Steven Elliott Tripp, Ty Cobb, Baseball, and American Manhood. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016. Pp. xxii + 401. Photos, notes, select bibliography, and index. $29 paperback.
Reviewed by Christopher R. Davis
In the long and storied history of baseball, few individuals loom as large as Tyrus Raymond Cobb. Popular since his early playing days, much has been written about the Georgia Peach. Venerated as perhaps the game’s greatest practitioner, Cobb earned a reputation as a ruthless loner, a man prone to brutally violent outbursts, who was deeply racist and, perhaps, even psychotic. A member of the first class inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936, Cobb received more votes than any other player, including Babe Ruth, but died alone with few friends or remaining connections to the game he loved and so artfully mastered. At least that was the story passed down in baseball lore for a half-century after the Tiger immortal’s death in 1961.
During the past decade, interest in arguably the game’s best player once again blossomed. A century beyond Cobb’s heyday, writers applied modern research standards to the record of his life and attempted to reassess his complex character and legacy. A 2010 article by William R. Cobb (no relation to Ty Cobb), which appeared in the Society For American Baseball Research’s The National Pastime,exposed some of the most sensational stories about Cobb as exaggerations or outright fabrications. Three biographies, Charles Leerhsen’s Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty (2015), Tim Hornbaker’s War on the Basepaths: The Definitive Biography of Ty Cobb (2015), and Howard W. Rosenberg’s Ty Cobb Unleashed: The Definitive Counter-Biography of the Chastened Racist(2018) provided detailed examinations of Cobb and delved deeply into the documentary evidence. Each author further separated fact from myth and offered new—and in Leerhsen’s case, controversial—viewpoints on Cobb the man.
Among the new works on Cobb, Steven Elliott Tripp’s Ty Cobb, Baseball, and American Manhood(2016) stands out as the best reappraisal of the mercurial Cobb. Better than any other writer, the historian Tripp places Cobb in the context of the time and place that produced him. The result is a book that allows the reader to understand Cobb as a rational, though still far from perfect, human being. Extensively researched and masterfully written, it portrays its protagonist as intensely competitive, deeply prideful, sometimes violent, and always intelligent; above all, presenting Cobb as an individual who functioned logically and sanely—if not always tactfully and lawfully—throughout his lifetime. Tripp’s goal “is not a biography per se,” but “a work of social and cultural history” that takes “a more analytic approach” to understand Cobb “in the social and cultural milieu of early twentieth century America” (p. ix, xi). Tripp deftly achieves his goal. Scholars of Cobb, baseball, and American culture, as well as fans of the game, will find the result engaging and entertaining.
Driven by an intense desire to succeed and bring honor to himself and his family name, Cobb dominated baseball as no previous player. By the mid-1910s, experts and fans alike proclaimed him the best to ever play the game and he achieved “a celebrity status unrivaled in the history of American leisure culture” up to that point (p. 74). By the time he retired in late 1928, he had set ninety major league records including most games played, most hits, most runs, and highest career batting average. Ultimately, however, Cobb’s vaunted place in baseball history is secured by more than statistics, Tripp contends, because “More than any single player,” the Georgia Peach “turned baseball into a national game” (p. x).
To elaborate on this point, Tripp expands his focus from Cobb and explores how owners, players, the press, and fans experienced and reshaped the game in this era. In doing so, he makes an important contribution to the social and cultural history of baseball in early twentieth-century America. Tripp accomplishes much of this by delivering an engaging assessment of American masculinity, including its regional variations, during the period. His efforts in this regard make this not only an important work of sport history, but American cultural history as well. As urban industrial America thundered into the twentieth century, many of the traditional markers of manhood—honor, self-reliance, and martial valor—became difficult for the average man to attain. In their place, sports, and most especially baseball, became a proving ground of masculinity. Whether on the field, like Cobb, or in the stands, like the thousands of fans in each city who flocked to see him play, American men embraced the game as an arbiter and exemplar of manly ideals in an increasingly complex and rapidly changing world. This close connection between baseball and idealized manhood helped transform a popular spectator sport into the passionately followed national pastime.
