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Author says Detroit Tigers legend Ty Cobb wasn't the "devil" people made him out to be

Jun 8, 2015

He was arguably America’s first sports celebrity. He paved the way for the "bad boy athlete."

Tyrus Raymond Cobb spent 22 seasons with the Detroit Tigers. Besides being a brilliant outfielder and base stealer, Ty Cobb had a rough reputation: surly, mean, racist, someone who hated women and kids.

Leerhsen argues that the truths we think we know about Cobb are inaccurate.
Credit Simon & Schuster

How much of this reputation is deserved and how much of it has been passed on from fan to fan until it’s been accepted as truth?

Charles Leerhsen is a former editor at Sports Illustrated. His new book is called Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty.

Expecting to write about a racist and a terrible person, Leerhsen was surprised by what he found.

Yes, Cobb was a very intense player, and a high-strung guy who got in a lot of fights with his fellow players.

But Leerhsen said it became easy to malign the popular figure during the twilight of his career as the game of baseball changed and veered away from his style of play.

Unlike what’s been written about Cobb, Leerhsen reveals Cobb as a flawed, yet brilliant man. A man capable of violence on the pitch, but also compassion and charity off of it.

Leerhsen's new book explores the myths behind one of the game’s most controversial characters.
Credit Diana Eliazov

Leehersen says that the allegations of racism are merely fabrications as the word hadn’t even been coined at the time.

What’s more is this quote by Cobb when asked about racial integration in the Texan league: “The Negro should be accepted whole-heartedly and not grudgingly into baseball. The Negro has the right to professional baseball and who’s to say he has not?”

He wasn’t thought of as a monster or a horrible human until after he died.

Leerhsen says Cobb's present-day reputation was set after "one hack sports writer wrote a very scurrilous, untrue article that kind of snowballed into an avalanche of lies."

Leerhsen calls out two writers in particular, one of them being Al Sump.

"He [Stump] talked about working with Cobb. He claimed he stayed with Cobb every day for months and months, and talks about a drunken, crazy, vile man waving a gun around with everyone in his family afraid of him."

Stump didn’t just create quotes and stories, he also forged Ty Cobb’s autograph and sold it for money. He has since been discredited by the FBI: treasured objects in the Baseball Hall of Fame turned out to be fakes created by Al Stump.

Cobb had initially wanted his autobiography written to set the record straight about his wife. When he found that Stump had created a web of lies centered around an entirely different persona, he tried to legally stop Stump from publishing an eventually best selling book in "My Life in Baseball."

Leerhsen also believes that the segment about Cobb on Ken Burn’s Baseball mini-series is wholly inaccurate.

“It disappoints me because I love so much of Ken Burn’s work. But it was sloppy history that has tainted a man and ruined a reputation and has actually cost us a great American figure who we’ve now turned into a devil."

Charles Leerhsen will be at the Detroit Historical Museum to promote his work on Saturday, June 13th from 11:00 AM to 1:00 PM, and you can meet Leerhsen at the Detroit Yacht Club on Sunday, June 14th from 1:30-4:30 PM .