lunch breaks, is where Cobb tussled with a black man and stabbed him to death.
You've heard that story, right? Most baseball fans have. It supposedly speaks to all we assume about Cobb, a great ballplayer with a mean streak and a racist wrath.
There are a lot of these stories floating around about Cobb.
Did you hear the one about him fighting a black groundskeeper over the condition of the Tigers' Spring Training field and then choking the man's wife when she intervened?
Or the one about him jumping into the stands to beat up a fan who had no arms?
Perhaps you've heard that he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Or that he pistol-whipped African-American men simply because they had the gall to share a sidewalk with him. Or that he once killed a guy with a baseball bat and then used that very bat to hit a home run the next day.
Certainly you know he sharpened his spikes to wound opposing players.
This is the monster we point to as a means to convey how wild baseball's olden days really were and how intellectually inconsistent it is to deny anybody entry into the Hall of Fame because of the character clause.
Rougned Odor? He punched Jose Bautista square in the jaw, but he's got nothing on the Cobb we think we know.
This is the Cobb who author Charles Leerhsen thought he knew when he decided to write a biography about him.
It was a slam-dunk subject. There had not been a major Cobb book in a couple of decades, so Leerhsen, a former Sports Illustrated editor, figured he'd add some new and nuanced research to the work of previous writers, finding previously uncovered examples of Cobb being an awful person, and he'd have a hit on his hands.
Turns out, Leerhsen does have a hit on his hands. But not the one he intended. The truth he's helped uncover in his book, "Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty," is changing old assumptions and painting a picture of Cobb that -- get this -- actually makes him appear to be a human being.
A flawed human being. A human being whose life did, indeed, come with its fair share of tussles and tumult. But a human being who was not the racist lunatic so many baseball fans assume him to be.
"If you buy one version of the image of Ty Cobb," Leerhsen said, "it's so one-dimensional and paper thin that it's almost like a cartoon character. He's always in the same emotional place, just like Bugs Bunny or Wile E. Coyote, always doing the same thing when we check in on them."

How did Cobb, an inaugural member of the Hall of Fame who hit .366 and tallied 4,189 hits over a 24-year Major League career, come to be known as much for his failings as his successes?
One author points to another.
Cobb died on July 17, 1961. Two months later, his autobiography, "My Life in Baseball," was released by Doubleday. The book's actual author was a man named Al Stump, whom Cobb had chosen to be his ghostwriter. But shortly before his death, Cobb was so offended by the tone and the factual errors contained in the manuscript that he wrote a letter to Doubleday demanding that Stump be fired and the book rewritten from scratch. When that letter received no reply, he wrote another threatening to sue. Cobb died fighting the content of a book that bore his name.
But that book was nothing. With Cobb dead, Stump sold the story of the ballplayer's final days to a magazine called -- ironically enough, in this instance -- "True." The article painted Cobb, referred to as "Tyrus the Terrible," as a grumpy malcontent who drank whiskey like it was water, fired his pistol outside a motel window to scare passersby, bickered with people over money and, yes, bragged about killing a guy on the streets of Detroit.
"Stump sold this piece to them for $4,000, and in every way it was an exaggeration, to the point of fiction," Leerhsen said. "He said he spent months with Cobb, when, in reality, it was only a few days. Stump was a good writer in the sense that he understood it was all about telling stories, and the article is filled with anecdotes that read like heavy-handed 1950s B-movie scenarios."
In the story, which ran in three segments, Cobb threatens emergency-room doctors who overcharged him, goes to a bank president's home in the middle of the night to wake him up with a gun to stop a $5 check, flings his drink at a bartender and has Stump himself sneak him out of the hospital for late-night visits to bars and casinos (Stump said he complied out of fear for his life).
The article was replete with these tall tales but short on the sort of details -- names, places, etc. -- that one would assume would be prevalent in a piece written by a man supposedly embedded with his subject for so long.
It was a sensation. And so the myths about Cobb grew.
The most egregious lie spread by the article was that Cobb killed one of three men who tried to mug him in an alley in 1912. Stump quotes Cobb saying he left the man "not breathing, in his own rotten blood." In a subsequent Cobb biography -- the one paired with the 1994 Tommy Lee Jones movie "Cobb," which is itself littered with misleading material -- Stump mentions a press report about "an unidentified body found off Trumbull Avenue in an alley."
We know that Cobb did get into an altercation during an attempted robbery at that time. There were press reports about the incident.
But a body? Back in 1996, the peer-reviewed journal The National Pastime examined autopsy records and newspaper reports from that time and found no record of any deaths due to blunt-force trauma in Detroit in August 1912.
So, sorry, there's no reason to believe Cobb killed a guy.
He certainly didn't kill anyone at the Euclid Hotel, though a fight with hotel employees has, like everything else in Cobb's life, become the stuff of legend.