To understand Cobb, Tripp begins with his rural Georgia roots in a post-Reconstruction South awash with the legacy of the Lost Cause. “The most essential attribute of Ty Cobb,” he argues, “was his manhood” and that manhood was shaped by the history of the region where he grew to maturity (p. 2). Like many Southerners, Cobb “brazenly adhered to a culture of honor that celebrated such masculine values as courage, indifference to pain (whether their own or someone else’s), competitive aggression, and physical strength” (p. 3). Unlike the large majority of his regional peers, however, Cobb’s profession took him far from home and forced him to operate in a culture very different from his own. “The story of Ty Cobb,” Tripp maintains, “is in large part the story of a man determined to retain his values in an alien and often unwelcoming world” (p. xxii).
Cobb learned what it meant to be a man from the influential male figures of his youth. Above all, his father, William Herschel Cobb—an educator, newspaper editor, and prominent local politician who served one term in the Georgia Senate—instilled in him the “values and ideals” espoused by “traditional upper-class Southern society” (p. 7). Born during the Civil War, the adult William embraced the creed of a progressive “New South.” Proponents of this doctrine emphasized education, industrial development, and paternalistic white supremacy as the means to restoring regional honor and integrating the South into the burgeoning American economy. As a professional educator, “Professor” Cobb made sure Ty learned his lessons well. Unlike many ballplayers of his time, the adult Ty was an educated man, as comfortable in the world of ideas as on the ball field. An often times “austere and unrelenting taskmaster,” William also drilled his eldest son in the “traditional southern … ethic of honor” (p. 8-9). In the South, a man’s honor derived from the status others granted him. William made sure that maintaining that honor, and the honor of his family name, was a driving force throughout his son’s life. When William was shot and killed by Ty’s mother Amanda just before Ty joined the Detroit Tigers in 1905, the devastated, but dutiful, son returned home to defend his mother and the Cobb name against the manslaughter charges of which she was ultimately acquitted.
While his father was bookish and academic, Cobb learned “a more visceral and physical style of manhood” from his paternal grandfather, John Cobb (p. 18). Squire Cobb, as he was known in the North Carolina backcountry of his birth, epitomized the rugged independence and frontier egalitarianism of the subsistence farmers of the South. Hostile to the elite planter class, he took up the antislavery cause prior to the Civil War. Early in the war, he fought in the North Carolina infantry for almost a year, but then went home to his young family and never rejoined the fight. During Reconstruction, he joined the Republican Party for a time and, in the years that followed, “became an exceedingly popular figure in his community” and a local leader his neighbors often turned to for advice and to settle disputes (p. 16). John Cobb farmed, raised livestock, and hunted to provide for almost all of his family’s needs. As a youth, Ty spent significant parts of each summer with his grandparents. During these visits, and especially on hunting trips with his grandfather, young Ty learned a more corporal and aggressive style of manhood, a rugged individualism better suited to his personality and his development as an elite athlete.
Cobb’s maternal grandfather, Captain Caleb Chitwood, a distinguished Confederate officer and cotton planter, died when his grandson was only six. Still, his legacy connected the Cobbs to elite Southern culture in ways that William prized and that Ty still proudly proclaimed in the mid-twentieth century. From humble origins, William Cobb craved the status and legitimacy that marrying into the Chitwood family conferred. He capitalized on it to forge a successful career and instill in his son the values of the Southern elite. Throughout his adult life, Ty Cobb styled himself the traditional southern patrician. An educated man of character, he offered paternalistic advice and guidance to those who deferred to his self-perceived elite status. For men like his final manager Connie Mack, who he considered deserving of their position and his admiration, Cobb offered respect and even deference. Those who challenged him, however, especially if he considered them an inferior, attacked his honor and manhood and risked provoking the full intensity of his wrath.
The youthful male subculture of his small-town upbringing in Royston, Georgia also contributed heavily to Cobb’s understanding of what it meant to be a man. Tripp argues that, unlike youth in other parts of the country who were often constrained by Victorian sensibilities, young southern males “embraced a culture that encouraged extreme risk-talking, physicality, aggression, and even violence” (p. 19). Cobb and his peers engaged in fistfights and performed daredevil feats to demonstrate their personal courage and mastery of the world around them. According to Tripp, these “acts of aggression and daring allowed Southern male youths to connect with the pride and honor of the South’s storied past” (p. 24).
