An Interview With Tom Stanton – Author of Ty and the Babe

Baseball books comes in all shapes and sizes. Some are fact-filled tomes while others are on the lighter side and are more fun reads. Tom Stanton’s latest book, Ty and the Babe, provides a combinination of both of these traits. Not only do you walk away knowing more than you did about both Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth, but he does it by telling a very engaging story rather than throwing out just a bunch of facts. Ty and the Babe is a story about two of the all-time greats and several of their moments both on and off the field together. I had a chance to talk to Mr. Stanton about his new book:

Brian Borawski: In the beginning of Ty and the Babe, you mention a couple of people you talked to, including Ty Cobb’s granddaughter and a gentleman by the name of Fred Smith who saw Cobb play. Were these conversations what sparked your interest in Cobb and his place in baseball history or were these just the final pieces that made you realize that there was more to Cobb than what a lot of people thought?

Tom Stanton: I’ve been intrigued by Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth since boyhood. I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, and in those decades and the ones that preceded them, Cobb and Ruth towered over the baseball world. Though dead, they reigned as the greatest players ever. They are still giants, but the past few decades have seen their standing diminished. In particular, Cobb’s image has suffered immensely. He’s been reduced to a wildly exaggerated caricature. He’s frequently portrayed as a mean, wicked, friendless demon, and that’s a highly inaccurate and unfair description. I’ve known for some time that the public perception of Cobb is warped. My encounters with people like Fred Smith, Ernie Harwell, and others reinforced that knowledge.

BB: Now because you were dealing with players like Cobb and Babe Ruth and a period of time that took place over 80 years ago, was this the most difficult of your four books to write? Or did each book have its particularly difficult areas when it came to research and documenting all of the facts?

TS: It was a challenge, but it was also extremely rewarding. Much has been written about Cobb and Ruth, so it was very gratifying to uncover incidents and encounters that have been lost to history. Ty and Babe played against each other in more than 200 games, and in most of those something interesting always seemed to be happening. In doing my research, I went beyond the usual, easy-to-find sources, like the New York Times. I searched reels upon reels of microfilm of the lesser-known New York, Detroit, and other big-city papers. I also did interviews. I found some great sources, like Cobb’s former batboy, Jimmy Lanier, but there aren’t many people alive who can shed much light on Cobb or Ruth.

With Hank Aaron and the Home Run That Changed America, many of the key figures were still alive and could be interviewed. My other two books, The Final Season and The Road to Cooperstown, are memoirs that revolve around baseball and personal stories. They involved newspaper research, but no where near as much as with Ty and The Babe. I also edited The Detroit Tigers Reader. One story I discovered from 1916 helped me decide to do the Cobb-Ruth book. In the offseason, writer F.C. Lane went to Georgia to spend a day with Cobb. The portrait he created of Ty was quite different from the one most fans see today.

BB: One of the underlying themes of the book is that, contrary to popular belief, Ty Cobb wasn’t as bad of a guy as people thought. Was this a general thesis you set out to prove when you began researching for the book, or was it something that took root as you continued your research on the rivalry between Cobb and Ruth?

TS: I knew going into the story that I wanted to address that issue, but as I revisited old stories and interviews it became increasingly clear that I must explore it to an even greater degree. I’m now convinced that Cobb is the most maligned sports figure in American history. A fan from his day would not recognize him based on how he is portrayed now. He was a fierce competitor, but he was not Satan in a baseball uniform.

BB: It seems in Ruth’s early years, the rivalry between Cobb and Ruth was pretty nasty. I know it’s hard to make comparisons because you’re talking about two of the all-time greats, but have you heard of any other player (or maybe even team) rivalries that would at least match the intensity of Ruth and Cobb’s?

TS: The Yankees-Red Sox team rivalry comes to mind, but I don’t know of any player rivalries that approach the intensity of Cobb and Ruth’s. It was a one-of-a-kind affair, fueled not just by each man’s desire to be recognized as the best but also by their battle for the soul and direction of the sport.

