The hyperbolic sportswriters of the day credited Cobb with bringing psychology to a game previously packed with Bunyanesque bumpkins swinging rough-hewn clubs at saliva-sodden spheres–and hailed what he was doing as “scientific baseball.”
Or at least some of them did, some of the time. Journalistic standards were different then, and wildly inconsistent. Scandalous or embarrassing off-the-field incidents might be overlooked or played down as a favor to one of the participants. That Cobb’s mother had shot and killed his father a few days before Ty’s major league debut, that the minor league player the Tigers wanted over Cobb, Clyde Engle, was hampered by gonorrhea, that Cobb missed time early in the 1906 season because he had what was then called a nervous breakdown–such things were obscured by euphemism if they were written about at all. In other cases, though, controversies might be concocted or exaggerated to please the sports editor and the reading public. Quotes were frequently manufactured, or so polished you could see the writer’s face in them, throw-pillow-worthy aphorisms and corny jokes, sometimes coon jokes, were credited to players who had never said such things, and almost everyone seems to have shrugged this off as just the way things worked.
On a slow news day, some of the same scribes who usually showered Cobb with hosannas might depict him as a maniacal base runner who preyed upon innocent infielders and hapless catchers with his ferociously filed spikes. His own hometown paper, the Detroit Free Press, once said that he was dangerous to the point of “dementia” (which is exactly what he wanted his opponents to think), and at least one editorial page writer opined in all seriousness that by tearing around the base paths in such an aggressive manner he was exacting revenge for General William Tecumseh Sherman’s bloody march through his beloved home state fifty-something years before.
(Charles Leerhsen, Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, 2015)
This is for fun. I just picked this up and, at first glance, Leerhsen’s revisionist bio of Ty Cobb the Savage Racist looks like it’s going to be a fantastic, revelatory read.
I’ve already sensed that Cobb’s approach to the game he played would have made him one of my favorite athletes–not only bearing strong resemblance to, but long predating, the “psychological” approach of not-the-most-physically-gifted give-no-quarter spiritual compatriots like Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Penny Taylor, Chris Evert, Tim Duncan, Greg Maddux.
Such qualities certainly made them my favorites to watch in their respective sports and eras (I just missed Russell but I’ve seen enough highlights to know how I would have felt).
That said, it’s always funny when somebody starts out lamenting the past absence of something like “journalistic standards” before demonstrating how much things have changed by providing a thorough-going litany of how much things have stayed the same.
[I mean, I wish I had a dime for every time a modern Yankee “journalist” has explained the actions of some Red State Republican politician (or group of voters) as revenge for Sherman’s March…the bloody-mindedness of which was itself a myth seeded in the national memory by the Plantation South’s newspapers, owned and edited, lock-stock-and-barrel, by Democrats-to-a-Man tired of Sherman’s army targeting their precious cotton crop and setting their slaves free when he should have been slaughtering the Virgil Caine’s of the world like the West Point manuals said!…But I digress.]
I was going to provide some modern day examples of journalism at its finest. But why bother.
You believe what you want to believe…