Baseball Books Reviewed: Capone, the Cobbs, and Me

Capone, the Cobbs, and Me
Capone, the Cobbs, and Me by Rex Burwell. (Livingston Press, Livingston, AL, 204 pp., $17.95). PB, 2015.

Recently a steady stream of revisionist evidence has surfaced suggesting that perhaps Ty Cobb wasn’t nearly as maniacal in his baseball genius and personal life as he has been universally portrayed for at least one generation, maybe two.

From the revelation that Al Stump’s biographical work with Cobb in the early 1960’s was essentially fiction to the 2013 Casey Award winning book written by his grandson Herschel Cobb titled Heart of a Tiger and 2015’s Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty by Charles Leerhsen, a more balanced, normal, less pathological picture of the famous and infamous Georgia Peach is emerging.

Pity.

Of course, any man’s true legacy should be revealed, especially if he’s been painted in such inaccurately dark, menacing tones, but c’mon, if you really dig deep into your baseball heart of hearts, isn’t it a little disappointing that so many of those monstrous stories are mere fabrications? Cobb sharpening his spikes on the bench captures the essence of early baseball just as much as Babe Ruth’s mincing home run trot or Satchel Paige’s braggadocio, right? Doesn’t the romance of early baseball play better with a compelling anti-hero?

Thank goodness for real, honest to goodness fiction – as opposed to Stump-esque fictional non-fiction, otherwise known as libel - where any reality can be conjured, the reliving relished in spite of the obvious tall tale storytelling.

Such is the work of Rex Burwell, who revisits the Roaring 20’s with a spicy tale of baseball, adultery, revenge, jazz, and murder in Capone, the Cobbs, and Me , published by The University of West Alabama’s Livingston Press. In the noir-style novel, we get the full ‘Cobb as tightly wound spring with a fatal flaw’ treatment, as well as gangster Al Capone’s portrayal as a plum crazy, syphilitic psychopath. The protagonist, an Ivy League –educated back-up catcher named Mort Hart, is an obvious clone for Moe Berg, the famous ballplayer/OSS spy.  With so many real-life characters included – Commissioner Landis and Louis Armstrong, among many others - one wonders why the author didn’t just call a Moe a Moe, but this is Burwell’s world and he’s certainly entitled to inhabit it as he chooses.

The action takes place within the space of five days in July 1927, as lawyer Hart represents Cobb in a meeting with Landis in Chicago about an allegedly fixed game. Although Cobb’s fame and stature eventually allows him to escape the Judge’s official wrath, it turns out the fix WAS in, Capone was involved, Cobb double crossed him, and the gangster wants revenge. And oh, by the way, Hart is also having an affair with Cobb’s battered and abused wife Charlene, an excellent jazz pianist. And Cobb knows it.

The scene shifts to the Arrowhead Inn, Capone’s out-of-state headquarters/jazz roadhouse where we first meet perhaps the novel’s most intriguing character, the Jewish clarinetist and bandleader, marijuana dealer, and self-proclaimed ‘voluntary Negro’, the jive-talkin’ Mezz Mezzrow, who immediately lands Hart in the steaming hot water of a murder cover-up. Continuous plot twists propel the caper forward at breakneck speed without becoming convoluted or contrived, and the denoument and conclusion – so critical in any fiction - are satisfactory if not spectacular, and well worth the journey.

There’s no baseball action at all in the book, but with so many prominent historical major league personalities prominent in the narrative, there’s no doubt that this is indeed a baseball novel, and Burwell also allows his fascination with the gangster underworld and his love for jazz to saturate the pages. It’s a winning concoction, a tribute to Prohibition-era Chicago and the rhythm-infused days when heroes were heroes, villains were villains, and ballplayers were tougher than the average guy.

Even if they studied philology at Princeton and couldn’t hit in any language. Or was a heckuva lot nicer guy than advertised.

Reviewed By: Mark Schraf (July 10, 2015)

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