I recently finished making my way through Al Stump’s biography on Ty Cobb, simply titled Cobb: A Biography. I am aware of the criticism this book has received — Stump, it seems, went out of his way to cast Cobb in a less-than-flattering light, even embellishing or making up stories as he did so. Nevertheless, I found this biography intriguing.
Al Stump had actually ghostwritten Ty Cobb’s autobiography, My Life in Baseball: The True Record. According to Stump, Cobb was far from being an easy individual to get along with, and there seems to be a consensus that Cobb’s autobiography had been sanitized considerably in order to paint Cobb in a better light. Stump claimed that his motivation for writing this biography after Cobb’s death was to share his own perception of the Georgia Peach. That being said, while it is widely-accepted that Cobb had many faults, this book reads like a revenge. In fact, the original title of this book, when it was first published in 1994, was Cobb: The Life and Times of the Meanest Man in Baseball. The current title actually belongs to a reworked and expanded edition of the book, published in 1996 after Stump’s death.
As a man, Stump paints Cobb as extremely combative, impossible to please, and unreasonably demanding. Clearly, Cobb’s life was a tortured one, what with the strange circumstances surrounding his father’s death when Cobb was still a young man, and his displeasure with the hand dealt him came out in his racism and in how he treated his own wife and children. On the other hand, Cobb the baseball player had an unmatched work ethic, demanding the best of himself as well as of those who played around him. Stump put a lot of focus also on the rivalry between Cobb and Babe Ruth, but in spite of the animosity between the two men, I also sensed a grudging respect between the two. In addition, Stump spent a lot of time exploring Cobb’s business ventures, investments, and his talent for making money.
As a reader, I confess to enjoying the journey through this book. The character of Cobb, as depicted in these pages, is a fascinating one. And while many of the stories in said pages have been discredited, no doubt their presence in the book is part of what makes it so fascinating. I have yet to read Cobb’s original autobiography, and while I’m at it, Charles Leerhsen’s 2016 biography, Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, is also on the to-read list. It seems to me that one simply cannot read one without also delving into the other two — at least, not if one wants a truly well-rounded picture of the great Ty Cobb.
Yesterday, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum hosted this talk with author Ron Rapoport about Ernie Banks. Rapoport is the author of the biography on Banks appropriately titled Let’s Play Two. This book is currently on my to-read list, but I look forward to getting to it, especially in the wake of this talk with the author. I love how Rapoport makes a point to stress how good of a ballplayer Banks was, a fact that sometimes gets overlooked as so much focus revolves around his sunny personality.
Today would have been Ernie Banks’s 90th birthday. Happy Birthday, Mr. Cub!
This comic reminds me a lot of the scene in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in which Harry pretends to spike Ron’s pumpkin juice with felix felicis, and Ron goes on to play a spectacular Quidditch match.
Moral of the story: you don’t need to resort to drastic measures if you believe in yourself.
Secondary moral of the story: Satan evidently has a good, wholesome twin brother, so be careful who you try to sell your soul to.
This piece is very nostalgic and a bit on the sad side. Judy Katz-Levine published this poem in 1990 as part of a collection entitled When the Arms of Our Dreams Embrace.
Falling asleep in the afternoon,
I forget that my father has died.
I anticipate him calling me up,
asking me how my writing is going,
and am I thinking about having children.
Making a joke or two. “Don’t worry,
Mom and I will never be lonely.”
Then I fall into deeper sleep, he
loses me, traveling in his car, the green
Chevrolet, to old baseball fields,
which are sweet with rye grass
and lush stadiums, his pals throwing
him the ball – “Give me some pepper, Al.”
I recently finished making my way through Jane Leavy’s biography on the Great Bambino himself, entitled The Big Fella. Like anyone else, I have heard most of the stories, I’m aware of the ballplayer’s legendary status, and as a kid, I memorized the list of nicknames spouted off by the kids of The Sandlot. However, this is the first actual Babe Ruth biography I have ever read.
Fair warning: this biography is quite the tome. It’s not quite War and Peace, but sitting at over 600 pages, it’s not exactly Animal Farm, either. In my opinion, though, the journey through this volume is worth the time. Using the barnstorming tour Babe Ruth took with Lou Gehrig after the 1927 World Series as the framework for the book, Leavy injects details about Ruth’s life and analysis about his personality and character to paint a broad and detailed portrait of the man and the ballplayer.
My favorite feature of this book lies in how human it portrays the Babe. Ruth often gets depicted as this happy-go-lucky, larger-than-life figure who transcends not only baseball, but American culture itself. Not that Leavy ignores this facet of Ruth’s character. In fact, she goes into great detail about how this perception of the Babe pervaded American thought even during his lifetime. Ruth certainly lived large, and the public loved him so much, the press even willingly kept many of his indiscretions quite. When some of those indiscretions did leak out, fans were more than willing to overlook them, finding these to be a part of the ballplayer’s charm.
Leavy’s biography doesn’t focus just on this, however. Ruth’s life, especially as a youth, was not an easy one. The author includes stories about his birth, early youth, his life at St. Mary’s, and his introduction to professional baseball. She also talks about Ruth’s drinking and womanizing, and while she doesn’t forgive the Babe for these, Leavy does juxtapose that side of Ruth with his affinity for playing with and helping kids.
