From Cobb
From Cobb
Last weekend, over dirty martinis and Amstel Light at a chic East Side lounge, the subject turned to--of all things--baseball. Tiger baseball, thanks to the three native Detroiters in the party. "Ty Cobb," said someone, raising a beer as a toast, "greatest player of all time." Even the Red Sox fans at the table couldn't argue with that. Of course, Cobb was also, as someone else put it, "the biggest a--hole ever to play baseball." Again, no arguments.

Those two near-indisputable opinions, and many more, are packed into Cobb, Lee Blessing's engaging, heated drama at the Mint Theater (presented by the Melting Pot Theatre Company). The play clocks in at a lean 75 minutes--not even four full innings at your average Yankee's game--but it's not for lack of material. Blessing (A Walk in the Woods, Chesapeake) is just a ruthless editor.

Cobb's stats are well-documented: He had a lifetime average of .366, and hit over .400 in three seasons; he won nearly 12 batting titles, racked up nearly 900 stolen bases, and was one of the first inductees into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Blessing doesn't linger over the numbers--no one disputes those; rather, he gives us some insight into the personality (or, say some, personalities) of this heroic, tragic man.

We are presented with three Cobbs. That is, Cobb at three stages of his life: the eldest, Mr. Cobb (Michael Cullen), stricken with cancer; the middle-aged Ty (Michael Sabatino), all business smarts and savviness (Cobb put his money into stock like General Motors and Coca-Cola, and emerged one of baseball's first millionaires); and the plucky Peach (Matthew Mabe), the player in his prime. Though they go back and forth from 1886 through 1961, all are speaking, Copenhagen-style, from beyond the grave.

And they all have their own version of events. Wrapped in a bathrobe and cloaked in bitterness, Mr. Cobb wants to remember the glories, not the defeats. His memory has a tendency to lapse, as old men's do. So to jog it, Blessing adds another man to the lineup: Oscar Charleston (Clark Jackson), another Hall-of-Famer who's not quite as renowned as our eponymous hero. Charleston played for the Negro League, and was nicknamed "The Black Cobb." It's not a title he wears with pride.


From Cobb
From Cobb
Cobb was a flagrant racist, prone to outbursts and incidents of violence. He once climbed into the stands at Tiger Stadium and began beating a disabled man for calling him a "half nigger." And there were many more run-ins, as Charleston notes. And notes. And notes. He spouts the dates of these altercations, and waits for Cobb to provide the details. At first, it's a cryptic tactic, but soon the memory gates open and the conflict flows freely.

Since Charleston exists in the play as a (somewhat clunky) dramaturgical device, he comes off a bit annoying, despite Jackson's earnest acting efforts. After all, the character is outnumbered three-to-one by a towering figure. Blessing's writing is at its most illuminating with the three Cobbs, and at its most exciting in the character of the Peach. Matthew Mabe's fiery portrayal doesn't hurt either; he makes the famously confident player both arrogant and appealing. Similarly, Michael Cullen brings an air of nobility to the defeated, aging Cobb; Michael Sabatino is fine as the underwritten Ty.

What we get in Cobb--remarkably, in such a short time--is a glimpse inside the man. This was a man who let his self-confidence destroy his personal relationships. A man whose possibly adulterous mother shot and killed his father (she claims she mistook him for an intruder) the very week Cobb became a major leaguer. A man who slept with a shotgun for fear of his teammates. A man who, in his mind, lived in the shadow of the homerun-hitting legend Babe Ruth. In spite of all Cobb's bravado--and he truly believed he was great--he was bitter that the fans didn't recognize his talent. They were too intoxicated by Ruth's showmanship. In his own mind (and those of many baseball historians, in fact), Cobb created the game. Ruth certainly changed it forever, but it was Cobb's to begin with.

Now, I attend most of my games in the House That Ruth Built, a.k.a. Yankee Stadium. Despite the fact that I grew up with the Tigers (most memorably, Sparky Anderson's 1984 World Championship team), I now root for the Bronx Bombers. But I still bow to the legacy of Cobb. And thankfully, so does Blessing. Now that the season is in full swing, there couldn't be a better time to take in this hard-hitting play. Bring a few baseball fans, and lift a glass to the Georgia Peach. Just leave the peanuts and Cracker Jack at home.