Legacy of a Jerk: Full Transcript

Stephen J. DUBNER: Someone dies. Let’s say it’s your mother. And of all the unhappy things to deal with, you also have to write an obituary for the local paper. Here’s one that appeared in a couple of small-town Pennsylvania newspapers last year: “Carole ‘Fritzi’ Miller Roberson departed this world Friday, December 2, 2011, from her beloved second home in Ajijic, Mexico.” Here, I’m going to let her daughter, Amy Roberson, read you the rest:

Amy ROBERSON: “She’ll be remembered as an astute business woman, a rabid historian, a fascinating hostess, and a boundless creative. She loved her family, history, antiques, horses, the arts and good gossip. Her regular emails to family were often unintentionally hilarious as her typing was spotty and her typos…And her typos were legendary.”

 

DUBNER: Yeah, easy for you to say, sorry, okay.

 

ROBERSON: Yeah. “Regardless, Carole wrote short stories and was working on a screenplay. She was a difficult mother and a horrendous mother-in-law. She will still be missed. Carole is survived by her children: Marc (Lynne Ann) of Venetia, Pennsylvania, Amy…”

DUBNER: Amy, Amy, wait I’m sorry.

 

ROBERSON: Sure.

 

DUBNER: That is just one of the best…Well I don’t know about best…That is one of the most unusual lines in any obituary. “She was a difficult mother and a horrendous mother-in-law.” And then lovingly, “She will still be missed.” So first of all, who wrote this obituary? Was that you?

ROBERSON: I wrote it, yes.

DUBNER: And were you close with your mom or not particularly?

ROBERSON: No, not. No, not close at all. Probably the last twenty years I’d seen her maybe three or four times.

 

DUBNER: Oh I see. So I have to say, first of all, I don’t mean to forget the obvious, my condolences on your mom’s death.

ROBERSON: Thank you.

DUBNER: Second of al,l there’s the old injunction against speaking ill of the dead, and you did it. Did that change you in any way, kind of going against that societal injunction of speaking ill of the dead?

 

ROBERSON: I… you know this is not the whole story. These few hundred words are not the whole story of my mother. But they’re honest words. I, you know, you think who you want to be remembered. And really that’s my belief that when you’re gone you just live on in people’s memories. So, if you’re lying in an obituary or you’re just glossing over everything and it’s just a list of names of survivors, and dates, and awards you won, and places you worked, you may be allowing the person who’s gone to maybe leave the memories a little bit quicker.

 

DUBNER: So let me ask you just one last question. Imagine then that you’re going to write your own obituary, okay, and you’re going to write it now knowing that you’re not going to die for a long, long, long time. What’s the one line in that obituary that’s equivalent to the line you wrote about your mom? What’s the difficult part of your legacy?

ROBERSON: Wasn’t nice to her mother?

 

DUBNER: (laughs)

[THEME]

 

ANNOUNCER: From WNYC and APM, American Public Media: This is Freakonomics Radio, the podcast that explores the hidden side of everything. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

 

DUBNER: So Carol Roberson was, according to her own daughter, a quote, “difficult mother and a horrendous mother-in-law.” And that obituary lives on online forever.

 

DUBNER: How many online obituaries do you now host?

BARTOL: Many millions.

FERGUSON: About seventy-five percent of all American who die each day have an obituary on Legacy.com.

DUBNER: That’s Legacy.com founder, Stopher Bartol, and Hayes Ferguson, the company’s COO. Their website adds about five thousand obituaries a day. So you can find millions and millions of obituaries, including the one that Amy Roberson wrote about her difficult mom, Carol, and anyone can leave behind a comment, as you would on a news site or a blog post. But here’s what’s interesting. Even for someone whose own daughter called her “a difficult mother and a horrendous mother-in-law,” none of the comments on that obituary are negative. That’s not a coincidence. It’s by design. Legacy.com does not believe in speaking ill of the dead:

FERGUSON: You can write anything you’d like but it will not get posted if it does not meet our guidelines. And our guidelines are pretty straightforward: we won’t post inappropriate comments. And what that means is everything from copyrighted work, to foul language, to really nasty things about the deceased.