The book also delves deeply into Ruth’s relationship with his manager, Christy Walsh. We get an overview of Ruth’s personal finances, and Leavy demonstrates how much the Babe profited from Christy Walsh’s management. She conveys the impact Ruth and Walsh had on popular culture, foreshadowing the celebrity-obsessed society that followed them and continues to pervade our world today.
Leavy also does a good job giving us a glimpse into the Babe’s shortcomings as a family man and the impact this had on his daughters. There is also a great exploration of Ruth’s life after baseball, including the disappointments he faced as he continuously got turned down for management roles. Leavy goes into detail about his final days, as well, discussing his illness and, ultimately, his death.
Overall, I was impressed. I did, at times, wish that the structure of the book followed a more linear path, rather than bouncing around Ruth’s life the way that it does, but given the amount of research and detail included in these pages, it’s a shortcoming I’m willing to overlook.
The motion began in a gentle sweeping curve and culminated in a pose, held for an instant, of tense power. It was an exhibition of the perfection of masculine grace. Beautiful pitching like that is among the lost arts.
~James Weldon Johnson, from Along This Way
This parody of Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s “Casey At the Bat” was published in 2019 by Mitchell Nathanson, author of A People’s History of Baseball. Not only does it incorporate modern-day metrics like WAR, PitchTrax, and exit velocity, the poem also paints a frighteningly accurate picture of today’s in-stadium crowds. The piece is very well done, and in spite of shaking my head in recognition, I find that I rather enjoy it.
The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day;
The score stood four to two with but one inning more to play.
And then when Cooney whiffed again, the eighteenth K that night,
A sickly silence fell, for somehow baseball wasn’t right.
A straggling few got up and left, annoyed they even came;
And most who stayed were kind of drunk or wagered on the game.
Yet still to come was Casey, whom the fans had long extolled,
Though at the age of 31 the metrics deemed him old.
But first ahead was Flynn, a player much accursed;
His BABIP was atrocious, and his WAR was even worse.
Another guy came up as well, his name recalled by few;
Confusion sowed by double switches made in hour two.
But Flynn defied the numbers, making contact with the ball;
And sent it on a mighty arc — it caromed off the wall.
—The guy should be on third,— a salty graybeard spat and cursed,
As Flynn removed his batting gloves, a jogger still at first.
The other guy, as well, reached base, a waiver-wire addition;
Dropped by a last place club dumping salary without contrition;
And when the blaring music stopped, fans noticed what occurred,
Instead of crossing o’er the plate, young Flynn just jogged to third.
As Casey stepped into the box, the scoreboard roared “Make Noise!”;
Which the crowd most surely would’ve done, if not for all their toys.
About 5,000 hometown fans were checking in on Twitter;
So most remained oblivious to Casey as the hitter.
Ten thousand eyes were somewhere else as he scratched upon the dirt;
And Velcro-strapped his batting gloves and touched six places on his shirt.
And kissed his bat, then tapped the plate nine times or maybe 10;
Then from the box did Casey step, and start it all again.
The pitcher’s antics on the mound were also quite a show;
Whole seasons seemed to pass before he hinted at a throw.
Yet here it came, the cowhide sphere, arriving at great speed;
‘strike one,— the umpire firmly called. But PitchTrax disagreed.
The fans who watched upon their phones could see it plain: outside;
Unless their phones had zero bars, or batteries had died.
“Kill him! Kill the umpire!” the fans all stood and roared;
At least so roared the older ones, the younger ones seemed bored.
Two strikes remained. The oldsters, fretting, began to wring their hands;
While younger fans, in hour four, sped toward concession stands.
Then Casey dug in once again; the second spheroid flew,
But Casey still ignored it, and the umpire said, ‘strike Two.’
“Fraud!” cried the maddened few at all the blue-clad, rulebound fools,
While waving off the heady clouds sent up from nearby Juuls.
Now Casey’s face grew stern and cold, the fans all rose as one;
As midnight neared their hope was clear: just let the game be done.
As Casey runs the metrics, and adjusts his swing for lift;
The fielders check their little cards, and drift into a shift.
And now the pitcher fires a rocket off, despite his ample gut;
And now the air is shattered by great Casey’s uppercut.
Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sport is as it used to be;
And fans still hang on Casey’s fate, not exit velocity.
But that era’s gone — don’t cry into your $15 beer;
While all the laughing children shout, “Football season’s here!”
In our national pastime, each player is a member of a team, but when he comes to bat, he stands alone. One man. Many opportunities. For no matter how far behind, how late in the game, he, by himself, can make a difference. He can change what has been. He can make it a new ball game.
~Bette Bao Lord, from In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson
Every night I stood in front of the television watching the game and practicing my swing. I always swung for the seats. I even practiced fouling the ball off my foot. Mom would come in the den and find me limping around the rug, walking off the pain. I never said a word and neither did she. By the time I was nine I knew you gotta play hurt.
~Jane Leavy, from Squeeze Play
Just enough breeze to lift the flags along the upper edge of the north stands and let them fall again lazily. The diamond and outfield, sharply cut, were a bright velvet carpet to Joe’s eyes. As the players ran back and forth on it he could feel with envy its turfy spring and wished for — something, nearer definition now than ever before in his life.
~William Carlos Williams, from White Mule