The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the category “Baseball Books”

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.

“Calico Joe” – A Baseball Book Review

You’re probably more familiar with the works of John Grisham than I am.

I’ve seen a couple of movies based on his books — “The Firm” and “The Client” –but I’d never actually read one of his novels.  Based on my experience reading “Calico Joe,” I will have to go back and rectify that mistake.

“Calico Joe” is a 194-page masterpiece of story-telling that has become one of my favorite fictional baseball tales of all time.  I picked it up on a whim at my local public library.  I sat down with it after my kids went to sleep, and stayed up until almost 2:00 a.m. the next morning enraptured by this stunning story.

Let me tell you about it.  Set in the summer of 1973, as well as the present, the story is told to us through the eyes of Paul Tracy, son of fictitious Mets pitcher Warren Tracy.  The Mets and Cubs are locked in a mid-season pennant race.  Young Paul is a huge Mets fan, and, of course, wants badly to root for his dad.

But Paul’s dad has little interest in what his son Paul wants and needs from him.  Warren prefers the nightlife, and is often abusive to Paul and his mom.  Paul’s tenuous loyalty to his dad is then abruptly tested by Joe Castle, a young phenom just called up by the Cubs due to injuries to some of their other players.

“Calico Joe,” as the press begins to call him, is an immediate sensation like nothing baseball has ever seen before.  He breaks rookie record after record, and baseball fans all over the country become virtual Cubs fans overnight as the nation is riveted by the unbelievable on-field exploits of “Calico Joe,” who hails from a small town in the Ozarks.

Warren Tracy, fighting for his career as the Mets fourth starter behind Seaver, Koosman and Matlack, is also suddenly in a fight for his son’s loyalty, if not for his love.  The inevitable on-field confrontation between the young phenom and the journeyman pitcher yields tragic results, expertly handled by an author at the top of his game (no pun intended.)

Unlike other baseball novels in which the story-line revolves primarily around a father-son axis, this one jettisons all saccharine melodrama from the start.  Told in starkly rendered primary colors of love and hate, there is no ambiguity in how this son feels about his dad.  His entire adult life, as is true for many of us, is irrevocably shaped by the history of his relationship, or lack thereof, with his father.

An aging Warren Tracy, later riddled with cancer, is confronted by his angry, uncompromising son who demands that  his father face his sordid past, and  make amends for it.  The emotional storm between them unfolds like a Gulf hurricane, gathering power slowly and deliberately, before unleashing its fury.

Joe Castle himself is the vehicle through which the story is told.  His character is the tragic center of the universe that mirrors all the hope and ultimate despair that confronts humanity in general, and many young ball players in particular.  His archetype, the handsome young man from nowhere who bursts onto the scene and into the hearts of an adoring public, is classic American mythology.  Yet seldom has this archetype been handled as deftly as it has in “Calico Joe.”

For baseball fans, you will delight in the recreation here of the 1973 N.L. East pennant race, and in the recalling of so many stars of that era, including Tom Seaver, Johnny Bench, Willie Mays (who has a “cameo”), Catfish Hunter and so many others.  If you’re lucky enough to still have some of your old baseball cards, you may be tempted to pull them out of whatever shoe-box you’ve stored them in all these years to recapture some of the magic of when you first pulled them out of a Topps wax pack.

Keeping in mind that this is a novel, the dates, schedule and scores in the story are not necessarily accurate to real life, nor are they intended to be.  But you can feel the excitement in the batting cage when the rookie takes his first batting practice, and you can practically hear the crowd in your head during the ultimate showdown between protagonist and antagonist in a mid-summer Shea Stadium sell-out.

There are, of course, obvious parallels between actual young players today like Bryce Harper (and Mike Trout), and the fictitious Joe Castle.  Most of us realize what precious commodities they are to baseball, and, freed momentarily from our ever-present, and not always pleasant, real-life responsibilities, to our ability to dream.

Yet sometimes, as in “Calico Joe,” dreams have the life-span of soap bubbles.

The question, then, is how do move on?  And what role, if any, does the act of forgiveness play when life’s tale is nearly spent? In short, can a son ever really forgive a father for his dad’s utter, ugly humanity?

Grisham pushes the reader into some uncomfortable emotional territory, but respects the reader enough to provide his or her own answers to these compelling questions.

If you read just one baseball novel this summer, allow John Grisham’s “Calico Joe” to expertly and efficiently transport you into a time and place as magical as any ballgame you fondly remember, in a world that, for better and worse, looks a lot like our own.

“The First Fall Classic”: A Baseball Book Review

Mike Vaccaro’s book, “The First Fall Classic,” published by Doubleday Books, is a lively, engaging, and well-researched look at the 1912 World Series between the New York Giants and the Boston Red Sox.  If there is just one book you might ever want to read about baseball in the pre-Babe Ruth years, this is the one for you.

The strength of this book lies in Mr. Vaccaro’s obvious enthusiasm for his subject matter.  He has an eye for details, and his book is ripe full of engaging little moments where we feel not like the reader of a book, but like an eaves-dropper listening in to a fascinating story.

