Like Hot Iron

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

cobbIf one were to take the time to document a thousand instances in which Ty Cobb went out of his way to be kind to people, including black people, would this change his image? I fear it would not. No one really knows whether or not J. Edgar Hoover was a homosexual, yet stories of his attending parties in a dress, stories which are not only false but preposterous, have stained the culture, and cannot be bleached out . . . In any case, it isn’t that the stories of Ty Cobb as a violent racist are false, but rather, that there is another Ty Cobb as well, undocumented because he is less dramatic.

In the first edition of this book I wrote an essay about a photograph, a photo of Ty Cobb and Christy Mathewson. Here, I’ll re-print it:

In photographs (make it a point to notice) Ty Cobb is often shown hiding one hand or both, twisting an arm behind his back or burying it in an article of excess clothing. One photograph of him with which I am particularly taken shows him posing with Christy Mathewson in the dugout before the third game of the 1911 World Series. Mathewson, as always, looks poised and confident, staring out toward right field. Cobb is peeking out of the corner of his eye at some unseen distraction — another photographer, probably — but what makes the photograph remarkable is that, to begin with, Cobb is wearing a suit that doesn’t look as if it could possibly have fit any of his relatives. Cobb was a big man (he is usually listed at 6’2″, 180) yet this suit has got to be four sizes too large for him — it is hard to believe that a reputable haberdasher would have let him leave the store with it. He is holding what looks like an expensive overcoat, and he appears to be dragging it on the ground. His hat is jaunty and his smile is decidedly nervous, and he looks frankly a little bit crazy.

There was such a contradiction in that dugout. Cobb was then a five-time American League batting champion, with more or less seven seasons under his belt — and yet he was also a twenty-four-year-old hick from Nowhere, Georgia, a little in awe of Matty, of the photographers, of the crowd. He had no weapons, at that moment, to defend himself against his inadequacies — no spikes, no bat, no glove. He was so crude that he must have felt that whenever they took those things away from him, his shortcomings glowed like hot iron. And whenever he saw them glowing, he got angry. You can see it in his face, I think, that if he could just put on that uniform and go out on the field it would be such a relief to him, out where manners and taste and style were all defined by bases gained and bases lost. And everyone, for a change, would have to apologize to him.

Since then I have noticed several other photographs in which Cobb has the same crazy look on his face. It is not an angry look; it is, rather, a look of acute embarrassment, a look of inadequacy. Ty Cobb’s racism and his anger, I believe, were fueled not by smugness or even resentment, but by an unusually intense fear of his own limitations. No one is more macho than a man who feels inadequate; no one walks straighter than a man who is half drunk. When Ty Cobb felt threatened he lashed out at the world. He felt threatened a lot — but as long as he wasn’t challenged, he was a very nice man.

— Bill James


  • “The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract” is an intriguing read even if you aren’t a baseball fanatic. It’s available at Amazon.

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
This entry was posted in Books Publishing and Writing, Sports and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Like Hot Iron

  1. Gavin Bledsoe says:

    I think that for someone who’s mother shot and killed his father and who spent his playing career attempting to make his father proud that Ty could have turned out much worse.

    That being said, the man photographed looking crazy and many peers thought the same. Did he take that image portrayal too far or was that really him?

    Legendary chip on his shoulder throughout his life. Yet I would love to have broken bread with him and shared a beer.


  2. peterike says:

    The fact that one could be a “racist” and still be a “a very nice man” seems beyond Bill James’ range of thought. As with so many people, he cannot imagine a time or place where people didn’t assume the precise palette of Progressive shibboleths that we are forced to bow down to.

    If anything, in the early 1900s it was precisely the Progressives who were most into eugenics and a simple, hard-nosed view of racial reality, a reality that now must hide its head and whisper quietly in corners. Was Ty Cobb a “racist”? Or maybe, just possibly, he carried the same opinions as 90% of the whites of his time.


    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      I think James is being pretty sensitive here. He’s acknowledging that Cobb held racist views yet was still, in other ways, a nice and considerate person. To me, that seems like a nuanced and generous point of view. Possibly even a courageous one. Everyone else writes about Cobb as though he was a degenerate monster. Of course, it’s folly to try to guess what James really thinks, but I think it’s possible that, in private, he’d agree with you that Cobb wasn’t much more “racist” than your typical person in the early part of the 20th century.

      The big problem where Cobb was concerned, as far as I can tell, wasn’t his racism; it was his capacity for rage — directed at all people.


  3. Pingback: New York Baseball, Part 1: Yankee Stadium | Uncouth Reflections

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