Swinging for the Fences (Or, I Will Not Be Pigeonholed)

On the afternoon of May 5, 1925, in St. Louis’ Sportsman’s Park, legendary Detroit Tiger Ty Cobb sat beside a sportswriter in the dugout before the game between the Tigers and the old St. Louis Browns.

sportsmanspark

 

“I’ll show you something today,” Cobb, then in the twilight of his playing days, at the age of thirty-eight, said.  “I’m going for home runs for the first time in my career.”

This was a bold proclamation for the player nicknamed The Georgia Peach, to this day the all-time leader in career batting average, at .366.

cobb2

 

For years, Cobb had tormented opposing pitchers with his seemingly robotic ability to hit safely and reach base.

cobbprecision

 

One of the game’s great competitors and nastiest personalities, the left-handed batter was almost universally disliked leaguewide.

cobbfierce2

 

Cobb’s reputation even followed him into the film Field of Dreams, a full sixty years after his playing days were over.  In one scene, when Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella talks with the legends of yesteryear, who magically appear in his cornfield, Shoeless Joe Jackson tells him, “Ty Cobb wanted to play, but none of us could stand [him] when we were alive, so we told ‘im to stick it!”

fieldofdreams

 

shoelessjoe

 

Cobb’s batting prowess was legendary.  He led the league in hitting twelve times in a thirteen-year span from 1907 through 1919, and hit over .400 three times in his career.  But while he did have extra-base power–his 724 career doubles rank 4th all time, and his 295 career triples rank second–Cobb was never a home run hitter.  His career best was 12, which he accomplished twice.

cobb1

 

To put that in context, it is important to note Cobb played the majority of his career in the “dead ball era,” where pitchers were allowed to throw spit balls, umpires rarely changed balls during the course of the game, and home runs were an afterthought.  In fact, in 1909, Cobb led the American League in homers with just 9.  It was a different game, one that valued stolen bases and fielding, sacrifice bunts and smarts.  This was the game Cobb grew up in, and the way he loved to play.

deadball

 

By 1925, when he sat in the dugout that spring day and claimed he was going to try to hit home runs for the first time in his career, the game had changed drastically.  Babe Ruth had come along, hitting home runs at a record pace.  In 1920, Ruth had smashed 54 homers; in 1921, 59–numbers that, at the time, seemed superhuman.

baberuth

 

Deep down, The Georgia Peach seethed.  He hated the long-ball game of Ruth.  He didn’t believe that was the way baseball was meant to be played.

But on May 6, 1925, he had a point to prove.  If he wanted to swing for the fences, if he wanted to emulate the Babe–he could.

“Just you wait,” he said.  “Just watch.”

****************

Ernest Hemingway once said, “When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters.  A character is a caricature.”

hemingway

 

When I think of caricatures, I think of one-dimensional characters who, by their very presence, are mere devices to drive a plot one way or the other.  It can be the larger-than-life hero who shows no weakness, cries no tears, and goes through the rigors and dangers of a daring adventure as if strolling through the park on a lazy summer afternoon.

hero

 

It can be the villain, evil to the core, who exists for the sole purpose of sowing seeds of death and destruction–and to serve as the foil for the protagonist.  We can see no shred of light, no ounce of compassion or goodness in this villain.  There is only the dark side–on every page.

bondjaws

 

The trouble with characters like these is obvious.  Real people just don’t operate this way.  Every hero cries at some point and has moments of weakness and doubt, not to mention a closet full of skeletons.  They may not always be tabloid material (though they certainly can be), but they do exist.  Every villain has a gentler side.  No one is 100% rotten to the core.  The same person who commits armed robbery one day does something selfless for someone they love on another.  It’s hard, and unfair, to place people in neat little boxes, labeled “Hero” or “Villain” or “Greedy” or “Altruistic.”

dontlabel

 

To steal a popular title, people are (at minimum) fifty shades of gray.

In The Eye-Dancers, it would be easy to label Mitchell Brant as the liar and storyteller, Ryan Swinton as the comedian, Joe Marma as the fighter, and Marc Kuslanski as the glasses-wearing nerd.  Certainly, at the beginning of the novel, this is how the characters are presented.  But it’s my hope that, as readers get to know them, and enter into their thoughts and fears, their hopes, their insecurities and self-doubts, the characters emerge multi-faceted, not so easily pigeonholed into a tight, snug corner.  Also, over the course of the story, the boys must confront challenges and situations that force them to view the world in a different light, to look in the mirror and determine whether or not they like what they see.

