The Knife in Ty Cobb’s Back | History | Smithsonian
Current Issue
September 2014  magazine cover
Subscribe

Save 81% off the newsstand price!

The Knife in Ty Cobb’s Back

Did the baseball great really confess to murder on his deathbed?

smithsonian.com

Ty Cobb. Image courtesy of Library of Congress

“In 1912—and you can write this down—I killed a man in Detroit.”

Al Stump, commissioned in 1960 to ghostwrite Ty Cobb’s autobiography, My Life in Baseball: The True Record, would say it was a boozy, pill-induced, off-the-record confession—a secret revealed by the Detroit Tigers great as he spent the last painful year of his life battling cancer. The confession never made its way into the book Stump was writing for Doubleday & Company. With Cobb insisting on editorial control, Stump claimed, his role was to help the ballplayer give his account of his legendary but controversial life and career, even if the effort might be self-serving. It was, after all, Cobb’s book, he said, so the sportswriter filed the murder confession away with the rest of his notes.

Instead, the autobiography offers an account of a comeuppance rather than a killing, an encounter more in line with the “Nobody can pull that stuff on me!” persona that the baseball legend still liked to project at age 73. In that version, Cobb was riding in his car with his wife, Charlie, to the railway station in Detroit to catch a train for a Tigers exhibition game in Syracuse, New York, when three men waved them down. Thinking they might be having some trouble, he stopped to help. Immediately, the men attacked Cobb, who slid out of the car and began to fight back. “One of the mugs I knocked down got up and slashed at me with a knife,” the book says. “I dodged, but he cut me in the back. I couldn’t tell how bad it was. But my arms were still working.”

Cobb was the most feared ballplayer on the base paths. But contrary to myth, he never sharpened his spikes. Courtesy of Wikicommons

Cobb says the men retreated as he chased one of them down, “leaving him in worse condition than he’d arrived in.” Another one returned and cornered Cobb in a blind passageway.  “I had something in my hand, which I won’t describe , but which often came in handy in Detroit in the days when it was a fairly rough town. I used it on him at some length. If he still lives, he has the scars to show for it. Leaving him unconscious, I drove on to the depot.”

By 1912, Cobb had established himself as one of the baseball’s biggest stars, and he would eventually be recognized as one of the greatest to ever play the game. When the National Baseball Hall of Fame inducted its inaugural class in 1936, he received more votes than any other player, including Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Christy Matthewson and Honus Wagner. By all accounts, he was fiery, belligerent, mean-tempered and capable of violence. But did he kill a man?

Violent confrontations were a recurring theme in Cobb’s life. He broke into major league baseball with the Tigers in August 1905, just three weeks after his mother, Amanda Cobb, had been arrested on charges of voluntary manslaughter in the shooting death of Cobb’s father, William Herschel Cobb. Amanda Cobb said she thought her husband was an intruder trying to enter their house through the bedroom window when she shot him twice. But there had been rumors in town that William suspected his wife of infidelity and had unexpectedly returned home late that fateful evening, when she believed him to be out of town. During her trial the following year, prosecutors carefully questioned Amanda Cobb about ambiguities over the time that had lapsed between shots, but she was ultimately acquitted.

Stories of Cobb’s racial intolerance were well-documented. In 1907 during spring training in Augusta, Georgia, a black groundskeeper named Bungy, whom Cobb had known for years, attempted to shake Cobb’s hand or pat him on the shoulder.  The overly familiar greeting infuriated Cobb, who slapped him and chased him from the clubhouse. When Bungy’s wife tried to intervene, Cobb turned around and choked her until teammates pried his hands off her neck. In 1908 in Detroit, a black laborer castigated him after he accidentally stepped into some freshly poured asphalt. Cobb assaulted the laborer on the spot, knocking him to the ground. The ballplayer was found guilty of battery, but a friendly judge suspended his sentence. Cobb paid the laborer $75 to avoid a civil suit.

Just three months before the three men attacked him in Detroit in 1912, Cobb assaulted a New York Highlanders fan at Hilltop Park in New York City. The fan, Claude Lueker, was missing all of one hand and three fingers on the other from a printing press accident, but he spent the entire game heckling the Detroit players.  After enduring taunts that were “reflecting on my mother’s color and morals,” Cobb reported in his autobiography, the Georgia native had had enough. He jumped the rail along the third-base side of the field and climbed 12 rows of seats to get to Lueker, whom he slammed to the ground and beat senseless. Someone screamed for Cobb to stop, pointing out that the man had no hands. “I don’t care if he has no feet!” Cobb yelled back, stomping Lueker until park police pulled him off. American League president Ban Johnson, who was at the game, suspended Cobb for 10 days.