DUBNER: That’s right. Legacy.com weeds out the negative comments. Now, software can help, it can catch vulgarities and other keywords, but this task requires real, live human screeners. Ferguson and Bartol told me that, even though only a very small percentage of comments are mean-spirited, more than half of the company’s hundred twenty employees are screeners. Legacy.com believes that a legacy truly is forever, and that it shouldn’t be sullied by inappropriate comments. Even if the deceased was, let’s say, a jerk. Does this make sense? What should the legacy of a jerk be? That’s the question we’re playing with today. Let’s start by talking about legacy in general. Let’s start on the baseball diamond…

Roberto Clemente, born in Puerto Rico, wound up playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates and became one of the best and most dynamic players in Pittsburgh history, in fact, in baseball history.
In the final week of the 1972 season, Clemente got  his three-thousandth career base hit, just the eleventh player to ever reach that number. Overall, it was a great season for a great Pirates team that came within one run of making it to the World Series. Bob Smizik was a sportswriter in Pittsburgh at the time. He would never deny that Clemente was a great player, but…Well, here’s the but:

SMIZIK: Roberto was a guy who had a myriad of maladies, and was called by some a hypochondriac. Now this is in an era…You may be familiar with the term gamer. A gamer’s a guy who wants to play every day. And back then everyone was a gamer. Well Clemente, and the term gamer that I knew, was not a gamer. He was a guy who even in his early years sat out the second games of double-headers. In other words, he was too tired to play the second game of double-headers, not always,s but often. Believe me, later in his career, always.

DUBNER: So, okay, big deal. Maybe Clemente was a malingerer. Maybe he didn’t hold the door open for ladies, I don’t know. The fact is, he ended the season with three thousand hits. And the city of Pittsburgh liked this, a lot. Pittsburgh loves its sports more than just about any other city I can think of. And the thing about 1972 is that the Pittsburgh Steelers, the football team, was also having a great season – and this was news. The Steelers had been pretty terrible for most of their forty years. But this year, they turned it around; they even made the playoffs. The irony was that the team’s namesake, the steelmaking industry, was cratering. Tens of thousands of jobs were vanishing; the city was falling into a deep, dark funk. But the football Steelers, well, they offered some much-needed cheer. On December 23, they hosted the Oakland Raiders in the first round of the playoffs. It was a close game, but the Steelers were about to win, when, with barely a minute left to play, the Raiders scored a touchdown and took the lead. The whole city groaned with despair. But then, with just twenty-two seconds left, on fourth down, a Steelers rookie named Franco Harris caught a deflected pass and galloped into the end zone to win the game. It was a miraculous play. It became known as “The Immaculate Reception,” and to this day it is widely considered the single greatest play in NFL history. So the Steelers now prepared to host their next opponent, the Miami Dolphins. And whoever won that game would go to the Super Bowl. It was New Year’s Eve, 1972. Bob Smizik, the sportswriter, he was in the stadium.

SMIZIK: It was a glorious day. I was in the stands watching the game as a paying customer. Temperatures I believe were in the high sixties, maybe in the seventies. The Steelers lost, a great game, a fake punt return undid them, and everyone went home pretty unhappy at five, six o’clock at night. And then six hours later, five hours later word began seeping out that there were things a lot worse than losing a football game. Word was coming out that Roberto Clemente’s plane not only had gone down but he was lost on the flight, and indeed was dead.

DUBNER: There had been a serious earthquake in Nicaragua. Clemente had decided to fly down from Puerto Rico with a planeload full of first-aid supplies, and food, and clothing. But his plane, old and overloaded, lost power and crashed into the sea soon after takeoff.  All five people on board died.

SMIZIK: Once he died, and he died a hero’s death, I mean, there was nothing, no one ever said anything negative about him. The malingerer: that is ancient history. He was a magnanimous person, a great gentleman, a true leader, he was given all these qualities that he may or may not have had. I knew him a little bit, and he was a good guy. I said he was a dignified, proud man, but he wasn’t a saint. There are no saints walking this planet, or they’re very few and far between. But, he has been elevated to sainthood in Pittsburgh, and I would certainly not try to dispute that. But that was just another…he was just a great, great, baseball player who was a human being.

 

DUBNER: Roberto Clemente was essentially canonized. In Pittsburgh, people turned out en masse to mourn him. Puerto Rico declared three days of mourning. The Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Clemente the following August, waiving the typical five-year waiting period for new inductees. His death was so dramatic, so noble that his legacy as a hero was set. Whatever Smizik or anyone else may have not liked about Clemente would be forgotten forever. Other baseball players, meanwhile, have the opposite reputation:

DUBNER: Who would you say is the biggest jerk who ever played baseball?

SMIZIK: Certainly if you’ve ever read anything about Ty Cobb, he was an all time jerk and a really bad guy.

 

Charles LEERHSEN: My name is Charlie Leerhsen. I’m a writer from New York, and now I’m working on a book about Ty Cobb, perhaps the most interesting baseball player of all time.

