South Lake Tahoe to the heart of (Ty Cobb’s) darkness

Minden, Nev., Nov. 21: On Tuesday we left the safety of the Pollock Pines Safeway and followed U.S. 50 east, which parallels the South Fork of the American River (known as Rios de los Americanos until long about 1846) and climbs upward toward Echo Summit, elevation 7,377 feet.
We had neatly sidestepped a recent storm, but Max nonetheless went crazy upon seeing the snow blanketing both sides of the highway. We pulled over and engaged in a brief snowball fight. Not enough to satisfy Max, but better than nothing.
In another 12 miles U.S. 50 ceased earning its sobriquet as the “Loneliest Road in America” as it gave way to howling tourist clutter that lies at the heart of South Lake Tahoe, Calif. Soon after that we stopped at a McDonald’s outpost which appeared, as it always does.
Oh, Mickey McDonald’s, how you seduce us without conscience.
A cursory look at the books reveals we spent $69.72 at various McDonald’s outposts from western Washington to eastern California in the first nine days of our trip. This is the price we paid for “free” wifi access at the House of the Yellow Arches.
Gotta stop this shit and get right with all that is decent and reasonable in the universe.
Maybe $7.75 a day is a reasonable price to pay for vagabond Internet access. Maybe the anti-McDonald’s sentiment is the residue of too many visits in too short a time. Maybe it’s a hangover left by the dilapidated indoor playground at the South Lake Tahoe McDonald’s.
Sadly, the better part of the tally comes from my addiction to the sugar-sweet, chocolate-infused faux-coffee they call the mocha. I never drank coffee of any kind before arriving in the Pacific Northwest. Then one day I learned you could simulate coffee’s stimulating effect by getting a hot chocolate laced with a couple shots of espresso. It was a delicious epiphany, and I’ve been paying for it ever since.
South Lake Tahoe affronts the eyes with all the baubles and geegaws a tourist mecca can deliver, with the possible exception of casinos. It has more wedding chapels per square mile than Las Vegas. Maybe it just seems that way.
Black tar heroin from Mexico has reached the shores of South Lake Tahoe, which sits amid the distribution route from Stockton, Calif., to Reno. An August story from the North Lake Tahoe bonanza reported South Lake Tahoe had suffered 19 deaths by heroin overdose in the past 18 months.
Dueling casinos, Harvey’s and Harrah’s, rise out of the desert earth like twin sentinels guarding the Nevada state line in Stateline, Nevada. Harrah’s, on the south side of the road, advertised a Rolling Stones vs. Beatles shootout for the coming weekend. Mick vs. Paul? John vs. Keith? George Harrison going mano a mano with Brian Jones in a battle of dead guitarists?
Ringo stepping into the ring with Charlie Watts?
Bloody hell. I wish I had seen it.
We turned right on highway 207, known to locals as the Kingsbury Grade. It twists and turns and climbs more than 1,000 feet to Daggett Pass, where the 7334-foot summit offers a sweeping panorama of the Carson Valley 2,500 feet below.
On the way down Kingsbury Grade’s precipitous slopes, I thought of a memorable scene from “Cobb,” the Ron Shelton film starring Tommy Lee Jones as the tormented baseball great and Robert Wuhl as Al Stump, his handpicked biographer. Mad with sociopathic glee, Cobb is at the wheel of Stump’s car, barreling down a torturous mountain road in the teeth of a blizzard in the middle of the night.
Cobb’s hunting lodge in Glenbrook, Nev., is not far from Minden, which sits amid the broad, fertile plain of the Carson Valley. Glenbrook’s on the western edge of Lake Tahoe, in Douglas County.
On a hell-bent excursion to Reno in search of a hooker, the cinematic Cobb’s seen popping pills and slugging Jim Beam while careening and fishtailing along the perilous, snow-covered route 50. They make it to Reno, but only after Cobb wrecks both their cars. Once there he gets thrown out of a couple casinos before attempting to rape a cigarette girl (after prying her away from Stump by knocking him unconscious).
As an aside, I always liked the scene at the casino with Cobb on stage with Louis Prima, who asks the wizened star what he figures he’d hit against modern pitchers. Cobb says about .290, to which a flabbergasted Prima says why, you were a .367 lifetime hitter.
Cobb’s answer? “I’m 72 fucking years old, you ignorant son of a bitch.”
Sadly, the Cobbian obstreperousness that made the movie so charming is probably all a work of the imagination.
After watching the movie, I read Stump’s “Cobb: A Biography.” That was a follow-up to “My Life in Baseball: The True Record,” published in 1961, the year Cobb died. Stump, the book’s ghostwriter, called the first book a “cover-up,” a whitewashed hagiography of baseball’s most tempestuous and reviled player.
Cobb died on July 17, 1961, and Doubleday had the “True Record” on the shelves within two months. In December, the pulp periodical True Magazine published Stump’s “Ty Cobb’s Wild 10-Month Fight to Live,” which laid the groundwork for the prevailing image of the misanthropic Georgia Peach.
And now I am stunned to discover Stump’s “true” portrayal of Cobb as a raging monster and parsimonious millionaire is, well, more than a bit false. Turns out Stump, who died in 1995, the year after Shelton’s film came out, was a prodigious charlatan.
I was skeptical when I came across a section of Stump’s Wikipedia entry titled “Accusations of forgery.” Those accusations are based on an exhaustive deconstruction of Stump’s journalistic malpractice in The National Pastime, published by the Society for American Baseball Research, by William “Ron” Cobb.
What’s more, I had no interest in revising my opinion of Ty Cobb. I liked him as the gun-toting, lawless Neanderthal who spiked opposing players without discretion, hated blacks and women with equal virulence and once even tore a man’s face off in a Detroit alley with the raised sight of his Belgian pistol.
The writer’s name is Cobb, after all, and he’s an adviser to the Ty Cobb Museum in the Hall of Famer’s hometown, Royston, Ga. I figured this was a revisionist attempt by a fellow Georgia racist to restore Cobb’s membership in the human race by unjustly tearing down Stump’s reputation.
But, well, the truth and all that rot. If you’re willing to, with malice aforethought, underscore over and over again the hypocritical gulf dividing the myth and reality of America, you have to be willing to entertain the notion that maybe the Ty Cobb we love to hate is not the same as the Ty Cobb who terrorized American League pitchers for 24 years.
After reading Ron Cobb’s piece and poking about the Internet a bit, well, wow.
Stump played fast and loose with the story of the death of Cobb’s father, and that’s just the beginning. Cobb certainly never killed a man in a Detroit alley. Stump seems to have at best sensationalized Cobb’s malignant traits and at worst fabricated them.
The bitter feud between Cobb and Ted Williams? Never happened. And that’s just the tip of the specious iceberg.
Stump somehow (larceny) got his hands on Cobb’s official letterhead and went to work creating a storehouse of spurious memorabilia. He even signed the letters with green ink, a Cobb trademark. Years later he sold off forged Cobb memorabilia to collectors, and one of his forged Cobb diaries was on exhibit at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
Al Stump is the man most responsible for creating the prevailing image of Cobb as a brawling, murderous, tempestuous son of a bitch and a megalomaniacal racist.
“He was a racist, but 99 out of 100 white Georgians were racists in Cobb’s day,” late sportswriter Jack McDonald wrote in 1990 in a review of a play about Cobb in San Diego that certainly was informed by Stump’s work. “It was the curse of his era. But in his will, Cobb made sure that black students got their share of the scholarships.”


