Some names are synonymous with baseball—Babe Ruth, Cy Young, Mickey Mantle. Other baseball figures have left their mark but make us cringe when we hear their names—Barry Bonds, Pete Rose, Gaylord Perry. Greatness and scandal are not necessarily mutually exclusive in the world of professional baseball. Babe Ruth may be the most famous slugger of all time, but his reputation off the field is less than pristine. Gaylord Perry has a place in the Hall of Fame, but he even filmed a commercial for ESPN’s SportsCenter making fun of his own use of the spitball.
Another all-time baseball still great struggles with a bad reputation more than 50 years after his death. Ty Cobb was one of the greatest baseball players of all time. He is in the inaugural class of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, receiving more votes than any other inaugural class member including Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner. He played for the Detroit Tigers from 1905 to 1926 and finished his career with two more seasons playing for the Philadelphia Athletics. By the time he retired in 1928, Cobb held 43 major league regular season career records. His career batting average of .366 still stands today, and his 4,191 career hits in the “dead ball” era still rank second only to Pete Rose.
Unfortunately for Ty Cobb, his name is often associated with dirty play, fighting, and racism. Stories are told of him sharpening his spikes to cut players on the other team as he slid into the bases. Stories of racism have haunted Cobb’s legacy since his earliest days in baseball. And fighting seemed to be a somewhat regular occurrence off the field. These stories have tainted his reputation as one of the greatest players of all time.
Just last month an article was released about Ty Cobb’s tainted legacy. In this article, Charles Leerhsen, author of the recent Cobb biography Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, tried to set the record straight regarding Cobb’s life.
Leerhsen reports that much of the misinformation about Cobb’s reputation came from articles and books written by Al Stump. Apparently Stump had been hired by Doubleday & Co. to ghostwrite an autobiography of Cobb. Even though he wanted editorial control over the final product, the baseball legend died before it was ever published. Stump’s sensational stories survived as the official account of Cobb’s life. Even though several articles and books have been written to cast doubt upon Stump’s work, the reputation of Cobb as a racist, brawling cheater lingers.
The current stories regarding Cobb and racism are mixed. Gilbert King writes:
Stories of Cobb’s racial intolerance were well-documented. In 1907 during spring training in Augusta, Georgia, a black groundskeeper named Bungy, whom Cobb had known for years, attempted to shake Cobb’s hand or pat him on the shoulder. The overly familiar greeting infuriated Cobb, who slapped him and chased him from the clubhouse. When Bungy’s wife tried to intervene, Cobb turned around and choked her until teammates pried his hands off her neck. In 1908 in Detroit, a black laborer castigated him after he accidentally stepped into some freshly poured asphalt. Cobb assaulted the laborer on the spot, knocking him to the ground. The ballplayer was found guilty of battery, but a friendly judge suspended his sentence. Cobb paid the laborer $75 to avoid a civil suit.
By contrast Leerhsen paints a different picture of Cobb as the descendant of abolitionists and an admirer of African-American baseball players. Leerhsen states:
But what about Cobb’s 19th-century Southern roots? How could someone born in Georgia in 1886 not be a racist? What I found—and again, not because I am the Babe Ruth of researchers, but because I actually did some research—is that Ty Cobb was descended from a long line of abolitionists. His great-grandfather was a minister who preached against slavery and was run out of town for it. His grandfather refused to fight in the Confederate army because of the slavery issue. And his father was an educator and state senator who spoke up for his black constituents and is known to have once broken up a lynch mob.
Cobb himself was never asked about segregation until 1952, when the Texas League was integrating, and Sporting News asked him what he thought. “The Negro should be accepted wholeheartedly, and not grudgingly,” he said. “The Negro has the right to play professional baseball and whose [sic] to say he has not?” By that time he had attended many Negro league games, sometimes throwing out the first ball and often sitting in the dugout with the players. He is quoted as saying that Willie Mays was the only modern-day player he’d pay to see and that Roy Campanella was the ballplayer that reminded him most of himself.
In theory, both reports could be accurate if his views on race evolved as he matured. But whatever the case, he is primarily remembered as a racist today. What seems to be certainly true is that Cobb had a temper that resulted in fights, including attacking fans in the stands. So even if his reputation has been marred by sensational but less-than-truthful stories, he still suffers from having not built a good reputation.
Cobb should have heeded the words of Proverbs 22:1, which read, “A good name is to be more desired than great wealth, favor is better than silver and gold.” During this lifetime, he could have handled himself with more grace and treated others with love and kindness. Not everyone will be famous like Ty Cobb and have a legacy that continues decades after death; however, in life and death we should long to maintain a good name. For Christians a good name gives us credibility before a watching world that we want to point to our Heavenly Father (Matthew 5:16)
Cobb no longer has the luxury to rebuild his reputation since he passed away in 1961. His name will likely be connected to scandal and racism as long as people continue writing about the greatest baseball players in history. However, Cobb missed a great opportunity during his lifetime to fix these problems. Leerhsen writes:
Cobb was, like the rest of us, a highly imperfect human being. He was too quick to take offense and too intolerant of those who didn’t strive for excellence with the over-the-top zeal that he did. He did not suffer fools gladly, and he thought too many others fools. He was the first baseball celebrity, and he did not always handle well the responsibilities that came with that. And yes, he once went into the stands and repeatedly punched a man who had been heckling him for more than a year, and who turned out to have less than the full complement of fingers—hence the story of him attacking a handicapped fan.
Baseball is a metaphor for life. In it we find truth that extends far beyond the diamond. In the case of Ty Cobb, we find a great player who was also a flawed human being. We are all flawed, but may we strive for our reputations to point others to Christ. Truly our reputations are worth far more than great riches.
Charles Leerhsen, “Who Was Ty Cobb? The History We Know That’s Wrong,” Imprimis 45 (March 2016)
Charles Leerhsen, Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015).
Gilbert King, “The Knife in Ty Cobb’s Back,” Smithsonian, 30 August 2011.