A Wild Boar In Winter

There are many folks who would say that Ty Cobb -- who still holds the record for the highest lifetime batting average -- was the greatest baseball player of all time. There are even a few people -- some of the old ballplayers he anonymously supported with his considerable fortune -- who'd say he was a great guy. But just about everybody else who ever crossed the path of this raging, bullheaded bigot and misanthrope would likely call him the meanest sonofabitch in the business. ""I was the most hated man in baseball,'' says the 73-year-old Cobb (Tommy Lee Jones) in Ron Shelton's movie. It's a boast.

does not flinch from depicting this all-American bully in all his foul glory. Shelton's not interested in making a conventional biopic -- mercifully, this is not ""The Babe.'' It's not really a sports movie at all, but an investigation into the nature of our need to create heroic myths. That it arrives while the nation is grappling with the image/reality conundrum of O. J. Simpson adds bitter provocation.

""Cobb's'' vantage point comes from sportswriter Al Stump, the author of two books on the man called the Georgia Peach. Stump (Robert Wuhl) is summoned in 1960 to the ailing superstar's Nevada mountain lodge. Cobb wants him to write his life story -- a glorious tale of baseball triumphs and record-breaking feats. Stump is turned on by the idea of encountering greatness -- and appalled by the alcoholic, hate-filled egotist he encounters. Cobb beats up and nearly rapes a Reno cigarette girl (the excellent Lolita Davidovich), and when he takes the stage at Harrah's, launches into a racist diatribe against blacks and Jews. As Cobb's traveling companion in the last year of his life, Stump traps himself in a morally untenable position. Should he betray Cobb and write the truth about him, or should he betray his sense of truth and publish the official myth?

Shelton obviously has a love-hate thing for cantankerous, intransigent old goats: his first fact-based movie, ""Blaze,'' was about Earl Long. ""Cobb'' is more satisfying because it has some of the ribald, manic spirit of his looser fictional films, ""Bull Durham'' and ""White Men Can't Jump.'' There's a ghastly dark humor in the spectacle of Cobb's don't-give-a-damn rages. Jones may not look old enough for the part, but in every other way he's belligerently perfect, a wild boar in winter, a tragicomic King Leer. Wuhl, best known as a comic second banana, is competent, but somewhat overpowered. The one failing of Shelton's smart, uncompromising script is that too many of the Stump-Cobb scenes fall into a repetitious pattern: there's only so much drama you can get out of Stump's wrestling match with his conscience. But ""Cobb'' is a refreshingly spiky antidote to all the Hollywood paeans to the glory of the game. Ty Cobb approached baseball as he approached life: take no prisoners and leave scorched earth behind you. His greatness and his monstrosity can't be untangled. ""Cobb'' allows us to honor his achievements, but with no false illusions. It puts the ball in our hands: if this is an American hero, we need to figure out why.