In Royston, like countless other locales, sports emerged as one of the most readily available avenues for young men to “test their courage and gain honor among their peers” (p. 24). Both baseball and football rapidly gained popularity in the region in the early-1900s. For a fourteen-year-old Cobb, playing baseball with older boys on the semi-pro Royston Reds introduced him “to a more visceral and competitive style of manhood,” one that he eagerly embraced (p.23). As he approached adulthood, with his respectable father urging him to pursue an education and white-collar occupation, Cobb instead choose the example of his grandfather John and his Royston peers and boldly embarked on a career as a professional baseball player.
At several points in his narrative, Tripp steps back from Cobb to address the larger history of baseball and its place in early twentieth-century American culture. Cobb made it to the major leagues in 1905; his timing could not have been better. According to Tripp, by the early twentieth century, baseball emerged as a “national game” and an “avid obsession of young men throughout the country” (p. 43). In an increasingly industrialized and bureaucratized world, baseball became a symbol of vigorous American manhood. Large numbers of Americans embraced the game as an exciting test of mental and physical skill that “taught uniquely masculine skills and virtues” and prepared “the next generation of leaders … to govern and run” the country. Put simply, “baseball turned boys into men” (p. 45).
Historians of the game will be familiar with Tripp’s outline of its history during the 1890s and the Dead-Ball Era. Despite baseball’s growing national popularity overall, the major leagues struggled in the 1890s. Rowdy behavior on the field and in the stands, as well as questionable business practices, threatened to drive away its most important customers: urban professional men. Ban Johnson, a sportswriter who became president of the Western League in 1893, emerged as the baseball executive with the ideas and wherewithal to confront these problems. A forceful personality, Johnson worked to drive rowdyism and corruption from the game and strengthened the authority of umpires on the field. His methods made the ballpark more appealing to the respectable middle class.
In late-1899, Johnson renamed the regional Western League the American League and began moving franchises into National League cities. The new league ignored the older circuit’s reserve clause and competed with it directly for players. By 1902, Johnson’s upstart league outdrew the National League by more than half a million fans and forced the older league to recognize its equal status as well as the legitimacy of Johnson’s business practices. After 1903, with Johnson’s reforms in place and an annual World Series featuring the champions of both circuits, the major leagues entered “an unprecedented era of prosperity” (p. 58).
Players benefitted from the game’s new stability, but their position was hardly secure. The competition for talent between the two leagues pushed salaries, in decline during the 1890s, sharply upward in the first years of the 1900s. Once the two groups of owners agreed to a peaceful coexistence, however, both “colluded to reduce salaries” and solidify their control of the financial side of the game (p. 59). Moreover, the “scientific” baseball of the Dead-Ball Era challenged player autonomy and individuality on the field. Increasingly, insiders and fans alike saw teams as operating like industrial machines with each individual player performing a discreet task, just a cog subservient to the larger purposes of production. Further aligning with large-scale changes in American business organization, team managers, once master craftsmen closely tied to the ranks of players, now separated themselves and, with their expertise, “joined the ranks of the managing class” (p. 66-67).
Pressed by the rationalizing forces of modern production, cutthroat competition to earn and maintain a spot on the team, and the allure of a growing celebrity culture, professional baseball in the early twentieth century required mental adroitness as much as physical talent for success. In this area, Cobb excelled. Often remembered as erratic, unbalanced, and even psychotic, Cobb was none of these. The key to understanding Cobb, Tripp argues, is comprehending “[t]he ethic of honor” that “permeated every facet of … [his] life and informed much of his behavior” (p. 109). It was the chance to prove and defend his honor that drew him to baseball initially and then fueled his obsessive desire to establish himself as the game’s greatest player. It was violations of that ethic that provoked some of his most infamous outbursts.
As a man of honor, Cobb believed his talent and success on the field earned him the right to preferential treatment. This sentiment aligned perfectly with the emerging celebrity culture of the era, which treated some athletes and other entertainers with special privilege. Many players and fans felt conflicted by this heightened emphasis on individual personality, but Cobb’s sense of honor fueled his demand to be held separate from the rest. In the process, Tripp argues, he transcended baseball stardom and became a historical figure who “helped chart the course of the modern culture of celebrity” (p. 127).