An example of this occurs early on, when Tris Speaker, the Red Sox center-fielder, hits a monster home run during batting practice, witnessed by several of the Giants players.  In Vaccaro’s words:

There was an audible gasp, then instant silence.  It was the longest ball anyone had ever seen hit in this stadium, or in any of the previous three stadiums bearing the name, “Polo Grounds.”

“Holy smoke,” Fred Merkle said, loud enough for McGraw to hear.

“You know how many runs they get for that, Merkle?  They get zero runs for that.  Next time I catch you admiring their work it’ll cost you twenty-five bucks.”

The book is organized in such a way that, for the most part, each chapter is a self-contained, one-act drama about each of the eight (yes, eight) World Series games that year.  The final chapter, however, is entirely dedicated to the climactic tenth inning of the final game, a showdown between Smoky Joe Wood and Christy Mathewson.

We can feel the tension that Mathewson and his manager, John McGraw, felt being so close to their first World’s Championship since 1905.  But with 30 game winner Wood in the way, it was far from a done deal.

The cast of characters throughout this book, both baseball and civilian, is wide-ranging and colorful.  We are updated throughout regarding the 1912 Presidential election campaigns of Teddy Roosevelt of the independent Bull Moose Party, Democrat Woodrow Wilson, and incumbent President, and huge (both literally as well as figuratively) baseball fan, William Taft.

The baseball action on the field is also complemented by a sensationalist, headline grabbing murder trial involving a police lieutenant on a special vice squad, Charles Becker, who was charged with murdering a Jewish bookie named Herm Rosenthal.  Headlines of the day called it, “The Trial of the Century.”   At times, even the proceedings of the murder would be  interrupted, however, by news of the World Series.

In fact, reading about how much the 1912 Series affected virtually the whole country, one is left with the sobering realization that even though baseball today remains one of our most popular escapist leisure activities, it just doesn’t occupy the same place in America’s consciousness the way it did a hundred years ago.

This book review is not the time or the place to speculate as to why that is, but it is clear that ballplayers a hundred years ago were, from a socioeconomic standpoint, closer to the average American citizen than they are today.

Players like Giants second baseman Larry Doyle, Red Sox outfielder Red Murray, and Giants pitcher Jeff Tesreau, emerged from coal mines, farms, small Atlantic seaboard hamlets, and remote country hollows.  With a few notable exceptions, such as Christy Mathewson, Harry Hooper, and Larry Gardner who all attended college, most of the players of this era, like the fans who adored them, had relatively little formal education.

But they sure knew how to play baseball.

I was also surprised to learn that there was a deep, dark cultural divide on the Red Sox, between the Protestant southerners (like Smoky Joe Wood and Tris Speaker) and the northern Catholics on the team (like Heinie Wagner, Bill Carrigan and Bucky O’Brien.)  On at least one occasion, these teammates engaged in a fistfight over their cultural differences.

Then there was the issue of corruption that surrounded baseball in those days.  Specifically, the issue of gambling.  Bookies and odds-makers were omnipresent in ballparks in those days, and even Giants manager John McGraw was known to associate with Arnold Rothstein, an underworld bookie.

In fact, this book provides so many anecdotes regarding this issue that it is unsurprising that, just a few years later, the Black Sox Scandal took place.  What does come as a surprise, at least to me, is that so much gambling and fraternization with known criminals and undesirables was tolerated by so many for so long.

But then again, we have our own modern parallel, the steroids issue.  Nearly a century later, baseball finds itself dealing with a scandal that could have been avoided if so many key people hadn’t turned a blind eye to this problem for so long.  And, once again, the key motivating force behind baseball’s modern scandal, is, at root, money.

In a sense, then, this book makes clear that baseball, and the men who play it, organize it, and manage it, have changed little over the past century.

Lastly, Red Sox fans will especially enjoy the prominence given by the author to the “Royal Rooters,” the Red Sox Nation of their era.  Their unofficial leader, Nuf Ced McGreevy, is a character that could have been invented by Charles Dickens.  And the story of how these uber-fans were betrayed by Red Sox owner James McAleer makes fascinating reading.

My criticisms of this book are few and relatively minor.  The relevance of the so-called Trial of the Century, which the author revisits from time to time, is questionable, at least insofar as the author provides it a position of prominence.

Also, an index would have been helpful in trying to more easily return to certain players, characters, or anecdotes.

The epilogue, however, is an eye-opener in that we learn about how many of the players of the 1912 World Series came to meet unfortunate, sometimes tragic, ends.  More than a few died sooner than they should have.

Overall, then, I highly recommend this book to any baseball fan looking for an interesting, entertaining summer read.  At just 290 pages in length, “The First Fall Classic” is certainly also a manageable read even for those with a full summer schedule.

Perhaps the best way to finish this book review is with a quotation from Giants second-baseman and team captain, Larry Doyle:

“Damn, it’s great to be young and a New York Giant.”

To which I can only reply,

Damn, it’s great to read a book about baseball players who loved the game a century ago as much we still love the game today.

‘Nuf Ced.

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