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COMMENTARY : Play Ignores Cobb's Brighter Side

July 07, 1990|JACK McDONALD | (Jack McDonald is a 90-year-old semi-retired journalist who was a friend of Cobb's. These are his views on "Cobb" the play and Cobb the man.)

SAN DIEGO — In "Cobb," now playing at the Old Globe Theatre, the dialogue is easily recognized as that of the Ty Cobb I knew.

But, based on 35 years of close association with Tyrus Raymond Cobb, the Georgia Peach (how dearly he loved that sobriquet), I found some of the play contained half-truths, with little regard for the facts.

Moreover, dominating the entire play are grim tales of the darker side of his nature--almost to the exclusion of anything good about the man. This may be good box office, but is it fair to Cobb?

Cobb owned 90 baseball records when he retired in 1928 after 24 years of play in the majors; he held the highest career batting average (.367) in the history of the game, and he was a base-stealing genius, swiping home 50 times, a record as unbreakable as Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak. The closest anyone has come in the half-century since Ty retired was Jackie Robinson, with 17 thefts of home.

But there was much more to Cobb than just a set of statistics. The Ty Cobb I knew was a Jekyll and Hyde. He was a complex man who was very controversial on and off the field. He was dynamic, sometimes ruthless, surly, flaming-tempered and a restless soul. But beneath a rough and sometimes selfish nature beat a human and compassionate heart.

I remember when we sat together at a preview of the film "Pride of the Yankees," the story of Lou Gehrig. At the end, when Gehrig was making his farewell speech over the mike at Yankee Stadium, Ty broke down and wept unashamedly.

When Sam Chapman became an outfielder for the Philadelphia Athletics, Ty wrote him a 13-page, handwritten letter. He had never met Chapman, but told him things to do and things to avoid to succeed in the majors. To this day, Chapman will say that letter was worth as much as a full season's experience and advice. Chapman was a star for many years.

Ty also took significant pride in getting Wahoo Sam Crawford into the Hall of Fame. The two were Detroit Tiger teammates and had not spoken to each other in years while Tiger players. Ty was a member of the Cooperstown Hall of Fame Veterans Committee and for years plugged away to get the burly first baseman admitted.

I read scores of letters Cobb had written to Veterans Committee colleagues praising Crawford.

One early Sunday morning, Ty phoned my home and exclaimed: "He made it! He made it!"

I asked him who made what.

"Why, Old Wahoo Sam!" shouted the Georgia Peach, who was as ecstatic about it as a small boy who had just gotten a pony for Christmas.

I asked former Tiger Oscar Vitt what caused the rift between Crawford and Cobb. "There was no feud," he said. "Crawford was just insanely jealous of Ty's headlines. Sam would go 4 for 4, but the same day Ty would steal 3 bases, including home, and Ty would grab all the headlines."

"Cobb" also implies that Ty was despised by all his Tiger teammates, but Vitt and Fred Haney, who later was the first general manager of the California Angels, were lifelong friends of his.

The play hits a nerve with Cobb when it delves into his father's death. His slaying is a tragedy that many say shaped Ty's attitudes.

Ty's mother shot his father under puzzling circumstances. It was a delicate subject, and I never asked Ty to tell me the story.

There were two versions.

One says the elder Cobb had been on a trip and returned late at night, found he had forgotten his keys and, rather than wake up the neighborhood by shouting to get in, got a ladder and started climbing upstairs to an open window on the second floor. Ty's mother, who had a deathly fear of burglars, shot him dead.

The other version is an uglier one. This one says Ty's dad suspected his wife of infidelity and was spying on her. Nothing was ever proven.

In all the years of our friendship, I never heard Ty say either a good word or a bad word about his mother, but he revered his dad.

"He gave me a world of advice, and most of it came from the Good Book," he said.

This tragedy doubtless affected Ty's personality. Another incident that contributed to his complex nature occurred when his eldest son, Herschel, on the verge of gaining national recognition as a doctor, died of brain cancer while still a young man. Ty never did get over it.

George Gerdes, portraying Ty in his later years in "Cobb," mentions his alleged habit of sharpening the spikes on his shoes to intentionally intimidate opponents right, left and center.

"I intentionally spiked only two men in my life," Ty once told me. One was an obscure catcher who had said Cobb was a selfish player. The other was Dutch Leonard, a pitcher who tried to hit the Hall of Famer on the head.

"Later in the game, I laid down a bunt in such a way Leonard would have to cover first base," Ty told me. "We hit the first base bag together, and my foot came down on one of his, causing the blood to squirt like Mount Vesuvius in eruption. Never again did anyone throw me a knock-down pitch."

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