his ordinary decency
This iconic photo by Charles M. Conlon shows Cobb stealing third base during the 1909 baseball season
This iconic photo by Charles M. Conlon shows Cobb stealing third base during the 1909 baseball season

A sports author has done the state of Georgia and Ty Cobb, in particular, a major service.  Author Charles Leerhsen of Brooklyn, N. Y. has published an authoritative biography: Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty. The book enhances and clarifies the reputation of Georgia’s “Big Peach,” who was maybe the most controversial player in baseball. The book won the 2015 Casey Award for the best baseball book of the year.

Ty Cobb was the greatest batsman in baseball history, an average of .366, the highest lifetime average of any baseball player. He led the American league in batting for nine consecutive years, one season batting .420. He was the first player voted into the Hall of Fame. He was also a wheelhorse on the basepaths, held for years the all-time record for stealing 897 bases. And he was a superb fielder, in essence a complete baseball player.

It is when running the bases that many thought Cobb was most exciting. The celebrated sports writer, Grantland Rice, tells when in the dentist chair, his dentist told of Cobb’s style when Cobb got a base on balls with the score tied: “…he trotted slowly and carelessly …to first…then 30 feet away, he suddenly started at top speed, rounded the bag, and whirled to second.  The pitcher, rattled by such a wild move, threw badly to second, and before the ball was back, Ty was… at third, waiting to score ten seconds later on a short outfield fly. Great stuff?”

Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty by Charles LeerhsenThe public perception of Cobb has always been critical, but his reputation was deeply sullied by Cobb’s own choice of a collaborator in writing his memories. He choose, at the instigation of his publisher, a hack journalist named Al Stump, who at one time we remember wrote for the Atlanta newspapers. Stump failed to do much research, and seems to have made up vast portions of the biography

Charles Leerhsen said in a talk of Cobb at Hillsboro College, Hillsboro, Mich., about the way Stump compiled the book:  “Stump, who had never met Cobb, spent only a few days with him before setting off to write. For several months he refused to show Cobb the work in progress…. Stump was filling in the gaps by making up stories out of whole cloth, and Cobb’s voice in the book sounded suspiciously like Stump’s own. Cobb wrote letters threatening a lawsuit if the book wasn’t cancelled or rewritten. But he died soon thereafter, and the book—entitled My Life in Baseball: The True Record—came out a few months later.”

Leerhsen has done extensive research, especially in attacking Stump’s many fabrications. He shows the Royston, Ga. native in moments over his entire life, emphasizes his Southern gentlemanly manners, his love of children, and his “ordinary decency” in general. Yet he also portrays how Cobb could be combative, to the point of fisticuffs, at times.

Our hats off to Charles Leerhsen for telling a more complete story of Cobb not just on the base paths, but Cobb in real life.

Author’s Note:

  • SUGGESTION: Visit the Ty Cobb Museum in Royston, about 60 miles from Gwinnett. It is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. and opens at 10 a.m. on Saturday.
  • To read more from Leerhsen, go to Who Was Ty Cobb The History We Know That’s Wrong
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Editor's Note: this story first appeared at GwinnettForum.com. Image: the feature image is by Charles M. Conlon shows Cobb stealing third base during the 1909 baseball season. Photo in public domain via Wikipedia.
Elliott Brack

Elliott Brack

Elliott Brack is a native Georgian and veteran newspaperman. He published the weekly Wayne County Press for 12 years; was for 13 years the vice president and general manager of Gwinnett Daily News, and for 13 years was associate publisher of the Gwinnett section of The Atlanta Journal and Constitution. He now publishes, in retirement, Web sites on Gwinnett County, http://www.gwinnettforum.com, and Georgia news, http://www.georgiaclips.com.