The Professional Sports Historians
I’ve been reading an excellent book, Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, by Charles Leerhsen. As a child, I was fascinated by the exploits of long vanished baseball players, especially the greatest of them all, Ty Cobb. His career numbers were burned into my young, developing mind, and were the stuff of legend.
It was no accident that when I wrote my 2007 novel The Unreals, I included not only a fantasy sequence set in a bar populated exclusively by one-year wonder baseball players from an ancient era, but also featured Ty Cobb as a panelist on a political talk show, ranting and raving against the inadequacies of modern baseball. The characters in The Unreals despised disco, as I did as a young man, and in my mind Ty Cobb represented the quintessential non-discoer.
In his new biography on Cobb, author Leerhsen has boldly and convincingly set the record straight on this unfairly maligned figure. As Leerhsen reveals, through an actual examination of the best evidence, Cobb was not the racist he is now routinely depicted to have been, and was not the epitome of a dirty ballplayer, flinging himself at frightened fielders with glistening, finely sharpened spikes aimed more at his opponents than the bases.
As someone who has written extensively about the distortions of the mainstream media and court historians, this book really impressed me. Leerhsen is certainly an establishment journalist- his work has appeared in all the best and brightest places, and he’s published by Simon & Schuster. I admire Leerhsen for setting the record straight on one of the game’s greatest players. For too long, Ty Cobb has been misrepresented and slandered by journalists who were too lazy to perform the simple research Leerhsen did.
Why is this important? The lies and misconceptions about Ty Cobb demonstrate that our establishment press and conventional historians can’t even accurately represent the record of a prominent sports figure. Is it any wonder, then, that they fail time and time again to honestly report on important current and historical events?
Ty Cobb is certainly not the first sports figure to be so unfairly depicted in the press. Sportswriters have always tended towards a mob mentality, and to push agendas that often bear little relation to the truth. Athletes like Joe Namath were celebrated far beyond any real accomplishments on the field (just look at Namath’s actual statistics sometime and weigh them against his Hall of Fame status), while Denny McClain’s monumental achievement of 31 wins in 1968 is rarely noted by anyone, despite the fact it represents the only 30 win season by a Major League pitcher since 1934. It will also be the last, as even 20 win seasons have become rare with modern five man pitching rotations.
Leerhsen’s book also reminded me again of the plight of noted Cobb fan and the all-time Major League hits leader, Pete Rose. Rose broke Cobb’s legendary lifetime record of 4192 hits, and wound up having more hits, more at bats and more games played than any player in Major League history. And yet he remains outside the Hall of Fame, due to a betting scandal that happened after his playing days were over, when he was a big league manager. Leerhsen recounted how common such betting on Major League games was in those days, and how even Cobb became embroiled in such a controversy.
Much as no sportswriter prior to Leerhsen has ever tried to argue against the venomous portrayal of a wild-eyed, perpetually violent and irrational Ty Cobb, no one has strongly questioned why Pete Rose isn’t in the Hall of Fame. But consider that Shoeless Joe Jackson, who compiled the third highest lifetime batting average in Major League history, remains outside the Hall as well, despite the reality that while he took money for “throwing” the 1919 World Series, he obviously didn’t lay down in those games, as he batted .375. His 12 hits were a World Series record until 1964, when Bobby Richardson broke it.
Much as there is a standard historical take on politics- where “good” and “bad” Presidents are uniformly accepted, and cardboard heroes and villains reign supreme, there is a historical take on sports, from which no mainstream reporter ever veers. These are the journalists who used to claim pro golfers were not athletes, until Tiger Woods came along. They then had no problem christening him the greatest athlete of all time.
Thus, Tim Tebow, arguably the greatest college football player the world has ever seen, was attacked relentlessly for being an “inaccurate” passer, when in fact he was handicapped by a prehistoric offensive game plan and superiors who wanted him to fail, and had in fact high completion percentages all four years at Florida, culminating in a senior mark of 67.8 percent. Tebow has been blacklisted from the NFL, and will go down as one of two QBs in NFL history to win a playoff game and then never start again in the league. Literally no sportswriter defended Tebow, even as he led the Broncos to a thrilling series of improbable victories in 2011.
Johnny Manziel, who is perhaps Tebow’s strongest rival in terms of college football’s all-time greatest player, was treated just as harshly by every sportswriter and broadcaster in the business. Despite never even being charged with any crime, Manziel became the poster child for off field character issues, in a league filled with players (see Pacman Jones, for example) that have been arrested and accused of multiple violent offenses. Manziel will probably never play again in the NFL, and was given all of five starts to prove himself. Incidentally, in one of those five games, Manziel threw for 372 yards. In contrast, Tyrod Taylor, who is in his third season as an NFL starter, has just one 300 yard game in his career (329). Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw had all of seven 300 yard games in his career, and never matched Johnny Football’s 372 yard one game total.
No sportswriter questioned the curious coaching career of Norv Turner. This guy was given the reigns time and time again in the NFL, as both a head coach and an offensive coordinator. Despite a horrendous record everywhere he went, he kept getting rehired. I can’t tell you how many times I heard various announcers gushing about Norv’s fantastic play-calling. Marvin Lewis has been the Bengals coach for fifteen seasons, and has yet to win a playoff game. Yet he is never mentioned in any of those annual lists of coaches on the “hot seat.” Meanwhile, Bill Callahan took the Raiders to the Super Bowl in 2002, his first season there, and was fired after the following season. He has not been an NFL head coach since.
Rocky Marciano was the only undefeated heavyweight champion in history, yet he is never mentioned in the same breath with Muhammad Ali, Jack Dempsey or several others. Arnold Palmer won fewer golf majors in his relatively short career than Gary Player, Walter Hagen, Ben Hogan, and Tom Watson, yet he has always been considered “greater” than any of them.
Sports journalists, like non-sports journalists, seem to peddle far more disinformation and misinformation than honest information. And they engage in group think at least as much as the court historians do. Thus, when someone like Charles Leerhsen shatters a cherished myth that has no foundation in fact, it is cause for all reasonable people to celebrate.
I applaud Leerhsen for doing what Robert F. Kennedy once urged us to do. In one of his finest speeches, RFK said, “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
Thank you, Charles Leerhsen, for a tiny ripple of hope.