Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty by Charles Leerhsen.
I absorbed Charles Leerhsen’s Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty in one day (I listened to the entire audio book during a long road trip from North Carolina to Boston; I drove an hour out of my way to finish it). Leerhsen’s biography explores the legitimacy of the many legendary stories about Cobb in this fascinating and well-written biography while clarifying, if not discrediting, the many anecdotes collected and retold over the years by numerous teammates and biographers alike. Instead of the mean and racist drunkard we met in Ken Burns’ Baseball, and Al Stump’s repulsive Cobb, a more sensitive but still intense Cobb surfaces from its pages.
My attention was instantly commanded by the storyline starting with Cobb’s family tree, specifically his father, W.H Cobb, who as a member of the Georgia state senate blocked a bill that would have defunded black public schools. Anyone who knows anything about Cobb is likely aware of his racist inclinations, but it is from this fact about his father that Leerhsen suggests that Cobb’s temper was not fueled by a hatred for blacks, as much as it was born from an obligation to defend his father’s honor in the face of childhood peers influenced by society to denounced any white man showing compassion to blacks. Leerhsen’s polished conjecture about Cobb and his father is the first of many that cuts a small hole in the false perceptions about Cobb and race relations. The hole grows larger with each turn of the page, finally tearing wide open in the epilogue through which painstakingly-researched truths snuff the fire set by Stump’s grossly dishonest and debauched biography. Cobb’s family history represents only the beginning of intense analysis where false assumptions about him are corrected with vigorous scholarship and scrutiny.
Leerhsen takes us through the early days of Cobb’s life when he first discovered his love for baseball, defying his father’s wishes of studying law (who reluctantly gave his blessing to Ty with the caveat “Don’t come home a failure!”) and his major league debut overshadowed by his father’s murder at the hand of his mother, who allegedly mistook him for an intruder (W.H. was allegedly trying to catch his wife in a moment of infidelity; Leerhsen’s detailed description concerning what might have actually happened is particularly compelling). Leerhsen continues through Cobb’s life by touching on his many accomplishments as a ballplayer while continuing to detail the origins of many of the stories about Cobb. For instance, Leerhsen dispels the notion that Cobb was a notorious racist by pointing out that Cobb said that Willie Mays was “the only player I’d pay money to see,” and writing a personal thank you note to Dodger owner Walter O’Malley for staging a tribute game for Roy Campanella, the black Brooklyn Dodger catcher who was paralyzed in a car accident in 1958.
Cobb’s passing in 1961 has made it all the more challenging to learn who the true Ty Cobb was. Some will always remember him as a ferocious base runner who spiked any opponent brave (or foolish) enough to stand in his way. Others will always falsely remember him as a racist, miserable wife-beating drunkard who showed his own children little affection and found himself friendless at the end of his life. Regardless of what one’s view of Cobb is, Leerhsen’s biography will give readers the opportunity to weigh fact and fiction, scrutinize conflicting testimony from family, teammates, fans, and writers alike, and most importantly, have the opportunity to recognize who the real Ty Cobb was.
(Originally posted on goodreads.com in the summer of 2015).
Review written by R. Zachary Sanzone, August 2015.