Ty Cobb, misusing a metaphor from my own profession of evolutionary biology, wrote in his autobiography: "Baseball is a red-blooded sport for red-blooded men.... It's a contest and everything that implies, a struggle for supremacy, a survival of the fittest." This statement expresses the spirit that made Cobb so great a ballplayer, so enigmatic a personality. Cobb's Darwinian faith captured both sides of his paradoxical life and career. He was, to mention the dark side of struggle, a remarkably nasty person—not simply the romantic tough guy sliding into second, spikes high and gleaming, but a mean and petty man who, while he piled record upon record with his unparalleled play, alienated nearly everyone he encountered and embroiled himself, year in and year out, in an ugly series of brawls kindled by his hair-spring temper and his unrelenting racism. Yet, on the other, or bright side of combativeness, no one ever played more intelligent or committed baseball. Cobb was not the finest "natural" hitter (an accolade that, with uncharacteristic modesty, he bestowed on Shoeless Joe Jackson), and many players could outrun him in a footrace. Cobb achieved his once "invincible" records in batting and base-stealing with his head (his .367 lifetime average probably will stand until the sun explodes). He was a master of practical psychology and minute observation. He scrutinized every motion of every player, probed for their weaknesses and learned to exploit them either subtly or outrageously. In "hustle," he made Pete Rose look like an amateur (though Rose may gain his revenge by eclipsing Cobb's second most "unreachable" statistic—4,191 lifetime hits).
Ty Cobb stood out among the great players of his era and must serve as the prototype for a lost, pre-Ruthian style of baseball based on speed, guile, place hitting and scrapping for runs one at a time. He is therefore the obvious candidate for a biography in the new genre of baseball books written by scholars: Ty Cobb ( Oxford University Press, $16.95), by Charles C. Alexander, a professor of history at Ohio University. We were, for too long, deluged by self-serving fanciful reminiscences—pseudo autobiographies of the "as told to" school (including Cobb's own My Life in Baseball, The True Record, Doubleday, 1961). Then Jim Bouton finally blew the whistle in Ball Four (World Publishing Co., 1970) and launched a new style of expose and anti-heroism. These books served as welcome antidotes to the older whitewashes, but they did not provide the analysis and historical context that baseball, a sport so long and so intimately connected with American social history, clearly deserves. If we could combine this accuracy and analysis with the verve of good writing, the excitement of personal experience, and the simple gift for spinning a good yarn, then we would have a truly exemplary style of sports biography.
Alexander almost succeeds in forging this combination with Ty Cobb. He writes in conventional narrative style, telling the story of Cobb's life from youthful days in a respected (if not wealthy) family in rural Georgia; to the terrible, central incident that shaped his career and warped his personality (when his father, whom he adored, came home unexpectedly one night, was mistaken for a prowler by Cobb's mother and shot to death by her); to his glory years with the Tigers, filled with triumphs but marred by ugly incidents of his own instigation (as when he vaulted the rail to attack a heckling fan and, being informed that the man had no hands, shouted as he stomped, "I don't care if he has no feet"—all because the hapless gentleman had committed the ultimate insult against Southern manhood by calling Cobb a "half-nigger"); to the managerial failures of his late career, when he continued to hit but failed to lead; to his vindication following a charge of gambling on fixed games and his final two years with Connie Mack's Athletics (he hit .357 at age 40); to his bitter retirement, in which he amassed millions from well-placed investments (primarily in Coca-Cola and General Motors), received the cold shoulder from the myriads he had alienated as a player, achieved some satisfaction in acts of local philanthropy, became increasingly bitter and critical of the Ruthian style that had supplanted his brand of baseball and, finally, died a slow and painful death from cancer in a paranoiac, alcoholic stupor. If the book has any faults, they are the minor sins of conventional scholarship: a somewhat pedestrian style of writing and a failure to sort trivial detail from shaping incident.
Last year, Boston's Wade Boggs led the American League at .361, hitting about as many home runs as the toes on a horse, but placing line drives between fielders in all directions. The year before, Rickey Henderson stole almost as many bases as the A's played games. We continue to adulate (and pay) the slugger, but Cobb's brand of brainy, scrappy baseball may be coming back. I only hope that the Georgia Peach can scrutinize these changes from somewhere and finally find peace while he figures out some new doozy of a way to avoid Graig Nettles' tag while thundering from first to third on a bunt.