More on Ty Cobb From His Biographer’s Son

(Photo: Aaron Webb)

Our “Legacy of a Jerk” podcast covered the notorious legacy of baseball great Ty Cobb, whom history has recorded as an ungracious and vicious human being. But the writer Charlie Leerhsen, who is working on a new biography of Cobb, says this reputation is undeserved — and, moreover, is largely the product of one man’s assessment, that man being an earlier Cobb biographer named Al Stump.

We recently heard from Stump’s son John, and his note is well worth a read:

It was with interest that I read the exchange on Ty Cobb. I’ll disclose that I’m Al Stump’s 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 Vohs’s 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 Stump’s 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 Cobb’s 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 father’s 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 Cobb’s 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 online 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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  1. RGJ says:

    It is important to remember that baseball than was a more nasty sport. Opposing teams did not fraternize, spiking and beanings were common. Players going into the stands and fighting with fans was common.

    Baseball players were primarily from rural areas and often from the south where playing year round helped their skills. When Christ Mathewson became super famous his reputtaion was exalted in part because was the very rare player who had graduated college. With all the simple southern country boys, racism was rampany, although whether it was any more than in the general white public is hard to judge. Decades after Cobb retired the first black players often had to eat in separate restaurants and stay in separate hotels from their white teammates. And while some white players spoke about about that, it was uncommon enough to warrant retelling yeards later lauding them.

    Icons like John McGraw, the famous manager, was famous for tripping opposing runners, spiking with intend to maim, and inciting brawls. They were the role models for the country boys.

    Because of his incredible skills, and because of the apparently malicious and money hungry Stump guy, Cobb attracted all this negative attention. But I think he was more a product of his times than anything else.

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    • brian warden says:

      “malicious and money hungry Stump guy…”?

      Did you even read the post?

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      • RGJ says:

        Yes, and I’ve read the book and seen the movie and am an amateur baseball historian. Stump was not only malicious and money hungry, he was a forger for profit and a miserable b@stard himself. Een his son says so. Upon Cobb’s death Stumpiately stated “the first book (which h ws a coverup”. So….believe me now, right?

        Cobb’s poor reputation dates to that day. Up to then, behavior-wise he was simply another brawling player of his generation.

        When the Baseball Hall of fame opened in 1936, and had their first vote, Cobb received more votes than anyone. Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Christy Matthewson and Honus Wagner — anyone. And that vote was conducted among baseball writers — those who had seen Cobb play and knew him and could judge him in comparison to this peers and predecessors back to the very beginning of baseball. And they voted him number one.

        As even Stump repeatedly said, by the time he met the dying Cobb he was irrational, whacked on pain medication and scotch and dying from prostate cancer plus diabetes. He clearly told stories that weren’t true, and had been caught up in his own bad-ass legend. He was sitting in the dark because of a piddling dispute over an electric bill, despite leaving an estate worth over $11 million.

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    • Ghia Hill says:

      I would love to talk with you about Ty Cobb, as he is a distant cousin to me, on my dad’s, dad’s side.

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  2. RGJ says:

    Should add that Cobb’s will established an educational foundation that continues to fund scholarships for needy children to this day: http://www.tycobbfoundation.com/

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  3. bill says:

    Just wondering what Ty Cobb’s autograph on an index card is worth…I have one he signed in 1956

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  4. Chris says:

    It’s not that Al Stump was a jerk and this was demonization, but it’s a pretty big deal on what Stump did. He fabricated a diary supposedly written by Cobb. That’s a pretty big indictment against his credentials right there.

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  5. tressa says:

    Dear John Stump

    I loved the movie…I thought it was an incite into a very complex man who was tormented by unaddressed horrific events in his past…He carried around the pain and it came out in anger, bad behavior, excessive drinking, gambling…and it alienated him from his fellow team mates and his immediate family…He had no friends, because no one would put up with his unacceptable behavior..But on the other hand, he was a great, dynamic baseball player, but because of his inner anger, he could never ever be a perfect gentlemen say like Derek Jeter…He came from the south where he was indoctrinated into racism and the separation of the races…His behavior toward women was the anger he felt toward his own Mother…I thought your Dad was portrayed very well in the movie…he tried his hardest and many others would have given up and quit…but he endured…I only wish he had combined the two manuscripts he had on Cobb and showed his qualities but also his demons…but maybe in 1961 the country wasn’t ready for real truth about its baseball heroes…

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