Tag Archives: Ulysses Harrison

The Definitive Cobb Biography

11 May

Myths.  Baseball books are full of them.

Perhaps the most enduring myths are about Ty Cobb.  A prototype of a villain in spikes from central casting:  Dirty player– check, virulent racist—check, miserly and bitter in old age—check.

That is the Ty Cobb cemented into our consciousness.

So much so in fact, it is difficult to find a discussion on the internet regarding the merits of Pete Rose’s case for the Hall of Fame without a member of the pro-Rose faction, at some point, making the “Yeah, but Ty Cobb did (fill in the blank)” argument.

Or, as Charles Leerhsen puts it, in “Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty” (which will be released tomorrow), “This Cobb was someone (fans) could shake their heads at, denounce, and feel superior to.”

cobb

 

The clues were there that Cobb might just be more than the sum of the single-dimensional parts previous biographies claimed to reveal.

Not long ago, I wrote about Cobb’s embrace of fellow Royston, Georgia native, and former Negro League player and newspaperman Fred Downer at Wrigley Field in 1953—the same day Cobb spoke glowingly to reporters about Dodgers’ catcher Roy Campanella.

No less an authority than Wendell Smith—the legendary reporter from The Pittsburgh Courier who by then had joined The Chicago Herald-American as the first black sportswriter at a white-owned paper—said after that day at Wrigley that reports of Cobb’s racism were always “merely a matter of hearsay,” and “He gives no indication today of intolerance.”

Yet, the hearsay has always outpaced the reality; until now.

Through exhaustive research and a compelling narrative, Leerhsen demonstrates that the one-dimensional Cobb of lore is, at best, a caricature.   The stories that have been told and retold for years about racially motivated physical attacks were poorly sourced and greatly exaggerated.  Statements like the one about Campanella and several that Leerhsen has compiled were ignored.

The author even manages to add context to the often told stories of the death of Cobb’s father and Cobb’s relationship with mascot Ulysses Harrison (bonus points here because unlike many of the versions of this story elsewhere he gets Harrison’s name correct).

Leehrsen’s three-dimensional Cobb is more interesting than the one presented previously.  This Cobb was quick to anger, perhaps overly sensitive, certainly no less flawed than many of his contemporaries, but more complex, more introspective and much more difficult to shake our heads at.

An excellent read, well worth your time.

Superstitions

4 Oct

Baseball history is rife with stories of superstitions, “hoodoo” and all manner of irrational beliefs meant to improve performance and win games.

George Mullin who won more than 200 games in the first two decades of the 20th century, primarily with the Detroit Tigers, was well known to seek things to bring him luck and avoid “hoodoo.”

It’s a fairly well-known story that Mullin was one of the Tiger players who believed that team mascot Ulysses Harrison, an orphaned African-American child taken in by Ty Cobb and called “Lil Rastus,” brought him luck.  After Harrison was dismissed as Tiger mascot Mullin was one of the players instrumental in bringing the youth back for the 1909 season, and on at least one occasion “kidnapped” Harrison from Cobb’s room and had him stay in his in order bring him luck on the mound the following day.

Surely Mullin’s 29-8 record in 1909 helped to cement his belief in “luck.”

Tiger mascot Ulysses Harrison with pitcher George Mullin

Another of Mullin’s superstitions is less well known.

According to the Fort Wayne News Mullin was convinced that “For a pitcher to have his mug taken after twirling a winner means a defeat sure in the next game.”

Mullin had very particular rules for having his photo taken:

“If one day is allowed to pass by after the victory the hoodoo is powerless.  By the same token it is safe to have the picture taken just before he starts to pitch.”

George Mullin, in a photograph presumably not taken the day after a victory.

After retiring in 1915, Mullin became a police officer in Wabash, Indiana and died there in 1944.