The Truth About Ty Cobb

What you think you know about Ty Cobb’s personality is largely based on one man, and his account should not be trusted.

While I was working on the Detroit Tigers all-time 25-man roster not long ago, I started to write the entry on Ty Cobb based on what I knew about him from being a lifelong baseball fan. I had heard all the stories suggesting Ty Cobb was a monster. He played the game with an aggressiveness that bordered on criminal, with his sharpened spikes coming in high to cut up opposing infielders. I remembered a story about Cobb laying a bunt down the first base line so he could run over the pitcher who’d thrown at him earlier in the game.

It wasn’t just Cobb’s on-field behavior I’d read about. There is a well-known story about Cobb going into the stands to beat up a heckler and not letting up even when fans in the area told Cobb the man was missing one hand and much of the other. As the story goes, Cobb responded by saying, “I don’t care if he’s got no feet!”

I’d also read multiple stories saying Cobb was racist. In one story, Cobb slapped an African-American groundskeeper who dared to pat him on the back or shake his hand. He also reportedly got into an argument with an African-American night watchman that turned into a fistfight. Another story said that Cobb and his wife were attacked by three men in Detroit one night and Cobb fought back and killed one of the attackers, who was also African American.

So I was all ready to write up what a monster Cobb was when I came across some interesting information. As I looked more and more into who Cobb was, it took me down the proverbial rabbit hole. I ended up with many doubts about the stories I’d heard about Cobb for much of my life. I also came to realize that many of the stories that portrayed Cobb in such a negative light came from one person, Al Stump, who collaborated with Cobb on his autobiography, My Life in Baseball: A True Record. This book came out shortly after Cobb’s death in 1961.

Later that year, Al Stump wrote a story for True Magazine that portrayed Cobb in a much darker light than the book had. In the magazine article, Stump claimed he was writing about the “real” Ty Cobb and that the original book had been a cover up. He wrote about the time he spent with Cobb near the end of Cobb’s life. Cobb was portrayed as a reckless, angry gambler who downed Scotch and gin, swore at his doctors and nurses, and seemed hell bent on making everyone around him miserable.

More than 30 years after the magazine article, Stump wrote a book that expanded on the idea of Cobb being a monster. This book (Cobb: The Life and Times of the Meanest Man in Baseball) was the impetus for the movie Cobb, which starred Tommy Lee Jones as Ty Cobb and Robert Wuhl as Al Stump. For his Baseball documentary, Ken Burns used some information from Stump’s book. This was the Cobb I had learned about.

Rather than forge ahead with what I thought I knew, I started to do some research. First, I found this article by William R. Cobb that was published in the 2010 The National Pastime. William R. Cobb is no relation to Ty Cobb, by the way. His article thoroughly discredits Al Stump, starting with Stump’s claim that Ty Cobb’s father was shot by his mother with a shotgun, with the result being a grisly, bloody scene of a man whose head had been nearly blown off from the blast. William R. Cobb found in his research that the weapon that killed Ty Cobb’s father was a revolver, not a shotgun, and the scene of the death couldn’t have been as gruesome as Stump claimed.

William R. Cobb then went on to describe the forgeries of Ty Cobb memorabilia that Al Stump sold long after he worked with Cobb on the 1961 autobiography. Many of these items were sold to Barry Halper, a prominent memorabilia collector. Stump forged Cobb’s signature on numerous items and tried to pass off other items as being related to Cobb. Current baseball memorabilia collectors no longer trust the authenticity of any items that originated with Al Stump, but at one time these items, including a forged Ty Cobb diary, were part of the legend of Ty Cobb. As William R. Cobb wrote:

 … it is evident that the Ty Cobb fantasies and forgeries created by Al Stump have infected the very heart of baseball myth and history—the hallowed Hall of Fame at Cooperstown. The legitimacy of the Stump-forged items had seemed reasonable enough when they first began to appear in the 1980s, based on Stump’s well-known collaboration with Cobb on the 1961 autobiography. Stump had a believable reason to possess writings by Ty Cobb and other pieces of Cobb memorabilia. The apparent legitimacy of many of these items was further enhanced by the inclusion of the Stump fakeries in the famous and highly publicized Barry Halper collection and by their prominent display in the prestigious Hall of Fame Museum. Nevertheless, we now know that Al Stump forged the Ty Cobb diaries, letters, and other autographed items that made up his memorabilia “collection.”