Tripp uses Cobb’s devotion to the culture of honor to explain his views on race and his sometimes violent confrontations with African Americans. In popular memory, Cobb stands out as one of the most virulent racists to ever play baseball (or any other major sport), a violent extremist even in a period noted for its brutality and intense racism. In stark contrast, recent biographer Charles Leerhsen contends that Cobb was actually racially progressive, at least compared to many of his contemporaries, and that two generations of his father’s North Carolina family participated in the abolitionist movement. Tripp finds that the evidence does not support either of these diametrically-opposed viewpoints.
Tripp concludes that, based on very little evidence, “Leerhsen overstates the Cobb family’s egalitarian heritage” and points out that Cobb himself always emphasized his Confederate roots and “never discussed” any family connections to abolitionism (p. 377). Moreover, as Tripp notes, Cobb’s grandfather, John Cobb, was a well-respected leader in the Carolina backcountry, a man whose opinions his neighbors sought and valued. If his racial views had differed markedly from theirs, he would neither have achieved nor maintained that status. Like many of his backcountry brethren, John Cobb opposed the wealthy southern elite both before and after the war, but, also like them, it seems unlikely that he championed racial equality. In the early-1950s, his grandson, Ty, made some positive comments about contemporary black players and racial integration in sport, but that followed a long career where he refused to compete against African Americans and a lifetime of maintaining strict silence on racial issues. Even in old age, Tripp concludes, Cobb “remained something less than the enlightened egalitarian” that Leerhsen portrays (p. 362).
Tripp also argues for a nuanced reassessment of the more entrenched and enduring view of Cobb as an extreme racist. He finds that, while Cobb definitely operated from a racist perspective, he maintained views more in keeping with southern racial moderates from “the old elite planter class and the newly emerging entrepreneurial class,” than with racial extremists (p. 145). Like their more extreme brethren, these racial moderates wholeheartedly embraced the tenets of scientific racism while building an elaborate system of racial separation and stripping black men of economic and political rights. Unlike the extremists, however, they felt crass racism and the mob violence of lynchings and riots were bad for business and “should have no place in a modern, progress-oriented South” (p. 145). Moderates, like Cobb’s father William, recognized a role for blacks in the New South, though that role was as a subservient labor force under their guidance. They valued education as a means of uplift for blacks (as well as poor whites) and were open to limited degrees of racial interaction, so long as it was conducted on their terms.
Cobb interacted with African Americans throughout his lifetime and his encounters are best understood from this perspective. He looked back fondly on the black woman that helped raise him and developed positive relationships with many other African Americans. In all cases, however, these were with “blacks who took on a servile persona … [and] behaved as he demanded” (p. 148-149). When African Americans stepped out of what Cobb considered their rightful place, however,—such as the black groundskeeper in Augusta who received a mercilessly beating when he greeted him too familiarly during spring training in 1907, or the Detroit street repair worker who tried to move him out of the way and got assaulted the following year—he “could be downright brutal” (p. 150). Cobb employed many African Americans as personal servants, in both the clubhouse and his home, but almost all were southerners because he “preferred the service of those who knew their place” and considered Northern blacks “too insolent and difficult to manage” (p. 149). Ultimately, Tripp does not sugarcoat, excuse, or defend Cobb’s racism, instead he places it in the context of the time and place that produced it.
