December 12, 1994 12:00 PM

Tommy Lee Jones, Robert Wuhl, Lolita Davidovich

A curiously gripping amalgam of Patton, Citizen Kane and Melvin and Howard, this movie is not really about its titular subject, baseball great Ty Cobb. Nor is it in any sense a baseball movie. The focus instead is the symbiotic relationship that developed in the early 1960s between Cobb (Jones) and sportswriter-ghostwriter Al Stump (Wuhl) while they were working on Cobb’s autobiography, My Life in Baseball.

Cobb, still often called the greatest baseball player ever even though he flourished more than 60 years ago (from 1905 to 1928, with the Detroit Tigers and Philadelphia Athletics), was also a violent, arrogant, abusive, vulgar, manipulative, bigoted, pretentious tyrant. By the time he got together with Stump, he was a sick old tyrant, afflicted with, among other things, cancer, heart disease, diabetes and impotence.

Writer-director Ron Shelton (White Men Can’t Jump) shapes the story as a kind of mystery leading to a twist on the oft-told tale that Cobb saw his mother fatally shoot his father after she had mistaken him for a burglar. Although the real Stump served as a technical adviser on the film, he allowed Shelton and Wuhl to portray him as a gullible nerd. Cobb is written as a caricatured Southerner, as glibly irascible and surrealistically loudmouthed as Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman.

Jones’s acting doesn’t need much broadening these days, but he fits his performance into Shelton’s bombastic script; there’s scarcely a hint of subtlety. He does, though, effectively suggest some of the anguish the great athlete must have felt as his panther’s body deteriorated underneath him.

Wuhl does his standard, affable job, while Davidovich has only a few minutes as a Reno cigarette girl with whom both Jones and Wuhl become briefly smitten. The only real athlete in the film is Boston Red Sox star Roger Clemens, who plays a pitcher in one of the few live-action scenes (Shelton does show the real Cobb in old black-and-white footage).

Shelton’s script is on the prosaic side. He borrows his best line, without attribution, from old slugger Lefty O’Doul, attributing to Cobb himself the punch line of a famous anecdote in which a student asked O’Doul, in the 1960s, how well Cobb would hit against modern pitchers. (“Maybe .340,” O’Doul said, and when the student wondered why Cobb would hit that low, O’Doul added, “You have to remember: the man is 72 years old.”) Still, Cobb remains a fascinating personality who, as Stump’s sometime colleague Ed Linn once said of Ted Williams, was “sometimes unbearable but never dull.” (R)

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