January 27, 1995|By LAURENCE A. ELDER

Los Angeles -- Ty Cobb -- best baseball player ever?

Tommy Lee Jones stars in ''Cobb,'' a movie based on the life of tTC

baseball player Ty Cobb, who played from 1905 to 1928. In a review of the book on which the movie is based, it was said that ''Cobb also became, arguably, the greatest baseball player who ever lived.''

Oh yeah? Says who? In ''Baseball,'' the Ken Burns documentary, all-stars from the Negro leagues played all-stars from the major leagues and beat them more often than not. So, place a huge asterisk next to Ty Cobb's name.

For that matter, shouldn't we place asterisks next to the names ** of Rogers Hornsby, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and other white stars protected by racism from competing against the best black and Latin ballplayers of the same era? Did Ty Cobb ever face the menacing fastballs and curves of a Satchel Paige? Could Babe Ruth's power match that of legendary slugging catcher Josh Gibson?

Affirmative action for white ballplayers existed until there was free and open competition between the best available players. This points out the problem with today's affirmative action. How would Ty Cobb have fared against the best translates to -- did this person get his or her position through talent and hard work or through a set-aside?

And the asterisk next to Ty Cobb's name graphically demonstrates the horror of discrimination. The paying customers never saw the best possible product. How long can a society prosper when it stops talent from flourishing?

We harm ourselves if the best prospective neurosurgeon is shut out of Johns Hopkins in favor of an inferior, affirmative-action candidate. General Motors makes an inferior product if the best possible electrical engineers do not emerge from our universities.

The evolution of affirmative action into ''diversity'' is no less dangerous. Bill Clinton says he wants a Cabinet that ''looks like America.'' Does the physics faculty at MIT look like America? Does the roster of the New York Knicks look like America? Do the leading players in the fashion business look like America? What does that mean? As long as the competition is fair and open, we all lose when we try to control the result.

No one knows how talent shakes out. Some ethnic groups excel at certain things because of culture and interest, and succeed disproportionately to other groups. Should we correct this disproportion by government fiat?

When we step on a Boeing 747 and see a female pilot, let's have one who aced her flight courses. When a loved one undergoes bypass surgery, do we want a cardiovascular surgeon with education and skills acquired through open competition? Or through someone's idea of a medical staff that ''looks like America?''

A society that divides itself into racial groups and sexual camps is one based on division, mistrust and, yes, asterisks.

Laurence A. Elder, a radio talk-show host in Los Angeles, wrote this article for the Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal.

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