When it comes to the question of who is the greatest baseball player of all time there are two camps. Those who say Babe Ruth and those who say Ty Cobb. Honestly, I think the more serious students of the national pastime would be pretty much unanimous in backing Cobb. The challenge, however, has to do with the man, not the player. Whereas Ruth was the likeable hero of baseball, stories of Cobb being one of the nastiest men to ever take the field are well-known. A big reason for his notorious reputation was a book by sportswriter Al Stump telling of his time spent with the aging hall of famer. In 1994, the book was turned into a film…Cobb.
The story follows Stump (Robert Wuhl) who has been summoned to the Lake Tahoe hunting lodge of the ailing 72-year old baseball great Ty Cobb (Tommy Lee Jones) to ghost write his autobiography. Immediately upon arrival, Stump learns that Cobb is an angry old man prone to waving a gun around and randomly firing while popping pills for a variety of different illnesses. After seeing Cobb’s unstable condition, Stump decides not to go forward with the project, yet something about the former great keeps drawing him back.
Cobb not only wants Stump to write his book for him, he also needs his help getting to an event at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. The two hit the road, first stopping in Reno, Nevada to cause some trouble. When Cobb is called onto the stage by singer Louis Prima, he launches into a racist screed in front of the casino crowd. Later that night, in a very uncomfortable to watch scene, he acts as if he intends to rape a cigarette girl (Lolita Davidovich) and eventually pays her to tell everyone she knows that he was the best night she ever had (since in reality his equipment isn’t working).
As Cobb and Stump make their way across country, Stump begins writing the book. Actually he writes two versions, one to please Cobb and one that is the nasty truth. Along the way we see a few flashbacks to Cobb’s past. He is shown relishing in the hatred of his opposing fans. He is shown as a wife beater, a racist, and a murderer. We also see some of his dark childhood, namely the fact that his father was murdered by his mother and/or her lover.
I have read Stump’s book upon which this film is based and I have to say it was one of the most intriguing books I have ever read. In recent years, however, the validity of the book has been brought into question. Some claim that Stump made much of it up and that Cobb was not quite the cantankerous curmudgeon that Stump made him out to be. Both men have passed away, so I guess we’ll never really know. Like the book, I admit that I find the film very intriguing. However, this ultimately is not a very good movie.
The film has several problems, many of which can be summed up in two words: Robert Wuhl. I’ve never cared for Wuhl’s acting style, which always seems like he’s mugging for the camera. In my opinion, he’s completely wrong for this part. Though Cobb is the lead character, he’s the one we need to sympathize with. I’m sorry but it’s just not happening for me. Director Ron Shelton (aka Mr. Lolita Davidovich) sure seems to like him though, having cast Wuhl in no less than four of his movies.
On the other hand, Tommy Lee Jones is brilliant. This is a classic case of a film that does not measure up to one of it’s own performances. With the wild extremes that the character of Cobb goes to it would’ve been so easy for this performance to become ridiculous or cartoonish. Jones handles it all perfectly. One minute he’ll have you so enraged that you want to shove a Louisville Slugger down his throat and the next he actually has you feeling sorry for this mean old man.
Where the film does significantly suffer is in its lack of explanation as to why Cobb was such an important figure in baseball history. The film does open with a newsreel style segment that gives some background and there is another sequence that portrays a game in which Cobb taunts an opposing pitcher (played by Roger Clemens), but little else. The result ends up being that viewers with no background on Cobb are left wondering why they should even care about this grumpy old racist. For me the best scene of the film is a moment where we see a more tender side of Cobb as he helps his former teammate Mickey Cochrane, who has fallen on hard times, get a tuxedo for the Hall of Fame ceremony. I don’t doubt that Cobb had a serious mean streak, but this shows there was a bit more to the man…especially his love and respect for the game.
Despite it’s many flaws, Cobb is still an interesting film. I guess I would consider it a guilty pleasure, especially since it is a film I have returned to a number of times. Ty Cobb may have been the greatest player there ever was, but the film that bears his name leaves a lot to be desired. Despite a Hall of Fame performance by Tommy Lee Jones, the rest of the film is a minor league effort at best.