 

DUBNER: The most interesting baseball player of all time. So when I think of Ty Cobb I have to admit two things come to mind: great, a great, great, great baseball player in just about every phase of the game, and massive jerk. Am I mostly right, somewhat wrong?

LEERHSEN: Well you know, I’m about halfway into my book and my project, so I’m in the process of discovering things, but more and more as I do my research I’m finding a kind of real, live human being who sort of doesn’t resemble either the jerk or the saint that some of his supporters will put forth.

DUBNER: So, I have to say this is a little bit surprising to those of us who have been raised to think that Ty Cobb was one of the greatest baseball players who ever lived but one of the most inhuman humans who ever lived. I asked my go-to guy on matters of baseball character what he thought about Ty Cobb — that’s my son, who’s eleven; he reads a lot of baseball books. Here’s what he told me he read about Ty Cobb: he was in the KKK. He had to stay out of Ohio for 18 months because he killed a black waiter in Cleveland. He spit on fans when they booed him. He punched a fan when they booed him. And that he always spiked players. Alright, so Charlie, are you calling my boy a liar?

 

LEERHSEN: No, but it’s very interesting to hear some of the things that he said because all of them are rooted in some kind of historical reality, but in some cases the cord is almost broken that ties them to reality.

 

DUBNER: You want to do one by one on some of the charges?

 

LEERHSEN: Sure.

 

DUBNER: So, KKK, was Ty Cobb a member of the Ku Klux Klan?

LEERHSEN: No he wasn’t, and nothing like it ever.

DUBNER: My son said that Ty Cobb killed a black waiter.

LEERHSEN: This is a very interesting case, this refers to something that happened in 1909 when Ty Cobb after dinner with George M. Cohan the famous Broadway showman in Cleveland, came back to his hotel had a scuffle with the white elevator operator, the white security guard intervened. They wound up getting into a more physical scuffle and Cobb was arrested as a result of that. But no one was killed and no one was black.

DUBNER: I got to think, I mean as you tell me this I’m getting kind of chills as a, you know, as a journalist myself I’m thinking there’s a jerk out there and he’s got a legacy. There’s a legacy of a jerk, and you’re exploring his actual life pre-legacy. And you’re finding that a lot of it differs with the legacy. So, what’s your response and emotion to that?

LEERHSEN: Well I’m trying to figure out what’s going on. You know, I’m in the middle of writing this boo,k and I’m seeing it as there’s something going on here that probably doesn’t have too much to do exactly with Ty Cobb, he’s just sort of the excuse for it. There’s kind of this mass psychology thing, and I think that it’s a self-righteous feeling that’s motivating people to say, to express themselves by saying I’m not a racist, I think this man is terrible, and I’ll paint him as even more terrible.

DUBNER: So when sports fans get together to talk about Ty Cobb and they talk about what a horrible racist he is, you’re saying that’s their way of bonding over the fact that they’re not like him?

LEERHSEN: Yes, yes. It’s kind of like what happens in a prison when a child molester comes in and all the other prisoners want to kill him to show that they are superior to somebody.

DUBNER: But maybe there’s something else going on here too. Could it be that we wantto believe the worst about people, that Ty Cobb, for instance, really was a racist and a jerk? Or even if we don’t necessarily want to believe things like that, are we perhaps programmed in that direction?

Kathleen VOHS: We might have read five hundred papers or more spanning everything from marriages, friendship, financial gains and losses, health. There were about fifteen different categories that we studied, and we see the effect very clearly in all of them…

DUBNER: That’s Kathleen Vohs, she’s a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota. Some years back, she co-authored a  paper in a psychology journal called “Bad Is Stronger Than Good.”

VOHS: When people encounter something negative or something unfavorable, it changes the way they feel, think and behave in a much bigger way compared to when they encounter some favorable or positive news or information.

DUBNER: So believing that Ty Cobb was a big jerk isn’t that hard to do. Because…

VOHS: You can be a truth-telling individual your entire life and if you say one lie you are now a liar, like, qualitatively you’re branded a liar, you’re branded immoral, even though an immoral person has done tons of moral things in his or her life.

DUBNER: Vohs and her co-authors argued that we have a built-in wariness of other people.

VOHS: Because you and I wouldn’t be here today if we didn’t have a psychological system that wasn’t hypersensitive to threats, dangers, obstacles, and things that could potentially kill us. Think about what we tell our children. Come on into this van. You know, no you don’t…Kids are not going into any van with anybody. Think of the potential in that versus they happen to miss out on a fun experience with a family friend. You know, their lives are not that different, right? But you go into one stranger’s van and you may never come out. Death only has to win once, and life has to win every day.

