Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth, the First Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees, Go Another Round in 2018: This Time in Books Over 500 Pages

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HarperCollins has announced a 500,000-copy run for acclaimed 20th-century baseball author Jane Leavy’s Fall 2018 The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and The World He Created. Relatively unknown 19th-century author Howard W. Rosenberg is entering the 20th century this month for the first time with Ty Cobb Unleashed: The Definitive Counter-Biography of the Chastened Racist, a mere print-on-demand hardcover at least in 2018. But as longtime ESPN broadcaster Chris Berman likes to say, “That's why they play the game!”

Two conventional overlaps in the 2018 Cobb and Ruth books are their hardcover length (554 and 560 pages) and price ($32 and $32.50). In a more improbable coincidence, their authors are both originally from Roslyn, N.Y.

A century ago, they exemplified baseball’s deadball and lively ball eras. This year, Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth will duke it out on paper: for the first time, each will be the focus of hardcover books in excess of 500 pages in the same calendar year.

The first of the books to be released is Howard W. Rosenberg’s Ty Cobb Unleashed: The Definitive Counter-Biography of the Chastened Racist (Tile Books). It seeks to be the go-to first source on Cobb’s persona, including racially.  Transparency about “what’s new” is the organizing theme.

While the historiography of Ruth has engendered limited (including occasionally manufactured) controversy since the work of three mid-1970s authors (Robert Creamer, Marshall Smelser and Kal Wagenheim), the Cobb one is riddled with mines.  Charles Leerhsen’s revisionist 2015 Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty (Simon & Schuster) both settled some controversies and started new ones.  Perhaps the biggest new controversy it created is on whether Cobb has been fairly cast as having been a racist.  

A trifecta of features may make Ty Cobb Unleashed one of the most significant baseball biographical books.  Firstly, it performs a hard-to-find public service by comparing the technical quality of the Simon & Schuster book and a second cradle-to-grave 2015 one that was also touted as authoritative or definitive:  Tim Hornbaker’s overlooked War on the Basepaths: The Definitive Biography of Ty Cobb (Sports Publishing).  For decades, media watchdogs have been largely passive (and especially lately) in shedding light on the books of nonfiction publishers from a nuts-and-bolts perspective.  Ty Cobb Unleashed does the legwork for them and recommends a practice that publishers should adhere to in their revisionist history titles. 

Secondly, biographically on Cobb, it resolves differences between the two books, especially on the tricky subject of racism.  It also textually is the first Cobb one to stress his 32-year post-career, 1929 to 1961.  That span includes 1960 and 1961, the featured years in the 1994 movie “Cobb” starring Tommy Lee Jones.  The movie, a limited release in theaters, has gained a second wind as an online video rental.  The first of three appendices points out aspects of the movie that the author found substantiation for (or lack thereof).  Some of the results should be surprising.  Ty Cobb Unleashed also presents a fresh take on the accuracy of Cobb’s controversial 1961 co-author, Al Stump.  While reinforcing or raising new criticisms about Stump’s accuracy, the book shows where the primary record supports some colorful or biting prose in a 1961 Stump article following Cobb’s death and a 1994 book that was a basis for the “Cobb” movie.

Thirdly, it is the rare history book that allows the reader to immediately deduce what has not previously appeared in one, or in a modern-day article. Whether new-to-Cobb versus prior Cobb book readers will like the transparency is an open question. But media watchdogs could have a field day. As Ty Cobb Unleashed lays out, the Simon & Schuster Cobb book received a unique form of praise, for the quality of its research, from the most elite, pre-publication reviewer of books.

The later 2018 Ruth book is by acclaimed author Jane Leavy. Entitled The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and The World He Created, it follows her popular 2002 one of Sandy Koufax and 2010 one of Mickey Mantle. In announcing a 500,000-copy print run, publisher HarperCollins has revealed that it will cover “two crucial aspects of Ruth’s life that have yet to be excavated by other biographies: his early childhood and his partnership with [publicist/article syndicate owner] Christy Walsh.” Beyond that, it will offer “the most insightful psychological portrait of Ruth yet” and employ “Leavy’s colorful and compelling narrative style.”

In their playing and post-careers, Cobb and Ruth drew subjective newspaper coverage to an extent apparently unmatched by other 20th-century whites in the sport. Overall, such coverage of Ruth was positive while Cobb’s was closer to neutral. Personality-wise, Ruth’s was easy to like and Cobb’s was easy to hate. Relative to other Cobb books, a subject that Ty Cobb Unleashed presents with a fuller range of credible sources is: how was his persona critiqued, especially by journalists and fellow retired players, while he was alive? The Simon & Schuster book placed stress on the negativity that came after that; namely, in Stump’s writings after Cobb’s death in 1961.

Two conventional overlaps in the 2018 Cobb and Ruth books are their hardcover length (554 and 560 pages) and price ($32 and $32.50). In a more improbable coincidence, their authors are both originally from Roslyn, N.Y.

Previously, Cobb author Rosenberg’s book expertise was almost entirely on the 19th century. Living near the Library of Congress, his specialty was plowing through microfilm of surviving contemporaneous coverage of the great baseball media stars of that era, Hall of Famers Cap Anson and Mike “King” Kelly. On Anson, that includes being the horse’s mouth on Anson’s racism (https://howardwrosenberg.atavist.com/racism-bbhistory), especially its alleged impact on the drawing of the sport’s “color line” in the 19th century. He is also the book-length expert on tricky and dirty play through 1900, which helps in evaluating how Cobb used his baseball shoes. Fittingly, it is on that newsy subject that Rosenberg most strongly counters both 2015 authors.

With each new baseball season, hope springs eternal, and with it comes new baseball books. A question that cannot be answered yet is: With the plugging of major gaps by the 2018 books, can the genre of major Ruth and/or Cobb biography finally be put to rest? If the Cobb one continues, readers may risk getting whiplash.

(In 2018, Ty Cobb Unleashed is available solely as a print-on-demand hardcover through online retailers; for example, at https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/ty-cobb-unleashed-howard-w-rosenberg/1128581868?ean=9780972557443 and https://www.amazon.com/dp/097255744X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1528827913&sr=1-1&keywords=ty+cobb+unleashed. For much of the rest of the year, traditional and online media outlets, newsy bloggers, librarians and educators can request and be approved immediately for downloadable free preview copies at https://www.netgalley.com/catalog/book/139870. The preview copy will have to be read via Adobe Digital Editions, which is available from Adobe’s Web site as a free download.)

Table of Contents
1. A Dodger No More
2. Institutional Racism
3. Argumentation on Race
4. Myths Versus Facts
5. Back From Cobb’s Last Years
6. Cobb v. Cunningham, Leerhsen v. Hornbaker
7. Food, Glorious Food
8. Amanda and Charlie (Quotes, Schmotes II)
9. Cobb & Negro Leaguers
10. Racism or Not?
11. ‘Not a Very Controversial Figure’
12. Odds and Ends        
Cobb on Women’s Rights
Cobb’s Political Allegiances
Lou Gehrig
Leo Durocher
Bird Dogs
Joe DiMaggio I/II
Arthur “Bugs” Baer
Ted Williams
Jackie Robinson
Calling Cobb Lucky
Casey Stengel
Ralph Kiner
Hank Aaron & Eddie Mathews
Telling Cobb Funny Stories
Nap Rucker
13. And By the Way
14. Cobb, Finally Finished Off
Appendix A: The 1994 Movie: Accuracies and Refutations
Appendix B: Mathewson’s 1918 Alleged Poison Gas Exposure
Appendix C: (Salsinger on) Ruth’s Never Getting to Manage

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