In 1959, Al Stump, a West Coast sportswriter, got a surprise phone call that was to change his life.
Would he, the caller wanted to know, be interested in working on the autobiography of Tyrus Raymond Cobb, the first player voted into baseball's Hall of Fame and holder of more records than anyone in baseball history? Mr. Stump was intrigued but wary; Cobb (who was, indeed, the caller) had a reputation for being difficult, and working on his life story wasn't likely to be a stroll through spring training.
On the other hand, Mr. Stump was handed a once-in-a-lifetime offer. Ty Cobb was then and remains now the most dominant athlete in the history of American sports. No one since -- not Michael Jordan, not Joe Montana, not even Babe Ruth -- has approached in his game or his time the achievements of Cobb. In more than two decades in the outfield for the Detroit Tigers, "the Georgia Peach" led the American League in batting for nine consecutive years and 12 out of 13 seasons. His lifetime batting average is higher than what more than 90 percent of baseball's Hall of Famers have ever reached for a single season. Mr. Stump decided to take the chance.
The first result of their collaboration was Cobb's "My Life in Baseball," a self-serving, albeit well-written, apology for the half-century of mayhem Cobb had spread in his wake. Cobb died in 1961, at age 74, of a combination of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and alcoholism; it's possible that no lesser combination could have done him in. After his death, Mr. Stump wrote "Ty Cobb's Wild, Ten-Day Fight to Live" for True magazine, which became one of the most anthologized sports pieces ever written.
Now, 32 years after Cobb's death, Mr. Stump gives us the whole story in "Cobb: A Biography." Why the wait? Perhaps it took the film coming out this month -- directed by Ron Shelton and starring Tommy Lee Jones -- to spur publishing interest. Whatever the reason, "Cobb" is an instant classic, one of the five or six best sports biographies available. Alongside it, most sports bios seem timid and feckless -- even Charles Alexander's "Ty Cobb," praised by many (including me) as definitive, now seems bloodless in comparison.
Near the beginning of "Cobb," the dying ex-ballplayer brings Mr. Stump with him to Royston, Ga., on Christmas Eve "to see some of the old places before I die." As Cobb approaches the marble crypt that holds his father -- "a scholar, state senator, editor and philosopher," in the son's semitruthful words -- we begin to divine the inner workings of Cobb's demented mind.
"My father had his head blown off with a shotgun when I was 18 years old," he tells Stump, "by a member of my own family. I didn't get over that. I've never gotten over it." (It probably didn't help young Ty's state of mind that the trigger was pulled by his mother and that there was suspicion, never substantiated, that it wasn't an accident.) Mr. Stump doesn't hedge: "Was Ty Cobb psychotic throughout his baseball career? The answer is yes."
Mr. Stump can hardly be accused of practicing amateur psychology. Cobb, raised in relatively genteel circumstances in early 20th century Georgia, a reader of classics, a frequenter of museums and opera houses, a successful businessman who left millions when he died (including generous gifts for hospitals and schools), had a history of violence that would make Bugsy Seigel wince.
On the record, a wounded Cobb once chased down a mugger, using the man's own gun sight to, in Cobb's words, "rip and slash and tear him for about 10 minutes until he had no face left . . . left him there, not breathing, in his own rotten blood." (Cobb played the next day and got three hits.) He once beat a black groundskeeper, and then his wife, because the man tried to shake his hand. He attacked umpires.
He filed his spikes to a fine point and sent innumerable opponents to the hospital with severe leg wounds. And, though the allegations were never proved, Mr. Stump makes a very good case that Cobb actually committed the only crime unpardonable from baseball's point of view -- the only thing that could have kept him out of the Hall of Fame -- betting on baseball.
Cobb's life, pieced together by Mr. Stump from letters, diaries, period magazines and hours of typed recollections which Cobb excised from his own book, was an unrelenting series of brawls, quarrels and feuds. In the end, this monster of will and ego was alone and friendless. He spent his last few days at home tossing wadded-up paper balls into a basket. At his funeral, none of his three children, two ex-wives, or hundreds of former teammates showed up.
Ty Cobb won virtually all his battles, outlasted and defeated all his enemies. "Cobb" is a monument to a man who achieved unqualified success in the furious and unrelenting pursuit of goals that proved, in the end, to be utterly trivial.
Mr. Barra writes about sports for The New York Observer.
Title: "Cobb: A Biography"
Author: Al Stump
Length, price: 436 pages, $24.95