DUBNER: So we may be programmed, on some level and to some degree, to think the worst of others. But what if that thing you believe isn’t true? What if, for instance, Ty Cobb’s reputation as a monster was kind of fictional? Consider this: In 1960, thirty-two years after he’d retired from baseball, Cobb began working on his autobiography with a sportswriter named Al Stump. Cobb was very sick, and he died ten months after work began, but the book still came out. It was a pretty standard baseball memoir, told from Cobb’s point of view.

But then just five months later, Al Stump, the ghostwriter, publishes his version of the Ty Cobb story in True magazine. Stump’s article portrayed Cobb as a violent, drunk murderer. Pretty different legacy, right? So, the magazine article got Stump a lot of attention, it won a sports writing award, and it pretty much established the legend of the monster that my son came to know as Ty Cobb. Then, many years later, Al Stump again writes about Ty Cobb, this time a full-length biography. Not surprisingly, it still paints a pretty horrific picture. And then that book is turned into a movie, with Tommy Lee Jones playing the sociopathic Ty Cobb. Charlie Leerhsen, whom we heard from earlier, the guy who’s writing a new biography of Ty Cobb, he says the legacy of Ty Cobb was largely shaped by one man.

LEERHSEN: Now, it was thirty years later that Stump got the idea to write, to flesh that out, that True article into a book.

DUBNER: Into his second book about Ty Cobb.

LEERHSEN: About Ty Cobb.

 

DUBNER: Heavily critical.

LEERHSEN: Heavily critical and just depicting a man in his last days of life, dying of cancer, trying to, you know, drug and drink himself into a state of some comfort, and being cranky. It also went on though and told stories about how Cobb bullwhipped his son, for example, and how Cobb in the present day was so mean, and cheap, and cranky that he would kids would write him letters asking for autographs or pictures and he would not only not answer the letters he’d steal the stamps.

DUBNER: I love it. A grinch.

LEERHSEN: Yeah, so on every level Stump knew how to paint this character.

 

DUBNER: I want to read you a passage here, this is from a Washington Post article about Cobb after the movie and the second book came out. So it says the book is out and the movie will be showing da, da, da. “And now, everyone is reminded for sure that Ty Cobb was indeed a vicious, demonic fiend who took to the ball field every day with blood, not his own, in his eye, and how he cut, and ravaged, and savaged his way to all those records, ninety, he put in baseball’s archives.” So this, Charlie, is not just a jerk off the field but a guy who’s great at baseball who this article makes the case was great on the field because he was a jerk, or a cheater, or vicious, or a monster.

 

LEERHSEN: Oh that’s just people, you know, just typing. That has nothing to do with thinking or history. You know, let me tell you something about Al Stump. The Hall of Fame found out that a Ty Cobb diary, supposedly very valuable, they had in their possession, was forged. And the forger turned out to be, after an FBI investigation, Al Stump. Stump would go out and buy things at flea markets and put Cobb’s initials on them and sell them. And Cobb wasn’t around to defend himself.

DUBNER: Coming up on Freakonomics Radio: can it be strategic to act like a jerk?

DUBNER: So he was a faux jerk.

 

LEVITT: He was a faux jerk, but he knew how to manipulate, strategically, jerkdom.

DUBNER: And, what do you do when you see a jerk, and notice that you have a lot common with him? Maybe you’ll decide to change you life:

Brad WARDELL: So now that I have this time I’ve discovered all these neat things. And did you know there’s products that just change the smell of the air? Air fresheners.

 

[UNDERWRITING]

 

ANNOUNCER: From WNYC and APM, American Public Media: This is Freakonomics Radio.  Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

DUBNER: Welcome back. This episode is called “Legacy of a Jerk.” We were talking about Ty Cobb, one of the greatest baseball players in history and, according to the standard biographies, one of the biggest jerks who ever lived. Unless, as his new biographer Charlie Leerhsen tells us, Ty Cobb actually wasn’t such a jerk. Now athletes, and other entertainers, I would argue, are different from you and me. Because the thing they do, the thing they’re known for, has almost nothing to do with the kind of person they are. For the rest of us, that’s not the case. My Freakonomics friend and co-author Steve Levitt teaches economics at the University of Chicago. I called him up to ask about his experience with jerks.

