The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Coca-Cola”

All That We Leave Behind

Playing ball in the parking lot behind my friend Tony’s house.

Cool pavement under shady maple trees.

We had to climb two chain-link fences to get to this place.  The last car would usually vacate the lot around 5:00, so we would begin playing ball here sometime around 4:30, just to be on the safe side.

We’d already been playing all day.  Pickup games on side streets and in overgrown dandelion fields.

In the lot, we played “one-bounce” with a red rubber ball.  The pitcher would toss it, overhand, towards home-plate on one bounce.  By putting a spin on the ball, the pitcher could make the sphere either bounce away from the lunging batter, or jam it in on his hands.

If an infielder caught a ground-ball on one bounce, it was ruled an out.

Eleven-years old, I am standing on third base, the result of a hard smash I hit that made it halfway down the driveway before being recovered by the outfielder.

As I faced home-plate, I suddenly knew, as clearly as if a bell had gone off in my head, that I would remember this moment forever.

I was in that breezy, afternoon space between growing into myself, and all the trials and expectations that were sure to follow.

As I waited for the next batter to hit the ball, I happened to turn to my right and noticed something carved into the trunk of a maple tree.  Weather-worn and barely legible, it read, “J. Holvanek was here July ’56.”

John Holvanek, I knew, was one of my father’s childhood friends.  His son, John Holvanek, Jr., age nine, was here playing with me, yelling at the batter to “just hit the goddamned ball!”

In the age of Mantle, Mays and Snider, back when this parking lot was still an open field, John Holvanek, senior, had played baseball.

Standing in the outfield grass, sun high in the sky, waiting for the chubby kid to hit one out to me in center field.

I am thirteen-years old now.  The four guys playing with me are between the ages of eleven and fourteen.  We walked three miles from our street in the hot summer sun to get to this lonesome Little League field, hidden high on a bluff overlooking the town of Fairfield.

A dragon-fly hovers ten feet away, calmly positioning himself to make his next kill.  I, too, know that I am positioned correctly to catch the fly ball that Richard will inevitably be lofting high into the muggy afternoon heat.

Richard only ever hits high fly balls to straight away center.  I know this because I’ve made a mental note of several of his prior at bats.

He always hits the scuffed up baseball off the end of his aluminum bat, partly because my cousin, Jimmy, won’t throw him anything over the plate for fear of getting decapitated by a line-drive.

I am the sole outfielder.

The August sun traces hot fingers of perspiration down my neck.

On his next swing, Richard really lays into one, sending the ball soaring high into the sepia sky.  It is a towering drive that clears the left-center field fence by fifteen or twenty feet.  All I can do is stare at it as it plunks itself down among the scrubby weeds and the vine-covered trees.

Great, now someone, namely me, has to climb the fence and retrieve the ball; it is one of only two that we brought with us, and we can’t afford to lose it.

The terrain behind the fence is extremely difficult to climb through.  Sloping sharply downward at a 45 degree angle, the topography is not unlike that on Little Round Top at the Gettysburg battlefield, with the added obstacle of a jagged barbed-wire fence that juts out randomly from under the soil.

Also, it’s hotter than hell, and the mosquitoes are feasting on my blood.

After several minutes of fruitless, frustrating searching, I spot something straight ahead of me.  It is sort of white, like the baseball, but it appears to be somewhat larger than the ball I’m looking for.

I kneel to take a better look at it.  Using my baseball glove as a tool, I brush away the brackish, wet leaves piled half an inch thick.

It is part of an old sign.  At first, being a Catholic, I thought that it read, “Confessions.”  But this seemed rather unlikely to me, being out here in the woods and all.  And anyway, “Confessions” weren’t something you put up signs about.  Then I realized that it actually read “Concessions,” and it began to make sense to me.

On the other end of this field, there used to be a concession stand where players and fans could cool off with a bottle of Coca-Cola, and enjoy a snack of their choice.  Children and parents spent their Saturday afternoons enjoying the sounds of the crack of a bat smacking a ball, kids laughing and yelling, and cicadas screeching in the woods.

I thought about picking up the sign and showing the others.  Instead, I kicked a wet pile of dead leaves over it, and resumed my search for the baseball.

On the lawn behind my apartment building.

My six-year old boy is standing barefoot in the grass holding a wooden baseball bat behind his shoulder.  He is locked and loaded, ready to rip into one of daddy’s famous, underhand “slow” balls.  I stare in at him and say, “Hey, give me your game-face.”  My son bares his teeth at me and scowls.  He is intensely focused.

I toss the ball exactly where he likes it, up and over the plate where his small arms can extend themselves just enough to drive the ball over my head.

And that is exactly what he does.  His drive travels an estimated sixty-five feet into the tall bushes that provide our ground-floor apartment with a modicum of privacy.  He circles the imaginary bases as fast as he can.  He hasn’t yet perfected his home-run trot.

I lope over to the bush to find the baseball.  (Some things never change.)  I pluck it out easily and turn to jog back to my “pitcher’s mound.”  But my boy is already half-way back, heading towards our apartment.

“Dad,” he says, “I don’t want to play any more today.”

We’ve already been playing almost an hour, and the April sun is already hot here in South Carolina.

I begin to suggest to him that we write “First homer, April ’10” on his baseball, to commemorate his first home run, but he is already pulling open the screen door to get a drink.

I look around the yard for a moment; everything has been picked up off the lawn.

I head back in towards the apartment, and I wonder if, many years from now, my little boy will remember this moment.

On a whim, I toss the baseball as high up into the cobalt sky as I can, and wait for it to come back down into my glove.  As it hovers halfway between Heaven and Earth, I wonder how many times in my life I’ve searched the skies, the streets, and the woods for baseballs.  I often ended up finding things others had left behind.

I often ended up finding Baseball.

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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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