Career tip: If you ever become a film critic and you get an interview with Ron Shelton, writer-director of "Cobb" and before that "Bull Durham," do not say to him, "Oh, weren't you a semi-pro ballplayer?"
No, sir. No semi about it, not a bit. Shelton will have you know, in long and tedious detail, that he was an authentic professional baseball player, in the farm system of no less than the Baltimore Orioles. Never made it to the bigs, though.
"Low and away slider," he says with a laugh. But Shelton therefore brings to his sports films -- he also did "White Men Can't Jump" and "Blaze," about Huey Long and Blaze Starr -- an awareness of what an athlete's life is truly like, as opposed to the sentimentalized version that has appeared in so many other movies. ("Cobb" is playing at the Timonium Cinemas.)
"It's so much different for a professional baseball player than for a fan. The fan may hate the Yankees, but the player doesn't, because he may be on the Yankees next year. No, what the player hates is management. What he's concerned about are immediate small, daily things, nothing grand. His batting average, his contract, girlfriend or wife, his health and the pain he's probably playing in. That's about it."
It was that reality that so infused "Bull Durham" and elevated it beyond any other baseball film ever made. And it was that reality that he brought to the story of the furious and unrepentant ballplayer who never met a pitcher he couldn't hit or a man he could like.
"I am very interested," says Shelton, "in people who are brilliant in one area and dysfunctional in others. He [Ty Cobb] was such a set of contradictions he was fascinating."
For Shelton, the beginning may have been when he was growing up in California. "[Braves third baseman] Eddie Mathews, who came from my hometown, was my hero," he says. "Then Eddie got arrested for drunk driving, and I began to understand that there was more to it than the image of ballplayers we were getting in the news then. Take Cobb: It really didn't get out until the '80s that he was the way he was. His anger, his brutality, his viciousness; that was all a very carefully guarded secret."
Eventually, Shelton acquired the rights to all the works of the sportswriter Al Stump, who forms the film's entree into the world of Cobb. Stump was hired to co-write a Cobb autobiography and discovered to his horror the old man's pathologies as the two of them lived and traveled together over the last year of Cobb's life, 1960-61.
"Everything in the movie actually happened," Shelton says. "I allowed myself some license in compressing events. Actually, Stump was in and out of Cobb's life for over a year and they made numerous trips. It didn't seem unfair to condense them into one trip."
Stump wrote the first book, a whitewash as his contract demanded, but then produced a magazine story that told the truth about Cobb. He's just published "Cobb: The Life of the Meanest Man Who Ever Played Baseball," a conventional and more honest biography. Stump believes Cobb was mentally ill, a certifiable sociopath.
Shelton's take: "I think he was a very unhappy, miserable man, terrified of intimacy, a man who lashed out at it and despised it. His ego was both fragile and huge."
Late in his life, Cobb was asked how he would do against "today's pitching." He answered, "Oh, I think I'd hit .300 or so."
"Gee, only .300?" his questioner responded.
"Well, remember I'm 70 years old," Cobb came back.
Ask Shelton the same question and he replies, "On Prozac, he'd be a .240 hitter."
The key Cobb question: How much of his accomplishment -- highest lifetime average at .367, he once held 123 major league records -- was sheer will and intensity, how much pure athletic talent?
"He had great athletic skills. He had great hand-eye coordination. He was big for a fast man, at 6 feet, 175 pounds, but he didn't have Ruth's power," says Shelton. "He wasn't a great outfielder, but he ended up a good outfielder. But it's hard to judge how he would do today, because of the old gloves. We worked out with the old gloves and there's no question they affected play and average. So I ultimately believe he would not have hit .367 lifetime, but he was a great bat handler and would have done very well."
RON SHELTON'S CAREER
As a screenwriter: "Under
Fire (1983), "The Best of Times" (1986).
As an exceutive producer:
"Blue Chips" (1994).
As a director: "Bull
Durham" (1988). "Blaze"
(1989). "White Men Can't
Jump" (19920). "Cobb" (1995)