BB: By the time Cobb’s playing days were coming to an end, the rivalry between Ruth and Cobb seemed to turn from a vicious one to one that more resembled that of two friendly rivals who just couldn’t stop getting a dig in on the other. What was it that really turned things around for these two?

TS: They grew to respect each other’s talents. Cobb came to realize that Ruth, with his high average, couldn’t be dismissed as a one-dimensional player. He recognized that Babe’s home runs were something more than a fad. And Ruth was constantly reminded by baseball observers that while his home runs might be more popular with the fans, true baseball aficionados preferred the intricate genius of Cobb. Ruth also saw that regardless of his prowess he couldn’t erase Cobb’s contribution. There were many other factors, too, including the efforts of agent Christy Walsh and, likely, Claire Hodgson, who had dated both Ruth and Cobb before marrying Babe.

BB: Most of the second half of the book deals with what would turn out to be a three match golf tournament between Cobb and Ruth. For me, this was probably the most fun part of the book as a reader. How interesting was it changing gears and doing research on a golf tournament like this?

TS: It was great fun. It allowed me to show another side to Ty and Babe and to place them on a different field of battle at a different point in their lives. It also allowed me to introduce into the story such wonderful characters as Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen and John “Mysterious” Montague, a criminal and trick-shot artist—and to increase the role of legendary writer Grantland Rice.

BB: You mention the golf tournament was heavily covered from coast to coast. Did this make it easier for you to do the research, or was there still quite a bit of digging that you had to do to unearth all of the interesting facts?

TS: The three golf matches made headlines across the country, but much of that coverage resulted from wire stories and syndicated columns. The New York, Boston and Detroit papers covered the matches most intensely, and the details in those stories allowed me to create what I hope are memorable scenes. I enjoyed how the sports sections of the 1940s all had illustrators who reported on the events through their drawings. Those sketches supplied crucial details, as did the old newsreel film footage of the tournament that I came upon.

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BB: While I was never able to see him play, Ty Cobb has always been one of my all-time favorites being a Detroit Tiger fan but even I was under the misconception thar Cobb was a nasty player. Was it fulfilling that, as a result of your research, you paint a prettier picture of a ballplayer who’s so misunderstood and dispel a myth or two?

TS: It is rewarding. Most of what is written about Cobb today comes from Al Stump, who worked with Cobb on his autobiography and then, after Cobb’s death, published several unflatteringly pieces, beginning with a magazine article in 1961 and continuing with a book in the 1990s. He captured Cobb in the final months of his life. By then, Cobb was battling cancer, suffering from alcoholism, and still mourning the death of two of his sons. Cobb was no saint. He could be nasty, but he wasn’t nasty all of the time. And he did have friends. A parade of them used to visit his home in Augusta, Ga. He played poker with Walter Johnson, frequently had guests over for dinner, and went hunting with Tris Speaker, Eddie Collins, and others. He was articulate and could be exceptionally kind. And contrary to the image of him being on the outs with baseball, he usually made it a point to attend induction ceremonies of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

BB: Alright, to wrap things up, I’m going to put you on spot. You’re starting a baseball team and you can choose between a rookie Ty Cobb and a rookie Babe Ruth. Who would you pick to be on your team?

TS: Well, I was born a Detroit Tigers fan, so I’d have to go with Tyrus. If not for my allegiance to the old English D, I’d be tempted to choose Ruth, simply because his style of play is more in line with the game today—and he could pitch. But, then again, I’d rather not let another team have Cobb. In their own ways, each dominated the game. Cobb’s batting average remains the highest in baseball history—as does Ruth’s slugging average. And no one has won more batting titles or home run titles than the 12 that Ty and Babe each won, respectively. They truly were one of a kind.

For more information on Tom Stanton, Ty and the Babe, and the other books that Tom Stanton has written, be sure to stop by his website. He’s also blogging about his publicity tour and he opens things up with a trip to Fenway Park.

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