MLB.com Columnist

Mike Bauman

Book sheds new light on Cobb's character

Several preconceived notions debunked while delving into Hall of Famer's life

Book sheds new light on Cobb's character

This is revisionist history. But perhaps in this case it might also be improved history.

Charles Leerhsen, a reputable author, has written a book -- "Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty" -- in which Cobb does not come off as a vicious bigot. In Leershen's book, Cobb is still a sometimes violent character, with a hair-trigger temper, but he is no longer one of America's leading villains.

On the topic of Cobb's alleged racism, for instance, Leerhsen notes that upon the integration of the Texas League in 1952, Cobb said this:

"The Negro should be accepted and not grudgingly but wholeheartedly. The Negro has the right to compete in sports, and who is to say they have not?"

What the rest of us know for certain about Cobb was that he was a great baseball player, still holder of the highest lifetime batting average of all time and by all accounts one of the most dynamic players of any era.

There is little debate about this central quality of Cobb, the player. Leerhsen also finds evidence in accounts of Cobb's time that he was not -- as opposed to the prevailing myth-- a man who spent much of his time sharpening his spikes so he could injure opposing players.

But where did we get the portrait of Cobb as a danger to society? Leerhsen says that the reputation of Cobb as a racist did not come about until after his death in 1961. He spends large portions of his book refuting two posthumous biographies written about Cobb. One of those books, written by sportswriter Al Stump, was the basis for a 1994 movie, "Cobb," starring Tommy Lee Jones in the title role.

Cobb was from rural Georgia, born in 1886. Time and place would make him something less than a progressive on racial matters. However, Leerhsen's research indicates that Cobb was descended from a line of abolitionists. His great-grandfather was an abolitionist minister who was driven out of a Georgia county for his anti-slavery views. And Cobb's grandfather refused to serve in the Confederate Army because of his opposition to slavery.

There is a public record of Cobb getting into fights with African-Americans, although Leerhsen says that a previous biography misidentified some of Cobb's opponents in these fights as black when they were, in fact, white.

In any case, Cobb's tendencies toward violence cannot be erased, however understandable they might have been. As a teenager, shortly before his spectacular Major League career began, Cobb's mother shot and killed his father, in a case the circumstances of which are to this day still open to varying interpretations.

No matter what view of Cobb a reader chooses, two underlying aspects of this work make this book worthwhile: Even with the debate about Cobb's essential nature, this remains a baseball book, and Leerhsen writes about baseball with affection and insight. And, no matter the topic, Leerhsen is an extremely engaging writer who has done more research on Cobb than previous biographers.

The rest of us may have seen the movie, but we didn't see Cobb, the man, play the grand old game. Leerhsen quotes Hall of Famer George Sisler on that topic: "The greatness of Ty Cobb was something that had to be seen and to see him was to remember him forever."

Or as the catcher, Ray Schalk, said: "When Ty started to steal second, I would throw to third."

"When I started writing this book I believed, like a lot of people, that Ty Cobb was a wonderful ballplayer, but a maniac," Leerhsen writes. "... it was an assumption based on stories I'd been hearing all my life."

A different Cobb emerges here -- a fellow with unresolved anger issues and a seriously short fuse.

"My allegiance was not to Ty Cobb," Leerhsen said in an interview on Wisconisin Pubic Radio. "My allegiance was to the truth."

The truth, as it pertains to Cobb, may be somewhat more complex than we were previously led to believe.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.