Like Cobb, most players of his day also subscribed to an ethic of honor. Their understanding of honor overlapped with Cobb’s in many ways, but differed in one fundamental respect. While the southerner Cobb’s sense of honor encouraged individualism and “placed a premium on personal autonomy,” theirs, forged “in the factories, shops, bars, and fraternal organizations of the industrial North and West … emphasized group cohesion above individual glory and reputation” (p. 163). For Cobb, honor meant distinguishing himself and proving his superiority. In this sense, he “reflected the highly stratified and socially contentious social world of the turn-of-the-century South” (p. 195). Most of his fellow players came from the lower-middle and working classes outside the South where the egalitarian ethos of the shop floor remained strong and encouraged comradery and group harmony. Many were also the descendants of recently-arrived immigrants whose strong ties to family and ethnic community discouraged the brand of rugged individualism Cobb embraced. They “ascribed values like camaraderie, altruism, and mutual support to the concept of team” and were suspicious of those who felt differently (p. 164). Because of the strength of this mutualistic ethic, many players “were extremely ambivalent toward the emerging star system that began to overtake baseball … during the 1910s” (p.196). No other player embodied this change as fully as Cobb. During his playing career, Cobb was not well liked by many of his teammates and peers. These differing ideas of manly honor and his unwillingness to subsume individual honor to the greater team, lay at the heart of many of the tensions and conflicts he experienced.
Ironically, while Cobb was not loved, or even liked, by many of his fellow players, including some of his closest teammates, “he won over millions of fans” to become “the most compelling and the most popular player of his era” (p. 215). Tripp explains that popularity by relating it to the dramatic changes occurring in the lives of American men. “Baseball became the National Game,” he argues, “during a period of profound social, political, and economic transformation for urban men, especially urban middle-class men” (p. 228). The rise of big business and the emerging dominance of corporate capitalism fundamentally changed the workplace and rendered the ideal of the independent small producer a relic of the past. As more and more men took dependent, salaried positions, a work world that once prized “independence, conviction, and spirit” transitioned to one that “wanted efficiency, standardization, obedience, and order” (p. 229). In this rapidly changing environment, men recognized the value in new modes of production, but also longed “to retain at least a semblance … of the virility and dynamism of an earlier age” (p. 230).
Amidst this whirlwind of change, baseball emerged as the salve for men’s uncertain souls. The game demanded the display of traditional manly virtues such as self-reliance, aggressiveness, and physical strength, but also “required … a new set of masculine attributes—intellectual agility, resolve, and emotional control” (p. 233). Baseball became the National Game, Tripp argues, because it better than any other sport, “balanced old and new conceptions of manhood, and thus created the ideal training ground for modernity” (p. 233). For middle class men, attending baseball games offered an escape from the increased regimentation of modern life, a homosocial bonding experience that freed them from the restraints of work and home and allowed them to celebrate manly virtue. “[I]n an increasingly atomized society,” Tripp maintains, baseball gave men the “the opportunity to bond with one another—albeit briefly—in a common male culture” (p. 246).
As the nation embraced baseball as a proving ground for modern manhood, Cobb’s dominance on the field made him the ultimate symbol of a daring, intelligent, and aggressive manly-style deemed best suited for the new century. The fans loved him for it. Intelligent and articulate, Cobb made himself readily available to the press and media coverage transformed him into one of the sport’s first true celebrities — “the image of vigorous youth and invincible white manhood” (p. 259). According to Tripp, Cobb achieved this vaunted status because he, better than any of his contemporaries, “embodied both the ideals and strivings of the new modern professional man” (p. 263). In a world that increasingly valued specialized expertise, Cobb emerged as the most dedicated and accomplished student of the game. Like many of the men in the stands who loved to watch him play, he was a specialist striving to perfect his craft and maximize his performance. Moreover, in a world fearful that the pressure and hyper-competitiveness of the business environment would rob men of their virility, Cobb’s success “demonstrated that man could not only survive …. he could thrive” (p. 265).
While he embodied many of the ideals of the new corporate man, Cobb simultaneously challenged them in significant ways. On the field especially, his aggressive, daredevil, combative style stood in stark contrast to the standards of behavior corporate employees were expected to maintain. Yet, even as he “inverted” their “values,” Cobb ingratiated himself further to these men, becoming a symbol of their discontent and rebellion against the new order (p. 271). Employees ultimately had to submit to the demands of those above them, but Cobb battled the opposition—with his fists if he had to—and refused to yield to any man. In the process, Tripp argues, he became “the embodiment of” American men’s “stifled frustrations and unspoken desires” (p. 271).
