Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Ken Burns and My Cobb Conflict

My nightly routine involves a half-hour or so of Netflix before I fall asleep, and after I rewatched all the Kids in the Hall seasons, I checked out Ken Burns Baseball, which a dear friend of mine had recommended. Now this friend of mine was quite the history buff, and he could watch and enjoy a documentary on the evolution of the coatrack, so I wasn't sure about Ken Burns Baseball. But I have to say, after about two months of watching all eleven parts of the series, this is one of the best documentaries I've ever seen.

If you have Netflix streaming and you love baseball (and of course you all do) this is a must-watch. Burns tracks baseball from its earliest origins up until the early '90s. Now, many of the episodes focus a little heavy on the Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers, but it does capture an overall sense of the history with wonderful footage and specific stories. He also spends a lot of time documenting the negro leagues, which I feel like never gets enough examination. Josh Gibson's career is so amazing and tragic and hightlighted well in all its heart-breaking complexity by Burns.

One of Burns' closest player stories focuses on Ty Cobb. Kaline and the post-'60s Tigers hardly get a mention, but I can forgive it for the amazing introspection given to other facets of the game, like the reserve clause. Anyway, as for Cobb, Burns takes his time, shows the legend honestly, from both sides of his persona. He's such an asshole, mostly a terrible human being and a racist bastard. But, the way he plays, his working-class background, make things complicated for me as a collector. I find myself wondering if I want to be a fan of Cobb or not. Can I forgive his faults and chalk it up to his generation and upbringing. I'm just not sure. How do you collectors out there deal with the disgusting racism of your Cap Ansons and Enos Slaughters and so on?

So, Cobb may be a terrible person, but he was a helluva player. He exemplifies an old school scrappy style that may be missing in today's game. And this card is probably the perfect picture of terrible and awesome all wrapped up into one:

Damn it, I want to collect a player that makes cards like this, but I'm conflicted in that I can't respect Cobb's personality. Can we separate the two?

So, besides my Cobb conflict, have you seen Ken Burns Baseball yet? If so, what did you think?


  1. I watched it when it first aired, and have seen bits and pieces again since. Very good stuff.

    I don't actively collect Cobb (i have a few 9pocket sheets with his cards in them), but I do count him among my favorite players of all time. I can respect the talent without respecting the man.

  2. Hoyt Wilhelm and Roberto Clemente aside, Ty Cobb might well be my all-time favorite baseball player.

    In terms of solely my collection, I do separate Cobb's personality and how he played the game. (The book "Cobb" by Al Stump provides an even deeper look into his life.)

    On the field, he played baseball the way it was meant to be played. Off the field, I have very little respect for the man Cobb was, but I can't think of a man who better played the game than him.

    For that reason, I do collect Ty Cobb. He has some of the best cards of any player, including the Masterpieces one. It's easily one of the nicest cards in my collection.

  3. I watched the majority of the Ken Burns documentary when it came out in the mid-90s. But I went back on Netflix and saw the episode I missed (the '60s) as well as the "epilogue" episodes. Great stuff for the most part.

    I've often wondered how people can collect "jerks," if they player collect. If I was going to go out of my way to have a player collection, the players would have to be semi-decent human beings (I guess the Dodgers that I do make an effort to collect are nice chaps, come to think of it).

  4. I remember watching these on PBS with my dad when they first aired, and then, a few years back, I found the whole thing on VHS at a thrift store (I think it was missing the one of the "innings") and got it for my dad for Father's Day. Those documentaries are awesome, and once we got Netflix, I watched the latest addendums.

    I think the personality thing is tricky sometimes. All of the guys that I collect (so far, to my knowledge) are all pretty decent human beings, and that's something that I look for in players that I like and root for. However, one of my best baseball memories is of the Padres 1996 season, when they won the division and Ken Caminiti was the NL MVP. Since Caminiti later admitted to being a steroid user, alcoholic, and eventually committed suicide, it's hard to keep the memories as fond. I'd like to say that I'm a Caminiti fan, based on that incredible season and what he meant to San Diego, but there are conflicting feelings.

  5. I understand your dilemma. I have a T206 Cobb card that is the prized card of my collection, but the older I get I can't decide if I want to brag about the card or be ashamed of it since he was such a bastard. I used to think you should separate on field talent and off field character, but I'm not sure I can give myself a good reason why.

  6. I've only seen bits and pieces and I think I should watch it before I cancel my Netflix subscription. I do like that card and I've had it as my header at least once.