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.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.