When Ty Cobb died only two men from baseball attended his funeral.
Ty Cobb sharpened his spikes until they were razor sharp and hurtled himself maliciously into the legs of opposing players.
Did you know that Ty Cobb killed a man?
All of these statements are part of the legend of Ty Cobb, the greatest Tiger of them all, and perhaps the greatest player ever to grace a baseball diamond. But are they true? If they aren’t, why do many people believe them? Can Cobb’s image ever approach a fair representation of who the man really was? Does it even matter?
To find the answer we have to go back to 1960 when an old man asked a famous sportswriter to do him a favor. The fabulously wealthy 73-year-old Cobb, feeling ignored by the baseball world as he grew older in the tooth, wanted to write his memoir. Always the egotist, Cobb anticipated that it would be the greatest sports autobiography ever published. Cobb wished to accomplish two things with the book: to set the record straight about a few misunderstandings during his lifetime, and to tell his theories on how the game of baseball should be played. It shouldn’t be overlooked that the second motive was the primary reason Cobb wanted to get his life down on paper. Like many people late in their lives, Cobb loved to feel useful, and he saw a game that he loved being transformed into something he hated.
The sportswriter’s name was Al Stump. Stump was a cigar-chomping, middle-aged man with a crooked nose who loved being around the action and wore a fedora. If you were going to create a prototypical sportswriter of that era, Stump would be it.
Cobb commissioned Stump to write his autobiography in 1960, and soon Stump and Cobb were spending days and nights together plane-hopping between Cobb’s many homes. Stump loved the lifestyle and he love being near the greatness that was Cobb.
Cobb wasn’t an easy man to know, he was at times impatient and combative in speech. He was a man born of a different time and place who saw the country and the game of baseball going down the tubes. He was an ornery old curmudgeon. Whereas Cobb had safeguarded his body when he was a player, in his golden years he was now heavily medicated and self-medicated with his favorites: scotch and whiskey. He lived alone, having burnt through several marriages and having grown tired of most of his children. His closest companions late in his life were his staff: the butlers and maids who tended to him and his property.
It soon became clear to Stump that Cobb wouldn’t last long. Frequently sick, the baseball legend was hospitalized on numerous occasions. Stump devised a plan to write two books: the book Cobb wanted him to write, which Stump felt was boring, and the book Stump wanted to write, focusing on the final months of an old man’s life.
Add to that the fact that Stump manufactured details out of thin air. Stump betrayed the trust of a man who allowed him to brush up against his greatness for a brief time. Instead of doing what he was paid to do, Stump saw an opportunity to write a tabloid tell-all filled with sordid details about Cobb, fabrications, misstated legends, and outright lies. The biggest lies, which became the knockout punches in Stump’s “Ty Cobb’s Wild 10-Month Fight To Live”, which was published after Cobb’s death in True, the Man’s Magazine, was that Cobb’s mother murdered Ty’s father and that Cobb himself admitted to killing a man in Detroit during the 1910s.
The first book, Ty Cobb: My Life in Baseball came out the year after Cobb died. In it, Cobb tells his story, but as he intended, he also spends much of the book waxing on about his methods of playing the game. It’s a fascinating view at the mind of probably the smartest player to put on a pair of spikes. To be fair, Cobb’s version of his life details are, like most memoirs, painted to put him in a good light. But the fact that Cobb doesn’t address the details of his father’s death in depth or other controversies in his career doesn’t necessarily mean Cobb was misleading his readers, he simply wanted to write a book about baseball.
Stump’s article was a sad, miserable exploitation of the access he was given to Cobb. He wrote about the health, temper, and drinking habits of a dying man. Who among us would wish to be judged solely by our last few days? Thirty years later, Stump published a tell-all book about Cobb, which further slammed the reputation of “The Georgia Peach.” That book was the basis for Ron Shelton’s movie, Cobb, starring Tommy Lee Jones in the lead role. It’s such an unflattering and inaccurate portrayal of Cobb that it has tainted the image of Cobb for most baseball fans.
Stump didn’t die until 1995, but his name popped up later that decade and also in the early 2000s, when researchers discovered that he had sold several fraudulent items that supposedly once belonged to Cobb, Included was a “diary” that is in the collection of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. At least two other “authentic” diaries exist that are strangely word-for-word what the Hall of Fame diary says, all allegedly in Cobb’s hand. Stump has been discredited by several historians and researchers since his death and even when he was alive there were suspicions of his ethics as a sportswriter.
Unfortunately, there’s no “do-over” button when it comes to a person’s reputation. Cobb has been dead for 50 years. Few people really care whether he is viewed favorably, unfavorably, or at all. When I worked at the Hall of Fame, there was little interest in building any sort of event around Cobb or his legacy. It almost seemed to be inconvenient that Cobb’s plaque held such a prominent position in the gallery. He’s the elephant in the room that few like to talk about. We can thank Stump and those who have regurgitated his lies for much of that.
Oh, and all three of the statements I started this article with are false.
Tyrus Raymond Cobb, you left us long ago and we can’t know who you really were. But it’s safe to say that when the real evidence is examined, you were neither a saint nor a monster. Sadly, the latter is all most people believe.