Writings shed light on real Cobb
Detroit legend battled alcoholism throughout turbulent life
DETROIT -- With the boozing and the bursts of violence and racism, Ty Cobb plays the villain in many of the portraits framing his turbulent life.
But another side of the Detroit legend emerged gradually, in letters and diaries that provide a more three-dimensional view of a man at times quite generous and also worried about his drinking problem.
For Ted Spencer, vice president and chief curator of the Baseball Hall of Fame, the information dripped slowly after acquiring some of Cobb's correspondence and while researching other projects for the museum. An idea hatched in Spencer's mind while watching the Ken Burns documentary "Baseball," when a former teammate said Cobb never had a friend in the game.
"The movie, the book, they just pound away," Spencer said after giving a presentation on the Georgia Peach at FanFest. "Hey, he was a tough guy -- he was not an easy guy -- but there were some other aspects to him."
Cobb's legacy shifts awkwardly between his more than 4,191 career hits and a string of violent incidents. Cobb once jumped the stands and assaulted a heckler in New York. Angered by the field's condition, Cobb also fought a black groundskeeper and then wound up choking the man's wife during the confrontation.
In his research, Spencer discovered a Cobb rarely portrayed in popular culture. One diary entry indicated Cobb sent money to an ailing Mickey Cochrane to pay for surgery, though Spencer said Cochrane's family denied Cobb's gesture took place. In his letters to other players, Cobb offered praise, encouragement and hitting tips.
Cobb felt compelled to contact Nellie Fox after watching the second baseman perform in the World Series.
"So Nellie, it's refreshing to see a boy like you playing the real type of baseball," Cobb wrote.
But this appreciation did not extend to Babe Ruth. Cobb's musings revealed a deep jealousy of the Yankee hero.
"He obviously did not like Ruth," Spencer said. "Look at the two personalities. Cobb is a very fit guy. Cobb got 110 percent out of his body, worked every day to be the best he possibly could [be]. And Ruth could just walk on the field after being up all night."
Despite his fanatical work ethic and discipline, Cobb experienced his own battles with alcoholism, a struggle reflected in his diary.
"I stayed sober," Cobb summarized one dinner meeting in a 1946 entry.
Spencer doubted the findings would result in a formal exhibit at the Hall of Fame but said the organization plans to incorporate the material into other Cooperstown events.
"We just developed a different insight [of Cobb]," Spencer said. "Some days the devil was on top of him, and some days he was able to get on top of it."
Patrick Mooney is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.