Ty Cobb holds the highest major league batting average at .366. Until Hank Aaron broke his record in 1974, Babe Ruth held the all-time home run mark with 714. But these men prided themselves in taking different roads to the same destination. You say to-may-to, and I say to-mah-to.
Even in the early part of the 20th century, Cobb was considered old school when it came to baseball. He believed in the scientific game, which required strategy, speed and daring. Then Ruth came along, swinging a 48-ounce bat.
An old Nike ad campaign claimed that "chicks dig the long ball." Actually, just about every fan does, and they can thank Ruth for changing the national pastime forever with brute strength. Cobb could never forgive Ruth for that. But then Cobb was known for his cantankerousness anyway. His is still recalled for sharpening his spike to intimidate fielders as he came storming into bases.
Cobb was raised in a genteel southern family, well-bred and educated. Ruth was brought up in a home for incorrigible boys until he was 19, so he did not have the polish of his fellow ballist. Given Cobb's hostile nature, it was not out of character for him to take every opportunity to put down Ruth as a lummox and a dolt, and Ruth gave it back to him in kind.
But somewhere along the way, Cobb --- being several years older and already on the tail end of his career --- began to admire Ruth for his heady play and natural talent. And, again, Ruth responded likewise. It was the crafty work of Christy Walsh, Ruth's manager and ghostwriter, that got these two on speaking terms and, in turn, created a sensation for the sporting press.
After Cobb retired, he turned to golf for relaxation and recreation. It was on the links when the prospect of a match between him and the Babe was suggested by a PGA official and a wire service writer; Cobb relished the idea of beating Ruth and agreed to challenge his rival.
There were actually three matches. The first was held at a club in Massachusetts, won by Cobb by two strokes. Ruth won the return game, played in Queens, NY, by a single shot. (Ruth complained throughout that Cobb took too much time and took the game too seriously.)
Far be it for me to reveal the outcome. Suffice it to say that Tom Stanton does a marvelous job of painting the portraits of two middle-aged ex-athletes still trying to outdo each other, although with much less animosity than during their heydays. And he manages to get a maximum of detail into a minimum of prose, introducing the characters in the first part of his book, vividly describing the on-field battles, and finishing up with a sweet story of reconciliation. Just the fact that he seeks to counter the commonly accepted notion of Cobb as a curmudgeon makes this worth reading.
According to Stanton, Cobb was still enough of a competitor to believe that his public perception would hinge on the outcome of these matches. He was shocked by the lack of spectators during their second game. Indeed, one of the bittersweet themes is how Cobb plays passive-aggressive when comparing latter-day stars like Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio to the players of his generation. He wouldn't ever say anything negative, but….
Sometimes in the heat of battle, words intending to hurt are exchanged. But Stanton shows that time heals such wounds, aided, in the case of Ty and the Babe, by swinging a new stick.
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan on May 15, 2007