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ty cobb unleashed

25 august 2018

Ty Cobb Unleashed is the latest in Howard Rosenberg's series of idiosyncratic baseball histories. It follows his long-running series on Cap Anson, an undigested though undeniably thorough archive of minutiae about 19th-century baseball. Rosenberg now gives Ty Cobb the same treatment, assembling a 466-page collection of Cobb-related items from the popular press (plus another 80 or so pages of appendices, notes, and index).

Rosenberg's motivation for a study of Cobb is the evolution of the image of the Georgia Peach as racist. The state of the art on this matter had been Charles Leerhsen's 2015 biography Ty Cobb, which saw Cobb as distinctly driven and at times violent (toward blacks and whites alike), but not as egregiously racist, at least in context.

Rosenberg provides something of a corrective. Luckily he does so in some brief opening chapters, frontloading argument and saving his vast archive of "odds and ends" for the later ones. I might sum up Rosenberg's thesis as: Cobb was still something of a racist, even in context, if not as much as an earlier biographical tradition stemming from the fanciful Al Stump might have claimed. Moreover, it isn't "presentist" to point out that Cobb's context could be pretty racist. If we no longer need see Cobb as the archetypal baseball white-supremacist, we need not see him as a neutral character either. He did his bit to reinforce racist (and to a smaller extent, anti-Semitic) ideas that pervaded his time. He was no monster but should get no pass, either.

Much of the evidence that Rosenberg assembles for Cobb's prejudices comes from language and tone. Cobb could refer to blacks (and sometimes Jews) in ways that would certainly sound bigoted today, and weren't exactly progressive for his era, either. What of Cobb's actions? One theme in Cobb biography is his playing, or refusing to play, against non-white opponents. Biographer Charles Alexander sees Cobb as swearing off interracial competition after an unpleasant integrated exhibition series in Cuba in 1910. Leerhsen sees the 1910 events as far more placid. Rosenberg boils the debate down to a single factual observation: "Cobb apparently did not play in exhibition games after that with blacks on the same field at the same time as him" (140). Rosenberg stresses an indicative game from 1916 where Cobb and African-American pitcher Cannonball Redding were featured in a contest in Connecticut. Cobb started the game , but left when Redding entered – so that the advertisements that touted them both (which Rosenberg reprints, 141) could be technically correct, without the two stars actually squaring off. If we should not see Cobb as a prime enforcer of the color line, he was still far from a leader in establishing informal racial harmony on the playing field.

Cobb mellowed with age on all fronts (here Rosenberg agrees with the tradition that has developed from Alexander through Leerhsen, discounting Stump's histrionic portrait that served for the regrettable Tommy Lee Jones biopic). Much of Rosenberg's book is a chronicle of that mellowing, following Cobb through hundreds of media reports in his retirement.

If you are a completist about Cobb or segregation-era baseball, you should get this book; it has some remarkable detail. Libraries in particular should get it to complement their holdings on baseball history. Rosenberg's book is handsomely designed and includes a wealth of reproductions of little-seen photographs and other press clippings. It is not the kind of book you read straight through for its story – I won't pretend to have done that. But Rosenberg does convey quite a bit of the peculiar texture of sport, race, and celebrity in 20th-century America. Ty Cobb Unleashed will be a valuable archive to dip into for greater learning, or to settle a point about its volatile subject.

Rosenberg, Howard W. Ty Cobb Unleashed: The definitive counter-biography of the chastened racist. n.p.: Tile Books, 2018.