Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Georgia Peach, the Sultan of Swat & Detroit's 30th annual Babe Ruth Birthday Bash

The first time George Ruth came to Michigan and Trumbull on May 11, 1915, Ty Cobb faced him twice and had two singles as the Tigers beat the Red Sox, 5-1. Ruth was a pitcher for Boston then—and soon became the best left-handed hurler in the American League.

You know George better, no doubt, as a Yankee slugger named Babe—and when he started visiting Detroit in that guise in the 1920s, he routinely filled Navin Field. He was the biggest sports star America had seen—well, since Cobb.

Cobb hated the slugger Babe, at least at first. The introduction of a livelier ball in 1920 meant that Cobb’s “small ball” brand of baseball—punching hits and wreaking havoc on the base paths—was over.

Years ago, when I wrote Queen of Diamonds, I recycled what I then knew about Cobb, and it wasn’t flattering. Like most of us, I didn’t know anything different. 

But now I do. I’ve recently read Charles Leerhsen’s astounding new biography, Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty.

It turns out that Cobb wasn’t a racist psychopath, but a psychological intimidator—fiercely competitive with a sharp intellect, short-tempered but sometimes kind.

The Cobb we thought we knew during the past half-century was in large part a caricature created by a hack ghostwriter named Al Stump. Director Ron Shelton piled on with a ridiculous movie in 1994 starring Tommy Lee Jones:

Leerhsen suggests we like to feel superior to this cartoon of a Southern rube. But, in fact, Cobb actually came from an abolitionist family. And, no, he didn’t murder a black man in an alley in Detroit. He didn’t sharpen his spikes. He was well read and multi-faceted.

A Terrible Beauty is both a merciless dissection of a false narrative built on shoddy journalism and a redemptive illustration of what dogged and fair journalism can reveal—even about a subject we thought we knew. In this heyday of fake news and facts up for grabs, it’s a triumph of solid research over conjecture.

Nowhere does Cobb’s reputation deserve rehabilitation more than here in Detroit. We honor Joe Louis and Gordie Howe, but we malign this other great local sports hero—and very unfairly. Everyone who wants to understand an important part of our city’s history should read A Terrible Beauty. And that goes quadruple if you’re any kind of baseball fan.

And if you are—or if you just enjoy a party—be at Nemo’s Bar & Grill the evening of Saturday, Feb. 4. That’s when Navin Field Grounds Crew founder Tom Derry will throw his 30th annual Babe Ruth birthday bash:

This year there’ll be a swing band, and the special guest will be ex-Tiger Denny McLain, the last man who will ever win 30 games in a single season (he did it in the world championship season of 1968). Derry points out that McLain, like his hero the Babe, liked “living large” and that 30 years and 30 wins adds up to sixty—the famed single-season home run record that Ruth held for 34 years.

Leerhsen tells us that in retirement Cobb and Ruth eventually became friends and played golf together. Fittingly, Ty’s granddaughter Cindy Cobb will also be at the Ruth bash, where we’ll drink a few toasts to baseball history a stone’s throw from where the Babe once threw pitches to the “Georgia Peach.”

The Babe Ruth Birthday Party takes place Saturday, February 4, at 7:14 p.m., at Nemo's Bar & Grill in Detroit's historic Corktown neighborhood.

Click here for directions.
And click here for more details.

Michael Betzold is a Detroit-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to Motor City Muckraker. 


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