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COMMENTARY : Play Ignores Cobb’s Brighter Side

<i> (Jack McDonald is a 90-year-old semi-retired journalist who was a friend of Cobb's. These are his views on "Cobb" the play and Cobb the man.)</i>

In “Cobb,” now playing at the Old Globe Theatre, the dialogue is easily recognized as that of the Ty Cobb I knew.

But, based on 35 years of close association with Tyrus Raymond Cobb, the Georgia Peach (how dearly he loved that sobriquet), I found some of the play contained half-truths, with little regard for the facts.

Moreover, dominating the entire play are grim tales of the darker side of his nature--almost to the exclusion of anything good about the man. This may be good box office, but is it fair to Cobb?

Cobb owned 90 baseball records when he retired in 1928 after 24 years of play in the majors; he held the highest career batting average (.367) in the history of the game, and he was a base-stealing genius, swiping home 50 times, a record as unbreakable as Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. The closest anyone has come in the half-century since Ty retired was Jackie Robinson, with 17 thefts of home.

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But there was much more to Cobb than just a set of statistics. The Ty Cobb I knew was a Jekyll and Hyde. He was a complex man who was very controversial on and off the field. He was dynamic, sometimes ruthless, surly, flaming-tempered and a restless soul. But beneath a rough and sometimes selfish nature beat a human and compassionate heart.

I remember when we sat together at a preview of the film “Pride of the Yankees,” the story of Lou Gehrig. At the end, when Gehrig was making his farewell speech over the mike at Yankee Stadium, Ty broke down and wept unashamedly.

When Sam Chapman became an outfielder for the Philadelphia Athletics, Ty wrote him a 13-page, handwritten letter. He had never met Chapman, but told him things to do and things to avoid to succeed in the majors. To this day, Chapman will say that letter was worth as much as a full season’s experience and advice. Chapman was a star for many years.

Ty also took significant pride in getting Wahoo Sam Crawford into the Hall of Fame. The two were Detroit Tiger teammates and had not spoken to each other in years while Tiger players. Ty was a member of the Cooperstown Hall of Fame Veterans Committee and for years plugged away to get the burly first baseman admitted.

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I read scores of letters Cobb had written to Veterans Committee colleagues praising Crawford.

One early Sunday morning, Ty phoned my home and exclaimed: “He made it! He made it!”

I asked him who made what.

“Why, Old Wahoo Sam!” shouted the Georgia Peach, who was as ecstatic about it as a small boy who had just gotten a pony for Christmas.

I asked former Tiger Oscar Vitt what caused the rift between Crawford and Cobb. “There was no feud,” he said. “Crawford was just insanely jealous of Ty’s headlines. Sam would go 4 for 4, but the same day Ty would steal 3 bases, including home, and Ty would grab all the headlines.”

“Cobb” also implies that Ty was despised by all his Tiger teammates, but Vitt and Fred Haney, who later was the first general manager of the California Angels, were lifelong friends of his.

The play hits a nerve with Cobb when it delves into his father’s death. His slaying is a tragedy that many say shaped Ty’s attitudes.

Ty’s mother shot his father under puzzling circumstances. It was a delicate subject, and I never asked Ty to tell me the story.

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There were two versions.

One says the elder Cobb had been on a trip and returned late at night, found he had forgotten his keys and, rather than wake up the neighborhood by shouting to get in, got a ladder and started climbing upstairs to an open window on the second floor. Ty’s mother, who had a deathly fear of burglars, shot him dead.

The other version is an uglier one. This one says Ty’s dad suspected his wife of infidelity and was spying on her. Nothing was ever proven.

In all the years of our friendship, I never heard Ty say either a good word or a bad word about his mother, but he revered his dad.

“He gave me a world of advice, and most of it came from the Good Book,” he said.

This tragedy doubtless affected Ty’s personality. Another incident that contributed to his complex nature occurred when his eldest son, Herschel, on the verge of gaining national recognition as a doctor, died of brain cancer while still a young man. Ty never did get over it.

George Gerdes, portraying Ty in his later years in “Cobb,” mentions his alleged habit of sharpening the spikes on his shoes to intentionally intimidate opponents right, left and center.

“I intentionally spiked only two men in my life,” Ty once told me. One was an obscure catcher who had said Cobb was a selfish player. The other was Dutch Leonard, a pitcher who tried to hit the Hall of Famer on the head.

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“Later in the game, I laid down a bunt in such a way Leonard would have to cover first base,” Ty told me. “We hit the first base bag together, and my foot came down on one of his, causing the blood to squirt like Mount Vesuvius in eruption. Never again did anyone throw me a knock-down pitch.”

