|Ty Cobb photo credit.|
At some point around 1982, only twenty years after Al Stump's famous magazine article about baseball immortal Ty Cobb was first published, my friend Bob introduced me to it. The article was included in an anthology of American sportswriting, and we absolutely accepted the premise that Cobb was a skilled athlete beset by insatiable demons.
As portrayed by Stump during the final year of his life, Cobb behaved like a raging sociopath unleashed upon innocent America, washing down medicine with gin and orange juice, vigorously abusing all humans with whom he came into contact, and prone to atrocious miserly displays even as he carried with him a paper grocery bag filled with stock certificates and bank account ledgers (and a loaded pistol to protect it).
According to Stump, Cobb maintained a spiral-bound notebook, frequently updated, which he called his Son of a Bitch List. If you crossed the former baseball star, your name was recorded and you were urged not to cross paths with him again.
Supposedly Cobb, whose early and ardent investment in Coca Cola made him very wealthy, inserted coins into a Coke machine somewhere. It took his money absent product, and onto the Son of a Bitch list this inanimate object promptly was placed.
Stump the unwitting gonzo writer professed to indulge Cobb's various death wishes, like driving drunk down an icy mountain road in winter, only because he was terrified for his life. The article was theatrical and operatic, and it garnered Stump awards.
Al Stump died in 1995, and the record began being revised shortly thereafter. The verdict is that Cobb, while flawed and thin-skinned, deserves reconsideration based on pesky little things like actual, demonstrable evidence. Stump's magazine article and subsequent "insider" books have proven to be no less amazing, but as purely fictional creations, not journalism.
The Knife in Ty Cobb's Back, by Gilbert King (Smithsonian)
Baseball historians such as Doug Roberts and Ron Cobb point to Stump’s role in perpetuating the myths, exaggerations and untruths that taint the memory of Ty Cobb.
Perhaps all these years we needed Ty Cobb not as a real person, but as a socio-sporting morality play. A relatively new book tackles these issues at length. I'll need to buy it, Bookseller: Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, by Charles Leerhsen.
Leerhsen tells the story of his book, noting that now it's his word versus Stump's. This may be an over-simplification, but at least a correction has occurred. I must adjust my own stories, based on memories of the magazine article, because when the facts change ...
Who Was Ty Cobb? The History We Know That’s Wrong
... I knew going into this project—having been at one time an editor at People magazine—that human beings take delight in the fact that the rich and famous are often worse and more miserable than they are. What I didn’t understand before was the power of repetition to bend the truth. In Ty Cobb’s case, the repetition has not only destroyed a man’s reputation, it has obliterated a real story that is more interesting than the myth. Is it too late to turn things around? John the Evangelist said, “The truth will set you free.” But against that there is the Stockholm syndrome, whereby hostages cling avidly to what holds them in bondage.