LEVITT: So one of my colleagues at the business school at Chicago when he first started teaching the students can be very demanding. And among their many demands was they were upset that the handouts that he had given were not three-hole punched. And so they raised their hand and they said, professor it really is upsetting to us that the handouts aren’t three-hole punched. And he said what are you talking about? The handouts aren’t three-hole punched? I’ll be back in a minute. And he walked out of the room and he was outside the room around the corner typing on his Blackberry and another professor came up to him and was talking to him and he said oh I’ve got to go back to teaching. And he said well why are you out in the hallway if you’re supposed to be teaching. And he didn’t really explain and he went back in the room. And he went back to the room and he said to the students, look I went down to the people who do the Xeroxing and I read them the riot act. And I said if you ever fail to three-hole punch another thing for my class I’m going to have you fired. And this guy got some of the highest teacher ratings of any teacher ever at the Chicago business school.

 

DUBNER: So he was a faux jerk.

 

LEVITT: He was a faux jerk, but he knew how to manipulate strategically jerkdom.

DUBNER: I love it, letting your students think you’re a jerk to some faceless Xeroxing drones in order to enhance your own reputation. This made me think of another economist…

Robin HANSON: I’m Robin Hanson. I’m an associate professor of economics at George Mason University.

DUBNER: Hanson spends a lot of time thinking about how people manage their reputations.

HANSON: And I have many fascinating papers that you should be impressed by.

 

DUBNER: Now, when you tell me that we should be impressed by your papers, you’re just coming right out and say it.

HANSON: Exactly.

DUBNER: There’s nothing subtle about that signal.

HANSON: Right, and that makes it funny. It’s funny how funny it is to be straightforward about these things.

DUBNER: And whether we’re making it very overt like that or doing a much more subtle ways, this might all come under the big umbrella of what’s called signaling theory, correct?

HANSON: Or showing off.

DUBNER: Ah, or showing off. Is signaling theory just fancy academic language for showing off then?

HANSON: It is. So jerk has a whole bunch of associations. And now that I think of it they should probably be separated somewhat.

 

DUBNER: All right, separate them for me.

HANSON: So one thing about very successful people is that they are typically overwhelmingly focused on their career, or their ambition, or their accomplishment. And that tends to grate on people around them socially. They’ll neglect their family, they’ll neglect their kids, they’ll neglect, you know, friends they knew in high school, et cetera. They’ll neglect everything pretty much for the purpose of achieving this particular thing. So those are often considered jerks. They don’t organize high school reunions, they don’t, you know, pitch in at the softball event on Saturday that you want them to. They’re a jerk because you ask them to do things that other people are willing to do to pitch in for their community and they won’t because they’re so focused on their particular thing.

 

DUBNER: Now it sounds like you’re saying that’s a kind of excusable mode of what might be conceived of as jerkitude because they simply have chosen to be very focused on something?

 

HANSON: Well it depends of course on what they’ve focused on. If they focus on something that we can admire then we do excuse it somewhat. If they’re focused on something we don’t admire then we are, you know, if they’re a Holocaust denier and they’re spending all their free time doing that, then you might admire their obsession and their focus, but not so much the, you know, net effect. You might think the world would be better off if they weren’t so obsessed with that and just were a regular guy.

DUBNER: All right, so that’s one kind of jerkiness, the hyper focus, which causes you to, you know, shirk off the regular duties that would make you not a jerk. What else, what other kinds of things?

HANSON: Another kind would be argumentative. So I recently reread Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” and he says, basically, never tell anybody you disagree with them. Always, always, you know.

DUBNER: That’s all you have to do?

HANSON: Well he has many things to do, but it certainly one thing that will cut down on arguments is you never admit that you disagree. You indirectly say things at most, or change the subject, et cetera. And there are many people who don’t follow that rule. There are many people who will directly challenge somebody who disagrees with them. And some do that better than others, but many people think that’s a jerk.

 

DUBNER: And let me ask you this, I just wonder if you have anything to say about how death will change the legacy of anyone, but particularly a jerk?

 

HANSON: Well, dead people are safer people to like because they can’t change their mind and embarrass you. So it’s always a risk to endorse anybody while they’re still alive, especially somebody who’s known for flying off the handle in various ways because then they could just do something that embarrassed you and made you sorry you ever endorsed them. So once somebody’s dead they’re safely beyond, for the most part, having done things that will embarrass you. The other big way to be redeemed as a jerk is for people to see the cause that you were a jerk for as something as noble and laudable. So we’re often tolerant of jerky actors, jerky directors, jerky musicians, jerky athletes because, well, they were jerky in support of something that we can admire.

DUBNER: I don’t know about you but when Robin Hanson said these words…

HANSON: The other big way to be redeemed as a jerk is for people to see the cause that you were a jerk for as something as noble and laudable.

DUBNER: …One particular person came to mind.

