Robin’s Underrated Gems: Cobb (1994)

With Moneyball having just been released in theaters and the Major League Baseball playoffs finally getting underway, I thought it only appropriate to find an underrated baseball film to analyze. And I think a good selection would probably be a baseball flick that… well, hardly has any baseball in it. Major League Baseball has always had to live with the stigma that some of its most cherished records are held by individuals with very checkered reputations. Pete Rose, baseball’s all-time leader in base hits, was banned from the game for life after gambling allegations. Despite being baseball’s all-time leader in home runs, Barry Bonds remains one of the game’s most disliked individuals, thanks to allegations of steroid abuse and his reputation for just acting like a major douche in general. However, both of these men still look like saints next to Ty Cobb, who holds baseball’s highest lifetime batting average of .367 and is considered by many to be the greatest player of all time. He is also widely considered to be the most miserable, mean-spirited prick to have ever played the game, and was so disliked that only three people associated with baseball attended his funeral after he died. Ron Shelton’s 1994 biopic about the man, Cobb, is very unique is that it chooses not to celebrate its subject’s accomplishments on the field, but instead examines his many flaws as a person. Many Hollywood biopics have been criticized for fudging the facts in order ot present their subjects in the best possible light, but Cobb does not hesitate from depicting its title character as the meanest, most unlikable bastard imaginable.

Ron Shelton’s storytelling approach in Cobb is unconventional, to say the least. The film does not follow the traditional biopic structure of telling its subject’s story from beginning to end, but instead reveals everything we need to know about its lead character by chronicling the last few years of his life. Cobb provides Ty Cobb’s backstory by opening with an hilarious re-creation of an old-school newsreel, which paints him as a hero and a great man, and claims that the violent, aggressive playing style he displayed on the baseball field was only due to his immense passion for the game. However, we soon learn that the real truth about Cobb is much different. The brunt of the story takes place in 1959 and is told from the point-of-view of a sportswriter named Al Stump (Robert Wuhl), who is absolutely thrilled when Ty Cobb (Tommy Lee Jones) invites him to his home in order to pen his autobiography. However, when Stump’s introduction to the man involves Cobb firing a loaded gun in his direction, he realizes that this assignment could turn out to be a nightmare. Cobb is 72 years old at this point and seems to be slowly dying, so he wants his life story to be told in an autobiography that will paint him in the best possible light . Cobb claims that his controversial reputation is due to the fact that he is misunderstood, but Stump instantly sees that this is not the case. Cobb is an angry, violent and abusive alcoholic who has managed to alienate everyone he has ever known, and working with him on the book is an absolutely nightmare. However, Stump decides to stick with him and even accompanies Cobb on a road trip to a ceremony at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. He debates about whether he will publish the flattering autobiography that Cobb wants, or release a tell-all book that depicts Cobb as the troubled human being he really is.

Initially, Al Stump did release an autobiography that portrayed Ty Cobb in a mostly positive light, but many years later, he finally decided to publish a second book that told the real truth about Cobb and that forms the basis of this movie. The central theme of Cobb is how renowned celebrities can often put up on a pedestal and portrayed as heroes even though that may be far from the actual truth. In today’s age of social media, Ty Cobb would easily be exposed as the miserable prick he was, but in his heyday, it was very easy for people who didn’t know him personally to look at him through rose-coloured glasses and think he was a hero. One of the movie’s most clever sequences is when Cobb views the old-school newsreel from the beginning of the film that portrays him as a hero, and he suddenly starts hallucinating about a much different newsreel that showcases all the abusive, violent and controversial incidents from his life. Ron Shelton’s directorial debut was Bull Durham, one of the most beloved baseball movies of all time, and would became the go-to guy for directing Hollywood sports films in the 1990s, delivering such efforts as White Men Can’t Jump and Tin Cup. Given how much lighthearted most of Shelton’s other work is, some viewers may have been shocked by his decision to tackle such dark, unpleasant material in Cobb. Like I said earlier, there is surprisingly little baseball to be seen in Cobb, since the majority of the film takes place during Cobb’s final years as a bitter old man and does not spend much time celebrating his achievements in the game. However, there is one terrific flashback sequence to Cobb’s playing career, which showcases the down-and-dirty style that he played on the field. As an old man, Cobb really resents the fact that so many people hate him, but he clearly relished that during his playing career. It’s interesting to note that the pitcher in this sequence is played Roger Clemens, another legendary baseball icon whose accomplishments on the field have been tainted by controversy.

Even though Cobb doesn’t exactly tell the happiest, most uplifting story in the world, it is a surprisingly funny and entertaining film at tmes. Even though Ty Cobb is not a person you would ever want to spend time with in real life, his insane behaviour can be pretty fun to watch from a distance. This is due largely to Tommy Lee Jones’ phenomenal performance, as he turns his portrayal of Cobb into an acting tour-de-force. I’ve always believed that a lead character doesn’t have to be likable as long as he’s interesting to watch, and that certainly holds true here. In the hands of a lesser actor, Ty Cobb might have been a person that would have been absolutely unbearable to spend two hours with, but Jones is mesmerizing in the role, and is even able to generate a marginable amount of sympathy which makes the character quite a fascinating study. His performance probably would have been worthy of an Oscar nomination had Cobb not been released to such a lukewarm reception. In contrast, Robert Wuhl is often a bit wooden in the role of Al Stump, but he does have good chemistry with Jones, and their antagonistic relationship makes Cobb into one of the most unique and unconventional buddy road movies ever made (though I use the word “buddy” very loosely). In the end, it’s not hard to see why Cobb failed to connect with a large audience since it refuses to follow the standard conventions of the biopic and the sports movie. The film is definitely an acquired taste and how much you enjoy it will depend how much you tolerance you have for spending time with a racist, mean-spirited, indescribably abrasive old man. It’s worth noting that Cobb was released only a few months after the arrest of O.J. Simpson, which is the perfect example of a renowned sports figure turning out to be a far less of a hero than he was originally portrayed. Cobb definitely deserves major props for covering such a timely subject and forcing its audience to ask themselves some very uncomfortable questions. It remains one of the most daring biopics Hollywood has ever produced.

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