Rosenberg, Howard W. Ty Cobb Unleashed: The Definitive Biography of the Chastened Racist. Tile Books, 2018. Pp. 544. Appendixes, bibliography, notes. $32 hardback.
Reviewed by Bob D’Angelo
When writing about baseball history, Howard W. Rosenberg marches to the beat of his own drum. When he published his first of four books about Hall of Famer Cap Anson and nineteenth century baseball in 2003, Rosenberg warned readers in his introduction that “this book is unconventional.” Rosenberg’s flair for the unorthodox returns in his latest work about another volatile Hall of Famer, Ty Cobb. In Ty Cobb Unleashed: The Definitive Counter-Biography of the Chastened Racist, Rosenberg seeks to put Cobb in the context of his times, while also critiquing some recent biographies about the Georgia Peach. It is a print-on-demand book that can be ordered through Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
Rosenberg has argued that recent books about sports figures of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century have followed a “classic technique”: “to steer the memory of interviewed persons toward what would sound interesting today, rather than what was interesting when something occurred.” To that end, Rosenberg unleashes a staggering amount of detail about Cobb, drawing from an exhaustive trove of sources.
Rosenberg’s bibliography contains ninety books — including his last three works about Anson — information from a 1951 congressional hearing, fifty-six articles that cover a time span from July 1909 to July 2017, twelve internet-based articles from January 1996 to October 2017, one hundred fifty-five letters (all but eight written by Cobb) from July 1904 to November 1971, and audio and video interviews. Rosenberg also conducted three telephone interviews and references five emails and four legal documents. There are twenty-nine pages of end notes. Using his resources, Rosenberg focuses mainly on Cobb’s life from 1929 until his death, although he does touch on his 24-year baseball career. He noted that his work on Cobb performs a public service, “showing how technically flawed a mainstream nonfiction book can be.” (p, 466). Rosenberg uses two biographies of Cobb published in 2015 as examples — Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, by Charles Leerhsen; and War on the Basepaths: The Definitive Biography of Ty Cobb, by Tim Hornbaker. A third book, Ty Cobb, Baseball and American Manhood — written in 2016 by Steven Elliott Tripp, who teaches social and cultural history at Grand Valley State University in 2016 — also is scrutinized by Rosenberg.
Other books have been written about Cobb. The player collaborated with Al Stump in a 1961 “setting the record straight” autobiography; Stump wrote a scathing magazine piece about Cobb shortly after the player’s death, and then returned in 1994 to write Cobb. In 1984, well-respected author Charles Alexander made a sincere but flawed attempt in Ty Cobb. Richard Bak authored Ty Cobb: His Tumultuous Life and Times in 1994 and followed it up with Peach: Ty Cobb in His Time and Ours in 2005. In 2013, Herschel Cobb wrote a sentimental book about his grandfather, Heart of a Tiger.
Leerhsen “writes like an entertainer” (p. 17) and uses a “slippery style of argumentation,” Rosenberg observes (p. 22). My view in May 2015, when I reviewed Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty for tbo.com, the defunct Tampa Tribune’s online site, was that Leerhsen’s writing was smooth, “veering from serious to occasional cheeky first-person observations.” Hornbaker’s strength was referencing “a far greater amount” of sources on Cobb, particularly from newspaper articles, Rosenberg writes (p. 16). And while Hornbaker’s prose was straightforward and clear, “he eerily mimicked Cobb in hardly finding humor in anything.” (p. 90). Rosenberg believes that in comparing the two authors’ works, Hornbaker was the more accurate historian in terms of Cobb’s racism. But he adds that both Hornbaker and Leerhsen “missed so much key prose” from Cobb’s post-baseball career (p. 16). Tripp, meanwhile, “chipped away, but mainly at the margins,” regarding Leerhsen’s groundbreaking (and controversial) reassessment of Cobb’s racism (p. 460). My review of Tripp’s book, written in August 2016, suggests that he wrote a book that “brought to the forefront the subject of manhood and defending one’s honor.”
In many instances, Rosenberg demonstrates apparent incompleteness by the three authors, although his focus is mainly on Leerhsen and Hornbaker. Quotes are shifted around or are paraphrased and supposed “new information” is not credited properly to older sources, Rosenberg asserts. Or, entire quotes were not included, changing the context.
