Baseball and hockey—remember them?—thrive on the printed page if nowhere else this holiday season. And in fond recollection of these apparently bygone enterprises, may I commend to your attention several fine new historical works that recall livelier times in both games? I also recommend some photographic histories of the sport of golf, which, as far as I can determine, is still being played.
Tops on this year's Christmas list, or on any Christmas list of recent memory, should be Al Stump's Cobb (Algonquin Books, $24.95), a chilling biography of Ty Cobb that resolutely lives up to its unsubtle subtitle: "The Life and Times of the Meanest Man Who Ever Played Baseball." Stump, a veteran sportswriter, was Cobb's ghostwriter when, in 1960, that 73-year-old meanie decided to favor posterity with his much-doctored memoirs. Stump was lucky to survive the experience, for neither age nor catastrophic illness had mellowed the cantankerous ok ballplayer, who by then had as his daily adversaries not rival pitchers or second basemen but tax collectors, public utility companies, bartenders, houseguests and even croupiers.
One night when Cobb and Stump were supposedly working on the autobiography at Cobb's Lake Tahoe, Nev., hunting lodge, Cobb decided after innumerable Scotches to "take a little run into town." It was one in the morning, and by town he meant Reno, which was 60 miles away, over the blizzard-swept High Sierras. Somehow they made it, only to be tossed out of a casino after Cobb took a swing at a crap-table stickman. It was downhill after that. And it was another 30 years before Stump would start work on his own definitive biography of the dastardly Georgia Peach.
But the book was worth the wait, for in fascinating detail the author describes not only the great ballplayer's turbulent career, his maniacal obsession with winning, his virulent racism and his "burning rage" but also the flair, imagination and intellect that he brought to the game. It was, writes Stump, the "combination of acute intelligence and powerful, sometimes uncontrollable passions placed in the service of his remarkable physical abilities that made him the embodiment of baseball excellence as the game was played in his day." Actually, considering Cobb's multitudinous assaults on opposing players, fans (one of whom was handicapped) and innocent bystanders, the man was fortunate not to have been locked up for life.
Cobb's troubles began, according to Stump, when his father, William Herschel Cobb, was shot and killed by someone Ty described as "a member of my family"—in fact, his mother, Amanda, who claimed she had mistaken her husband for a burglar. But folks in Cobb's rural hometown of Royston, Ga., gossiped that "Professor Cobb," an educator and prominent local politician, was prowling the house that fateful night in the hope of catching his wife with a suspected lover and that the shooting may not have been entirely accidental. Amanda was cleared, but her son, 18 at the time, never recovered his emotional equilibrium. "I have loved only two men in my life," Ty Cobb once said, "Jesus Christ and my father." Cobb, writes Stump, "could not put his father's terrible death out of his mind. The memory of it menaced his sanity." Still, with all the torment, he hit for an average of .367 during a career spanning 24 years and 3,034 games. Maybe there's something to be said for craziness. (The film Cobb, which opened last week to mixed reviews in theaters across the country, is based on Stump's recollections of Cobb.)
A much less troubling, if less enthralling, book is Shadows of Summer (Viking Studio Books, $60), a collection of classic baseball photographs from 1869 to 1947, with text by Donald Honig and a deft foreword by SI special contributor Robert Creamer. "This book is not a treatise on sociology," Creamer writes. "It's an archaeological dig, a peek into the distant past, and it says, 'This is what it was like.' " And since baseball's future has grown so murky, a clear look into its past is most welcome.
This is a beautiful collection, with photographs of nearly all the game's legends and heroes. See, for example, the unusual shot of crabby John McGraw and nice-guy Honus Wagner relaxing on the greensward before a 1917 game between the New York Giants and the Pittsburgh Pirates or, more significant, the closing photo of the Brooklyn Dodgers' infield of Spider Jorgensen, Pee Wee Reese, Eddie Stanky and Jackie Robinson standing on the dugout steps, arms entwined, faces wreathed with confident smiles. The picture was taken on April 15, 1947, the day Robinson became the first African-American to play major league ball.
