Cobb is in many ways pretty much what I’d heard about in other books or stories about baseball of that era. He’s intensely competitive, one of those athletes who feeds on the scorn or distaste of opposing players and fans, whether it’s real or merely perceived. And if there isn’t enough of that to go around, sticking it to the teammates he thinks have it in for him will do just as well. As a result, there are multiple occasions every season where Cobb is in trouble for arguing with an umpire, or getting into it with an opposing catcher or infielder who objected to Cobb’s slide (although Alexander contends Cobb did not sharpen his spikes to try and injure players, that was merely a rumor started by two other guys on the team to psych out their opponent). If that isn’t enough, he’ll get into an altercation with a fan every few years, meaning he’ll literally run into the stands and fight the guy. He shows up late to spring training every year (it must be said, always in shape when he arrived), and has contract disputes regularly. Though I won’t fault Cobb for disliking and speaking out against the reserve clause system that was in effect until the 1970s, where a team had control of a player’s rights for as long as they liked, and could pay as much or little as they chose, with the player’s only option to sit out if they didn’t like it.
And of course, the racism. Cobb would probably contend he had no particular problem with black people – he probably wouldn’t employ the, “I have black friends!” excuse, though – as long as they, you know, didn’t get insolent. That was a favorite word he apparently liked to use to explain why he had to thrash some elevator operator, or a clerk in a butcher store (after Cobb barged in with a gun and threatened the guy’s boss for mischarging Cobb’s wife on an order). They were “insolent” with him, and he couldn’t tolerate that, fine Southern gent that he was. Alexander lets Cobb off the hook for those actions, describing him as someone who would today be called a racist, but otherwise kind of lumps it in with “those were the common views of the time”. Well, just because a large proportion of white people in the early 20th Century were really obviously racist (as opposed to more subtly racist), doesn’t make Ty Cobb not also a racist.
Also, he waits until Cobb’s first wife, Charlie, files for divorce after Cobb retires to mention that, oh yeah, Cobb could be a really tough guy to live with, what with the sarcasm and angry outbursts and such (no physical abuse, apparently, that’s something). Up to that point, Alexander gives no impression there’s any real issue with the marriage, except perhaps that Cobb is away from his family a lot because of baseball. Could just be a matter of it being a different era, when whatever marital unrest there was, actually stayed out of public knowledge, but it came as a bit of a surprise. Up to then, Cobb seemed like a loving father and husband, loyal to his wife, undoubtedly demanding of his sons, but mostly wanting to be there. Then his playing career is over, and that’s apparently not been the case. Or not entirely the case, anyway.
I didn’t expect to learn Cobb has been involved in funding a modern hospital for his hometown, or a scholarship program for kids in need after his playing days were over. Or that he would push hard to get his old teammate Sam Crawford elected to the Hall of Fame, given they never exactly got along. But Cobb does seem to get slightly better at making friends, or mending fences, after he’s done playing. There are some acts he wouldn’t forgive, but with people he’d feuded with simply because they were on other teams, there was a chance. He strongly disliked what Babe Ruth’s success did to the game, but they eventually became friends. Cobb mused near the end that he ought to have done things differently, not pushed so hard all the time, not always had to be right, and maybe there’d have been more people there for him at the end. It sounds good, but I’m not sure Cobb could have been anyone other than who he was, even given the chance to see how things turned out, I think he wouldn’t be able to help himself. When he was player-manager of the Tigers, he initially promised not to meddle too much, make too many changes, go easier on the players (who claimed didn’t respond well to abuse like the guys in the game when he started). It wasn’t long before he couldn’t stop trying to do something, anything, that might help the team’s chance to win a little, and wearing everyone out by yelling about every mistake. That’s who he was.
The story that surprised me the most was when Cobb charged into the stands to fight a fan. Not because he did that. He and the fan had been going back and forth for innings, he said something about the guy’s mother, the guy called him half-black (using the pejorative term that starts with an “n”), and Crawford asked Cobb if he was going to let that slide. What surprised me is, after Cobb is indefinitely suspended by the league, his teammates all say they’ll go on strike if the suspension isn’t lifted. Then they go through with it. Reading the story initially, and knowing his teammates’ antipathy for him, I had figured Crawford baited him into it specifically to get him off the team for awhile, but no. I wasn’t surprised all the major sports pages roundly condemned the players for going on strike. Always bet on the media outlets to back management, since they’re the ones who decide if the press hacks get access to the players.