In short, they have to grow and adapt and overcome.  What results, I hope, are real people, not caricatures.

growth

 

******************

Ty Cobb hit three home runs that day, and two more the next–making good on his promise to “show them something.”  It was a brief flourish of power, a blip on the radar screen of his career built on speed, guile, and precision.

cobbspeed

 

Nevertheless, he had proved his point.  He wasn’t going to allow himself to be labeled as a “singles hitter,” a relic of the dead-ball era who couldn’t adapt to the changing conditions of 1920s baseball.  He could adapt if he wanted to.  He just chose not to.  He believed the game should be played a certain way, the old way, and that’s exactly how The Georgia Peach went about it.

cobbfierce

 

But for two days in May 1925, Ty Cobb went against the grain and stepped way outside of his comfort zone, showing a dimension of himself and his abilities previously unseen and unheard of.

A good fictional character should be able to do the same.

ontheedge

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

29 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Sue Dreamwalker
    Mar 07, 2014 @ 18:47:19

    Wonderful photo collection to enhance your post.. We give dish so many labels out… And yet none can really define the real character we each are… 🙂 Thank you for sharing
    Sue

    Reply

  2. Lyn
    Mar 07, 2014 @ 19:56:56

    Great post! You never cease to amaze me, Mike, how you can take a history lesson and turn it into a writing lesson 🙂 I know next to nothing about baseball, except you hit a ball with a stick, run and hope to get to a point on a diamond before being caught. LOL not unlike cricket in a way – except in cricket you run in a straight line and there are two of you doing the running 😀

    Reply

  3. jjspina
    Mar 07, 2014 @ 20:22:28

    Wonderfully done and great pics! I learned a little about Cobb and characterizations. Love your posts! Keep writing and creating extraordinary posts!

    Reply

  4. John W. Howell
    Mar 07, 2014 @ 21:41:04

    Really interesting. As a Detroit boy Cobb is still a hero and we don’t give a rip about the rest of the league’s opinion. Good story and great point on characters.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Mar 11, 2014 @ 18:07:40

      Thanks! And that’s very interesting how Cobb is still a hero in Detroit almost 100 years after his playing days in the city ended . . . I guess he will be a legend forever.

      Reply

  5. araneus1
    Mar 08, 2014 @ 01:02:16

    Excellent post and I liked how you kept us waiting till the end to find out how Ty got on. The Field of Dreams quote was also a nice touch.
    Terry

    Reply

  6. Mary J. McCoy-Dressel
    Mar 08, 2014 @ 15:35:21

    Excellent post, Mike. As usual. 🙂

    Reply

  7. reocochran
    Mar 08, 2014 @ 16:52:06

    The story about people being well rounded, not all perfect, is a very good reminder when we write about people and create characters. Ty Cobb was a great athlete, but apparently so focused on his skills, he annoyed his team mates and other baseball players. I think that could be also said about Babe Ruth! It is true for friends, we know their downfalls, yet love them. I have a Type A friend and coworker, who drives others’ crazy, but outside of work, she is compassionate and caring. I think ‘flaws’ can make a character interesting. I like the quotation! We need to make our characters, “living persons.” Thanks for this excellent post. Smiles, Robin

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Mar 11, 2014 @ 18:10:40

      Thanks, Robin! Yes, that is very true about coworkers! A lot of times people don’t like them on the job, but when they get to know them away from work, they see them in a different light . . .

      Reply

  8. Bruce Thiesen
    Mar 08, 2014 @ 16:57:32

    Great fun to read, Mike. But, he really was unworthy of the reunion at the Field of Dreams. He was just too mean.

    (I first learned about Ty Cobb as a child after reading a child’s book. None of the ugly stuff was mentioned, so I learned about hits and the nickname and such.)

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Mar 11, 2014 @ 18:11:59

      Thanks, Bruce! He was mean, no doubt. I read a biography about him a few years ago. Many of the things he did back then he couldn’t have got away with if he had been playing today.

      Reply

  9. insearchofitall
    Mar 09, 2014 @ 01:52:11

    I’m no sports fan but you kept me reading. I like how you teach this about your characters. No one is only one way. I have a box that is motion activated. It rattles back and forth and you hear a knock and a voice that says “Let me out of here” That was me and I wouldn’t want my characters to be boxed in either. Great lesson. Thanks.

    Reply

  10. stormy1812
    Mar 10, 2014 @ 06:47:54

    What I loved about “The Eye-Dancers” is that there were those labels (initially) but they served a purpose – at least in my eyes. I took it as being how others may have perceived those boys because they didn’t really know those four. As the boys get to know each other better, they get to know themselves better and that’s what helped make it real and relatable – at least in my opinion. I think to some degree part of their growing up was about learning to see themselves outside the labels they were given…they learned they didn’t have to be those labels. Some might call that maturing. As for Ty Cobb and baseball – baseball is far from my favorite sport, but I have really come to enjoy it immensely if nothing else because I cover high school sports for the paper I work for. It’s amazing how you can learn to like something much more simply by learning more about it. See what I did there? lol. Regardless, I’ve always loved baseball movies. I love the culture and the old time stories. I didn’t pay attention to stats but it’s interesting to learn about famed players and genuinely loved, or loathed, players because they were truly that good – not like players now who are probably on steroids. Ick. I loved reading this post now as I’ve just started in on my base/softball coverage for the high school this past week. The first games are coming up, and they’re still not my favorite sports, but I’m looking forward to the fans, the life and excitement that can come from the games. Another fabulous post! 🙂 Nicely written and all tied together well.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Mar 11, 2014 @ 18:15:49

      Thanks, Jen! It’s funny because I’m more of a baseball historian than present-day fan. Ask me about this year’s Yankees and I’ll shrug my shoulders. But ask me about the 1956 Yankees and I can tell you all about them.:) Few other sports have such a rich and interesting history.

      Reply

  11. evelyneholingue
    Mar 10, 2014 @ 23:01:56

    Another great piece of writing here. Plus a great baseball lesson for me – I still struggle with a few American must-know cultural things.
    Totally agree with creating people and not characters. Hard to do though, isn’t it?

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Mar 11, 2014 @ 18:17:26

      It is a challenge, yes.:) One of the keys I’ve learned the hard way over the years is allowing the characters to tell the story and not have me dictate to them. Leave them in charge. That’s hard to do! But it really pays off.

      Reply

  12. laurie27wsmith
    Mar 11, 2014 @ 03:42:42

    The sad thing is Michael some people I’ve known have been caricatures. I’ve come across a couple of people in my work over the years that have had no redeeming qualities about them at all. One, a child killer doing time in the jail I worked in. Even if he was serving time for anything else he would have been the most obnoxious person I’d ever met. My antagonists range from an urbane, suave psychopathic child killer, to a dyed in the wool ex SS torturer. These people can appear to have some semblance of humanity but it’s only a shaky façade. I’ve been fortunate or perhaps unfortunate to have witnessed true evil at work, by a person who a few minutes later could put on the face of a loving dad. My point is this, yes a person can be purely evil in intent and actions, and at the same time show a face that for all intents and purposes is ‘normal.’ I think the mistake we make, is trying too hard to find this normalcy in those who have created mayhem and murder for their own ends. It’s as if we don’t want to believe that one of the herd is a monster. They look like us, talk, eat, drink and live like us yet, they have a madness lurking inside them that we fear in ourselves. My protagonists are human, with all of the attendant frailties. Sadly I know nothing about baseball, other than a ball in the cojones hurts like hell.
    Cheers
    Laurie.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Mar 11, 2014 @ 18:22:05

      That’s a great point about evil. And you’re right. I think the “perfect” hero is a myth, pure and simple. But the purely evil villain–as you say, they do sometimes exist. I still think nearly everyone has at least some redeeming qualities. But I can’t disagree that purely evil people are out there. I think people are always fascinated by them, too–why are they that way? What went wrong? Were they born evil, or without a conscience? Despite the advances in medical technology, in some ways, we’ll never know the answers fully. There will probably always remain some mystery.

      Reply

      • laurie27wsmith
        Mar 12, 2014 @ 00:16:03

        My wife and I discussed this post yesterday in the car and we talked about evil. We came to the conclusion, if a person continues to commit acts of great evil: Genghis Khan, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, and the countless people over time who have visited murder and rapine on the innocents, then turn around and say, ‘But I love, dog’s, horses, fluffy kittens etc.’ To my way of thinking these don’t count as redeeming qualities, they don’t cancel out what they’ve done. With the advances in genetics we know that there are diseases that come down through families. Is a child born pure and innocent, probably? Add environment, nature, nurture, experience and you end up with a huge assortment of heroes, villains and ordinary folk

  13. myfavesjournal
    Mar 13, 2014 @ 16:45:28

    Awesome pictures! I love the “Don’t Label Me” baseball t-shirt.

    Reply

  14. maryamchahine
    Mar 14, 2014 @ 16:31:44

    Baseball is my least favorite sport, but that little history lesson and biography of Cobb was interesting to read. I like your point about creating people and not characters in stories. The more insecurities and flaws a character has, the more we see them as a person and not just a character in a story. I liked the Eye-Dancers because they seemed real boys and not just characters. Each had an insecurity or flaw which made me relate. Although we live in a society that promotes “I’m perfect just the way I am!”, that is not realistic or healthy. We all have flaws and as readers, we like a story more when we can relate to the people in the story who are facing their own challenges. Great post!

    Reply

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