Learning To Like Baseball

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For me, the most darkly fascinating figure in baseball history may also have been its greatest player, Ty Cobb. His career statistics—3,034 games, 4,191 hits, 2,245 runs scored, 892 bases stolen, 1,961 runs knocked in, just 357 strikeouts in 11,429 times at bat, and a lifetime batting average of .367—only hint at the terrible ferocity he brought to the game. Largely friendless and in a state of near-perpetual rage, he played the game as if waging war. “It was his base,” the pitcher Rube Bressler recalled. “It was his game. Everything was his. The most feared man in the history of baseball.”

He was just as feared off the field, where his furies often spilled over onto innocent bystanders. Cobb slapped and chased a black groundskeeper whose only offense was trying to shake his hand and then, when the man’s wife sought to intervene, tried to choke her to death. He stabbed a black hotel night watchman who had dared ask him to identify himself, beat up a black construction worker who suggested he not stop in wet cement, and went after at least one fan who had taunted him too loudly from the stands. He was stomping this tormentor with his spikes when someone shouted that the man was helpless; he had only one hand. “I don’t care if he has no feet!” Cobb answered, and kept kicking until a park policeman pulled him away.

What lay behind this pattern of behavior that would have landed a less celebrated man in jail or an asylum?

The answer to that riddle, too, seems to lie in a grim boyhood. Cobb was the son of a Georgia country schoolmaster and editor whom he could never seem to please (“the only man who ever made me do his bidding,” Cobb remembered; “I could never match my celebrated father for brains”), who wanted him to go to college and become a soldier, lawyer, doctor, anything but a ballplayer. Tense and restless, the boy felt trapped—“in some sort of bondage,” he said—and at seventeen left home to take a job with a minor-league ball team in open defiance of his father, whose parting words were “Don’t come home a failure.”

THAT COLD WARNING, COBB RE- membered, “put more determination in me than [my father] ever knew. My overwhelming need was to prove myself as a man.” He hurled himself into baseball, led the South Atlantic League in hitting, and was just weeks away from signing the major-league contract that he believed would at last prove him a success in his father’s eyes when he received a telegram: His father was dead. He had been shotgunned twice by Cobb’s own mother, perhaps by accident, possibly deliberately to keep him from attacking a lover she had taken. “I didn’t get over that,” Cobb remembered as an old man, “I’ve never gotten over it.”

Working on the film and book taught me still another lesson. While most Americans care too little about their history, the baseball community is different. The real meaning of all those apparently impenetrable stats is that the past matters. Without them no player would know where he stood, no fan could measure his or her heroes against those who have gone before. That fact alone should endear the game to any historian.

My father hasn’t yet seen the television series. He has read advance galleys of the book and liked it, thank God, though he doesn’t think we did justice to the hero of his youth, George Sisler. I suspect he’s right. In any case I’m still not in any position to argue with him.