Anyone nowadays who knows who Ty Cobb was, knows that he was eternally angry, periodically drunk, a viciously dirty baserunner who deliberately spiked infielders at every opportunity; and — here’s the REALLY REVOLTING part: He was a “racist”! Oh, horrors!
Ah, yes. Al Stump’s 1961 biography of the “Georgia Peach,” followed by a magazine article by the same author aimed at “dirtying up” Cobb’s image even more, set the scene for the greatest baseball player who ever lived being judged by people who never saw him play — who never SAW him, in real life — as the most contemptible, low-down, tight-fisted, thoroughly detested athlete of all time. As a former teammate of his says in a movie drama about old-time major league baseball, “Nobody liked that son of a bitch!”
Except that none of that boogey-man picture of Cobb is true. Several books about Cobb — one written by his own grandson, Herschel Cobb — have come out in just the last few years, proving, with careful documentation, that Cobb was a super-aggressive ballplayer determined to win in any LEGITIMATE way possible — but that he did not spike anyone who did not get in his way on the basepaths when he, and they, knew he was entitled to the free path to the next base that any baserunner was. He didn’t “sharpen his spikes,” and neither did any of the other ballplayers of that era. He didn’t “hate black people,” by any measure that was accepted in his day (remember he was born in Georgia in 1886). He had fights with black men a couple of times — but he had fights with fellow White major league players a lot more often, too.
Stump depicted him in a magazine follow-up to the 1961 biography as being notoriously tight with money (he was a millionaire several times over by the time he retired from baseball). But Herschel Cobb’s book about his grandfather tells how he witnessed Cobb hand envelopes stuffed with $100 bills to three friends who were also former baseball players, way down on their luck. Cobb didn’t have to do that; but he wanted to. He was able to help three old friends with his ample resources, and so he did so, gladly. And Herschel Cobb said he learned that this was not the first time that his grandfather had helped old friends that way.
And the grandson also tells, in his book, of what a loving, concerned grandfather Ty Cobb was to him and his brother and sister. He spent much time with them, taught them things, helped to shape their growth into responsible adults.
Tyrus Raymond Cobb was a man larger than life on the diamond — and also in private life. And that is — mostly — in the best sense of that word.
You see, all too many of us love to vilify certain people as being “all bad,” especially, nowadays, if they are White and can be depicted as “racist.” Being suspected of excessive drinking, a volcanic temper, and reckless use of firearms also are among our favorite reasons for thinking, “I’m morally superior to that awful jerk. I’d NEVER do any of those things!” So Ty Cobb, holder of baseball records beyond counting, but a controversial player in his day, has made a perfect target for those who want to hate.
Want another example? Take Adolf Hitler. Oh, yes, I know: “The most evil man in history!” You’re shocked, SHOCKED that I would even hint that there is anything about Der Fuehrer that is not bad, bad, bad, beyond the pale, blah, blah.
OK. Of course everyone knows that during World War II, the Germans executed several million European Jews, simply for being Jewish. Of course that was a horrible atrocity. No sane person familiar with the history of World War II would deny that, or try to hold anyone but Adolf Hitler responsible. After all, he was the leader of Nazi Germany.
But there are other aspects to Hitler that the “great biographers,” so-called, have tried desperately to hide.
For instance, he loved children. There are numerous home movies on YouTube, taken by Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress and, on the last day of their lives, his wife, of Der Fuehrer talking with young children, holding them on his lap, bending low to shake their little hands while a mom or favorite aunt smiles her approval nearby, etc. It does not ever look “faked.” Hitler obviously had an affection for the youngsters. He never looks hurried or distracted; he gives them his full attention.
Der Fuehrer treated his domestic help, the people who worked directly for him such as his valet, chauffeur, secretaries, official photographer, etc., with respect and kindness. He inquired often about their families, did them occasional small favors (such as holding the road map and directing his chauffeur, while sitting beside him in the front seat, on long trips), and paid them wages considered good by standards of the 1930s and 1940s. He was also friendly and comradely with the German soldiers he visited in the field after the start of World War II. After all, in the First World War he had been an enlisted man, just like them, on the Western front. And he was friendly with, and respectful to, the German “little people,” the “man in the street.”
