Bobby Pope

Pope: Cobb’s life story not all that simple

Baseball legend Ty Cobb has always been known as a racist, a man with a surly temperament and as a dirty ballplayer who would file his spikes to inflict pain on opponents when he was sliding into a base.

Macon sports legend Billy Henderson has a different impression of the “Georgia Peach,” whom he met in 1945 while playing in the All-American baseball game at the Polo Grounds in New York.

The Lanier standout sat next to Cobb at a pregame banquet, and in his book “It Can Be Done” by Ed Grisamore, he said, “I had never met a more poised, articulate and considerate person. He impressed me as a genuine and sensitive man.”

Henderson was actually unaware he was sitting next to Cobb until after the banquet when he asked someone who the distinguished gentleman in the pinstripe suit was.

I didn’t know a lot about Cobb, but learned much from a new book by Charles Leerhsen, “Ty Cobb, A Terrible Beauty.” Leerhsen says the biography is to set the record straight on Al Stump’s publication “Ty Cobb: My Life in Baseball,” published in 1961 and much of which was fabricated.

Leerhsen did an incredible amount of research on Cobb, using correspondence, old newspaper articles and interviews.

Cobb began playing baseball when the sport was in its infancy, and most players in that era, to put it bluntly, were lowlifes and drunks.

His teenage years were difficult. While he wanted to play baseball, his father -- an educator and politician -- wanted Cobb to focus on an education and become a doctor because of the rowdy behavior of baseball players of that time.

His mother “accidentally” killed his father, thinking he was a prowler and blowing his head off with a pistol. She was charged with manslaughter but was later acquitted.

Cobb started his professional career with the Augusta Tourists and was called up in late 1905 at age 18, and he was unmercifully hazed by teammates. The hazing led to almost daily fights, most notably with teammate Matty McIntyre on a regular basis. The hazing led to a nervous breakdown.

But his fights were not limited to teammates. He also was known to fight opposing players and fans during the season and just about anybody in the offseason. In one of the altercations, he went into the stands and beat up a disabled man who heckled him.

As for being a dirty player, Leerhsen, for the most part, dispels that notion. His research included some players who competed against Cobb, who thought he was ultra competitive but did not believe he used his spikes as a weapon.

However, that was not the sentiment of everyone who played against him.

Cobb had several run-ins with African-Americans, but it is hard to categorize him as a racist because he befriended quite a few during his time growing up in Royston, as well as when he was a player and afterward. He had high praise for Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella and Willie Mays, saying that Mays is the “only player I’d pay to see.”

Cobb basically called his own shots. If he didn’t want to show up for spring training, which most of the time he didn’t, he wouldn’t be there. If he wanted to skip a game, he did.

In the book, you also learn about his six-year stint as manager of the Detroit Tigers, his near banishment from baseball for implications that he was part of a game that was fixed, his troubled family life as an adult and his relationship with Babe Ruth that was somewhat confrontational when they played against each other but turned into a friendship after they retired.

Cobb was a wealthy man, owning a car dealership and large number of shares in both General Motors and Coca Cola. The book says that business journalist Adam J. Wiederman calculated that one share of Coke stock purchased in 1919 would be worth $9.8 million today.

Almost 90 years since Cobb’s final playing days, he still is in the Major League Baseball record book in several categories. His lifetime batting average of .367 -- or .366, depending on the source -- is still the best all-time, as are his 54 steals of home.

He won a record 12 batting titles during his 24-year career. Cobb played in the World Series three times, but he never was on the winning team. He was the first player voted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame.

Cobb was a complicated man, but I think you will enjoy this book if you like baseball.

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