Cobb was “clearly” a racist, Rosenberg writes. His first chapter references an anecdote about Cobb playing a game called African Dodger, a popular carnival game in which a black man put his head inside an opening while white fairgoers threw balls at his head. The extent of Cobb’s racism is examined as Rosenberg compares his findings to those of Leerhsen and Hornbaker. Rosenberg’s conclusion is that while Cobb was not a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan, he was not innocent of racism, either. Cobb softened those thoughts in the 1950s when praising the play of Jackie Robinson, even telling black journalist Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier that the Brooklyn Dodgers’ star was “my kind of ballplayer,” (p. 364). But by then the die had been cast and the original characterizations of Cobb as a staunch racist by others were difficult to discard. Leerhsen attempted to temper the image of Cobb as virulent racist. Rosenberg takes him to task, writing that Leerhsen’s writings about Cobb and social equality before 1952 “is now unsubstantiated.” (p. 91).
By far, the longest chapter in the book is “Odds and Ends,” which comes in at 293 pages. This is where Rosenberg really excels, presenting a year-by-year chronology of notes, quotes and anecdotes about Cobb. Rosenberg picks up Cobb’s trail in 1904, when he wrote a letter to Erwin Manley, a former teammate in his hometown of Royston, Georgia (p. 159). What follows are stories, news items, graphics and photographs, along with copies of newspaper stories. They illustrate Cobb’s activity during his long retirement from the game.
This method was used to great effect in Rosenberg’s four-volume set about Anson that ran annually from 2003 to 2006 and totaled a staggering 1,864 pages. While Rosenberg tries to present this chronicle in a year-by-year fashion for Cobb, he sometimes wanders from a particular year, jumping ahead to include a tidbit. At times, it’s almost like listening to a conversation that veers off on a tangent. However, Rosenberg is able to readjust his focus, writing “returning to (insert year here).” While that can be disconcerting, it surprisingly does not hinder the flow of information Rosenberg is passing along. The photographs are not credited on the actual pages in which they appear, but Rosenberg includes three pages of “Illustration Credits” beginning on page 540.
The end notes are detailed but from a clarity standpoint, would have worked better had they been footnoted (or numbered) in the main text and divided by chapters in the back of the book. Instead, there is a long string of notes that certainly seem to follow the chronology of the book, but one cannot be sure without digging deeply. The photo used for the front cover is an interesting choice: Cobb is demonstrating his split-handed batting grip that yielded a .366 lifetime batting average (altered from .367, a figure that stood for years before a correction dropped his hits total from 4,191 to 4,189) to baffled comedians Lou Costello and Bud Abbott as an amused Joe DiMaggio looks on. Perhaps the hook is Abbott and Costello’s famous “Who’s On First” routine. Since Cobb collected 3,053 singles and walked an additional 1,259 times, Cobb was on first a great deal. And opposing players knew who he was.
Ty Cobb Unleashed is an interesting book and a nice complement to the recent mainstream biographies. Rosenberg brings a line editor’s eye to the other Cobb biographies and touts himself as a “research first-writer.” (p. 47). Not knowing the circumstances behind the editing processes Leerhsen and Hornbaker went through — editors at major publishing companies can operate with cold efficiency, instructing a writer to condense copy or omit passages entirely — it’s difficult to determine whether the authors or the editors are responsible for the shortcuts Rosenberg documents. The comparisons are still interesting, and Rosenberg concedes that “so much” of the analysis Leerhsen and Hornbaker present is valid (p. 48). What Rosenberg’s prose does is reopen the already lively debate about Ty Cobb.
And the Georgia Peach was always comfortable with controversy.
Bob D’Angelo was a sports journalist and sports copy editor for more than three decades and is currently a digital national content editor for Cox Media Group. He received his master’s degree in history from Southern New Hampshire University in May 2018. He is the author of Never Fear: The Life & Times of Forest K. Ferguson Jr. (2015), reviews books on his blog, Bob D’Angelo’s Books & Blogs, and hosts a sports podcast channel on the New Books Network.