It appears “fake news” is not a recent phenomenon. In fact, baseball hall of famer Ty Cobb has been the victim of fake news for over 50 years.
I’ve been a big baseball fan since I was a kid, and over the years everything I heard about Ty Cobb was negative. There were stories about how the former Detroit Tigers great sharpened his spikes and slid into a base with his feet up high to injure opposing players. There were reports that Cobb was a racist, a drunk and an overall mean-spirited man. However, now it appears, Cobb wasn’t quite the monster that some would have you believe.
I recently heard Glenn Beck talking on his radio program about research that was done by Charles Leerhsen that disproved much of what we have come to know about Cobb, so I decided to look up Leerhsen’s writings and speeches for myself.
Leerhsen’s reputation is solid. He is a journalist, author, and adjunct professor at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism. He has been an editor for Sports Illustrated, People, and Us Weekly, and spent eleven years as a senior writer at Newsweek. He has also written for Esquire, Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, Smithsonian, and Money. He is the author of several books, including Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, which won the 2015 Casey Award for best baseball book of the year.
In a speech he gave at Hillsdale College, March 7, 2016, Leerhsen outlined what he learned in researching the life of Cobb, for his 2015 biography.
“Most Americans think of him [Cobb] first as an awful person – a racist and a low-down cheat who thought nothing of injuring his fellow players just to gain another base or score a run,” Leerhsen said. “Indeed, many think of him as a murderer. Ron Shelton, the director of the 1995 movie Cobb, starring Tommy Lee Jones in the title role, told me it was ‘well known’ that Cobb had killed ‘as many as’ three people.”
Leerhsen said the person primarily responsible for the false information about Cobb was Al Stump, a writer who collaborated with Cobb on his autobiography. But after Cobb’s death in 1961, Stump began writing articles and additional books that portrayed what he called was the “real” Cobb – the dirty player, racist and murderer we’ve come to know.
“When I pitched my idea for a book on Cobb to Simon and Schuster, I was squarely in line with this way of thinking,” Leerhsen admitted in his speech. “I figured my task would be relatively easy. I would go back to the original source material — the newspaper accounts, documents, and letters that previous biographers had never really looked at. I would find fresh examples of Cobb being monstrous, blend them with the stories that Al Stump and others wrote, and come up with the first major Cobb book in more than 20 years. But when I started in on the nuts-and-bolts research with original sources — the kind of shoe-leather reporting I had learned working at Newsweek in its heyday, it didn’t even take me ten minutes to find something that brought me up short.”
What Leerhsen read was an article from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that depicted a very accommodating Cobb, who during the baseball off-season was appearing in a play, and was more than willing to conduct an interview with the newspaper reporter while at the same time visiting with friends who stopped by his dressing room.
“What did this story say about Ty Cobb? On the one hand, he was just doing what any decent person would do, being as polite as possible under trying circumstances,” Leerhsen said. “But on the other, Cobb’s ordinary decency was exactly the point. For me, with this one story, the myth of the evil Ty Cobb began to crumble.”
Researching further, Leerhsen said he continued to read accounts that portrayed Cobb as a well-respected player, even by opposing teams. The Chicago White Sox once gave Cobb a collection of books, since he was a voracious reader of historical accounts, and declared him the most popular visiting player.
What about the stories that claimed Cobb was a racist?
“A 1984 biography of Cobb, written by a college professor named Charles Alexander, is typical,” Leerhsen said. “It describes three people who fought with Cobb — a night watchman, a bellhop, and a butcher — as being black. Such evidence was enough for documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, whose made-for-PBS series Baseball described Cobb as an embarrassment to the game because of his racism and cast Cobb as the anti-Jackie Robinson.
“Looking into census reports, birth certificates, and contemporary newspaper accounts, I found that all three of the black fighters cited by Charles Alexander were in fact white,” Leerhsen said. “Yes, Cobb had also fought with two black men during his life, but those fights didn’t have racial overtones, and Cobb, who had an extremely thin skin, fought with many more white men. So how did such a distinguished author make such obvious mistakes? When I asked Alexander about this, he simply replied, ‘I went with the best information I had at the time.’”
Leerhsen went on to say in his speech that not only was Cobb not a racist, but he came from a long line of abolitionists.
“His great-grandfather was a minister who preached against slavery and was run out of town for it,” Leerhsen said. “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 attended many Negro league games, sometimes throwing out the first ball and often sitting in the dugout with the players.”
The one negative story involving Cobb that is accurate was he once went into the stands and repeatedly punched a man who had been heckling him for more than a year. The fans around them yelled at Cobb to stop, as the man had only one hand, hence the story of him attacking a handicapped fan.
Cobb was by no means a saint, but he certainly wasn’t the monster Stump and Alexander made him out to be. Next time we’re handed a smear-job on an athlete, or anyone for that matter, we should all dig deeper and not fall prey to “fake news.”