Steve JOBS: We are introducing the industry milestone product: MacIntosh.We are calling it iPhone.—Today, we call it the iPad.—I was lucky, I found what I loved to do early in life. Woz and I started Apple in my parents garage when I was twenty. We worked hard, and in ten years Apple had grown from just the two of us in a garage into a $2 billion company with over four thousand employees.

SJD NARR: That of course was Steve Jobs introducing some of the products that Apple has come up with over the past few decades. In that last clip, we heard him speaking at Stanford’s commencement in 2005, talking about Apple becoming a $2 billion company. Jobs died at age 56, from pancreatic cancer, in October of 2011. By then, Apple had a market value of some $350 billion, making it the world’s most valuable company. Here’s his friend and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak:

Steve WOZNIAK: I am, you know, incredibly lucky to him for everything in my life. He gets a reputation for being a strong leader and being brash. But to me he was always so kind. Such a good friend, and I’m just going to miss him.

DUBNER: “Brash” is a polite of putting it. Steve Jobs had a reputation for being a) an almost unprecedentedly creative inventor, or at least a man who harnessed and synthesized other people’s inventions; and b) a world-class jerk. Yes, he was brilliant; he was also petulant and arrogant and just mean to people in a way that nearly defies explanation.

Walter ISAACSON: Once he started working on this book with me, he just wanted to talk on and on, which was great.

DUBNER: Walter Isaacson is an author, journalist, and CEO of the Aspen Institute. Jobs handpicked Isaacson to write his biography, which wound up being published just a couple weeks after Jobs died.

ISAACSON: We met probably for fifty times, and sometimes it would be for hours on end just riding the old neighborhood, taking walks. And I think he had been very, very private over the years, and when he decided to open up, he just wanted to open up everything. He also said, you know, I’m famous for being brutally honest with people I want you to be brutally honest in this book.

DUBNER: Steve Jobs knew he would die relatively soon when he asked Isaacson to write his biography. So as much as the writer would have a chance to shape the subject’s legacy, the subject was being proactive in shaping his own legacy.

ISAACSON: You know, there are two sets of reactions. People who’ve never been in business or who’ve never been entrepreneurs, and generally older people, you know, their first reaction, especially to the first half of the book, is boy he was kind of a jerk, and he was hard to deal with. I didn’t know he had such a prickly personality. Younger entrepreneurs, people who have been in business, people who know how these things works, their reaction is totally different, which is wow this guy was a genius, this is how, not that he was a jerk, but that he drove people to do things they thought were impossible. And I think the real business lessons in there were initially lost in some of the original reviews by people who focused far too much on his personality. Steve just didn’t have that filter. He said you want me to be one of those velvet -gloved people who always speaks with a silver tongue. That’s not me, I’m a middle class kid from California, and if something sucks I’m going to tell people it sucks.

DUBNER: I asked Isaacson how strategic Jobs was in his jerkitude, that is, could he control himself to the point where he could turn off the jerk when he needed to?

ISAACSON: Well I think if you’re a jerk to people they end up leaving, especially when they can. When you’re tough on people but you allow them to be tough back on you, which is what Steve did, and you’re inspiring and compelling, then they don’t leave. Anybody can be a jerk and then people will just leave. But if you look at Eddy Cue, Phil Schiller, Scott Forstall, Tim Cook, Jony Ive, these are really A plus plus players who have stayed at Apple for the past fifteen, twenty years, and they would have left if Steve were truly being humiliating to them or a jerk. So I think you have to realize that anybody can be a jerk, what you have to be in inspiring, compelling, and inspirational.

 

DUBNER: One of my favorites, this is just a small incident, you write about a meeting with a chip supplier where Jobs stormed in a meeting and quote, “Started shouting that they were f***king d**kless a**holes.” So this is a business meeting, and this is the CEO of Apple. You’re not going to find that strategy in “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, right?

 

ISAACSON: Yes, but do you remember the end of that story…

 

DUBNER: It worked! Yeah, it worked!

 

ISAACSON: They ended up not only delivering the chips on time…

 

DUBNER: And wearing the shirts.

 

ISAACSON:…but wearing t-shirts that said on the back “Team FDA”, for those words that I did not know you could say on the radio.

 

DUBNER: Well you know, it’s public radio. Um… I’m just curious what did you change in your life either as head of the Aspen Institute, or as a writer, or maybe as a husband and father as a result of spending so much time with Jobs and writing about him?

