The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Heart of a Tiger: Book Review

What images come to mind at the mention of the name, Ty Cobb?  Do you picture a snarling, angry man, sliding into third base, spikes high?  A racist racing into the crowd to beat up a defenseless invalid?  A man to be feared, perhaps grudgingly respected, but almost always despised?  Now ask yourself, where does that picture come from?

In the book, “Heart of a Tiger:  Growing Up With My Grandfather, Ty Cobb,” we are introduced to not an entirely different Ty Cobb than we’ve become used to hearing about, but to a much more fully developed account of a human life.  This is not, as you might think at first blush, a biography bordering on hagiography.  In fact, strictly speaking, it’s not truly a biography at all.  It is a moving account, by turns harrowing, tender and stark, of a deeply forged relationship between a man entering his twilight years, and his grandchildren.  Specifically, it is a narrative about how Ty Cobb, for all practical purposes, saves the lives of his three grandchildren from the destructive emotional and physical abuse they suffer at the hands of their parents.

Herschel Cobb, the author of this 279 page tale, is the middle child of three, and the son of Ty Cobb’s own son, also named Hershel Cobb.  Ty Cobb’s relationship with his son, Hershel, and with his daughter-in-law was fraught with tension, suspicion and animosity.  Little Hershel, the author, was his father’s favorite target for physical abuse on a pathological level that needs to be read to be believed, and his mother was, if anything, even more cruel and terrifying.

Herschel and his siblings, Susan and Kit, were fortunate, however, to spend part of several summers at their granddaddy’s cabin at Lake Tahoe.  In the 1950′s and early ’60′s, it became a refuge for three weeks per year away from the terror and neglect they experienced  when they weren’t lucky enough to be at school.  It is in this milieu that little Hersch’s relationship with his grandfather is forged.

Ty Cobb was clearly looking for a second chance in his life to nurture and experience the love that he failed to both give and receive as a young man.  Clearly tortured by his past, his determination to become a better man is evident throughout the tales recounted by his forever grateful grandson.  While this may not excuse the sins of his past, it does suggest that Cobb was not the one-dimensional sociopath that has come down to us in history.

Al Stump, who wrote a sensationalized portrait of Ty Cobb that was supposedly the “unvarnished truth” about Cobb is revealed by Herschel Cobb (who met Stump as a young teen) as a shady, creepy fraud who Herschel once caught stealing autographed photos directly out of Cobb’s personal study.  Yet, it is largely the Cobb that Stump more or less invented that has become the Cobb we believe to be the true man.  Such is history.

This is not strictly speaking a baseball book, but Cobb is clearly proud of his accomplishments on the baseball diamond, and he is generous later in life with the money he received both due to his professional accomplishments as well as his wise investments in Coca-Cola as well as in other firms.  Nor do we experience through Hersch’s book an obvious racist or unreconstructed Southerner.  The reason for this is clear:  Hersch only writes about what he experienced first-hand with his grandfather.  The specifics of this tale are not often easy to read, but they are poignant and precise, and present a much fuller account of Cobb, Sr. than we are likely to find anywhere else.

Ty Cobb safe at third after making a triple, 8...

Ty Cobb safe at third after making a triple, 8/16/[19]24. 1 negative (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For the baseball fan, though, there are moments in the book that will satisfy, such as Cobb’s version of how he viewed base-running, his relationship with Babe Ruth, the players he thought were the best whom he ever played against, and which players were his friends or foes.  Cobb’s memories of these players and events are ultimately enlightening and plausible.

Cobb clearly missed the game as he grew older, and was obviously happy to reunite on occasion with those few players he remained close to until the end of his life.  While there were clearly many players who hated him (which he does not try to deny), what comes across is how his hyper-competitiveness contributed to how and why his foes on the field targeted him in the first place.

Not unlike a young Bryce Harper, Cobb was a very young man when he broke into the Majors at age 18 in 1905, and was viewed by the veteran’s (often not nearly as talented as Cobb was) as a cocky upstart who needed to be put in his place.  When Cobb fought back (as Harper has on occasion) many were quick to judge him (in the press as well as among his peers) as a brash, arrogant youth who didn’t respect the game or his peers.  As far as Cobb was concerned, he was out there to win ballgames, not friends.

Which brings us full circle back to Herschel Cobb’s story.  As Hersch (as his grandfather calls him throughout the book) grows from a young boy to a young man, Cobb, Sr. sees something of himself in this particular grandchild.  But the life lessons that Ty Cobb teaches Hersch by word and example go well beyond sports and baseball.  They are lessons of trust, humility, inner-strength and love.  In the end, Cobb needs his grandchildren as much as they needed him.  As a result, they all get a second chance to experience a better quality of life than any of them otherwise would have.

When all is said and done, who among us wouldn’t appreciate a second chance to right the wrongs, to rectify our past, if given the chance?  That Ty Cobb took this opportunity and made the most of it, creating a happy and safe environment for three innocent children experiencing suffering beyond comprehension, is ultimately a final legacy that should be respected, in a tale that needed to be told.

If you read only one book about Ty Cobb in your life, this is the one for you.

