Howard W. Rosenberg’s Ty Cobb Unleashed: The Definitive Counter-Biography of the Chastened Racist (Tile Books) seeks to be the go-to first source on Cobb’s persona, including racially. Transparency about “what’s new” is the organizing theme.
While the historiography of Babe Ruth, the player closest to Cobb in votes for the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936, has engendered limited controversy since the work of three mid-1970s authors, the Cobb one is riddled with mines. Charles Leerhsen’s pro-Cobb 2015 Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty (Simon & Schuster) both settled some controversies and started new ones. Perhaps the biggest new controversy it created is on whether Cobb has been fairly cast as having been a racist.
A trifecta of features may make Ty Cobb Unleashed one of the most significant baseball biographical books. Firstly, it performs a hard-to-find public service by comparing the technical quality of the Simon & Schuster book and a second cradle-to-grave 2015 one that was also touted as authoritative or definitive: Tim Hornbaker’s overlooked War on the Basepaths: The Definitive Biography of Ty Cobb (Sports Publishing). For decades, media watchdogs have been largely passive (and especially lately) in shedding light on the books of nonfiction publishers from a nuts-and-bolts perspective. Ty Cobb Unleashed does the legwork for them and recommends a practice that publishers should adhere to in revisionist history titles.
Secondly, biographically on Cobb, it resolves differences between the two books, especially on the tricky subject of racism. It also textually is the first Cobb one to stress his 32-year post-career, 1929 to 1961. That span includes 1960 and 1961, the featured years in the 1994 movie “Cobb” starring Tommy Lee Jones. The movie, a limited release in theaters, has gained a second wind as an online video rental. The first of three appendices points out aspects of the movie that the author found substantiation for (or lack thereof). Some of the results should be surprising. Ty Cobb Unleashed also presents a fresh take on the accuracy of Cobb's controversial 1961 co-author, Al Stump. While reinforcing or raising new criticisms about a subsequent Stump 1961 article and 1994 book, it shows where the primary record lends a helping hand to some of his colorful or biting prose.
Thirdly, it is the rare history book that allows the reader to immediately deduce what has not previously appeared in a modern-day book or article. Whether new-to-Cobb versus prior Cobb book readers will like the transparency is an open question. But media watchdogs could have a field day.
This year is the first in which Cobb and Ruth are each the announced focus of hardcovers in excess of 500 pages in the same calendar year. The later Ruth one, by Jane Leavy, is The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and The World He Created (HarperCollins). In their playing and post-careers, Cobb and Ruth drew subjective newspaper coverage to an extent apparently unmatched by other 20th-century whites in the sport. Ruth’s was positive and Cobb’s closer to neutral overall.
Rosenberg’s prior book expertise was almost entirely on the 19th century. His specialty was plowing through surviving contemporaneous coverage of the great baseball media stars of that era, Hall of Famers Cap Anson and Mike “King” Kelly. He is also the book-length expert on tricky and dirty play through 1900, which helps in evaluating how Cobb used his baseball shoes. Fittingly, it is on that newsy subject that Rosenberg most strongly counters both 2015 authors.