 

ISAACSON: You know, it’s probably counter-intuitive, but noticing how many people were sort of surprised by how tough of a personality he could be, or the tales, all of which are on the record in the book so I hope they’re not exaggerated, but there are tales, you know there are none of these tales off the record, but when I heard all these tales about how he could get mad at the desk clerk at a hotel or whatever I tried to make sure that since I will never be as talented to invent the iPod or the iPad that at least I’m nice to every desk clerk at every hotel, because, you know, you realize that people do talk about that. And that sometimes make a big impact on people.

DUBNER: It does make you wonder what your own legacy will be. Will you be the kind of person whose meanness is exposed in death?

ROBERSON: She was a difficult mother and horrendous mother-in-law.

DUBNER: Or whose legacy is protected by the nature of your death?

SMIZIK: He was a magnanimous person, a great gentleman, a true leader, he was given all these qualities that he may or may not have had.

DUBNER: Maybe your reputation will be exaggerated, dragged through the mud:

LEERHSEN: Cobb bullwhipped his son. He was so mean, and cheap, and cranky.

DUBNER: Or maybe you’ll be the kind of person who, even when you’re called a jerk, is so revered for what you’ve accomplished that even your jerkitude itself proves to be an inspiration for people:

WARDELL: I read the Steve Jobs book pretty much the day it came out.

DUBNER: That’s Brad Wardell. He lives in Canton, Michigan, he’s the founder and CEO of a software and computer-game company called Stardock. When Wardell read the Steve Jobs biography, he learned a different lesson than the one he planned.

WARDELL: I went into it thinking I was picking up a business book. And it became pretty clear that Steve Jobs, for all that he’d accomplished, very much regretted not spending more time with his family, and it dawned on me that there was a whole part of life that he feels he had missed out on. That’s when I realized, Well gosh, my son, my son at the time was almost fifteen years old. And I… couldn’t tell you…that’s high school, and I couldn’t tell you the name of any teacher that he’d ever had.

DUBNER: Wardell had three kids. But, like a lot of entrepreneurs, he devoted a lot of his time, and his mental energies, to his company. He says he worked eighty to a hundred hours a week for years. He was exhausted. When he read the Steve Jobs book, he says, it was like looking in the mirror. And he did not like it.

WARDELL: One of the stories in the book has to do with he would go and see what’s going on with someone’s computer and just say that’s total crap you should be fired. And now, I was never quite that harsh, but there were days where I would go by and say that looks awful, you know, redo it. You know, when I started this company I was only, you know, in my very early twenties. And I can tell you that someone with no training or skills at dealing with humans, or people, I was probably the worst person in the world to be a CEO. And I saw that in the book where Steve Jobs was often pretty mean. And I could unfortunately relate to that.

DUBNER: Wardell says he was so involved in his work that he hadn’t been to a grocery store in about fifteen years. So he changed his life. He cut back to what most people would consider a normal work life, about forty hours a week. He was surprised to find out how much he’d been missing:

WARDELL: So now that I have this time I’ve discovered all these neat things. And I bought a bunch of flashlights because they make LED flashlights, so that’s really interesting, and different types of air fresheners. Did you know there’s products that just change the smell of the air?

DUBNER: Now that he was spending more time with his family, he had to learn to not treat them like employees:

WARDELL: Well that was another problem. At first we’d have meetings, we had a calendar and I’d set up hourly projects for everyone. And then we did evaluations and reviews, and stuff, on how everyone did on their chores. And they had to write reports. And that didn’t go over real well. It turns out people don’t like that.

 

DUBNER: So Wardell has learned that you can’t run your family like a business, and you can’t run your business the way he was running it if you ever want to see your family. And it was Steve Jobs who helped teach him this. For Brad Wardell, the legacy of Steve Jobs was: do not be like Steve Jobs.

WARDELL: It wasn’t that I thought everything was hunky-dory when I read the book. Otherwise it comes across as pretty melodramatic. It’s more like it was the last straw so to speak. It was the catalyst to actually go and really pull the trigger. The big thing is that Steve Jobs dying and realizing that he wasn’t able to make up to his kids, or to himself, or to ?his wife all the things he’d meant to do later and that even though he had all the success and wealth and he couldn’t save himself was really in itself a big, big, you know, moment.

               
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  1. John Stump says:

    It was with interest that I read the exchange on Ty Cobb. I’ll disclose that I’m Al Stumps’ son and that Charlie Leerhsen and I have communicated earlier in this year, once by phone call and a number of emails. One thought is that while I do agree about human projection on things that are negative, by Vohrs point of view it also seems that we can never objectively say anything negative about Cobb, for ex. w/o it being this shadow projection. How can we get to the objective truth then?