The Baseball Anthology (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., $39.95) is Major League Baseball's official celebration in "stories, poems, articles, photographs, drawings, interviews, cartoons, and other memorabilia" of the game's first 125 years. Edited by Joseph Wallace, this ambitious work includes not only writing by such celebrated baseball authors as Hugh Fullerton, John Carmichael, Frank Graham, Grant-land Rice, Charles Einstein, Jim Murray and Roger Angell but also reminiscences from such ballplayers as John Montgomery Ward, Cap Anson, Cobb, Christy Mathewson, Johnny Evers, McGraw, Babe Ruth, Mickey Cochrane and Hank Greenberg. And as an epilogue, there is Reggie Jackson's gracious and succinct acceptance speech upon his induction into the Hall of Fame in 1993.
"If the game is lost to the economics that drive it, we'll lose the humanity that is uniquely the game," Jackson said, making what now seems to be a hopeless plea. "We all must feel it and live it in our own way and be mindful of its vulnerability to abuse.... Stop and remember Buck O'Neil and 'The Scooter' [Phil Rizzuto] and all the people who played for the love of the game." Then, in a final word of advice to the modern athlete: "You may be worth what you get, but say thanks and remember the people who paved the way for you." This advice, alas, seems to have fallen on deaf ears.
Hockey chimes in with its own official history, Hockey Hall of Fame Legends (Viking, $34.95), with text by author and screenwriter Michael McKinley and photographs by Derik Murray. "The origins of ice hockey are as opaque as a window pane on the coldest morning of winter," writes McKinley. From this obscure beginning in Canada, the book traces the history of the winter game to its present international prominence. And, along the way, Hall of Famers from Hobey Baker to Denis Potvin are profiled. This is hockey's impressive tribute to itself—or what's left of its old self.
Not to be outdone in the "official history" sweepstakes, the USGA joins the fray with Golf—The Greatest Game (Harper Collins, $50), a tribute to "golf in America" that comprises nearly 400 photographs, an introduction by John Updike, "reflections" from Arnold Palmer and essays by a number of golf writers, including SI's Jaime Diaz. This hefty volume, a menace to the sturdiest of coffee tables, pretty much covers the course, from chapters on amateurs and professionals, male and female, to sections on weekend hackers and celebrity golfers. Writes one celebrity, actor Jack Lemmon: "I would rather open on Broadway in Hamlet with no rehearsals than tee off at Pebble Beach."
A useful chronology details the history of golf from 1457, when an act of Parliament in Scotland outlawed the game because it interfered with archery practice, to 1993, the year 17-year-old Tiger Woods won his third straight U.S. Junior Amateur championship.
The Hogan Mystique (The American Golfer, Inc., $50) has, obviously, a much narrower focus as it follows, in words and pictures, the career of Ben Hogan, the dour Texan whom many experts still consider the game's greatest shotmaker. The pictures are by award-winning photographer Jules Alexander, the words by golf writer Dan Jenkins, golfer Ben Crenshaw, sports columnist Dave Anderson and golf commentator and former U.S. Open champion Ken Venturi, all Hogan pals. Venturi provides a television-style running commentary as captions to the pictures. When Hogan tipped his cap, writes Venturi of a photo showing a becapped Hogan solemnly leaving a green, it "was like someone else waving his arms or throwing a fist in the air."
Jenkins, for his part, is unusually reverent. "Over the years," he writes, "I've sometimes joked that if [sportswriter] O.B. Keeler was smart enough to come from Atlanta when a guy named [Bobby] Jones was dominating the game, I had been just as smart in another era. I managed to get myself born and raised in Fort Worth, Texas, and grow to find myself quite often in the presence of a guy named Hogan."
Actually, Hogan was no less smart to have been in the presence of a writer named Jenkins.