Archive for July, 2015

Nonfiction Friday Returns with Charles Leerhsen’s “Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty”

It’s Nonfiction Friday at SBR! So I thought I’d take a look at the most recent biography of Ty Cobb by author and baseball historian Charles Leerhsen.

Why does Cobb continue to fascinate me so? Well, for decades, Ty Cobb has been drawn as a foul-mouthed, brawling racist. This is largely because of Al Stump’s now-controversial “autobiography” of Cobb (Stump ghost-wrote it), and partly because of the movie Cobb featuring Tommy Lee Jones as the virulently racist title character.

Ty Cobb.09cYet Leerhsen, in TY COBB: A Terrible Beauty, has drawn a picture of a much different man. Someone difficult to know, but interesting to read about — a man of his times, but also a man of learning, and quite possibly baseball’s first superstar.

Tyrus Raymond Cobb was not always an easy man to get along with. He appears at this remove to have been somewhat thin-skinned, someone who, as Leerhsen says, names “could always harm.” He played a tough brand of baseball during a tough era, where guys often had fistfights to settle bets, then shook hands and became friends again.

Cobb wasn’t always a gentleman on the field, no. But Leerhsen’s exhaustive scholarship proves that Cobb was not a racist.

Instead, Cobb is famous for saying that “The Negro should be accepted and not grudgingly but wholeheartedly.” And Cobb put it on the record that he enjoyed watching Roy Campanella and Willie Mays play, among other black baseball greats, something I’d never read before I’d picked up Leerhsen’s new biography (but was able to independently verify afterward).

How in the world did Cobb’s legacy get so distorted?

Leerhsen believes Stump needed money, and portraits of monsters sell better than balanced portraits of tough-but-fair baseball players. And since there’s almost no film of Cobb’s play — very few still pictures exist, and most of Cobb’s efforts predate radio broadcasts as well — Leerhsen seems to think Stump must’ve figured it would be easy to make up anything Stump liked and call it “history.”

Yet it wasn’t the truth, and Leerhsen explains why.

You see, just because there isn’t much in the way of radio coverage or pictures or film, there were valid accounts of Cobb’s play to be had in various newspaper archives. Stump apparently couldn’t be bothered to study them, as that would’ve likely messed up his narrative framing something fierce, but Leerhsen made a comprehensive study of them. And what he found led him to the belief that Cobb had been badly maligned by both Al Stump and the movie Cobb, all because Cobb played during that twilight “dead ball” early-1900s era.

Leerhsen viewed Ty Cobb as the perfect ballplayer for that time. Cobb had a take-no-prisoners, hard-nosed attitude, and desperately wanted to win. But he did not sharpen his spikes; he did not set out to intentionally hurt anyone; he did not go out of his way to cause trouble.

All of those latter things were either made up or distorted out of proportion to the actual events by previous biographers, most notoriously Al Stump.

Granted, for modern readers, it can be challenging to read about Cobb’s encounters with a disabled heckler. This particular heckler was causing trouble for Cobb and several other players, by the newspaper accounts Leerhsen dug up. But most of his fingers were missing, so the contemporary reader has to wonder why Cobb just didn’t leave the guy alone after hitting him once.

(That is, if the guy even needed to be hit.)

Perhaps it needs to be said just why Cobb did this (according to Leerhsen). At the time, players were not protected at all from unruly fans. Fans had actually hurt players and umpires before, after, and sometimes even during games, and no one was doing anything about it.

You have to realize this before you can understand just what might’ve been going through Cobb’s mind as he methodically beat up this disabled fan.

The picture I gained of Cobb after reading TY COBB: A Terrible Beauty was that of a difficult, prickly man who could be quick to anger. But he had depth, and quite probably charm. He loved to read, particularly biographies of Napoleon and Les Miserables. As you’d expect from one of baseball’s all-time best hitters, Cobb had exhaustive baseball knowledge. And he loved making the other team nervous.

Ultimately, Cobb was someone fans loved to see. They never quite knew what they were going to get from Cobb — but they knew it might be something great.

Ty Cobb the man was a far different person than the monster Al Stump drew him to be. While hardly a saint, Cobb was a brilliant ballplayer and a smart, well-read man.

Bottom line? Prepare to have your assumptions challenged, because Charles Leerhsen conclusively proves that Ty Cobb the man was far different from Cobb, the movie, or Al Stump’s writing made Cobb out to be.

