Ty Cobb hit .367 against 25 years' worth of major league pitching but went 0 for 4 in a lifetime against decency, humanity, humility and tolerance.
Fierce, heroic, unbowed and very bloody, he was the master of his fate, the captain of his soul -- and a world-class son of a bitch. He ended up -- no surprise -- exactly as he had lived, all alone. He became something like the last dragon, embittered and tyrannical in his lightless lair, nursing obscure grudges till the end, lashing out viciously at all who came within range of his talons even as his body systems, one by one, shut down. When he died, the world collectively said to him: See ya. Wouldn't wanna be ya.
This Cobb, not the sentimentalized Georgia Peach, is the centerpiece of Ron Shelton's cauterizing new film "Cobb," which at last opens nationally today, on the illusory hope that it would have copped of few Oscar nods, particularly for Tommy Lee Jones, who fills Cobb with energy and rage. But no: Cobb scared off even the predators of Hollywood.
Shelton's film is more a brain scan of Cobb's twisted psyche than a conventional biography. It never sums up his career or represents any of his heroic action on the field. It represents 25 years of ballplaying in a single extended (but typical) anecdote illustrating the kind of havoc he could wreak: It watches as he singles, then steals second, third and home, trash-talking, spiking and fighting his opponents every step of the way (Cobb stole home 36 times in his career, one of 123 major league records he set). And that's it.
Rather, the film extends from an unusual event late in Cobb's life. In 1960, the old buzzard signed up with Doubleday to do an "authorized bio," that is, a homily-riddled whitewash of his life. The publishing company hired a nationally known sports free-lance named Al Stump to actually write the thing.
So Stump spent the better part of Cobb's last year with him, and indeed wrote the sugarcoated version (he has since published a much tougher book). But Stump did print an account of his adventures with the authentic, misanthropic Cobb in True magazine, and upon that article is this film based.
So it's a chronicle of a last rampage, in which the old monster, propelled by a high-octane blend of whiskey and painkillers, goes about his black business spitting bile and venom left and right, still getting into fights, beyond embarrassment, while poor Stump struggles along trying to keep the peace and tidy up.
Stump is well-played by affable Robert Wuhl, who has the unenviable responsibility of representing the one sane man in Ty's crazy universe. The film is structured simply as an examination of male anger, as Wuhl, a Cobb True Believer, is initially shocked to discover the greatest ballplayer who ever lived is a vicious, still violent, still dangerous bigot (Cobb's always got a loaded Luger close at hand, as well as a briefcase with $1 million in cash) who at any moment is apt to rant against Jews or blacks and will still fight anybody.
He's either been disowned by or has disowned his children; he's been divorced twice for mental cruelty. And he's completely unrepentant: In fact, the concepts of sin or shame have no meaning to him. Jones plays this demonic character at a full pitch, as if the dogs are baying at the moon in the back of his skull.
Yet as the film progresses and small grace notes begin to appear -- Cobb, financially astute, was worth millions and supported many otherwise indigent old- timers -- Wuhl's Stump begins to soften and sees how completely alone Cobb is. In the end, the only one who cares for Cobb is Wuhl, injecting his insulin, pouring his whiskey, helping him get in and out of cars and up and down stairs. At last for Cobb, some tiny semblance of a human condition.
In some ways, it's the saddest story I have ever heard. Cobb seethed with talent: He was smart, had phenomenal hand-eye coordination and a will the size of a mountain. But it was flaming fury that drove him and he seems not to have had one truly happy day in his life. Shelton (and Stump) place the source of his angst in conventional Freudian explanation -- the killing of his father by his mother when the kid was 18. Maybe so, maybe not. There've been more than a few sons of murdered fathers, and none of them has hit .367 lifetime.
In the end, Cobb seems not exactly tragic, but squalid; the cancer that really kills him is the cancer of anger. He hated so hard he died from the heart outward. What profited him to gain the whole world?
Starring Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Wuhl
Directed by Ron Shelton
Released by Warner Bros.
R (profanity, sexual violence)