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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