Germany was wrenched in the throes of the Great Depression when Hitler became chancellor on Jan. 30, 1933. So were Britain, France, the U.S. — the whole world. Millions of Germans were out of work. But Hitler managed to bring the high German unemployment down — WAY down — within two or three years. Two of the things that helped bring it down were the invention and manufacture of the Volkswagen; and the beginning of what became a nationwide system of roads known as the “autobahnen.”
Hitler concluded, shortly after attaining power, that a new, versatile, more affordable automobile was needed for the average German family. Only about 15 percent of Germans could afford autos in 1933. So Hitler and some auto designers, came up with the car that they called the “Volkswagen,” or “people’s wagon.” Within two or three years, hundreds of thousands of the reasonably priced, versatile cars were sold to German families of more modest means.
So you see? Yes, Hitler did some horrible things. But he was not “all bad.” Oh, and, both the doctor who treated his mother for the breast cancer she died of in December 1907; and his only close friend of that young period of his life, August Kubizek, have reported that Hitler returned from Vienna to his provincial town as soon as he learned of his mother’s condition, cared for her with tenderness and love for the few remaining weeks of her life, and was utterly devastated when she died just before Christmas. A Dr. Bloch, the physician who treated her, said in an interview in the early 1940s that he had never seen a family member so grief-stricken at the death of a loved one. And he said that when Germany occupied Austria, his native land, in 1938, he was told that Hitler had given explicit orders that Bloch and his family were not to be harmed in any way, and that they should be assisted in all possible ways by the German authorities in Austria.
Why were such orders necessary? Because, you see, Dr. Bloch was Jewish.
And of course, sometimes those who are presented to us as being “clean as a hound’s tooth” have some less-admirable qualities which are kept hidden from the public.
For instance, Gene Autry, the Singing Cowboy, came across as Mr. Nice Guy, with his winning smile, his good looks, his warm, melodious music. He rode a beautiful, intelligent horse (Champion), never fought a man smaller than himself, never threw the first punch in a fight. He was the most popular American movie cowboy from 1937 through 1942.
But there was a darker side to Ole Gene. For one thing, he was a serial philanderer. When asked once if it was true that he had had brief affairs with every one of his leading ladies, Autry laughed and said, “Hell, son, I figured I owed it to them!” His affair with Gail Davis, who appeared in many of his later movies and in his TV show episodes, lasted for several years, and almost broke up his marriage to his wife Ina.
And starting in the 1940s, and getting progressively worse on into the 1950s, was Gene’s drinking. By the 1950s he was frequently missing — or messing up — live performances at state fairs, rodeos and such, as well as episodes of his live radio show, due to his being too drunk to show up, or to perform competently. His career as an entertainer went steadily downhill, until he finally retired from show business altogether, turning his attention to his business affairs (at which he was extremely successful).
Then there was the cowboy who was often compared to and contrasted with Gene in the movie-going public’s mind, like a Yin and Yang — Roy Rogers. Taller than Autry, and some said a better rider (although I don’t subscribe to that), Roy rose rapidly in the ranks of the celluloid cowpokes in the late 1930s, singing, riding and fighting his way to the “Most Popular Movie Cowboy” rank by 1943. He never relinquished that rank, until they stopped doing that survey in 1954. With his permanent leading lady — and wife, after his first wife’s death in the early 1940s — Dale Evans, Rogers was dubbed “King of the Cowboys” by his and Autry’s boss, Herbert Yates, president of Republic Pictures. Rogers stayed with Republic until they dropped his contract in 1951. The “B-Westerns” were fading fast. But Rogers and Evans started their own TV series, and continued on with it for several years in the 1950s. They also became prominent in Christian Evangelical circles; they were “devout.” I can remember that my mom was a huge Roy Rogers fan, largely because of the latter reason, and couldn’t understand why I preferred Gene Autry.
But here’s an interesting point about Rogers’ overtaking of Autry as the top movie cowboy. It didn’t happen, UNTIL Gene Autry entered the U.S. Army Air Force in the first full year of American involvement of World War II. Autry served his country for three years. Rogers continued making Western movies, taking advantage of Autry’s absence from the silver screen for a full four years, until 1946.
