“The children of America need heroes.”
In a Santa Barbara bar aptly called The Sportsman’s Lounge, a group of sports scribes sits around a table drinking beers and debating greatness. The year is 1960, and according to the men at the table the best boxer of all time is Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Henry Armstrong, Harry Greb, or Rocky Marciano, the best male singer is Elvis Presley, Perry Como, Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole and the best king is King Henry VIII, King James, King Tutt, King David or King Kong. They can’t agree on anything. Not until the leader of their pack, Al Stump, asks, “Who’s the greatest ballplayer of all time?” On this topic the answer is quick, emphatic and almost unanimous: “Ty Cobb!” “Ty Cobb!” “Ty Cobb!” “Ty Cobb!” The only holdout in the group is an obese man with unkempt hair who says sheepishly, “I like Ruth,” an admission that prompts the rest of the gang to recoil in unison. “RUTH!?!” they shout back with the kind of befuddled outrage that five decades later would be reserved for guys suggesting that the greatest Kardashian is Khloe. It’s as if there’s nothing to debate.
Whether conversations like that one, portrayed in Ron Shelton’s 1994 flop Cobb, actually happened in sports bars in 1960, I can’t say. It’s certainly possible. Today Babe Ruth might be widely considered the greatest baseball player of all time, but in 1936, when the first balloting for the Hall of Fame was conducted, the Georgia Peach received more votes than the Great Bambino and the rest of the inaugural class. So, indeed, there was a time when Cobb was considered the greatest. Alas, 2012 is not that time, and 1994 wasn’t that time either, and that’s part of the reason why the clumsy Cobb stumbles out of the batter’s box. To tout Ty Cobb as worthy of being in the conversation is fair. To discount Ruth, however, is to suggest a criminal ignorance about the same baseball history that Shelton’s film seeks to explore. Was Cobb incredible? Yeah. But the Babe? Well, he was Ruthian, and doesn’t that say it all?
Only a crazy man would refuse to recognize Ruth’s greatness, and that crazy man is supposed to be Tommy Lee Jones’ Ty Cobb, whom the film finds holed up in a mansion like baseball’s version of Norma Desmond, eager to collaborate with a writer and incapable of imagining a worthy rival. That would make Al Stump (Robert Wuhl) the Joe Gillis of this story, less a writing partner to an erratic shut-in than an audience for an over-the-hill star’s delusions of grandeur. At one point Al responds to Cobb’s disparagement of the Sultan of Swat by asking, “Aren’t you going to give Ruth credit for anything?” To which Cobb replies, “He could run OK for a fat man.” Billy Wilder would have written it better, but that exchange has panache because it suggests both Cobb’s vanity and his mischievousness. His response isn’t just a ribbing of Ruth, it’s a provocation of Al. Cobb is always competing, and in his mind competition includes thoroughly irritating the opposition. Trouble is, the audaciousness of Cobb’s dismissal is undercut by that opening scene when all those supposedly knowledgeable sportswriters react to Ruth’s name as if he’d been nothing more than a fatso who occasionally hit home runs. If even they won’t give Ruth the credit he deserves, why should Cobb?
That’s hardly the only time Shelton’s film struggles with its execution of character development and dramatic conflict. By the end of the film, Al is positioned as a journalist struggling to reconcile Cobb’s athletic greatness with his vast personal failings. But this is a false conflict, because way back at the beginning of the film those same sportswriters who didn’t hesitate to sing Cobb’s praises are just as quick to call him insane. Thus, Al doesn’t unknowingly stumble into a little shop of horrors like Joe in Sunset Blvd. He turns into his “interesting driveway” purposefully, eagerly, even braving flying bullets to be in Cobb’s presence. Cobb’s personal failings – complete with rumors that he sharpened his metal spikes to serve as weapons, and reports that he once went into the stands and beat up a partial amputee, and that he hit his wife, too? That’s the Cobb that Al wants to write about. Because standing in the way of Cobb being recognized as the greatest of all time is his well-earned reputation as the most hated player of all time, and that’s a damn good story.
Reshaped, Cobb might have worked as the tale of a starry-eyed innocent who is disheartened to find out that his childhood idol is a monster or as the story of a jaded cynic who is shocked to discover that his subject is misunderstood. But in Shelton’s film, adapted from the writing of the real Al Stump, Al finds exactly what he’s looking for. In fact, Al spends most of the film demanding that Cobb permit him to publish the seedy exploits that were already legend. Meanwhile, Cobb keeps insisting that the only stories worth telling pertain to his performance on the field, which, given that the film has about five minutes of baseball footage that it repeats here and there over the 129-minute running time, would seem to be further evidence of Cobb’s warped sense of reality; after all, not even Shelton is interested in portraying Cobb’s on-field greatness. Except that by the end of the film it’s as if Shelton and Al have come around, as evidenced by Al’s admission that he willingly whitewashes Cobb’s posthumous biography. “I lied not so that the children of America would have heroes or some such hogwash,” Al narrates over shots of Cobb’s casket being carried into the family crypt. “I lied for myself. I needed him to be a hero. It is my weakness.”
Cobb’s weakness is a tendency to lose track of the case it’s trying to make and even the subject of its trial. It repeatedly tells us that Ty Cobb is the greatest ballplayer ever, but it has more footage of him driving a car down a winding mountain road than driving baseballs into the gap. It chronicles Cobb’s unforgivable behavior and then it manages to forgives him. It suggests an exploration of Cobb’s psyche, only to get stuck in the mind of Al Stump. Still, it does have moments of clarity. At one point, for reasons I can’t quite explain, a self-righteous Al complains that he spends every day listening to Cobb’s “bullshit” and gets nothing in return but “grief,” apparently forgetting that just a few scenes earlier he was delighting in the sordidness of Cobb’s bullshit. In response, Cobb says, “You have never been this close to greatness in your short life, son, and you love it.” It’s a line that transcends the scene, calling out anyone who gets exactly what he wants and manages to complain about it, and nodding toward the power imbalance that often crops up between star athletes and aura-drunk journalists. At its best, Cobb isn’t really about baseball greatness. It’s about a writer who mistakes his subject’s greatness for his own.