Book Review: Ty and the Babe by Tom Stanton

A couple of months ago I reviewed Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty by Charles Leerhsen. Our flash frozen friend from the Lower Penninsula, Spartan, posted a comment suggesting I read the related Ty and the Babe, for which I am grateful.

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I’ve been padding my retirement by reading about the so-called “dead ball era,” back before the age of the home run, the juiced ball, the digital scoreboard and the curse of designatedhitterball. It was a time when ballplayers radiated joi de vivre instead of showing orf ugly tattooes, garish jewelry and  overpriced Guccis; when they were genuine eccentrics and characters instead of cookie cutter public relations mannequins, and when they visited children’s hospitals and orphanages out of compassion and joy instead of being sent there by their marketing departments.

But most of all it was a time of daring at the plate, on the basepaths and afield. Doubles and triples were as much a product of psychological warfare against the opposing pitcher and fielders as of focused batsmanship even though plate discipline was recognized as an essential quality if you were going to succeed. Speed on the bases meant everything. It was a hardscrabble game dominated by giants. You didn’t make the disabled list without a compound fracture.

Ty and the Babe tells the story of two of the most Brobdingnagian figures to bestride the narrow world of white man’s baseball just as that antique world was shading into the modern. Ty Cobb had the throne all to himself between 1904 and 1914 when the Babe first manifested on the Boston rubber as a promising lefthander; he was years away from his conversion to an outfielder and his scandalous sale to the Borg to rescue Beanbag owner Harry Frazee’s sinking financial fortunes.

And yet, as Stanton tells us, the Peach seemed to sniff the advent of a major rival right from the beginning. Cobb didn’t face the young lefty during his debut year, but he had begun poohpoohing the stories of mound mastery already emanating from Clamular Heaven before ever the twain had met. Inevitably the spinner of the years said “Now!” and consummation came and mauled the horsehide spheres. Cobb in his prime handled the Babe about as roughly as any other pitcher. The book abounds with wonderful accounts of the Peach’s at-bats against the young star, beginning in May 1915, and statheads will be particularly delighted with this book’s 200-plus entry long index cataloging every game in which Ty and the Babe played against each other.

Eventually, though, Ruth began to figure out not so much Ty’s weaknesses as a hitter – he didn’t really have any yet – as much as how to shake orf the Master’s mind games and batting japes and keep his concentration. A master storyteller, Stanton draws on a wealth of firsthand and newspaper accounts to trace the budding rivalry. Beneath his pen the two personalities flesh out until a reader feels like he or she is looking over their shoulders as their antagonism intensifies. By the 1916 season the tables hadn’t turned as much as stabilized. Cobb versus Ruth had already become one of the classic confrontations of the game. It would remain that way until the Angelus wheeled over its axis during the 1919-1920 orfseason.

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It was after Frazee sold the Babe to the Borg that the rivalry turned nasty. Beanbag manager Ed Barrow had converted Ruth to a full time outfielder early in the 1919 season and the big guy immediately began pouring on the power. Stanton tracks the way Ruth’s slugging gradually pushed Cobb’s ferocious hitting and, especially, baserunning from the front pages of the sports sections of America’s newspapers, and the way Cobb’s slow burn about it threatened to turn volcanic. It’s a joy to read his detailed accounts of how the two superstars – the older one, passing his prime, and the emerging Polyphemus of the Plate – turned whole seasons into verbal brawls that peaked just prior to and during every Borg – Tigers series. The Bronx Bullies, with the Sultan at the helm, began their long string of postseason dominance while the Detroit club, saddled with an alcoholic manager and an aging Cobb, failed sometimes by a whisker, sometimes by wider margins, to make it into October. Cobb’s slow burn grew hotter.

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Baseball had entered the modern world, more or less, on the magic wand of Babe Ruth’s swing. Great ballplayers of the Wagner-Sisler-Speaker-Cobb ethos were being overshadowed by the slugging young Turks like Jimmy Foxx, Hank Greenberg and Mel Ott. Fans wanted distance more than chipping and scampering. Again, Stanton’s narration of this transitional period is an insightful pleasure to read. In 1927, the year that Ruth crushed his Olympian 60 home runs, the Tigers didn’t re-sign the superstar who had carried them for 22 years and a 39-year-old Cobb signed with Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics for a publicity conscious $75,000 and a horrible horsemeat and Velveeta™ Sandwich. Even though the Peach had one terrific and one decent season in Feely, by this time the Babe and the new generation of sluggers had completely overshadowed him.