Cobb dominated the diamond throughout the 1910s, but the emergence of a new superstar and a new style of play in the 1920s challenged his status as the greatest player in baseball. In both their approach to the game and their public personas, Cobb and Babe Ruth were very different men. While Cobb claimed elite origins, Ruth came from society’s lowest rungs. Cobb studied the game intensely and competed with his mind as much as his physical talent, while Ruth seemingly dominated effortlessly based on tremendous natural ability. Moreover, Cobb kept to himself and carefully guarded his reputation, but the Babe partied late into the night, indulging his veracious appetites and treating nearly everyone like a long-lost best friend.
Unfortunately for the deeply prideful Cobb, Ruth’s remarkable talent not only matched (or even surpassed) his, but the times were changing and the nation was ready to embrace a different type of hero. According to Tripp, by the twenties, “urban American culture had” reached a point of “dramatic transformation” (p. 303). For over two decades, a new and growing middle class “had slowly abandoned the rigid Victorian morality of their parents and grandparents” and in its place “adopted a consumer ethic that promised personal fulfillment and instant gratification through the purchase of goods” (p. 303). In this new age, Ruth’s dramatic home runs captured the public imagination in ways that Cobb’s brooding intensity and subtle tactical skill never could. To many in the game’s expanding fanbase, Ruth “personified the glamour of consumption, the pursuit of pleasure, and the liberation of play” (pp. 303-304).
Cobb spent a great deal of energy at the end of his career and afterwards trying to convince the public that his style of play was superior to Ruth’s. This effort is not surprising to Tripp. Ruth threatened to overturn everything he held dear—his status as the game’s greatest player, his position as a fan and media favorite, “and perhaps most fundamentally” his image “as the embodiment of how baseball ought to be played” (p. 304). Ultimately, Cobb’s critique of Ruth rested on what he saw as the shortcomings in his rival’s manhood. For Cobb, and fans who admired his style of play, Ruth’s dramatic home runs failed to provide the intense drama and engaging strategy that real American men craved. For these mostly older men, the modern era needed “a touch of Victorian morality” to sharpen the dulling edges of manliness and reinsert some much-needed vigor (p. 317). Cobb always claimed—and so has Leerhsen—that he, despite nearing the end of his career, outperformed Ruth when the two met on the same field. Analyzing their confrontations, however, Tripp dismisses this as simple partisanship. If anything, the Babe got the better of Cobb on these occasions.
During the 1920s, as his physical talents slowly waned, Cobb’s image evolved and he increasingly came to be seen as a role model for and example of business success. During his career, Cobb parlayed his celebrity status and shrewd investments into considerable personal wealth. Early stakes in Coca-Cola and General Motors made him a multimillionaire by the time he retired and, according to Tripp, he was “perhaps the only millionaire ballplayer until at least the 1960s” (p. 322). In a period when corporate capitalism consolidated its dominance of the American economy, journalists in and out of sport portrayed Cobb’s success as a result of the type of grit, hard work, and determination critical to business success. Corporate leaders embraced him as a spokesperson to sell their products and as an example to which their employees could aspire. With age, and in changing times, Cobb came to personify “a new symbol of manhood—the business executive” (p. 321). Professional periodicals published profiles of Cobb linking the traits of a great baseball player to those of a successful executive and Cobb found himself in-demand as a corporate speaker. Cobb’s shifting public image, Tripp notes, provides an early example of “the pliability of the public persona in this emerging age of mass media and celebrity (p. 322).
Tripp’s final chapter “Protecting a Legacy” focuses on Cobb’s life after his retirement from baseball. In the last decade of his life, Cobb battled to shape how he was remembered, even as his image as one of the game’s greatest villains took root. During his playing career, contemporaries were well aware of Cobb’s violent temper and bristling personality, but it was not until after World War II, and more so following his death in 1961, that Cobb’s reputation as a violent psychopath and miscreant became widely accepted. Once again, Tripp accounts for these shifts by placing them in the context of the changing social and cultural currents of the times.
During the 1950s, major cultural and demographic shifts threatened baseball’s business model and attendance declined. To entice fans back to the ballpark, management sought to recast the game’s image and make baseball into “the sporting expression of the American way” (p. 358). What had been a hard-nosed, physical, and sometimes violent battle between men, often likened to war in Cobb’s day, was now marketed “to socially conservative America” as a game that “embodied civility, order, democracy, fair play, and good will” (p. 357-358). “[B]aseball was no longer a man’s game;” Tripp reports, “it was a family man’s game … ” (p. 358).