    There is no question in my mind that Cobb was a racist. There is just too much evidence beyond what even Al Stump reports. He had a particular hatred of Jews. It is well known, also outside of Al Stumps’ writings too that Cobb was generally disliked by his fellow teammates and even managers. Was he this maniac who shot off guns in public [he did] at every turn, went into racist rants at every chance and was miserly in every instance? Of course not. He did have to live with others and get along. We shouldn’t forget that Al Stump was not on some mission to demonize Cobb. The racism, the tightwad and furious competitor are not fictions. There is behavioral evidence to back this up. Stump also points out many positive aspects of Cobbs’ personality as well. Just one example would be that Cobb was a student of and psychological master when it came to relating to others. No one got over on Cobb and he prided himself on this. To try to sum up this very complex man, it is my belief, not my projection to make myself seem better, that there were many offensive aspects to this man while at the same time him being capable of altruistic behavior like supporting some former ball players who were down on their luck. It’s not all bad nor all good, but the bad was bad and that’s calling a spade a spade. This is my opinion from not only my fathers’ works but from all I’ve gathered about Tyrus Raymond Cobb.

    Al Stump himself is now being demonized, mostly by pissed off collectors, but by people interested in baseball history as well. Let’s not forget that Al had a long and distinguished career as a freelance sportswriter, the most successful in the country for many years. He wrote six books from a bio of Sam Snead to a book on athletes who had to overcome great odds, even racism. Al did not like racism and was ahead of the civil rights movement curve and this could be why he focused on Cobbs’ blatant racism to a degree. He may be one of the very first ‘gonzo journalists’, those who broke the cardinal rule of journalism to not insert themselves into the story. This would be many years before Hunter Thompson arrived on the scene. Al once won an award for having five different magazine articles published simultaneously. Al was far from a saint himself, but the guy could really write. It’s my opinion that what made his multifarious articles in magazines, newspapers and books so popular is that, similar to a writer like, say Jack London is that he wrote in the voice of the common man. This was a gift. Among all the voices in the on line chats that I’ve come across, among the angry collectors, there are many who enjoyed and praised his books on Cobb and the other works as well.

    I was not close to my father from 1970 until his death at the end of 1995, not estranged, infrequent phone calls and two short visits, so I cannot comment much on the forgery allegations. I can say that he suffered from macular degeneration starting in the 1980s, the time he was accused of making and selling forged pieces. He could not see close up and could not have signed these memorabilia items himself. The Stump family cannot see why he would have the need to do this, it just doesn’t fit with an imagined bad financial situation nor the person we knew. At the same time I’m honest enough to say that some, some that is, of the items do not look good. It’s a complex story that involves collector Barry Halper as well, his having the last word while at the same time having a lot to protect, reputation and ego.

    Charlie seems like an intelligent, reasonable and likable fellow and while I certainly cannot nor would not want to control the book he will end up writing, I can only hope that it doesn’t devolve into a bashing of Al Stump. I’m afraid that Al will not come out of this looking good in the least and would look for an honest and balanced approach, taking in the whole of the career accomplishments. The film Cobb is pretty misunderstood too and Al is guilty by association for baseball purists who are looking for another Pride of the Yankees. It’s not that type of film in any respect, especially in the time it was made. Ron Shelton was trying for an art piece, a dark drama of two anti-heroes, Cobb and Stump. It should have been entitled The Last Days of Cobb. It is a man in the desperation of death throes. Cobb did order his whiskey by the barrel and pop pills like crazy, but that was just in this most difficult of times, dying.

    I hope I’ve added some perspective to all involved in the conversation. I hope there is something you can take away that adds to the dialogue. The thing is, if one is to write about Al Stump the man, they have to know their subject. I am one of the very few who do.

    John Stump

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    • Paul E. says:

      Thank you for presenting another side. I have read quite a bit about Cobb, and while he was good to one or two of his contemporaries (Mickey Cochrane, for one, I think), in reading The Glory of their Times, it was clear that many of his teammates disliked him. I believe that only two went to his funeral. I have not read Charles Alexander’s biography of Cobb for a long time, but I believe that Alexander is highly respected for his biographies, and has researched Cobb thoroughly, pointing out that the anecdote about Cobb being caught stealing 3 times by a Black catcher in Cuba never happened. It would be interesting to compare Alexander’s, Stump’s, and Leershen’s books and see where they agree, where they do not, and what documentation each used.

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  2. William says:

    One of my favorite quotes about jerkdom was from a friend who had just met a Nobel prize winner at a party: “Not every Nobel prize winner is that arrogant, but if y0u’re going to be that arrogant you’d better have a Nobel prize.” Relevant to Stephen Dubner’s take-away observation from Brad Wardell about the Steve Jobs biography!

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