Cobb received more votes than any other player, including Babe Ruth, in the Baseball Hall of Fame's inaugural class of 1936. Image courtesy of Wikicommons

Ty Cobb died on July 17, 1961, at age 74, and Doubleday rushed to get his autobiography onto bookshelves two months later. The book sold well, but in December 1961, True magazine published a story by Al Stump, “Ty Cobb’s Wild 10-Month Fight to Live,” offering a lurid, behind-the-scenes and supposedly true portrait of the Georgia Peach. “The first book was a cover up,” Stump said later. “I felt very bad about it. I felt I wasn’t being a good newspaperman.” With Cobb dead, Stump had decided that it was time to release the ballplayer’s supposedly private confessions and utterances. In the True article, Stump recalled Cobb’s visiting the cemetery in Royston, Georgia, where his parents were buried. “My father had his head blown off with a shotgun when I was 18 years old—by a member of my own family,” Stump quoted Cobb as saying. “I didn’t get over that. I’ve never gotten over that.”

The article, published in three installments, depicted Cobb as feisty and ill-tempered as ever, downing painkillers and scotch, and living in his Atherton, California, mansion without electricity because of a minor billing dispute with Pacific Gas and Electric Company. “When I wouldn’t pay,” Stump quoted Cobb as saying, “they cut off my utilities. Okay—I’ll see them in court.” Carrying more than a million dollars in stock certificates and bonds in a paper bag (he’d gotten rich investing in Coca-Cola and General Motors stock), as well as a loaded Luger, Cobb checked into hospitals and berated doctors and staff for treatment, only to demand that Stump smuggle in liquor for him or sneak him out on late-night visits to bars and casinos. Stump said he complied with Cobb’s wishes because he feared for his own life.

As to the incident in Detroit in 1912, Stump quoted Cobb as saying he killed one of his attackers, beating the man with the butt of his Belgian pistol, then using the gun’s sight as a blade and “slash away until the man’s face was faceless.” The writer also quoted Cobb as saying: “Left him there, not breathing, in his own rotten blood.” In a later biography of Cobb, Stump added that a few days after the attack in Detroit, “a press report told of an unidentified body found off Trumbull Avenue in an alley.”

At the time, press reports did mention an attack on Ty Cobb. An Associated Press dispatch the following day described an attempted robbery of Cobb by three assailants who “were under the influence of liquor.” A “battle royal” followed, the report said, and one of his would-be robbers pulled a knife and slashed Cobb in the back, after which “all three men made their getaway.” The Syracuse Herald reported that on the day after the attack, Cobb got two hits in the exhibition game against the Syracuse Stars but did not exert himself because of “a severe knife wound in his back.” Other reports had blood seeping through Cobb’s uniform.

Police in Detroit, however, knew nothing of the attack. When Cobb later described the incident to reporters, he said he’d suffered only a scratch near his shoulder. And photographs of Cobb taken during the game in Syracuse show no signs on blood.

Doug Roberts, a lawyer and former prosecutor, had doubts about Stump’s account and did extensive research into the incident for a 1996 article for The National Pastime, a peer-reviewed journal published by the Society for American Baseball Research. After examining autopsy records at the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s office and after combing through all of the Detroit newspapers from the time, Roberts concluded that Stump’s claim that an unidentified body had been reported in the press was not true. Roberts also found no record of any deaths due to blunt force trauma in Detroit in August 1912.

Twenty years after Ty Cobb died, a large amount of Cobb memorabilia was being shopped around to collectors—from mundane personal items, such as his hats, pipes and dentures, to objects of historical importance, such as his diary. The man behind the sale of these items was none other than Al Stump, who was believed to have cleaned out Cobb’s mansion after the ballplayer died. Memorabilia mega-collector Barry Halper acquired a significant portion of the artifacts, and in 1999 Halper decided to sell his baseball collection through Sotheby’s, the auction house in New York, which printed catalogues with descriptions of the Cobb memorabilia. But collectors and historians began to suspect that Cobb’s diary had been forged (which the FBI later confirmed), along with hundreds of letters and documents that supposedly bore Cobb’s signature. Sotheby’s removed the items from auction. The sheer number of artifacts available led one memorabilia dealer to conclude, “Stump was buying this old stuff from flea markets, and then adding engravings and other personalizations to give the appearance of authenticity.” (Later, collectors and curators accused Halper of selling other fake or stolen memorabilia, leading one Boston collector to describe him as the “ Madoff of memorabilia.” Halper died in 2005.)