Ah, nostalgia.

As an aside, perhaps Cobb was less a racist than his Georgia peers. Maybe less even than some contemporary Georgians.
I met a guy named Roy the other day, a salt-of-the-earth type from Green Bay. Not long ago he spent two years working in Georgia, about an hour east of Atlanta.
One night, Roy said, he was on his way to join some some friends and coworkers at a house party. They called and asked him to pick up some booze. He did a GPS search and drove to the nearest liquor emporium. It was in the heart of a black neighborhood, and he was received coldly. Nonetheless, he made his purchase and was on his way.
Startled by the interaction, he told the story upon arriving at the party. And what was the reaction of his audience? Roy says, and I have no reason to think he’s a storyteller in the tradition of Al Stump, that several of his fellow revelers refused to touch the booze simply because it was purchased in a liquor store in a black neighborhood.
Well, I’ll be. On top of that, Roy informs me that Monroe, Ga., a city of little more than 13,000 residents, has not one but two pool halls. One of them is used by blacks.
The other has a sign on the door which reads, “No coloreds.”
And just when you thought Jim Crow was dead and buried. Golly. Just didn’t see it coming. Perhaps we’ll make it to Monroe to verify Roy’s story of separate-but-equal throwbacks.
Not that Roy has an axe to grind. His experience suggests all sides share blame.
“The street runs both ways,” he said.


Update, Nov. 24, Bishop, California: It’s quarter till eight on a Saturday night, and we’re in winsome Bishop, situated between the muscular, snowy Sierra Nevada on the west and the White Mountains to the east. We’ll soon have dueling national parks on either side of us, King’s Canyon to the west and Death Valley to the east.
We still haven’t kicked our McDonald’s habit. We’ve been here for several hours, while I scribble and Max struts about the playplace telling anyone who’ll listen that he’s gonna be a nature scientist.
Dammit, dammit, dammit. We are addicts. They say the first step is admitting you have a problem. And god knows we have a problem.
We spent another $9 or so today. That’s higher than our average McDonald’s expenditure. I had planned to offer a detailed analysis of our spending habits, but Becky threw the receipt away. Then I berated her for such carelessness.
Not counting the tax, the breakdown:
Me: large mocha, $3.49
Becky: large caramel frappe, $3.49
Max: 3 chocolate chip cookies, $1
Oh, the humanity!
What will become of us?
Speaking of Max, today he asked if we could stay in nature tonight and not at Walmart so he can “wake up in nature.”
Hard to be a nature scientist in the crudely lit aisles of your average Walmart Super Center.
Becky’s researching camping options offered by the Bureau of Land Management. They are plentiful apparently, though you are advised to keep an eye out for illegal marijuana operations.
You’ll probably never stumble on one, the literature assures. But if you do, you know, 21st century Deliverance.
Be careful out there, wherever you are. And don’t believe everything you read.

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One Response to South Lake Tahoe to the heart of (Ty Cobb’s) darkness

  1. Pingback: May 14, Anniston, Alabama | Uncle Sam's Backyard

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