The prevailing thought is that he entered the hotel late at night, asked the bellhop to take him up on the elevator to a room where some teammates were playing poker, and brawled with the bellhop and the night watchman when it was suggested the intoxicated Cobb return to his room. The watchman, George Stanfield, pushed a civil suit against Cobb and later came out with a $115 settlement, and Cobb pleaded guilty to a charge of simple assault and paid a $100 fine.
Really, the reason for the conflict and its outcome in court doesn't matter nearly as much as the way the incident has been used to cast Cobb as a racist. We have Charles C. Alexander's 1984 biography on Cobb to thank for that. In it, Alexander describes both the bellboy and Stanfield (whose name is misspelled "Stansfield") as black, when, in fact, simple searches of census records in the present day confirm that Stanfield was white. And given that the bellboy was never referred to as a "Negro" in newspaper reports from 1912 (regrettably, that was the common print reference to African-Americans at that time), there is very little reason to believe that he was black.
And just in case the point needs repeating, no one died in that altercation, either.

So Cobb's reputation is largely based on the works of two men: Stump, who seemed to take great delight and certainly made good money profiling Cobb as a loose cannon after he was dead and gone (and also, if autograph expert Ron Keurajian is to be believed, made additional money forging Cobb's signature on a variety of items), and Alexander, who sprinkled in racial elements that simply didn't exist otherwise.
Stump died in 1995. Attempts to reach Alexander for comment were unsuccessful.
We have zero evidence to suggest that Cobb was a racist. He was a Southerner, born in Georgia in 1886, and it has become easy to equate that upbringing to a racist bent. But Cobb's great-grandfather preached against slavery. His father was an advocate for the public education of black Americans. And Cobb himself was a vocal supporter of integration in baseball when asked about Jackie Robinson in 1952.
"The Negro should be accepted wholeheartedly, and not grudgingly," he said. "The Negro has the right to play professional baseball and whose [sic] to say he has not?"
None of which is to suggest Cobb ought to be a candidate for canonization.
There is no denying that Cobb was a brawler, though, even there, his actions ought to be taken in the context of his times. For instance, in the early 1900s, rowdy fans unleashing awful language on players was quite common. White Sox manager Jim Callahan voiced a concern that the gambling element "indulges in this sort of abuse." According to Leerhsen's research, Pirates manager Fred Clarke pushed a heckler down a flight of stairs, Phillies coach Kid Gleason chased down a fan who had hit him on the head with a soda bottle, and Hall of Famers Cy Young and Rube Waddell were among the players who rushed into the stands to fight hecklers.
So it actually wasn't even all that unusual that Cobb did, indeed, flail away at a fan in the stands in 1912. What's unusual is that this fan was missing two fingers on one hand and all five on the other -- the result of an accident at his job as a pressman for The New York Times.
Of course, this story, like all the others, has been exaggerated over the years, with some tellings insisting that the man lacked arms or legs entirely. Quite likely, at the moment he flung himself into the stands and took action, Cobb knew nothing of the man's handicap and only that the man had been heckling him for more than a year. Cobb would receive a 10-day suspension and $50 fine for his actions, but his teammates (also, apparently, far more focused on the heckling than the handicap) thought enough of him that they refused to play a game in Philadelphia in protest. It was, unofficially, baseball's first player strike, and it certainly doesn't compute with the oft-stated notion that Cobb was despised even by his own teammates.
Whether Cobb was a "dirty player," as is often suggested, is also difficult to prove. Leerhsen's contention is that Cobb had nine varieties of slides he used on the basepaths, depending on the situation, but none of them came with the intent to slash and gash. He's able to back up this contention by unearthing quotes from former catcher Wally Schang, who called Cobb a "pretty slider," and from former teammate Germany Schaefer, who called Cobb "a game-square fellow who never cut a man with his spikes intentionally in his life."
Facts have been known to get in the way of a good story, and, even at a time when factual information is easily accessible at our fingertips, stories get conflated, twisted and distorted into something that only vaguely represents reality, if at all.
Because he was baseball's first legitimate celebrity, because reports from his era are not readily obtained and because he was, conveniently, dead by the time the most vicious of lies began to spread about him, Cobb was an easy mark.
"Being a baseball player," Leerhsen said, "he fell right between the serious and the silly. He also fell right in this age where he was sort of an antique. He was kind of a whiteboard that you could use to write your own version of his life. If you said the same thing about Abraham Lincoln -- that he strangled his black gardener and then his wife when she came to his aid -- you would sound ridiculous. But with Cobb, people just went with it. Nobody asked questions."
So by all means, start asking yourself if the stories you've heard about Cobb make a lick of sense.
Appropriately enough, just outside the main entrance to the U.S. Bank Centre -- that building now standing on the site of Cobb's more infamous, exaggerated sins -- is an artwork bench that spells out two words: "Change things." It can be construed as an appeal to progress, to putting aside old assumptions and traditions and seeking out new truths.
Maybe it's time we change the way we think about Ty Cobb.