Keith Olbermann’s recent interview with author Charles Leerhsen introduced some unexpected revelations about the often notorious, downright vicious characterizations of Ty Cobb. Apparently, Leerhsen uncovers “new news” in his latest book, Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty (2015), with intriguing research and claims about the thus far infamous ballplayer.
As Olbermann himself notes in the interview, we’ll have to wait and see how other historians weigh in on this perhaps “revisionist history,” for lack of a better term. Surprisingly, though, it seems that Leerhsen didn’t need to dig very far to cast significant doubt on popular assumptions about Cobb—namely, the largely unquestioned reputation for being a virulent racist and an overwhelmingly detested figure among fans and players alike.
It seems that these portrayals of Cobb as utter villain originate with or at least have been popularized by one particular biography, Cobb: The Life and Times of the Meanest Man in Baseball, written by Cobb’s earliest biographer, Al Stump. Leerhsen indicates several inconsistencies and even fabrications with Stump’s depictions of Cobb.
On the question of Cobb’s assumed blatant racism, Leerhsen also emphasizes the history and likely influence of several abolitionists in Cobb’s immediate and extended family. There’s also a published and confirmed statement from 1952 where Cobb made some comparatively democratic remarks about integration in baseball.
Finally, there are some overlooked but relevant points about the oft-cited 1910 Chalmers Award, another episode that Leerhsen mentions. The award was a highly coveted prize of a new automobile for the batting leader in each league, and the race was extremely tight for the American League—with a fierce competition between Ty Cobb and Nap Lajoie. Leerhsen’s account highlights a pivotal game with questionable fielding positioning of Nap Lajoie’s opposing team, the St. Louis Browns, which heavily favored Lajoie’s efforts. Ultimately, both players were awarded the title, yet the debate persists about which one truly deserved and earned it. However, Cobb is frequently the player painted in a far more negative light in this controversial season and career achievement, as he sat out his final games to preserve his batting average. And Leerhsen again appears to offer some reasonable support to discredit such sweeping, unfavorable characterizations of Cobb, especially when compared to peers like Lajoie (who played with an equally fiery personality).
Indeed, Leerhsen goes so far as to suggest that there were many fans as well as teammates loyal to and even fond of “the Meanest Man in Baseball.” I can almost hear a voice exclaiming from beyond the boggy grave, the much maligned and mired Cobb himself in shock: “Hey, I’m liked guy?!”