Autry received his draft notice in the spring of 1942. He got a deferment for a few months to finish up his two movies that were currently in production. But Gene had an idea. Why not enlist for the draft, thereby being able to choose his branch of the service? He had been taking flying lessons in private planes for some time, and he decided that the Air Force was where he wanted to serve.
When Autry told Yates about receiving his draft notice, the studio head’s reaction was, “Oh, don’t worry about that. I’ve got connections in Washington; I’ll get you exempted so you won’t have to go.” Autry was his biggest star then — his meal ticket.
But Gene replied, “No, Herb, I can’t do that. What would the fathers and mothers of all those kids who are my fans think if they saw me sitting the war out and making movies, when their sons and brothers and sisters are going in to fight?”
Yates exploded in anger, telling Autry that he would ruin Gene as a star, build Roy Rogers up to be bigger in Westerns than Gene ever had been, and so forth. Autry said, “You do what you have to, Herb. I’m enlisting.”
So Autry went off to war — and so did Yates. Against Autry, that is. The studio head made good on his threat to build up Rogers as much as possible, at Autry’s expense.
And why was Roy Rogers able to make so many movies between 1942 and 1945? Why, because he never served in the military! A rumor — possibly started by Yates — made the rounds that Rogers was called up for his draft physical, but was given a “4-F” (unfit for service) classification because the doctors found a heart murmur. Maybe that’s true; maybe it’s not. But the heart murmur, if any, didn’t keep him from riding hell-for-leather in many Westerns, doing many of his own stunts, etc. Or from living to be 86 years old. Seems like he could have served his country in some capacity, doesn’t it?
And speaking of movie “tough guys,” none was considered more a “man’s man” than “The Duke,” John Wayne. He got his start in “B-Westerns” as did Autry and Rogers, but in 1939 he starred in the “A-Western” feature “Stagecoach,” and from there went on to bigger and better things.
Like war movies. He played stalwart soldiers and other military heroes in a number of these World War II pictures, with big receipts at the box office. But here’s another interesting fact: When Wayne would visit military hospitals to talk with GIs who had been wounded in the war, and they would ask him, “Which branch did you serve in, Mr. Wayne?”, he’d have to tell them — probably with some embarrassment — that he never actually served. Because he didn’t.
Many other Hollywood stars did their bit. James Stewart and Clark Gable are two of the most popular who come to mind. And Gene Autry, of course. But somehow, Big John never made it. Whatever the reasons were, they never became clear. But some believe that his extremely conservative, pro-military stance of later years could be traced to his feelings of guilt over not answering his country’s call.
And I’ll finish up with The Great Emancipator, our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln. We all remember from our American history books that he was the one who “freed the slaves.” He was “Massa Lincom,” as many grateful blacks addressed him when he visited Richmond, Virginia, the Union-occupied capital of the Confederacy, at the very end of the Civil War, just days before he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. He was the one who had been prominent in the anti-slavery movement years before he became president. He was the man who many historians believe to have been our greatest president.
And he may well have been that. But here are a couple of facts that are usually not taught in American history:
At one point, early in the Civil War, Lincoln made this public statement: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it. And if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it. And if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.” In other words, to Abraham Lincoln, saving the Union was the pristine, single most important duty that fell to his responsibility as president. Freeing the slaves, while praiseworthy as a goal, came in a distant second to keeping the United States, united.
And to the end of his life, although he eventually stopped voicing this opinion when it became what we today might call “politically incorrect,” he believed that White people and former slaves could not live together, peacefully, over the long term. Lincoln believed that the black people, having been freed, should be moved to another location, possibly in the Caribbean, possibly in their ancestral homeland of Africa, there to form a nation of their own.
The reader may draw his/her own conclusions about those lesser-known views of The Great Emancipator.
So we see that often those we think of as “evil,” have another dimension. And that those we think of as “good,” have a darker side. It’s my belief that we should not be too hasty to condemn — or to praise. Because after all, we’re all just imperfect human beings.