Grade: A

–reviewed by Barb

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Deborah J. Ross’s “The Seven-Petaled Shield” — an Exceptional Epic Fantasy

Sorry about the delay in reviewing, folks. Life hath interrupted again…but I promise to make up for that in the coming days and weeks.

Seven petaled shield 9780756406219_500X500Deborah J. Ross’s THE SEVEN-PETALED SHIELD is an interesting epic fantasy about a strong, scholarly woman, Tsorreh, and her royal son, Zevaron. But to say just that is like saying chocolate-dipped strawberries are just a fruit…it’s not half as appetizing as it should be.

But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.

Tsorreh is the Te-Ravah of Meklavar, a small but prosperous mountain city. This may not sound like much, but Meklavar has a long and illustrious heritage as defenders against evil, and because she is much more scholarly than your average queenly co-ruler, she well knows it. She’s also the second wife of the much-older Te-Ravot Maharrad, and the stepmother to Shorrenon, the heir (Ravot) to Meklavar, as well as mother to Zevaron.

Why does all this matter? Because there’s an army — a huge one — on its way to obliterate Meklavar unless Meklavar will bow its head in tribute. This army is from the large and sprawling country of Gelon, a place which has gobbled up many other smaller principalities. But because Gelon is headed by a particularly hard-headed and evil-spirited King, Meklavar wants no part of them.

However, the army of Gelon is so big, there’s no way for Meklavar to stand against them. Tsorreh realizes this early on, though she doesn’t exactly put this into words; still, it’s so clearly in subtext that any observant reader can figure it out (almost from the first page). And because Tsorreh knows this, she decides to do her part to keep the true treasure of Meklavar — holy books — well-hidden.

No one can help her do this, except her aged attendant and her even more aged grandfather, a particularly well-known scholar-priest. So she mostly uses her own foot-power, while she continues to offer sparing and thoughtful advice to her husband Maharrad.

Then he dies, and the city falls.

When Meklavar falls, the catastrophe is worsened by one thing: Ravot Shorrenon’s impetuous action. (No, I won’t tell you what it is.) Because of this, Tsorreh must get away fast, and only barely extricates herself and her son Zevaron from the mess. But her grandfather gives her a gift just before he dies that she not only hadn’t expected, but hadn’t even realized existed — the fabled Seven-Petaled Shield, which is tangibly felt but not, strictly speaking, corporeal.

You see, Tsorreh has to take the Seven-Petaled Shield, because if Gelon somehow gained access to it, all would be lost. There’s a legendary evil that Meklavar helped to keep at bay, you see, but time has eroded the how and why of it except for a few scholars like Tsorreh and her late grandfather. And even they know more legend than fact.

But now, she must get used to the idea of being the holder of the Shield. (She’s not the wielder, mind. She’s more of a caretaker, as I read it. Still a very important and vital position.) And she can’t give away to the Gelonese that she has it.

As she flees with her son, they become separated. Zevaron, being younger and even more impetuous in some ways than his half-brother Shorrenon, vows revenge on Gelon for their actions thus far. But he’s captive, for a time, and only breaks free with the help of a very unlikely source.

And when Tsorreh ends up taking refuge in Gelon, of all places, she realizes that not every person in Gelon is her enemy. That realization gives her more strength, even as her body starts to fail her. (Carrying that Shield around is very taxing, especially if you aren’t destined to wield it. Again, this is much more subtextual than not, but if you’re a careful and thorough reader, you should pick this up.)

This episode ends with one question — what will happen when Zevaron and his mother Tsorreh meet up again? (Further reviewer sayeth not…at least, not about this.)

Now, this sounds much less meaty and interesting than it is. (Remember what I said before about chocolate-dipped strawberries being more than a fruit?) So even though it sounds like any other epic fantasy out there, it isn’t.

Instead, THE SEVEN-PETALED SHIELD is spiritually deep in a way I rarely see in fantasy. Ms. Ross did an outstanding job in rendering a strong and quiet woman who takes comfort in books, and shows just how relevant such a heroine can be. (I could live without Zevaron, quite frankly, but I know he’s needed for the sequels.)

Bottom line? THE SEVEN-PETALED SHIELD is an exceptional epic fantasy, one that’s deep and broad in ways that I’ve rarely seen. More epic fantasy should be like this. Highly recommended!

Grade: A-plus.

–reviewed by Barb

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