Ty Cobb was the Richard III of baseball. Like Shakespeare's king, he was a brilliant loner who allowed neither man nor scruple to interfere with his ambitions. His was the kind of personality that makes for high drama, so it's not surprising that he's now the subject of a play. Lee Blessing's Cobb had its premiere this spring at New Haven's Yale Repertory Theatre and is expected to be produced at other theaters soon. But while the playwright, whose 1987 drama A Walk in the Woods was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and a Tony Award nominee, is undeniably talented and knowledgeable about baseball, Cobb isn't entirely successful.
The audience quickly meets three of the play's four characters: The Peach is Cobb as a brash, high-strung 20-year-old; Ty is a waspish, nasty man of 40; and Mr. Cobb is a proud but failing codger. The three Cobbs converse among themselves, recalling the ballplayer's life in haphazard, anecdotal fashion.
Cobb's story is a bitter one. His .367 lifetime batting average is the best in the history of the game, and he became baseball's first millionaire, yet, as Mr. Cobb says of Babe Ruth, "He had a beautiful myth...Horatio Alger couldn't have written it better. What did I have? A goddamned Greek tragedy."
The tragedy began when Cobb's father, a Royston, Ga., schoolmaster and politician, vigorously opposed his 17-year-old son's plans to try out for a pro baseball team. When the elder Cobb finally capitulated, he warned the boy not to "come home a failure." Then, while Ty was off playing for the Augusta (Ga.) Tourists, he learned that his father had been killed by two shotgun blasts fired by his wife, Ty's mother. "How do you please a dead man?" Ty asks despairingly. As Blessing's play unfolds, it is apparent that Cobb spent his entire life trying to do so. The single-minded Cobb acknowledges only his successes on the diamond, and he is proud of them. As he says of one memorable trip around the bases, "There is no pleasure on earth like stealing home. My wedding night was nothing like stealing home."
The better Cobb played baseball, the worse he got along with others. "Blood has a way of following me around," the Peach confides. He had some of his worst feuds with his own teammates and kept a revolver beside his pillow. "I slept with a gun, not other women," Mr. Cobb says, explaining his fidelity to his wife. But this cuss of a ballplayer was also a canny businessman. Blessing's description, as told by Ty, of Cobb in the Oak Bar at the Hotel Pontchartrain in Detroit, discussing investments with Messrs. Packard, Chevrolet and Olds, is one of the play's highlights. Affecting, too, is the dying Cobb, alone, in 1961, drinking whiskey with milk while adding names to his s.o.b. list.
But Cobb stumbles over the play's fourth character, Oscar Charleston, a Negro leaguer and Hall of Famer, often called the black Ty Cobb. Comparing the frustrations of Charleston, who never had the chance to play in the major leagues, to the success of Cobb is a clumsy device even in the hands of a facile playwright. Each time Charleston strolls onstage to chat with the three Cobbs, Blessing slips into heavy-handed pathos, giving his characters such lines as this one spoken by Charleston: "To play against you just once. Would've been an honor." Moreover, Cobb was a racist, given to attacking, both verbally and physically, blacks who dared to approach him as an equal, as Charleston does. So these conversations often ring false in a play that otherwise strives for historical authenticity. This inaccuracy adds to the playgoer's feeling that he hasn't gained fresh insight into the character of Ty Cobb, despite the fact that Blessing has incorporated some wonderful Cobb stories into his play. At the end of Cobb, Mr. Cobb asks the audience, "Am I part of you? Do you feel my spikes?" The answer is no. Perhaps Hall of Famer George Sisler was right when he said, "The greatness of Ty Cobb was something that had to be seen, and to see him was to remember him forever."