An Off-Base Caricature: Ty Cobb’s Reputation as Baseball’s Bad Boy

Ty Cobb Terrile Beauty - Conlon photo of Cobb stealing third base
Charles M. Conlon's famous photograph of Ty Cobb stealing third base, 1909

Ty Cobb is widely reputed for two things: (1) being the greatest base stealer in the history of Major League Baseball, and (2) being an asshole.

Former Sports Illustrated editor Charles Leerhsen begs to differ with one of those characterizations in Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, his revelatory and revisionist new biography of the baseball great.

In an interview with Signature, Leerhsen said he expected to find the Ty Cobb of lore, a racist who played dirty and got into too many fights. Instead, Leerhsen found a Cobb who was, yes, intense and prone to fist fights, but one whom previous biographers had caricatured into an exaggerated version of himself.

"I thought I was going to find fresh examples of him being a monster," Leerhsen said, "but I quickly found that he was a completely different person and that this weird thing had happened with his story that had something to do with our love of monsters and villains. People would rather have the wild and crazy story than the truth."

Leerhsen talked to Signature about how he researched the book and came to find a much different Ty Cobb than the one he expected.

Signature: The book is subtitled A Terrible Beauty, so let's start with the "terrible" part. What’s the source of that?

Charles Leerhsen: Cobb’s philosophy of the game was to create a mental hazard for the opposition. He was terrible if you were on the other side. He was always trying to worry you, disrupt you, get you off balance mentally.

SIG: Intimidate?

CL: Yeah, sometimes. Worry you, scare you. In a way we kind of take for granted now in sports, he was clever. In those days -- he came up in 1905 -- those 19th-century attitudes about sports prevailed, and one of those was the gentleman’s rule that you don’t make life unpleasant for the other guy. I think that was the source of a lot of the controversy around Cobb, but he played the game the way it’s played now.

SIG: You mentioned in the book that he stole third and stole home in a game when there was some controversy on the field but no official timeout had been called, and it was considered poor taste to do that sort of thing.

CL: Well, maybe by some. It was a hilarious thing to do, and he was taking advantage of the fact that time had not been called. He was playing within the rules. I’m sure the Yankees, who he was playing against, thought it was in poor taste. He played with a physical wit and sometimes was a Charlie Chaplin-esque or Buster Keaton-esque character on the bases.

SIG: You named two previous biographers that you really thought had gotten Cobb wrong. How do you think that happened?

CL: I usually say that one unscrupulous hack started a snowball rolling and it turned into an avalanche of lies, but it’s a bit more of a complicated story. Al Stump was first hired to write an as-told-to autobiography of Cobb in the late ‘50s. Cobb wanted this to be the book that finally told his story, that he wasn’t a dirty player, and would explain that being disruptive was part of his philosophy of the game.

SIG: And that didn’t go well for Cobb.

CL: Stump made a hash out of that book and turned it into kind of a B-movie. He tried to keep Cobb from seeing his own autobiography, and Cobb was very sick and dying at the time. Cobb finally got a look at it and tried to stop it, but he wasn’t able to do that. When the book came out in July of 1961, it was not a great success. It was full of mistakes.

In December of that year, Stump wrote an article for True magazine, which was then a pretty popular magazine. He told the story of his time writing the book with Cobb and that Cobb was a drunken old man waving guns around and that the women in his family feared him. It was greatly exaggerated but caught on with the public. No one said things like that about famous old ballplayers in 1961. Stump was a bad writer but a good sensationalist. The stories fit the myth of the monster -- Cobb’s reputation as a very intense player and a very disruptive player -- and people told and retold the story and embroidered on it.

SIG: Who was the other biographer?

CL: In the 1980s, Charles Alexander came along and got a lot of things wrong about race. Cobb got in a lot of fist fights in his day -- even for those times -- and Alexander misidentified as black many of the white guys that Cobb got into fights with. People continued to retell the stories, and the internet only supercharged that. When I was doing the research, people would ask about the time Cobb stabbed a young black waiter in Cleveland. Cobb had gotten into a fight with a bellman and a night watchman, and both of them were white.

SIG: You wrote about how Cobb had stolen home fifty-four times, which is still a major-league record. Was there something different about the rules at the time?

CL: It wasn’t the rules that were so much different. It was the ball. The ball didn’t travel as far, which is why that period is called the dead ball era. That necessitated a different kind of game. Before 1919, you got on base and you scratched and clawed your way around the bases. Cobb was the epitome of that. There was such a premium on getting to the next base, and if you’re on third the next base is home. Cobb was always jumping up and down, moving, worrying everyone. He would get a walk, and then he’d round first and dash for second. He was a bit like a jazz musician playing around with the standard line of what was supposed to happen.

SIG: Has that survived him. Is there a Ty Cobb school of baserunning in the major leagues today?

CL: Right now we’re going through a period in baseball where run production is down, so it’s a little bit like that. There’s a guy named Dee Gordon for the Florida Marlins who’s a disruptive force on the bases and also batting close to .400 right now, which is very Cobb-like. When Dee Gordon gets on base, you’re worried about two guys -- you’re worried about him and you’re worried about the guy at the plate. That’s how Cobb played; he was always pushing the limits.

SIG: Ty Cobb was known for being from Georgia, and people called him The Peach and that sort of thing. Were southern baseball players a novelty or a rarity at that time?

CL: Yeah, when Cobb first came up in 1905, most of the players were from bigger cities in the Northeast and tended to be Irish and German and tended to be Catholic. Cobb was southern and Protestant. It also created low expectations because the South was not said to produce great ballplayers. When he first came up for the Detroit Tigers, no one expected him to be a force. And he wasn’t that year; it wasn’t until the next year that he came on as the guy we know today.