In this context, the Dead-Ball Era of Cobb’s heyday came to be seen “as the dark age of professional baseball” and journalists “highlighted the rough and tumble elements of the game” when recalling it (p. 357). As the dominant player of the era, Cobb became the dominant symbol of its memory. Writers “repeated and often sensationalized” stories of his violent temper and ruthlessly aggressive tactics to favorably compare the modern game to its unruly past (p. 357). In postwar America, baseball “reached an unprecedented level of civility and sportsmanship,” its supporters maintained: “The barbarism of the past—now conveniently personified by Cobb and seemingly Cobb alone—was dead” (p. 357).
In the last years of his life, Cobb pushed back against this diminution of his reputation. The problem, he contended, was not the crude roughness of his era, it was the softened masculinity of modern men. Current ballplayers, Cobb argued, lacked the fierce competitiveness and drive that defined his era. Coddled by management and the fans, they never developed the grit to fight every day. The slightest injury drove them to the bench and their unwillingness to maintain training in the off-season shortened their careers. The modern emphasis on home runs, Cobb added, discouraged hitters from mastering other aspects of their craft (such as placement hitting and bunting) and developing the skills (such as baserunning and fielding) of a complete player. In contrast, Cobb offered the players of his generation, “a strange, hard-bitten and ambitious crew—up from the small towns and by no means eager to go back, trained at nothing but that one profession and battling to hang on to it to their last breath” (p. 361). For Cobb, Tripp emphasizes, “the players of his generation were simply a more manly lot” (p.364).
Cobb felt sure that the public would side with him if only they heard his perspective. His self-aggrandizing, mistake-riddled autobiography, My Life in Baseball: The True Record (1961), written with veteran sportswriter Al Stump in 1961, told his side of the story. A dying Cobb bent the truth, misremembered, and, in a final display of his indominable will, forged his story as he wanted it told. While the result was not much worse than many other memoirs written late in life by noted figures, as scholarship, its inaccuracies led many to dismiss it as a credible source.
Tripp, however, views the book very differently, calling it “a seminal work of sports autobiography” and “as a work of self-preservation—and self-creation— … a masterful achievement” (p. 365). He employs it as a source throughout his narrative (though problematizing it and corroborating it) and uses it, along with Cobb’s other writings and public comments recorded by journalists, to allow his protagonist to speak directly to the issues of honor, manliness, and baseball at the heart of his story. “Baseball is a red-blooded sport for red-blooded men,” Cobb concluded at the end of the autobiography. “It’s no pink tea, and mollycoddles had better stay out. It’s a contest and everything that implies, a struggle for supremacy, a survival of the fittest,” argued perhaps the game’s greatest practitioner (p. 366). Unfortunately for Cobb, his early-twentieth-century creed of manly honor and rugged, competitive individualism—which won him such renown in his playing days—did not resonate in early-1960s America. Few were convinced by his argument and, as Tripp notes, “many found it odd and disturbing” (p. 366).
Cobb made few bad business decisions, but, Tripp points out, he “made an egregiously poor one” when he decided to work with his autobiographer, Stump (p. 367). Stump claimed his experiences with Cobb were so horrifying that the public needed to know. He wrote a scathing magazine article following Cobb’s death that sealed his writing partner’s reputation as a supremely talented player but horrific human being. “Ty Cobb’s Wild 10-Month Fight to Live” appeared in serial form in three issues of the sensationalistic True Magazine beginning in December 1961. The Associated Press named it the best sports story of 1962. Proving no more able than Cobb to set aside his personal agenda, Stump mangled the facts and exaggerated stories to entice readers while presenting a slanted and damning portrait of a lonely and dying Cobb beset by addiction, megalomania, homicidal urges, and deep psychosis. Stump was a noted sportswriter, but his relationship with Cobb in the star’s final days turned into the most important connection of his career. For the next thirty years, he worked that connection for notoriety and profit. A year before his death, Stump expanded his treatment in Cobb: A Biography (1994). That same year a film based on his work, “Cobb,” starring Tommie Lee Jones, further entrenched his narrative in the popular mind.