One of the items on offer was a double-barreled shotgun Amanda Cobb had purportedly used to kill her husband. In Stump’s True magazine piece, the author quoted Cobb as saying that his father’s head was “blown off with a shotgun.” The shotgun, which Cobb had supposedly had engraved and used on many a duck hunt, was one of the big-ticket items included in the Sotheby’s catalogue. Ron Cobb (no relation to Ty), an adviser to the Ty Cobb Museum in Royston, Georgia, was shocked that such an artifact would suddenly surface after so many years. He began an investigation and discovered that during the inquest, Amanda Cobb had told the Franklin County coroner that she shot her husband with a pistol. The coroner ultimately concluded that William Herschel Cobb died of a wound from a pistol bullet. There was no mention of a shotgun in any of the records. Ron Cobb could only conclude that Al Stump had twisted history for personal gain.

Stump’s True magazine article won the Associated Press award for the best sports story of 1962 and went a long way in cementing the public’s memory of the baseball great. “From all of baseball, three men and three only appeared for his funeral,” Stump wrote at the end of his story, as if Cobb died a despised man who had alienated opponents and teammates alike. But the Sporting News reported that Cobb’s family had told friends and baseball officials that they wanted his funeral (held just 48 hours after he died) to be private and requested that they not attend, despite offers from several baseball greats to serve as pallbearers. Most of Cobb’s closest baseball friends were, in fact, already dead by 1961.

Doctors, nurses and hospital staff who attended to Cobb in his final months later came forward to say they never observed any of the rude or abusive behavior attributed to Cobb in Stump’s article. And a friendship-ending argument Stump described in a dramatic scene between Cobb and Ted Williams never happened, according to Williams. “He’s full of it,” he said of Stump.

In addition, it should be noted that Cobb’s views on race evolved after he retired from baseball. In 1952, when many whites from the Deep South were still opposed to blacks mixing with whites both in and out of baseball, Cobb was not one of them. “Certainly it is O.K. for them to play,” Cobb told a reporter. “I see no reason in the world why we shouldn’t compete with colored athletes as long as they conduct themselves with politeness and gentility. Let me say also that no white man has the right to be less of a gentleman than a colored man, in my book that goes not only for baseball but in all walks of life.” In his last year of life, Cobb may have shown a cantankerous side, but it seemed reserved for the state of baseball, which he saw as over-reliant on the home run and lacking in players of all-around skill. Willie “Mays is the only man in baseball I’d pay to see play,” he said not long before he died.

Baseball historians such as Doug Roberts and Ron Cobb point to Stump’s role in perpetuating the myths, exaggerations and untruths that taint the memory of Ty Cobb. Indeed, the 1994 Hollywood movie Cobb, starring Tommy Lee Jones, was based on Stump’s account of the time he spent with Cobb in the last months of the ballplayer’s life. Asked why he wrote another book on Cobb, Stump told a reporter shortly before he died, in 1995: “I guess because I had all this leftover material and I thought, ‘What am I going to do with all this?’ I think I did it for the money.”

Sources

Books:

Charles C. Alexander.  Ty Cobb. Oxford University Press, Inc., 1984.  Ty Cobb with Al Stump.  My Life in Baseball—the True Record.  Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1961. John D. McCallum. Ty Cobb. Praeger Publishers, 1975.  Al Stump.  Cobb: A Biography. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1994.

Articles:

“Ty Cobb’s Wild 10 Month Fight to Live,” True: The Man’s Magazine; December, 1961; Al Stump.  “Ty Cobb Did Not Commit Murder,” The National Pastime: A Review of Baseball History, the Society for American Baseball Research.  1996; Doug Roberts. “The Georgia Peach: Stumped by the Storyteller,” The National Pastime: A Review of Baseball History, The Society for American Baseball Research. 2010; William R. Cobb. “A Quest To Learn The Truth About Ty Cobb Author Al Stump Has Spent Much Of His Life Getting Close To The Baseball Legend,” Philadelphia Inquirer, January 1, 1995;  Michael Bamberger.  “Al Stump, 79, Sportswriter and Chronicler of Ty Cobb’s Life Dies,” The New York Times. December 18, 1995;  The News-Palladium, Benton Harbor, Mich.  August 12, 1912.  Syracuse Herald, Syracuse, New York.  August 13, 1912.  “How Racist Was Ty?” William M. Burgess III’s Ty Cobb Memorial Collection, BaseballGuru.com; “Hauls of Shame Releases FBI Report on Fake Ty Cobb Diary,” July 1, 2011; Peter J. Nash,  Haulsofshame.com.

Tags

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus