Setting the Cobb Record Straight: Review of ‘Stumped by the Storyteller’

By Ron Keurajian

The great Ty Cobb used to cut open basemen with spikes filed to a razor’s edge and pistol-whipped a man to death, or so one author would have liked you to believe.

Cobb’s ill-gotten reputation as a madman can be traced back to My Life in Baseball written by Al Stump. Released in 1961, it is a biography where Stump collaborated with Cobb in the year before the Tiger legend died. Cobb wanted to tell his story, and he would do it with this book. Unfortunately, once Cobb died, Stump knifed him in the back and published a book that was, sadly, gibberish fiction. For reasons unknown, Stump wanted Cobb to go down in history as the most hated man the game has ever seen. Regrettably, by taking advantage of a dying man, Stump succeeded.

012The Georgia Peach, Stumped by the Storyteller authored by Dr. William R. Cobb (no relation to Ty) is one of the most important research pieces ever written about baseball and the dubious world of sports memorabilia. It was originally published in the 2010 edition of The National Pastime by the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). This SABR award-winning piece has recently been expanded and re-released as a book. The foreword is written by baseball historian and industry watch-dog Peter Nash. It is available on Amazon for the bargain price of $4.99.

It is a tale of forgery, fraud and how Stump used his friendship with Cobb to perpetrate one of the biggest scams in the history of the memorabilia world, sports or otherwise.
Dr. Cobb’s book delves into the darkest moment of Cobb’s life. In 1905, shortly before Ty broke into the big leagues, Cobb’s father, Professor William Herschel Cobb, was accidentally shot and killed by Cobb’s mother, Amanda Chitwood Cobb. After Ty died, the shotgun used in the grisly killing was supposedly given to Stump, along with more of Ty’s personal effects. Stump claimed that Cobb had given him all of his worldly possessions and even produced a written document, attesting to the gifting. It was allegedly signed by Ty Cobb. Many years later, this document was exposed as a crude forgery. Stump had sold the shotgun for an undisclosed amount.

Dr. Cobb did exhaustive research to verify the shotgun story. As the book points out, the more he dug around, the less credible Stump’s shotgun story became. It is believed the shotgun has been bought and sold a few times for some serious money. The gun is owned by a former New York Yankees player, or so the story goes. As of this writing, the whereabouts of the gun remains a mystery. According to the book, Stump hyped the shotgun story. Unfortunately for Stump, the book illustrates a recently discovered Franklin County coroner’s report dated Aug. 9, 1905. The report states that “W. H Cobb came to his death by a pistol bullet wound.” The coroner’s report exposed Stump’s shotgun story as a lie. Professor Cobb was cut down by a revolver. The shotgun Stump sold is of little value.

There is a chapter in the book titled “What the Memorabilia Experts Know.” For the collector of baseball memorabilia, it is a must-read. It details how Stump used blank sheets of Ty’s stationery to create countless forged typed letters with stunning baseball content. One of the forged letters is illustrated in the book with Honus Wagner and Joe Jackson content. These letters were sold to unsuspecting collectors for some serious money. A genuine Cobb letter with such detailed baseball content would easily be worth $10,000 or more on the open market.

As Dr. Cobb writes, “he [Stump] either saved or created a large amount of additional material relating to Ty Cobb to sustain a newly found and profitable fascination with baseball memorabilia.”

The book illustrates other Cobb forgeries on photographs, letters and even a fake diary that ended up on display at the Baseball Hall of Fame. If the forged letters weren’t bad enough, other fake Cobb items such as trophies and engravings that originated from Stump are discussed. Auctioneer Josh Evans, who in the 1980s first suspected that material originating from Stump was fake, is quoted extensively in the book. The book recounts how Evans confronted Stump with regard to the questionable Cobb memorabilia. Evans even tried to initiate a police investigation against Stump. To satisfy the insatiable demand for Cobb relics, Stump likely went to flea markets, bought generic items and then added counterfeit engravings to give the illusion of Ty Cobb’s ownership. In essence, worthless material was transformed into priceless baseball treasure by simple deceit.

The saddest part about this story is the damage Stump did to Cobb’s name. Thanks to Stump, the history books have portrayed Cobb as a violent lunatic. Baseball historians and sports writers perpetuate the falsehoods. They cite Stump as their main source for information. In his book, Stump portrayed a dying Cobb as a gun-wielding, drug-crazed lunatic.

Dr. Cobb tracked down Emory Hospital personnel who cared for Cobb in his last weeks of life. The accounts of medical personnel show Cobb as an upbeat, likable and gentle patient, far different from Stump’s fabricated version of the old Tiger’s war horse.

Richly cited with source material, The Georgia Peach, Stumped by the Storyteller, is a must read for the baseball fan. If you are a collector of baseball memorabilia, the book offers valuable insight as to how far some people will go to scam others out of money. Dr. Cobb’s is to be applauded for this fine piece of investigative work. It is a must for any baseball library.

Flying blind
Over the past year or so, forgeries of early aviation legends have entered the market. Given the sound execution of the forgeries, they need to be discussed.

They have appeared on the Internet, including the auction site eBay. The main target of this forger appears to be vintage aviation autographs, but given his skill, I am sure other non-aviation forgeries exist.  Forgeries include Orville Wright, Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Ferdinand von Zeppelin, Italo Balbo, Hugo Eckener (signed as “Dr. Eckener”), Jimmy Doolittle, and Wiley Post and Harold Gatty. Forgeries of the less expensive signatures, such as Richard Byrd, C. E. Rosendahl and Canadian ace Billy Bishop also exist.

The forgeries are placed mostly on early commemorative airmail postal covers and vintage picture postcards. Many of the Lindbergh forgeries are placed on Lindbergh flown airmail covers which are postmarked in 1927 or 1928.

Given the complex nature of Doolittle and Zeppelin signatures, the forgeries of these two are exposed with little effort. The Earhart, Lindbergh, Post and Wright forgeries are very nice. Under careful examination, it becomes clear that the forger does not quite have the right hand speed. An extremely slight hesitation can be seen in the forgeries. Magnification enhances this ever-so-slight hesitation. The forgeries tend to be slightly mis-scaled. The Earhart forgeries have slightly more height than a genuine specimen. The Lindberghs tend to be a bit smaller than his flamboyant signature of the 1920s. Nonetheless, this forger’s product is very good.

These forgeries are being offered for sale at low prices, which should raise a warning flag. Wright, Earhart and Lindbergh signed covers are being offered for well under $500. These are very tricky, so careful examination is needed.

Ron Keurajian is a long time contributor to SCD and the author of Baseball Hall of Fame Autographs – A Reference Guide (McFarland Publishing 2012).

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