Lee Blessing wrote a great play about Ty Cobb in which the hall of famer lamentingly compares his life to a “goddamned Greek tragedy.” Cobb’s father was a strict educated Southerner who had little regard for baseball players. When his son left home to join his first pro team, the old man’s only words were, “Don’t come home a failure.” Sometime after that, the elder Cobb had suspicions about his wife faithfulness. He pretended to leave town and climbed into their bedroom late one night where he was promptly gutted by a shotgun. No one ever knew if his wife was alone or with another man. Some collector still owns the gun. This may or may not be the reason why Ty Cobb was a furious contemptible racist psychopath.
Ron Shelton wrote “Bull Durham,” the best movie about baseball ever made, so if Martin Scorcese isn’t as into baseball as he is boxing, Shelton might as well tackle the Cobb mountain. Shelton’s movie is based on a book by Al Stump. The elder Cobb, having made a fortune on automobiles and Coca Cola, sought out a sportswriter to pen his autobiography. One that would set the record straight and preserve his special insights and knowledge of the game. In other words, he wanted a whitewash. Stump wrote that book, but he also worked on one that told the whole story. The movie details the relationship between Cobb (Tommy Lee Jones) and Stump (Robert Wuhl).
Unfortunately, I already knew that Cobb was a jerk. I knew he was a crazy, violent, unloved, racist, good for nothing mad man. I know the baseball world probably honored him one second and kept him out of their private parties the next. I want to see him play baseball. I want to see him sharpening his spikes before a game. I want to see him make men bleed. I want to see him rush into the stands and beat up a cripple. I want to know why he kicked so much a*s, and why that wasn’t enough to soothe his demons. Shelton shows me a cranky old man with no friends. I want to see the young bull.
Blessing’s play covered all the bases. It had four Cobbs in it. One a rookie, one an established star, one an old man, and even it heard from the Black Ty Cobb, who never got the chance to show his stuff against the real thing, Negro League star Oscar Charleston. There is even a delirious scene where all three Cobbs get simultaneously pissed off and pull guns on each other. Now that’s a Mexican standoff Quentin Tarantino would be proud to film. Shelton has about thirty seconds of the man at his prime, and it makes you yearn for the intense character study this should have been. Ty Cobb would have eaten Jake LaMotta for breakfast physically and mentally, and if that wasn’t enough he would have bitten the guy in the clenches.
There’s a scary and impressively menacing scene here where Cobb looks like he’s going to rape Lolita Davidovich. He catches Wuhl putting the moves on her, beats him up, drags her into his room, scares the wits out of her and then pays her to pass around the word that he banged her like conqueror of men he once was, but this isn’t a debate. This movie is two hours of Jones acting badly and Wuhl looking drawn. Even society women know the guy was an ornery cuss; I want to see why he was so great and fearsome on the field.