Ty Cobb's comeback
Could Ty Cobb be coming back into fashion after all these years? Maybe.
The man with the highest batting average in the history of baseball, the guy who was considered by his peers to be the greatest player of all time, fell out of popular favor 60 years ago -- after his death.
He fell from favor after an article was published by sportswriter Al Stump, who had collaborated with Cobb on his autobiography. In the article, Stump alleged that the old ballplayer engaged in bizarre misconduct and abusive treatment of the people around him; about which, more to come.
The reason for Cobb being back in the conversation in 2021 is Josh Harrison, the second baseman of the Washington Nationals. After breaking the same bone in his left hand twice, the result of being hit by pitches, Harrison became uncomfortable gripping a bat the normal way, with both hands held together, down by the handle. Harrison endured the worst offensive year of his career in 2019. Tinkering with his grip this year, he has found comfort again by splitting his hands apart several inches rather than holding them together down by the knob of the bat. That's the way Cobb held his bat a century ago.
The results for Harrison have been all positive. He's found that he has far greater control of his bat than was formerly the case; and he is striking out much less often than the rest of the league. Harrison is a .273 career hitter, but his average has been flirting with the .300 mark all season. He has sacrificed some power, but he never had a whole lot of that in the first place. He's on track to hit 12 round-trippers this year, about normal for him. Cobb himself had only 117 career homers, but he also had 295 triples, which only happens by hitting the ball a long way.
Cobb always preached that bat control was the key to good hitting, and he had many followers. The split grip became fairly common in his day. One of his rules of thumb was to aim for the opposite field on outside pitches -- something easier to accomplish using his grip. It's a tactic that would obliterate the use of infield shifts that has become so commonplace in today's game. Then -- toward the end of Cobb's career -- along came a guy named George Herman Ruth, but everyone called him Babe. He swung from the heels and hit more home runs than anyone thought imaginable.
As home runs became all the rage, Cobb's split-hands grip fell out of style and soon became a relic of the past, along with the horse and buggy and high-button shoes. Cobb and Ruth were less than 10 years apart in age, but they were eons apart in baseball terms. Cobb represented the dead-ball era, and Ruth the age of the long -- and lively -- ball. But Josh Harrison is demonstrating that the old-school way of doing things still has plenty of merit. It might even help to rejuvenate Cobb's standing in the game.
In the days when Ruth and Cobb both still walked the earth, the general consensus was that Cobb was the greater player. When the very first members of the Baseball Hall of Fame were announced in 1936, they included Cobb, Ruth, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, and Honus Wagner. The top vote getter by far was Cobb, he received more support than anyone else, including Ruth. In 1942, the Sporting News polled former players to find who they considered the greatest of all time and the runaway winner was Cobb. Yet Ruth's legend has grown to mythic proportions since his death in 1948, whereas Cobb's reputation has continuously shrunk since he died in 1961. Part of the reason for that is that the home run is still king. Another part is the sportswriter, Al Stump.
When Cobb's autobiography came out shortly after his death, it failed to sell well. So Stump wrote a sensationalist article saying that Cobb in his dying days had been a kind of monster, threatening people with guns and firing his help for the slightest infraction, imagined or not. He detailed a supposedly wild, boozy car ride with Cobb from his lodge at Lake Tahoe to Reno in the teeth of a blizzard for an equally wild night of gambling and other hijinks, all mixed in with Cobb's abusive behavior. Since he had collaborated on the autobiography, everyone took the account as the truth, and since Cobb was no longer around, there was no one to dispute Stump's version of the facts. It ruined the old man's reputation and his standing within the game. And it happened after he was dead and gone.
It is an established fact that Cobb was not exactly Mr. Congeniality when he played, but the stories of him sharpening his spikes before games to deliberately injure opponents have never been corroborated. Moreover, it was his own contemporaries who voted him the best player of all time and none of them accused him of being a dirty player -- tough, but not dirty.
None of that stopped Al Stump, though. Thirty years after his salacious article on Cobb appeared, he expanded it into a book called "Cobb: The Meanest Man Who Ever Played Baseball." It was not, as you can imagine, a puff piece. Later, Stump put some memorabilia on the market, which he claimed Cobb had given him. But a shotgun supposedly used by Cobb's mother to kill his father in a case of mistaken identity turned out to be a fake when it was pointed out that at his mother's trial the weapon that had been used was identified as a pistol. Moreover, Cobb's supposed diary turned out to be a forgery. And Stump turned out to be as phony as the merchandise he was peddling.
Imagine that, a sportswriter who couldn't be trusted. Who ever heard of such a thing?
Meanwhile, Josh Harrison, split grip and all, is having a pretty good year for himself in Washington.
- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.