Ty & Barry: Baseball’s Most Unlikely Kindred Spirits

It is our ken to think historically, and this week’s revelations regarding Barry Bonds have set us in mind of another player who was, in his day, all the things that we now consider Bonds to be: mean-spirited, bigoted, philandering, physically abusive, a cheat, and the greatest baseball player ever to have donned spikes. That man is Ty Cobb. Ironically, both men seem to have been undone by their obsession with a home-run hitting nemesis whom they felt stole their deserved glory. For Cobb it was Babe Ruth, who reinvigorated the game with the long ball to the diminishment of Cobb’s more scientific attack. Cobb never got over it. Bonds, we have now learned, found his nemesis in Mark McGwire, another Brobdingnagian figure whose power surge lifted the game at a time of need and, in the process, shifted the spotlight from the more gifted Bonds. This, apparently, is what drove Bonds to his rather astounding regimen of doping. Cobb never had recourse to that kind of medical science, fortunately. Maybe the two should have their own separate wing in the Hall of Fame. And maybe it should be rated R.

10 comments… add one
  • One difference is that Cobb was obsessed with a player whose achievements were, as far as I know, on the level, whereas Bonds’ obsession with McGwire is between one artifical achiever and another. That Bonds felt slighted by the attention given to a cheat (yes, I am calling McGwire a cheat too) is an indication of both a pathological insecurity and of a debilitating resentment. Bonds, had he never touched a steroid, would doubtlessly have been recognized as the far superior player, though he clearly trusted that nobody could recognize that. How wrong he was. He was in another class than McGwire entirely, as far as I am concerned, even before 1998.

    SF March 8, 2006, 9:08 pm
  • I have to agree with SF. However, if Bonds were not approaching the all-time record would this BALCO case every have seen the light of day?
    Also, Ty Cobb killed a man with his hands!

    walein March 8, 2006, 9:12 pm
  • As far as Cobb was concerned, Ruth’s achievement was not “on the level”; he didn’t consider the power game a legitimate direction for baseball, and he didn’t consider Ruth a legitimate combatant, because of his presumed blackness. So I think the motivations, in each case, were pretty much the same.

    YF March 8, 2006, 9:23 pm
  • But Cobb’s version of Ruth’s illegitimacy is qualitatively different than Bonds’ view of McGwire’s. Bonds, as the SI article states, viewed McGwire as a cheater, his accomplishments gained artificially, and this, ironically, is what pushed Bonds to use. Cobb, as you say, viewed Ruth as racially inferior and, for lack of a better word, typologically inferior. To me these are two very different mindsets. Though the jealousy may be comparable, I don’t find the two cases as similar as you.

    SF March 8, 2006, 11:13 pm
  • That seems to me splitting hairs. Both guys were jealous of sluggers who were changing the way the game was played, and draining attention from themselves. Neither felt the other man was deserving of their own achievements, or that they were deserving of the attention those achievments were gathering. Obviously, Mark McGwire is no Babe Ruth. And the Babe was no McGwire. Lord knows his off-field “conditioning” regimen did little to improve his physique.

    YF March 8, 2006, 11:22 pm
  • It is, psychologically speaking, splitting hairs. But I still think there’s a difference. I don’t disagree with you at all, but I think there’s an added dimension to the current scandal, which is the illegality of what McGwire and Bonds doing.

    SF March 9, 2006, 6:09 am
  • I’m not an expert on Cobb and his relationship with Ruth. But the racial angle on Bonds vs. McGwire is truly tragic. Who knows what the real deal is, but in the book Bonds comes off as baseball’s Othello.
    From the SI excerpt:
    “They’re just letting him (McGwire) do it because he’s a white boy.”
    and then
    “As he sometimes did when he was in a particularly bleak mood, Bonds was channeling racial attitudes picked up from his father, the former Giants star Bobby Bonds, and his godfather, the great Willie Mays, both African-American ballplayers who had experienced virulent racism while starting their professional careers in the Jim Crow South. Barry Bonds himself had never seen anything remotely like that: He had grown up in an affluent white suburb of San Francisco, and his best boyhood friend, his first wife and his present girlfriend all were white.”
    Ironically the authors, I think, really missed it by presuming and implying that because he grew up in an affluent white neighborhood, he didn’t experience the level of racism that his parents did. I would argue that while it’s not Jim Crow, being the only black person in the room opens one up to much more racial discrimination than if one lived in a homogenous/segregated community.
    It’s truly sad (if true) that Bonds was driven to cheat because of a racial inferiority complex. Talk about a king that didn’t know he’d already been crowned…
    When this thing first surfaced I thought it was just about cheating. But now, it’s not even just about cheating and race. It seems to swell to the media (dropping the ball like they did with Iraq) and pharmaceuticals in our society as well. We seem to be obsessed with improving our performance via chemicals. I recently learned that the majority of men who take Viagra do not have ED. The potential metaphors are astounding.
    Sorry to hijack the thread.

    lp March 9, 2006, 10:36 am
  • lp –
    I’m not so sure Bonds truly has a “racial inferiority complex” — I would argue that race just serves as a convenient excuse for his actions. Everyone’s talking about Bonds vs. McGwire now, but 1998 was not dominated only by McGwire — Sammy Sosa, a Dominican, got nearly as much attention (and the MVP) that year.
    Bonds uses his (in my opinion fake) loathing of the media to motivate him. Maybe he does the same with perceptions of racism?
    Just a thought.

    Earl March 9, 2006, 10:43 am
  • Earl,
    You could be correct. I think it’s a very fine line between racial inferiority and using race as an excuse. In fact, one may even drive the other, assuming, of course, that one is sincere. I, for one, do not believe whatsoever that the majority of African Americans who claim racism are using it as a convenient excuse or “playing the race card”. There is way too much racism in our society. The US is still only about a half of a generation removed from apartheid and there are many people who are still in our government that were/are against integration.
    As an African American who grew up in an affluent white neighborhood, I got it every day of my childhood in one way or another. And most of the time the n-word was never uttered. That’s why I can’t discount Bonds’ experience. I just think it’s very sad that he couldn’t overcome it psychologically.
    BTW: I don’t think racism is an excuse for cheating whatsoever. It’s just an interesting side-issue that I wish was brought up in a different context.

    lp March 9, 2006, 12:28 pm
  • lp, your bringing up Othello and viagra in the same post reminds me of Orson Welles’s take on the motivation behind Iago’s treachery. Welles thought Iago sexually impotent and jealous of Othello’s virility. And now I imagine if Welles was right and a I’ m stuck with a Back-to-the-Future rumination: What if viagra existed in Elizabethan England? Might Othello not have been written? To think we would be robbed of a classic of literature/theater and all because of some pill.
    This has to do with the subject of the site because Welles sounds the same as Wells, who is the opinionated overweight pitcher on the Red Sox. I’m sure he has an interesting interpretation of Othello.
    moving right along…

    NickYF March 9, 2006, 8:13 pm

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