- War on the Basepaths: The Definitive Biography of Ty Cobb by Tim Hornbaker
Laying claim to penning the definitive biography of any important historical figure appears rather rash, given the rather fluid nature of historical and biographical research and the ability of new generations of researchers to uncover new material. But that is what Tim Hornbaker's new work on Ty Cobb asserts. Perhaps it is implicit by the use of the term "definitive" that the author really means "definitive so far," since Cobb is certainly a subject that will elicit further serious study (In fact, another substantial biography of Cobb was published in 2015: Charles Leershen's Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty [New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015]). Certainly most baseball historians would agree that to date, Charles Alexander's masterful 1984 biography Ty Cobb would fit that description.
Without, however, comparing Alexander's biography (or others who might lay claim to the designation) to Hornbaker's, suffice to say that Hornbaker's book is an excellent look at Cobb's controversial life. It is a balanced work that reveals the complexity of the man with his many faults and his attributes, although it would be difficult to claim the latter compare to the former.
For example, the standard, largely uneducated perception is that Cobb was a ruthless competitor who would do anything to win, including spiking opponents while on the bases almost at will. Hornbaker reveals, however, that Cobb did indeed have a conscience when it came to the opposition. In September 1909, he spiked Philadelphia Athletics shortstop Jack Barry while trying to steal second. The wound required four stitches to close, and afterwards Cobb was "visibly affected," refusing to eat and telling the press how sorry he was (94).
Hornbacker also points out that, in spite of the contemporary press's portrayal of Cobb as "a raging, conceited baseball fiend," Cobb was unfailingly polite, humble, and almost shy when giving interviews or speeches (113). But he commonly caused resentment from his teammates on the Detroit Tigers by showing up late to spring training, if at all, and not infrequently arriving late for games. And although his will to win was legendary, teammates sometimes believed Cobb's ego got in the way of the team. That is, he sometimes strove to win games all by himself at bat or on the base paths, instead of incorporating his skills into a team effort to win.
According to Hornbacker's research, this feeling was particularly acute during the 1910 season when Cobb was seeking the batting championship in a tight race against Napoleon Lajoie, with the winner to receive a Chalmers [End Page 195] automobile. His longtime teammate and frequent adversary Sam Crawford in particular felt like there was "too much Cobb" and that Cobb's zest for the batting title "spoiled teamwork as a result" (112).
For his part, Cobb, with all his bluster and daring between the lines, was quite sensitive to criticism and especially being called "swell-headed," which presumably meant putting his own accomplishments ahead of the team (112–13).
Cobb's sensitivity and hair-trigger temper resulted in any number of off-field confrontations and fisticuffs, which Hornbaker ably documents. Although it was a different time and ballplayer fights were much more common, Cobb was in many more than his share, almost all of which he won decisively. Several off-field incidents involved African Americans. The Georgia Peach was certainly a racist as a product of his southern upbringing, but he seems to have taken it to the extreme. It didn't play very well in Detroit and landed him in legal trouble more than once, but there is little evidence that Cobb's attitude towards blacks changed, at least during his playing career.
In spite of an inflammatory press and Cobb's own substantial efforts to fuel those flames, as his playing career wore on he became regarded as one of the game's elder statesmen. Almost unimaginably given his off-field encounters, Cobb was honored...