Thursday, October 13, 2011
Call it redemption…sort of.
When I was a boy, I had two heroes. Wild West lawman Wyatt Earp was one of them. I loved the stories of the old frontier, and how the Earp Brothers and Doc Holliday had tamed Dodge City and made life there as safe as your grandmother’s kitchen. But the Wild West was another world for me, and seemed out of reach and reality. What was closer to my heart was baseball, and my first real hero was Ty Cobb, from Royston, Georgia.
Cobb was a legendary baseball name, and I often heard my grandfather, who had played minor league baseball in the early years of the century, and who had seen Cobb play, talk about his exploits. Later I read as much as I could about the man, and a dog-eared copy of a 1952 biography by a man named Gene Schoor was my prized possession for a long time. Schoor’s book, though, was written for younger readers, and therefore was sugarcoated. It was another book, by a writer named Al Stump, that drove it all home, and told the story of the man’s life in more vivid detail and first introduced to me the reality that Cobb was possibly psychotic, was definitely racist, and had allegedly even killed a man. and made me lose all respect for my boyhood hero.
Stump had spent time with Cobb in the last year of Cobb’s life, 1961. He had access to Cobb that few had had before, and painted a vivid and extreme picture of a man prone to violence, a paranoid and sick individual who told Stump, on the record, that he had killed a man by slashing his face with the barrel of a pistol, until the man had no face left. Stump also related how police in Detroit had found an unidentified body in an alley a few days later, a crime that was never solved.
It was all too much, and my interest in Cobb, the baseball player, was destroyed by the information that Al Stump had given me in his 1994 book. I never thought about Ty Cobb again in the same way.
Until last summer, when I visited the Cobb family crypt in Royston, Georgia. It was a belated pilgrimage for me, to be sure, but when I realized that I only lived about 90 minutes way, I felt it was time. I went, driving past the hospital that Cobb had built for the people of Royston, past the signs proclaiming Royston the home of the world’s greatest baseball player, to the crypt, in a quiet little cemetery just down the street from the hospital, and where Cobb is interred with the remains of his beloved mother and father. And the thoughts of all of the evil things that Al Stump had told us in his book ran through my head. I peered through the smudged glass of the crypt door at the very spot where my hero’s bones lay, about 5 feet from me, and just sighed a sad sigh. My hero, the murdering racist paranoid villain.
Then, last month, Smithsonian Magazine published an article, entitled “The Knife in Cobb’s Back.” Years of research, painstakingly vetted, proved to the world one fact: Al Stump was a liar and a thief. It turns out that not only did Stump make up most of the vile stories about Cobb’s evil ways, (the police in Detroit have no record of a body or even an injury from the night that Stump says Cobb killed a man) but that he also stole hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of Cobb’s possessions after his death, to sell for his own enrichment. He also forged many letters from Cobb, and tried to pass off as genuine, fake Cobb owned items like dentures, duck decoys and corncob pipes.
The real damage, though, and the one that Cobb likely would have been most upset about, was the damage to his reputation, which was something that Cobb had worried about in life. He was a proud man by all accounts, and to have history blinded to his real achievements, by a liar and a thief, is a crime that needs correcting here.
The Georgia Peach may not have been anyone’s idea of a model citizen, but he was one helluva ballplayer, that’s for sure.