Once upon a time, there was this ballplayer and he was one of the best ever to play the game. He played with great intensity and verve, not to say abandon, and he got more hits than anyone else who ever played the game. You might say he sort of symbolized it.
And then one day, rumors began to spread about him. He, of all people, had been betting on games, the whispers went. He was mixed up in some very bad company. All baseball was aghast--to say nothing of the rest of the country.
Pete Rose? Naw. Who said anything about Pete Rose? We're talking about Ty Cobb here.
You heard me. Tyrus Raymond Cobb. The legend. The man who would do anything to beat you.
The details are the least bit hazy. But that's because baseball wanted them that way. The word cover - up was not in use in those times. But that may have been what it was.
It seems that the infamous Chicago Black Sox, thrown out of the grand old game for fixing the 1919 World Series, had come forward in 1927 to claim that, in 1917, they were able to win a pennant because a collection had been taken up on the team to pay off key Detroit players to lose two consecutive doubleheaders to Chicago and insure the pennant for them.
One of the key players? Ty Cobb.
Two of the Black Sox ringleaders, Swede Risberg and Chick Gandil, were to testify. Even Cleveland's Tris Speaker was brought under suspicion. But Eliot Asinof, in his book "Eight Men Out," reports that the commissioner of baseball, Judge Kenesaw Landis, dismissed the charges. Why? "Because he was not interested in matters that occurred before he came to power."
Except that the Black Sox scandal, on which he made his reputation, occurred before he came to power.
What is more likely is that the judge couldn't bear to land another hard blow to the national pastime. Baseball couldn't handle a "Say it ain't so, Ty."
A violent man who roughed himself up with paranoia, Cobb always saw a world of enemies. Fueled by hate, he drove himself with a frenzy unmatched in the history of the game. He may have been the most-feared man ever to put on a baseball uniform. Teammates said there were days they were afraid to say hello to him.
Al Stump, free-lance journalist, is perhaps the foremost authority on Cobb. He lived with him for several months of Cobb's late life when he was preparing a biography on the dying star.
"They're doing a story in the movies on Cobb," Stump writes. "I just signed a participation deal with Robert Greenwald Productions-MPI at MGM. Terrible Ty makes it to the silver screen.
"Only there's this one big trouble: Who do you get to play the dyspeptic, villainous Tiger as hero of a drama depicting his life?
"Do you call Central Casting or the Screen Actors' Guild and say 'Who've you got who can play a guy who could slug fans without arms, terrify umpires, slash folks with his spikes, brawl in ballparks and saloons, hate Babe Ruth, carry more scars than a bad fighter, abuse sportswriters, go four for five at bat wearing bandages, be charged with fixing games, have $12 million socked away but drive through blizzards looking for a crap game? Must be over 6 feet, squinty- eyed, as antisocial as Machine Gun Kelly. Packs a gun--will travel."
Adds Stump: "You need a Boris Karloff, at least. Or Bela Lugosi. Face it--who could possibly portray someone so bilious, hostile to humankind and so driven to win that even gentle, kindly old Connie Mack called him 'a hellhound, a devil in cleats,' that several ladies divorced him for extreme cruelty, that only three baseball people showed up for his funeral?
"It's a dilemma. All Hollywood needed for 'The Babe Ruth Story' was to fatten up jolly Bill Bendix a little bit and he wasn't too awful as Ruth. Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig? OK if you overlooked his build. Ronald Reagan was a passable Grover Cleveland Alexander. Dan Dailey wasn't booed out of the theater as Dizzy Dean.
"With T.R. Cobb, what we have is an anti-hero to surpass Edward G. Robinson as Scarface Capone.
"For 24 incredible, almost-friendless seasons, Cobb didn't even like himself. In 1908, he beat the hell out of a poor street-worker. In 1909, he was booked for pulling a knife on a hotel detective. In 1912, he climbed into the stands to clobber a one-armed, razzing spectator. He claimed to have killed an attacker in Detroit with a pistol.
"You want tough? In 1916, he used a gun on a butcher and trashed his entire shop over the price of a piece of liver. By that time, he was unable to enter the state of Ohio, where he faced jail for knifing a waiter. He was in more police lockups than a pickpocket.
"After spiking some stitches on the beloved Home Run Baker, he drew packets of Black Hand (Mafia) mail. He was once chased by an entire enraged mob, escaping on a streetcar only by inches. At 73, he was still smashing whiskey bottles in bars and accusing Reno craps dealers of cheating him, cursing enemies dead for years.
"And that's his good side . . . "
Oh, I don't know, Al. Sounds like picture to me, as they say in Culver City. I haven't been to a movie in years where the hero wasn't an ugly thug, or an antisocial shrimp or a misunderstood sociopath. Clark Gable would starve to death today. Government is the villain. The first guy you see scratching his torn sweat shirt is the hero.
Who was it said the plot of movies now is, "Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy kills girl,"? I don't think you got a casting problem. What's the matter, Jack Nicholson busy?