For almost fifty years, fans and scholars alike relied on Stump as a source and largely embraced his characterization of Cobb. In the last decade, however, Tripp and his fellow Cobb researchers eroded Stump’s hold on the Cobb legacy. Their detailed examinations of the documentary evidence made major strides toward clarifying the record and reconstructing the life of Ty Cobb as it was actually lived. By exposing Stump’s exaggerations and falsifications, they opened the door to a more accurate, nuanced, and contextualized understanding of the Georgia Peach. Tripp’s book is the first to capture the full potential of this new perspective.
Tripp’s most important achievement is in humanizing Cobb for a modern audience. He delivers a three-dimensional, rational, imperfect figure who can certainly be criticized, but cannot be caricatured or dismissed. In doing so, Tripp clearly illustrates for a broad audience the critical importance of historical context in understanding people and events from the past. Ty Cobb, like everyone, was a product of the time and place that produced him—a brazen son of the late-nineteenth-century New South, imbued with a deep sense of manly honor, battling for recognition and status in the highly-competitive world of mass commercialized spectator sport. Intelligent, driven, and supremely talented, Cobb (who was also petty, jealous, violent, and racist) conquered his sport. In the process, he also helped chart the course of media celebrity in twentieth-century America.
This book makes important contributions to the scholarship of sport, the history of baseball, and broader American cultural history. Tripp does much of this through his examination of masculinity during Cobb’s lifetime. Scholars have long recognized sport as a proving ground for manhood and a fruitful topic for gender studies, but much of their attention regarding men’s sports has focused on boxing and football—sports where violence and aggression provide an obvious link to martial manhood. Tripp, however, makes a compelling case that baseball became the national pastime because its unique combination of physical prowess and mental agility spoke most powerfully to American men of the early twentieth century. In a rapidly changing world, the game glorified traditional manly virtues such as individualism, initiative, and discipline, but also required more modern qualities like mental dexterity, specialized skill, and coordinated teamwork to achieve ultimate success.
Scholars of masculinity note that manhood is not monolithic and that multiple models of masculinity operate in any given time and place. Tripp emphasizes the regional variations in turn-of-the-century American manhood. Cultural historians across a broad range of topics will find his analysis of divergent masculine styles in the urban Northern and rural Southern engaging. While many models of manhood coexist in any society, a few dominant strains exert cultural hegemony. As Cobb’s public life illustrates, the individualistic ethos of Southern manhood trumped the mutualistic comradery of the Northern shop floor and ethnic community in the budding mass entertainment culture of early twentieth-century America.
Tripp spends less time developing his arguments about Cobb’s influence on celebrity culture, but still provides some important insights. Cobb’s demand for special treatment and a privileged position often created tension with his teammates and fellow players, but it meshed perfectly with the times, as Americans began exalting a select few individuals to celebrity status. Moreover, Cobb’s ability to shape and reshape his image over the course of his career highlighted another fundamental characteristic of the new mass entertainment culture—the pliability of celebrity persona. Through his dominance on the field, Cobb joined a select group of actors, athletes, and entertainers who pioneered the highly-influential role of celebrity in modern America.
Ultimately, this book is an engaging reassessment of one of baseball’s greatest figures. Cultural and gender historians, scholars of sport, baseball historians, Cobb enthusiasts, and fans of the game, all will find it accessible and entertaining. Casual readers will enjoy Tripp’s engaging storytelling, while fellow writers will appreciate his commitment to literary craftsmanship. Scholars following along in the notes at the end of each chapter, or browsing the select bibliography, will note Tripp’s mastery of a broad range of secondary literature covering baseball history, masculinity and gender studies, and American cultural history. If you are looking for an excellent baseball book, Tripp’s authoritative reworking of Cobb and his legacy is highly recommended.
Christopher R. Davis received his PhD in history from the University of Oklahoma. His research focuses on the desegregation of college football in Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas during the second-half of the twentieth century. Chris lives in McAllen, Texas where he teaches courses on U.S. history, African-American history, and sport history at South Texas College.