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When the “Legend” trumps the facts

As we open the 2017 baseball season today, Prager U. was nice enough to upload a video highlighting new scholarship that pokes holes in assumptions surrounding one of the most infamous baseball players of all time. (For those of you not into sports, sit still—I’m making a political and social observation as well.)

CobbTyAs a hopeless Detroit Tigers fan, I have always been fascinated with Ty Cobb.  And why not?  By any metric, he was one of the greatest players ever and he spent almost all of his career with the team I love.  His on-field achievements are legendary.  NO ONE in major league history has topped his .366 lifetime batting and it’s likely that no one ever will.  But his reputation is a case study of Mark Twain’s old adage about how a lie can “travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting its shoes on.”

Even those who are not ardent baseball fans are familiar with that reputation.  Cobb was a virulent racist.  He was an underhanded and dirty player. Cobb sharpened his spikes to injure opponents.  He hated everyone and died with no friends.  Even the vaunted PBS “Baseball” series in 1994, directed by Ken Burns, perpetuated these stories.  I must admit that I am now looking on Burns as a super filmmaker but a lazy and cowardly researcher.

The source of much of Cobb’s reputation can be traced to a biography written in 1962, shortly after Cobb’s death, by Al Stump.  As we now know, Cobb had sued Stump over royalties Cobb claimed was owed.  This may have been what prompted Stump to write a biography that was based largely on anonymous sources…a biography that painted Cobb as a cartoonishly-racist sociopath.  It was that biography that was the source of the laughably-bad movie “Cobb” which starred one of my favorite actors (Tommy Lee Jones) portraying one of my favorite baseball players.

But that is the image most of us hold of Cobb today.  Why?  As Charles Leerhsen, author of “Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty” points out in this video, its because we too often let the legend win when the legend is more interesting than the facts.

Leerhsen’s wonderfully-researched book examined actual FACTS involving Cobb’s life…not anonymous quotes.  And an incredible thing happened.  It revealed a Cobb who openly advocated for blacks to play professional baseball.  Cobb appeared several times at Negro League games—throwing out the first pitch, sitting in the dugout with the players.  He later praised the black ballplayers who populated the Major Leagues before he died.  As for his on-the-field behavior, further study showed that Cobb did NOT sharpen his spikes before games.  In fact, he once asked the league to make it mandatory that players *dull* their spikes to reduce injury.

There are many more myths that Leehrsen’s book ingloriously debunks.  The problem is, as stated above, the legend is much more interesting that the truth. That’s why Stump’s characterization took off in the first place.  And that’s why I fear it will eclipse the facts that Leehrsen has presented.  And that is a damned shame.

More shameful is the fact that this is not an isolated incident.  There are any number of historic figures whose lives and deeds have been entirely misrepresented by biographers, historians and others.  A list would be impossible to compile.  And that is tragic because what we lose is Truth.  What we lose is Perspective.  What we lose is the ability to soberly judge past figures and events, while reconciling them with modern-day reality where possible.

Even MORE depressing is that we are witnessing that being done in real-time with modern-day events that are happening before our very eyes.  Whereas Stump and his ilk were ex-post-facto spin doctors, we have those who operate similarly today based on contemporary events.  Hopefully we can generate more people like Leerhsen who are willing to explore and examine events and people, going there the facts lead…not with where they WANT them to lead.


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