If you haven’t been entirely enthralled by the foregoing, incredibly, Stanton really deploys his narrator chops to describe Cobb’s retirement and the Babe’s own slow downhill roll into superfluity. This section is a treat but it’s merely a setup for what’s ahead. You watch as Cobb comes to a grudging admiration and even affection for the Babe, overcome by his successor’s ebullience and warmth.  A new friendship, salted with gentle put-downs, good natured ribbing and expressions of mutual admiration ensues but Stanton never lets you forget that underneath it all still simmers Cobb’s anxieties about being eclipsed and Ruth’s frustration at not being hired for a managerial or front office job.

Meanwhile  both of these giants had become avid recreational golfers. I have to stop here to confess that for the most part I track the immortal (though dead) George Carlin’s take on golf: “I am getting tired, really getting tired, of these golfing cocksuckers in their green pants, and their yellow pants, and their orange pants, and their precious little hats and their cute little golf carts! It is time to reclaim the golf courses from the wealthy and turn them over to the homeless!” And of course, it’s boring – “Like watching flies fuck,” Carlin reminds us. “A nice walk ruined,” Oscar Wild chimes in. Just so. But even if you hate golf too, this is the golf book for you.

Image result for images of ty cobb playing golf'

So what kind of writerly magic, I ask you, would it take to charm me – me – into rapt absorption in the spectacle of Cobb and Ruth’s great three-match 1941 “Has Beens Golf Championship”  tournament? Well, it helps to have antagonists like the two greatest ballplayers of their respective (and overlapping) eras dominating the foreground. I was hooked. Sorry George. Sorry Oscar. The wondrous friendship that sprang up between these two aged titans of course sweetens the tale, but Stanton as usual unfurls a wonderworld of background detail that brings the weeks-long golf match, with two players whose greens approaches niftily mirror their ballplaying styles,  so energetically to life. I don’t want to spoil it except to say that even if you know how it all ended (and please, if you don’t, don’t ruin it for yourselves by looking it up before you read Stanton’s account) you can’t help being enthralled by Stanton’s account.

I think, though, that for me the emotional payoff to this entire experience – and believe me, this book is an experience – is when, months after Ruth’s death in 1948 from throat cancer, Cobb, visiting New York, impulsively decides to drive past the Bambino’s former upper West Side apartment and exclaims, “God, how I miss him.” Ty and the Babe is another recent work that, like Leerhsen’s biography, debunks the malignant image of Cobb fabricated by yellow journalists and Cobb’s execrable “biographer” Al Stump in the name of sensational profits. Cobb was surely no saint. He was, like his hulking adversary and friend, a talented and complex human being. Stanton has done a fine job here of bringing both men vitally to life. Put this one at the top of your summer reading list.

Image result for images of ty cobb and babe ruth playing golf.

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22 thoughts on “Book Review: Ty and the Babe by Tom Stanton

    • @Spartan1963, and a Tigers fan, did you attend MSU circa the ‘kill bubba kill’ team which played an excellent Norte Dame team to a tie for the national championship. If so, so did one of my older brothers. My favorite player was Bob Aparicio, the full back from Hawaii. And the 1968 Tigers were right around the corner.

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      • @happy – not that old, attended MSU in the mid – late ’80’s, born in 1963. You may like this nugget; MSU is currently recruiting Bob Apisa’s grandson, Jacob Isaia, a highly rated offensive lineman from Las Vegas.

        @Gator – Lifelong Michigan resident here. While I’d love to visit Australia someday, the closest I’ve come is a bloomin’ onion at Outback Steakhouse. G’day!

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        • Ouch. I confused you with Vikings37, our outpost in Oz. I have made a few adjustments above to make myself look a little less like a schmuck.

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        • Did someone call my name? I’m still here OG, and enjoying the daily updates & features by the FI crew, as well as this excellent book review. Sadly, I’ve had few opportunities so far this year to sit down and actually watch a game uninterrupted. Despite being retired from paid employment, I seem to have less spare time now to do the things I said I would do when… etc., etc. How did that happen, and why did I let it? Answers on a post card please.

          @Spartan – I can assure you the real Outback is a far more memorable and varied experience than your local themed diner…

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        • There’s so much goddamned salt in that bloomin’ onion that it would drive my blood pressure up to Three Mile Island containment vessel levels. Speaking for myself, with something close to four total months’ time in Australia spread among several trips, I never encountered an “authentic” Australian bloomin’ onion anywhere on the continent, Kangaroo couscous, yeah. Wichetty grub Caesar salad, yeah. Water buffalo steak, yeah..Bloomin’ onion? Nope.

