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By Michael Atkinson
The record book tells us that Ty Cobb was one of the greatest players in baseball history, and he was. His .367 lifetime batting average will never be approached. His record of 4,191 hits was finally broken by Pete Rose in 1985, but he still holds the mark for runs scored: 2,245. By the time he retired in 1928, the Detroit Tigers Hall of Famer had set more than forty major-league and American League records.
What baseball stats don't say about Cobb is the most interesting thing: He was probably the meanest bastard ever to lace up a pair of spikes. A virulent racist and anti-Semite, he mixed it up with opponents and teammates alike, once attacked a cripple who heckled him from the stands and spread ill will through the game with his spikes-high sliding style. On the road, he was never without his bottle or his revolver.
For these reasons, they called him the Georgia Peach.
Ron Shelton's superb new film, Cobb, bears no resemblance to most dewy-eyed baseball movies in which kindly Babe Ruth (Cobb's most detested rival) always pats an urchin on the head before slamming a crucial homer or an awestruck Iowa farmer summons legends from out of the swaying corn. By contrast, Shelton has set aside his love for the game (so clearly expressed in Bull Durham) to give us a portrait of a monster and an inquiry into the nature of heroic myth.
Based on a 33-year-old magazine article by freelance sportswriter Al Stump, Cobb reveals the fierce, intractable legend in the last year of his life, 1960-61. Cobb summoned Stump to his gloomy Nevada hunting lodge for the purpose of writing his biography, but the young journalist had no idea what he was getting into. Agonized by stomach cancer but still swilling his usual breakfast of Jim Beam and milk, the bitter old man was pure will and sheer belligerence. "I was the most hated man in baseball," he shouts at the visitor, full of pride.
There's no better guy for the job than Tommy Lee Jones. A ferocious presence wearing hideous old-man's makeup, he makes for a truly scary Ty Cobb. Coughing, cursing and raving, he cuts one last swath across Nevada--careening down a snowy mountainside in his huge car, slapping around a Reno cigarette girl (the fine Lolita Davidovich), shooting his pistol at strangers and launching a racist diatribe from the stage at Harrah's. Seventy-four years old and dying, this Cobb still wields his work ethic like a club: "I beat the bastards and left 'em in the ditch."
The witness to this brutal swan song is young Stump (Robert Wuhl). As fascinated by Cobb's greatness as he is appalled by his barbarity, he's secretly writing two books--the authorized biography in which the legend reinvents himself as a martyred prince, and the real story. There's a lesson here, too. Cobb may be the Devil, but he's honest. Stump comes off as a hypocrite.
"The desire for glory," the writer concludes, "is not a sin."
On-screen, Wuhl (Batman) is no more a match for Jones than the real Stump was for Ty Cobb. Bickering with his albatross, the writer tries to threaten him. "I'll write slow," Stump says. "I'll die slow," Cobb spits back.
Stump recently expanded his old magazine piece into a 436-page biography that reveals in far more detail Cobb's canny stock investments in Coca-Cola and cars, the ambiguous murder of his beloved father (by his mother) and his occasional outbursts of generosity to downtrodden former teammates like Mickey Cochrane. It also recalls the glories of his playing career.
The movie's purpose is different. Shelton shows us how fame, anger and unknowable demons reduced a great player to a raving psychopath, and how the American penchant for myth-making sometimes reduces us. In the process, Jones's savage portrait of Ty Cobb is unforgettable. Meanwhile, there's only one brief baseball sequence in the movie, and it's perfect. The young Tiger manufactures a run by doubling, stealing third, then stealing home. Great hustle, they'd say today, except that at each base, he picks a fight.
Cobb. Screenplay by Ron Shelton, based on Cobb: A Biography, by Al Stump. Directed by Ron Shelton. With Tommy Lee Jones, Robert Wuhl and Lolita Davidovich.
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