With the revelations about the lack of integrity of Al Stump, it called into question his salacious article in True Magazine and his book 30 years later that portrayed Cobb as a vicious psychopath. Stump’s story that Cobb killed a man who attacked him by pistol-whipping him to death was debunked by SABR member Doug Roberts in 1996. Roberts was a forensic specialist (and criminal lawyer and former prosecutor) who did an extensive study of Detroit autopsy records and contemporary newspapers and found no evidence to corroborate the story that Cobb killed a man.

In fact, according to William R. Cobb, most of the sensationalistic stories by Al Stump about Cobb were untrue. Multiple medical professionals who helped care for Cobb near the end of his life said the Cobb portrayed by Stump was not the Cobb they knew. A medical student named Rex Teeslink was hired by Cobb to be his full-time nurse. Teeslink described Cobb in a 1982 Sports Illustrated interview, saying, “I’m talking now because I want to set the record straight… The things that have been written, the way he has been portrayed… None of them are true.” Another young nurse who stayed with Cobb in in 1961, shortly before his death, said of Cobb, “He was pleasant and never caused me any problems. I took a baseball with me that night, and he gladly signed it for my 13-year-old brother.”

Stump wrote that the friendship between Cobb and Ted Williams ended because of an argument about the make-up of the all-time All-Star team. Williams said Stump was “full of it” and that the story of him falling out with Cobb were untrue. Stump also wrote that Cobb refused to sign autographs. This was also not true. There are many authentic pieces of baseball memorabilia signed by Cobb.

William R. Cobb’s piece concludes by encouraging everyone to reconsider what they’ve thought of Ty Cobb all these years. He writes, “I urge each SABR member, and indeed any baseball fan or historian who seeks to know and support the unexaggerated truth, to reexamine his own beliefs about Ty Cobb in light of the results of this investigation.”

More recently, a new book about Cobb came out two years ago that expands on the misrepresentation of Cobb by Al Stump and aims to set the record straight. The book, Ty Cobb, A Terrible Beauty was written by Charles Leerhsen. It is exhaustively researched by Leerhsen, who admirably combed through the records at the time to find any evidence of the many false things written by Stump. In nearly all cases, there was no evidence. Stump destroyed Ty Cobb’s reputation, likely in large part for his own financial gain.

Leerhsen also discredits a few stories about Cobb being a racist that were in the Charles Alexander biography of Cobb. Leerhsen investigated three stories described by Alexander of Cobb fighting with African-Americans. One was a night watchman, another was a bellhop, and the third was a butcher. Leerhsen looked up the contemporary newspaper accounts and found that all three of these incidents involved white men.

Discounting the long-held belief that Cobb was a racist, Leerhseen pointed out that Cobb’s family had long been abolitionists. His great-grandfather was a minster who preached against slavery. His father advocated for his African-American constituents as a state senator and was reported to have broken up a lynch mob. Leerhsen also quoted from a 1952 Sporting News article in which Cobb was asked about the integration of major league baseball. Cobb said, “The Negro should be accepted wholeheartedly, and not grudgingly. The Negro has the right to play professional baseball…” Cobb attended Negro League games, even sitting in the dugout with players at times.

One particularly bizarre story that Stump wrote about Cobb was that Cobb would steam off the stamps from letters that children wrote to him and that Cobb never wrote back. In fact, there are numerous letters that Cobb wrote to young fans in which Cobb wrote that he was honored to receive an autograph request. Some of Cobb’s letters to young fans were five pages long.

If you’re interested in learning a little more about who Cobb truly was, and not the false representation of him by Al Stump and others, you can read this piece adapted from a speech Leerhsen delivered at Hillsdale College last March. Near the end of this speech, Leerhsen puts most of the blame on Stump, while also singling out Charles Alexander for his biography of Cobb and Ken Burns, who used this information to make Cobb a villain in his Baseball documentary, thus perpetuating the myth. At that speech, Leerhsen said:

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.

These new revelations opened my eyes and made me reconsider everything I thought I knew about Cobb. He was not the terrible person I thought he was. That’s not to say he was a gentleman on the playing field. He most certainly was not. He played hard and aggressive, but his contemporaries never though of him as a dirty player and the stories of him sharpening his spikes were not verified by the research Leerhsen did.

Of course, Cobb was no saint. He did have a quick temper and got into many fights, some with African-Americans but many more with white men. And the story about him going into the stands after the heckler was true. Overall, though, Cobb was a much more complex man than Stump’s caricature would have you believe and not nearly the monster that Stump portrayed.