          Vike: but at least you can say that you haven’t dwindled into a golfer.

          Can’t you?

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        • No, OG, golf and I never really hit it off. I worked for a couple of large Japanese technology companies in the 1980s and, of course, golf features strongly in the business culture. I tried. I really did try hard. I once hit a driver off the first tee straight down the middle of the fairway about 300 yards, and that was in front of a bunch of company execs. Eureka! But it proved to be a false dawn as that was the only time that day I hit one straight for any distance.

          The combination of imperfect eyesight, a ball that’s small, too many bats (sorry, clubs) to choose from, and occasionally (OK, mostly) lousy eye-hand co-ordination produced results that were sometimes comical, but usually just embarrassing. I haven’t picked up a golf club in over 20 years, although just thinking about it now, if I’d stuck with it and developed my golf game alongside my business efforts maybe I could have been a President someplace…

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    • And I in turn am glad you enjoyed the review, mate. In fact I liked the book so much that I just stuck it in the outside pocket of the suitcase I usually take with me on longer trips. I’m going to Germany in October and plan to re-read it then.

      Next up: a couple of books on George Sisler, including one on Ichiro’s challenge to his single season hit record. The latter will be sort of an anesthetic read: Ichiro has been awful this season, playing like a fossil. It hurts to see him go out there looking overmatched and enfeebled. I think he’s batting about .177 right now. I haven’t had the heart to look. What could be worse than sitting in the stands when he comes out to pinch hit and hearing the fans around you groan?

      After that home run in Seattle last month I had kind of hoped he would recognize the high water mark of his decline and hang ’em up. I know it’s presumptuous to expect a guy to blow orf three quarters of his two million dollar salary but it’s not like he’s broke or anything. Sad.

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  1. However how greedily the Al Stumpf ‘biography’ was, I hope that it is true that when asked close to his death, how well he would have been able to hit against ‘today’s’ pitching’ Cobb replied ‘ oh about 2.70’., and when asked is that all, replied I’m 77 years old you stupid sonnabitch.

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    • Yeah, he did say something very close to that but I don’t think he said it so nastily – more ironically, like “Well, I am 77 years old.” You’re still in thrall to Stump’s hatchet job. My advice to you is to leave the gun and take the cannoli.

      Not entirely Incidentally, Cobb’s famous comment about “I would have made more friends” was also taken out of context. On the occasion of being asked about the recent death of Ruth, he compared his own personality to the Babe’s and remarked that if he’d been more like the Bambino he would have made more friends. He did not mean that he would have only had a few of them otherwise. In fact once you subtract the comments made by the cockroaches of the yellow spawrts press, he had many, many friends. Even a few journalists.

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      • To tell the truth I’ve never read the Stump book and based on what you tell me I never will. My impressions and misimpressions are based on the Tommy Lee Jones movie based on it. My admittedly at best slightly informed impression of Cobb is that he was a great player because he was an extreme perfectionist. Being an extreme perfectionist not only bears a great cost, it arises in response to a deep and painful need. I don’t judge Cobb either way except to say that for almost a quarter of a century he was the best or nearly the best white professional baseball player in all the land.

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  2. Very enjoyable review, Gator. You convinced me to read the book.

    By the way, I finally got around to reading “One Summer” by Bill Bryson recently. Although I am a big fan of his writing, the research on this one showed some sloppiness. One of the best examples was his assessment of Ty Cobb, which essentially followed the canon and dismissed him as a near psychopath. I think changing this particular interpretation is going to be like turning an aircraft carrier in a small harbor. It’s going to take a lot of tugboats.

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    • True to an extent but the appearance of two substantial books, Leerhsen’s and Stanton’s, with far more balanced views of Ty Cobb indicate that the view might be on the road to clarification. At that point, it will only be as difficult as turning around a dual tandem semi-trailer in a country day school parking lot.

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      • This is why I try to fight the old stereotype of Cobb whenever I can. I’ve been an admirer of Cobb’s for a long time, because long ago stories from my father.

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        • That may be an even better way to combat the image. Blogs and internet communications seem to spread with great efficiency. Maybe we can reduce it to the challenge of getting your golden retriever to turn around when he wanders into the broom closet.

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