Can it be more than coincidence that in the aftermath of an election that has gone on to define the national mood as the Revenge of the Angry White Man, along comes a movie biography of the angriest, whitest man of them all?
That would be the tidal wave of testosterone and fury known as Tyrus Raymond Cobb, who burned the major leagues for 123 records over 24 fierce and bitter years, ending up as the all-time major-league batting champion, with a career mark of .367. Some have said we shall never see his likes again. And someone (me) has added: Who would want to?
Who indeed? Cobb, according to filmmaker Ron Shelton and sportswriter Al Stump, from whose work Shelton derived the just-opened "Cobb," was a spectacular misanthrope. He was racist, violent, shrewd, nasty, mean and extremely tough. He hit lefties, he hit righties, he hit women, he hit blacks, he hit cripples. And that was on a good day. You should have seen him when he was ticked off (as on May 5 and May 6, 1925, when he became the first man in modern history to hit five home runs in two games, a record since equaled but never surpassed, even by the mighty Ruth, whom it need not be added, Cobb despised).
Cobb's pathology was so intense, it is really the subject of "Cobb." In no true sense a full biography of the man's life, the movie is more exactly a map of that dark cloud of energy and loathing known as male anger.
The movie takes off from the fact that in 1960, the nationally known sportswriter Stump signed on to do an authorized biography of the dying ballplayer and discovered not an aging warrior going gracefully into the night, but a full-toot, three-sheets-to-the-wind bastard. Focusing on the old goat's last vicious rampage through snowstorms, Tahoe whorehouses, the Hall of Fame, and finally the Georgia hospital in which he died, the movie profits from its classical situation: That is, a normal man (Stump is played by Robert Wuhl), who acknowledges society's limits, encounters a rare one who doesn't and is horrified by what he sees. That's our point of view: We are the Wuhl.
The last free man
But at the same time -- and this is what makes the movie work -- Stump cannot quite bite down a little bile of admiration. For while it's evident that Tommy Lee Jones' Cobb has paid a terrible price -- he's beaten his body to painful shreds, his anger has unleashed all the demons of the night to devour his digestive and respiratory systems, he's got a crab eating at his lymph glands, he is despised and alone, his family hates and has abandoned him, no other ballplayers will have anything to do with him -- he's weirdly happy and, in some foul way, the last free man alive. He did it his way, and he's tasted something no normal man ever has or ever will. Like George Bailey, he's had a wonderful life.
Whence came all this black fury? What drove Cobb to slide hard into second base, spikes up, when his legs were so bloody and raw he could barely walk on them off the diamond? Whatever things Cobb feared in the dark of his mind, pain wasn't one of them, and as his many fights both on and off the diamond attest, fear itself wasn't, either.
As it turns out, Shelton buys into Stump's penny-ante shrink job on Cobb, as have most Cobb biographers. Cobb, the theory goes, was created out of a family tragedy, when, on Aug. 7, 1905, as the minor leaguer was about to go up to the majors, his father was accidentally shotgunned to death by his mother. It's a killing with dark currents to it. Possibly, as some rumors have maintained, the homicide wasn't an accident, and the much-younger Mother Cobb wasn't alone when the much-older Father Cobb came across her and parties unspecified.
Whatever, Cobb, the theory specifies, was one of those men who adored and admired his father and yearned to please the man. The death having completely sealed off that possibility, Cobb acquired a fund of flaming anger that drove him furiously; or, perhaps in some dank corner of guy-hell, he actually believed his father was looking down on him.
The theory has a nice ring to it, but it's not one I'd buy. It fails to conform to a social truth that haunts us to this day, which is that those who are abused become abusers in return. Cobb was evidently never abused by his father, but more usually was viewed from afar, through a screen of Victorian reserve. Cobb, however, was violently abused by his teammates when he joined his first professional baseball team in 1902 as a 17-year-old boy.