That legendary misanthrope of the national pastime, Ty Cobb (1886-1961), has been lauded as the greatest player of all time and damned as the most despised man in baseball. Both of these viewpoints are thoroughly examined in Lee Blessing’s highly theatrical legiter, co-produced by Kevin Spacey’s Trigger Street Prods. Award-winner Blessing (“A Walk in the Woods,” “Two Rooms”) has distilled Cobb’s colorful, often harrowing history into an energetic, intense 75 minutes that display the former Detroit Tigers star at three stages of his life, all co-existing at the same time onstage. The production benefits from the seamless staging of Joe Brancato, who helmed the acclaimed recent Off Broadway production. He is joined by Michael Cullen, Matthew Mabe and Michael Sabatino, three members of the New York Drama Desk Award-winning ensemble. Completing the cast is Richard Brooks.
Unrelated to the 1994 Tommy Lee Jones pic of the same name, the stage production delves into the monumentally conflicted memories of aging, cancer-stricken Mr. Cobb (Cullen), who sneeringly brags that he modernized the professional game of baseball by “applying the art of war” into what had formerly been a child’s game. To prove his claims, he constantly rattles off the irrefutable statistics: a lifetime average of .366, hit above .400 in three seasons, 12 batting titles, almost 900 career stolen bases, one of the first inductees into the Baseball Hall of Fame, etc.
But Cobb doesn’t derive much pleasure from recalling his accomplishments as he laments his ever-diminishing status in the minds of generations of players, fans and historians who have come and gone since he retired at age 42 in 1928. Cobb isn’t allowed the luxury of self-pity as he is invaded by two specters of his earlier self, the well-dressed, highly successful business tycoon, Ty (Sabatino), and the cocky Peach (Mabe), a young ballplayer in his prime. Left to themselves, all three would probably luxuriate in the memories of glory, but they are constantly invaded by the sobering spirit of Oscar Charleston (Brooks), a Hall of Famer in his own right who played in obscurity in the Negro League but achieved some amount of notoriety when he was dubbed “the Black Cobb.”
Brancato balances well the agendas of the three Cobbs as they weave in and out of each other, grabbing focus or kibitzing but always attempting to justify themselves. Cullen’s Mr. Cobb, clad in rumpled bathrobe, is the personification of bitterness, tragically attempting to recall his own version of history, deeply resentful that he will never be held in the same exalted status as his contemporary, Babe Ruth.
Sabatino is perfect as the strutting, unapologetic Ty, who relishes the business savvy that gave the ballplayerthe insight to put his money into the stock of such emerging industrial giants as General Motors and Coca-Cola. He was one of baseball’s first millionaires and was worth more than $12 million when he died.
Looking as if he was carved out of granite, Mabe’s Peach (Cobb’s nickname) is as physically fit as he is emotionally callow. His focus is entirely on the game and related activities (including his legendary history of fights with players, both on his own team and opponents, and with fans). The older Mr. Cobb actually looks on in shocked disbelief as Peach re-enacts the game in New York when he stormed off the playing field and into the stands to pummel and stomp a heckling fan. It turns out the fan is missing one hand and part of another, but it doesn’t deter Peach, who maniacally continues to stomp on the man.
Deceptively understated, Brooks conveys excellent timing as the aging Charleston insinuates himself into the action to make sure that Cobb doesn’t forget he was a true product of his Georgia upbringing, a flagrant racist. Charleston reminds everyone that the reason Peach was so infuriated with the aforementioned disabled fan was that he kept calling the ballplayer a “half-nigger.” Brooks also exudes the deep resentment of a gifted athlete who was never allowed to demonstrate his skills against a player like Cobb.
The production offers some biographical insight into Cobb’s life and why he spent a lifetime destroying any semblance of personal happiness, as a ballplayer, as a businessman and as a husband and father. This includes Cobb’s searing memory of his possibly adulterous mother who shot and killed his father, claiming she mistook him for an intruder. This incident occurred the very week Cobb became a Major Leaguer. Cullen sums up the bile that has completely taken over Mr. Cobb’s soul when he sputters, “I was 42 when I retired and spent the next 30 years of my life not being able to do the one thing that made me special.”