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Monday, Mar 27, 2017

A fresher, more thorough view of the Georgia Peach

“All changed, changed utterly;

A terrible beauty is born.”

William Butler Yeats wrote those lines in his poem “Easter, 1916,” referring to the Easter Rising, the armed insurrection by Irish Republicans to end British rule.

They are just as appropriate for Charles Leerhsen’s ground-breaking, thorough and compelling new biography, “Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty” (Simon & Schuster; hardback; $27.50; 450 pages). Leerhsen, a former editor at Sports Illustrated, has written a book that will change the perception of Cobb, a Hall of Famer whose .366 lifetime average (adjusted from .367 thanks to diligent statisticians) and cerebral approach to the game made him the greatest player of the early 20th century — if not of all time.

“I believed, like a lot of people, that Ty Cobb was a wonderful ballplayer but a maniac, meaning a racist and a mean, spikes-sharpening son of a bitch,” Leerhsen writes.

There were plenty of baseball fans who agreed, believing that Cobb was an ornery cuss who fought teammates and umpires at the drop of a hat. It’s common knowledge that he jumped into the stands to battle heckling spectators — even if they were handicapped, as in the case of Claude Lucker in 1912 — sparred with an elevator boy and even a waitress.

Leerhsen dispels many longtime opinions of Cobb with a fair, balanced look at the Detroit Tigers’ Hall of Famer, who certainly was no saint but wasn’t a demon, either. Leerhsen gives both sides; it’s up to the reader to judge.

Cobb certainly had a temper. The Detroit Free Press wrote that Cobb “was dangerous to the point of dementia.” Which, Leerhsen writes, “is exactly what he wanted his opponents to think.”

“Uneasy was Ty Cobb’s default mode,” he writes.

Cobb was an intellectual in an era when baseball players were more roughly hewn, comfortable reading biographies about Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon. He was a tough negotiator at contract time and made shrewd investments in stocks like Coca-Cola and General Motors that made him wealthy in retirement. But Cobb was brainiest on the field, combining a sharp eye and cunning to drive opponents crazy with his split-grip batting style, his daring base running and his mental toughness.

Cobb once stole second, third and home on consecutive pitches and was known to have scored from second base on an infield roller. He would feign an injury after stealing second base, only to swipe third on the next pitch. His record of 96 stolen bases in a season stood until 1962, when Maury Wills swiped 104.

“When Cobb is on first base and he breaks for second, the best thing you can do, really, is to throw to third,” Hall of Fame catcher Ray Schalk said.

Instead of parroting the well-known biographies of the Georgia Peach —“Ty Cobb,” by Charles Alexander in 1984 and Al Stump’s “Cobb” in 1994 (and also Stump’s 1961 True magazine article written months after Cobb’s death) — Leerhsen does some solid research, combing through letters written to and by Cobb, digging into contemporary newspaper accounts and mining the observations of eyewitnesses. His work is the result of 31/2 years of research, and it paints a far more palatable portrait of Cobb than we’ve ever viewed.

Leerhsen is dismissive of Alexander’s work and critical of Stump.

“Alexander’s errors have found many willing ears,” he writes. “We should not be surprised. Monsters intrigue us.”

Stump “got both the finer details and the broader strokes wrong, and largely on purpose, for the sake of a more dramatic and thus marketable story.”

But Leerhsen does not dwell on the work of Stump, who died in 1995; or Alexander, an excellent author who has produced fine biographies of John J. McGraw, Tris Speaker and Rogers Hornsby. What he does, with a writing style that is smooth, snappy and at times irreverent, is present a much fuller, richer picture of Cobb.

He also asserts that the stories of Cobb’s attacks on blacks were overblown. In some cases, the men Cobb fought were incorrectly labeled as blacks, when in fact, newspaper accounts and census records showed those claims to be false. There is no doubt that Cobb adhered to a Jim Crow mentality, and yet by the time of his death in 1961 “he had been for years been publicly applauding the integration of organized baseball, cheering it louder than virtually any old-time star.”

Leerhsen also debunks the theory that Cobb was a dirty player who spiked opponents and sharpened his spikes in full view to intimidate opponents. The most famous spiking took place in 1909 when Cobb cut Frank “Home Run” Baker in a slide at third base. Cobb was actually twisting away from Baker, but the Athletics’ star awkwardly leaned back into his path and suffered a superficial cut.

Dirty? His contemporaries disagreed.

“I don’t know how many times I tagged Ty out at second base,” shortstop Roger Peckinpaugh said. “Yet he never so much as spiked me.”

“No one can convince me that he went out of his way to hurt anybody,” pitcher Red Faber said.

“I never saw him spike a player deliberately,” Burt Shotton said. “But if you ever got in the way of his flying spikes, brother, you were a dead turkey.”

Leerhsen gives a fuller version of the death of Cobb’s father. Amanda Cobb said she believed there was a prowler outside her bedroom, and since her husband was supposedly out of town, she leveled her gun and fired. Others whispered that the elder Cobb had sneaked back into town to catch his wife cheating on him.

The trial was interesting and Amanda was acquitted. Leerhsen reveals some facts that have been obscured in the case, including the Jones sisters, prostitutes who lived next door to the Cobb family in Royston, Georgia. Also, some biographers incorrectly note that Amanda Cobb used a shotgun to kill her husband; as Leerhsen writes, the coroner’s report said a pistol was the weapon she used.

Leerhsen also gives fuller play to Cobb’s minor-league career and digs up a fascinating anecdote. Riding the train from Atlanta to Augusta, Cobb struck up a conversation with a chubby 12-year-old.

“Are you the bat boy?” the boy asked.

“Bat boy?” Cobb retorted. “You come to the game today; I’ll show you.”

The boy — Norvell “Oliver” Hardy — did just that and was impressed. Hardy went on to fame with Stan Laurel to form the Laurel and Hardy comedy team.

Leerhsen also visits the hazing Cobb received as a maj0r-league rookie, with the main instigators being Matty McIntyre and “Twilight” Ed Killian (“a man who was poetry on the mound, but poison in the clubhouse”).

Despite Leerhsen’s excellent research, there were a few glitches. At one point, he refers to Hall of Famer George Sisler as a second baseman, which would have been odd for the left-hander even in the dead-ball era. He mentions “St. Louis Browns manager George Stallings,” when in fact, Stallings never managed the Browns. He also notes that in the spring of 1921, his first season as manager, Cobb secured “free passes to golf at Augusta National” for his players. Augusta National, the home of the Masters, didn’t open until 1933; perhaps Leerhsen meant the Augusta Country Club, the venerable golf course that opened in 1899.

These really do not detract from the overall body of work.

Ty Cobb was the most electrifying and polarizing player of his day.

“If there had been an ESPN in those days, Cobb would have hogged the daily highlight reel,” Leerhsen writes.

This biography is the most complete, well-researched and thorough treatment of Cobb that has ever been written. Leerhsen’s writing is smooth, veering from serious to occasional cheeky first-person observations (describing about the Anniston team in the Tennessee-Alabama League, he notes that it was a franchise “I so wish I could tell you was called the Jennifers”).

Leerhsen is not an apologist; he reports on many of Cobb’s character faults. But after reading “Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty,” your opinion of the player and the man will have changed.

Utterly.

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