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27 thoughts on “Heart of a Tiger: Book Review

  1. i have nominated you for the The Liebster award

  2. Pingback: Author appearance: Herschel Cobb

  3. how does that song go? “Even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked.“ Anyone who thinks Cobb was an asshole and only an asshole should invest in 3-d glasses. Even Hitler probably had his charming points. This is perfect timing Bill with November barking at the door. Winter is boring so we read baseball books. This sounds like an interesting psychological dig by a not so impartial family member. That`s the way I like it. Biased and emotional rather than cold and objective. I`m gonna try and order this one from the library or amazon, read it , and get back to you. Thanks for the market.

  4. Mike Cornelius on said:

    Well done as always Bill. Thanks for bringing this book to the attention of your readers. A useful reminder that whether good or bad, hero or villain, the simple image that we have of most public figures seldom captures their true complexity.

    On another note, talk about a multi-generational dysfunctional family! Wow.

    Mike

    • Yeah, I guess those cycles, once established, are very hard to break. It reminds me of the cynical lines in the Lou Reed song, “Endless Cycle.”:
      Better than their mommy or their daddy did
      Better than the childhood they suffered
      The truth is they’re happier when they’re in pain
      In fact, that’s why they got married.

      Thanks for reading,
      Bill

  5. Thanks for the heads up on a book I’d never heard about. Strange, but I never really think about these guys as family men. The ballplayer part of their lives seems to always overwhelm the other aspects of their lives, at least for me.
    v

  6. Glen Russell Slater on said:

    Thanks for a well-written and informative review. I’ll definitely want to read it.

    I will say this, however. With all due respect (or overdue respect if you don’t return it to the library on time), I don’t agree with you that “If you read only one book about Ty Cobb in your life, this is the one for you.” I think that a person should read more than one side of a story. That’s why I feel that Stump’s side of it is valuable, too. Even Stump’s original, goody-two shoes book about Cobb, written and published while Cobb was alive, which actually was the one that was manufactured. I never heard that what Stump said in his more recent Ty Cobb book was “manufactured”. And I found it fascinating. Did I miss something??? What parts, specifically, of the second Stump biography of Ty Cobb was “manufactured”?

    Glen

    • Hi Glen, Thanks for the kind words. I Don’t think people should read just one account of a persons life if they want to get a full picture of what that person was really like. But if someone chose to read just one book about Cobb, I think this is one that may be the most eye-opening of all, because it’s not just about his life as a ballplayer. It’s about who he was as a human being. As for Stump, since his entire purpose in life was to write the most sensational account of Cobb that he could possibly write, and went as far as attempting to bribe Cobb’s housekeeper for info that would make Cobb look bad, I tend to think that his personal lack of integrity fatally compromises his credibility as a story-teller. That’s not to say that Cobb didn’t do and say some rotten things. But there’s more to the story than that.
      Take care,
      Bill

  7. Bill,

    Thanks for the great review. I will keep an eye out for this one.

    Allan

  8. Wow, interesting that Cobb had children who themselves became abusive but then he tried to “protect” his grandchildren. Cobb had to have been a fascinating character, I always knew he couldn’t just be the bastard he was always depicted as. He had to have been multifaceted, and it’s good to hear he showed some evolution in his old age. Might have to check out this book now – always been a fan of Cobb as a player. Thanks for this article!

    • Yeah, it’s quite a story. If you pick up the book and read it, let me know what you thought. I’d be curious to know. It might be time for a reevaluation of him as a person, if not as the great player he was.
      Thanks for reading,
      Bill

  9. Added to my “must read list” thanks!

  10. It is interesting. A couple years ago I listened to a perhaps 15-minute radio interview of Cobb that Grantland Rice did in 1930 (available at http://archive.org/details/Coca-Cola_Top_Notchers), and Cobb comes across as much wiser, considerate, and likable than he does in the tales about him. It permanently changed my conception of Cobb.

    • I’ll definitely be checking out that interview. In retrospect, it in interesting how easily Cobb became a “villain” in the public mind, and how people seem to need a bad guy to counterbalance the hero-worship of, for example, Babe Ruth.
      Thanks for the link,
      Bill

  11. I like stories of redemption, so this sounds pretty cool. I am suspicious of any one account, however. When you adore someone (as Cobb’s grandson apparently did him), you’re still not capturing the actual person (as much as it can be said you can capture anyone in the pages of a book), but at least it makes for more pleasant reading.

    • Hi Smak, You’re right about Cobb’s grandson having every reason to be biased. It’s the particulars of the story, though, that will hold your attention. The book is not what I would call a conventional bio. It’s more like a horror story where the main character lives to tell the tale, mostly due to the acts of one other person who just also happens to have been a famous baseball player. But your point is well-taken.
      Cheers, man
      Bill

  12. Given Cobb’s relationship with his father, there’s hell of a Cobb novel waiting to be written.

  13. I’ll definitely look this book up! I was taken in by Al Stump as well … and I’m still disappointed that the movie “Cobb” continues to shill Stump’s tale. (Even MLB shows the movie a couple times a year, complete with Bob Costas’ thoughts, and doesn’t mention how shady Al Stump was and how he manufactured good chunks of the story for his own gain.) That said, Ty Cobb was a mean old player (as many of them were back then, and, come to think of it, still are). But, an interesting one. I’m just filling up the off-season reading list and I’ll add this to it.

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