While he was on the subject, Ty would roll up his pant legs and show a mass of deep scars and fissures that resembled a relief map of the Mississippi River and tributaries. The legs were an awful sight.

“I didn’t go around spending all my time spiking every Tom, Dick and Harry,” he’d say. “I spent more time getting spiked myself. But I never squawked.”

The stage play largely ignores Ty’s philanthropy. When he died of prostate cancer in 1961 at the age of 74, he had accumulated $9 million, most of it in Coca-Cola stock. The play says he made his money through wise investments, but Cobb differs.

“I didn’t pay a thin dime for my Coke stock,” he boasted to me.

The drink was just getting off the ground in the early 1900s. There were no radio or TV commercials in those days. About the only promotional devices were newspaper ads and billboards. In thousands of ballparks and along country roads all over the land were billboards showing Cobb sliding into home, and in large letters at the top, “TY COBB DRINKS COCA-COLA.”

Cobb was paid in company stock, and he kept it through many splits until his death. With the $9 million, he established two charity foundations in Georgia: the Cobb Memorial Hospital Foundation and the Cobb Educational Foundation.

The stage play also greatly overemphasizes the racist angle as it has to do with Ty’s life. He was a racist, but 99 out of 100 white Georgians were racists in Cobb’s day. It was the curse of his era. But in his will, Cobb made sure that black students got their share of the scholarships.

Those who put together the play seemed so bent on exposing Ty’s peccadilloes that they neglected to mention one of his biggest pluses: his battle for years--right down to his dying day--to get pensions for those he called the forgotten men of baseball. He called it a grave injustice that those old-timers who had helped build the game but hung up their spikes before 1946 were left out of the pension fund.

“It was inexcusable that young players, in their eagerness to get security for themselves, gave no thought to the generation before them, men who kept the game alive and laid the foundation from which Johnny-come-latelys profited,” Cobb said. “It’s time they gave thought to stars who played in the days of lower salaries. They saved their money but were wiped out in the 1929 Wall Street crash.”

Ty often blistered club owners who stuck these old-timers in ill-fitting uniforms to play several exhibition innings before a league game to lure more fans through the turnstiles. They paid off the old-timers with a free meal and a pen and pencil set. He shamed them into discontinuing the practice.

A snippet from a 1957 weekend at Cobb’s hunting lodge in Glenbrook, Nev., on the Lake Tahoe shore just over the California line, gives a glimpse into Ty’s private side.

As sports editor and columnist for the San Francisco Call Bulletin, I was there on assignment to discuss base stealing.

We spent a pleasant day on the article. On the second morning, there was a knock on the bedroom door. Cobb stood there with a tray of orange juice, coffee and sweet rolls, which he served to my wife and me in bed.

Another time, at his Atherton home (he kept two residences) in the Bay Area, I was browsing through a 700-page book on the Civil War published a year after the war ended. It was a priceless collector’s item and Ty knew it. “Jack,” he said, “I know you are a Civil War buff, so this book is now yours.”

He made me take it, and I still have it.

The play indicates he was selfish pinch-penny. Maybe, but it was not the Ty Cobb I knew.

Most women thought him a chivalrous Southern gallant. He was always soft-spoken with them, and his answers would always be “Yes, ma’am” or “No, ma’am.”

But he was not a good family man. He was away from home half of the baseball season and also spent many of his winters away to get legged up for the next pennant race. One winter it would be the canebrakes of Dixie to bag red fox, the next he would spend months in the Highlands of his ancestral Scotland grouse hunting, then another winter in Canada hunting bear and moose.

In 1936, Ty was the first player to be admitted to the Cooperstown Hall of Fame. He even outpolled the legendary Babe Ruth. The Globe play indicates there was no love lost between these two. That’s exactly true. It was surely a case of Cobb’s envy.

Cobb lacked one thing that Ruth (who I don’t think was capable of envy) had. He was not a power hitter, and with Ty it had to be all or nothing. In his 24 years in the majors, despite hitting more than .400 three times, he hit only 118 home runs.

The play also brings up Ty’s temper, but neglects to mention that he usually got the worst end of the scrap.

The most celebrated of these was when Babe Pinelli, a smaller man, gave him a trouncing behind the stands. The two later became good friends.

Given the play’s focus, playwright Lee Blessing does a good job, as far as he goes.

And granted, Cobb today isn’t likely to be a winged cherub flying around the Pearly Gates. But he wasn’t the devil incarnate, either.


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