Bob is a longtime member of the Florida sports media, having served as a reporter and copy editor for more than 30 years. His true sports passion, however, is the history of the various games, exhibited by his in-depth book reviews and hobby of collecting cards and other sports memorabilia. He blogs for TBO.com on both subjects, transferring his work for the Tampa Tribune to the realm of cyberspace.
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A kinder, gentler Ty Cobb
Posted Apr 1, 2013 by Bob D'Angelo
Updated Apr 6, 2013 at 02:59 PM
This was not your grandfather’s Ty Cobb.
Kindly. Benevolent. Generous.
What? The Georgia Peach? Cobb was the greatest baseball player of the dead ball era — and some might argue, of all time — admired by many, but also the game’s most despised athlete. The Detroit Tigers center fielder was portrayed as racist, mean-spirited, a ballplayer that slid into bases with his spikes flashing. An unparalleled hitter, he retired with 12 American League batting titles, a .367 lifetime average (since changed to .366) and was elected to the inaugural National Baseball Hall of Fame class. Intense on the field, he once climbed into the stands and beat a heckler — a handicapped heckler — senseless. He also fought with teammates, and once famously, with umpire Billy Evans under the stands in Washington in September 1921.
Warm. Caring. Loving.
Not your grandfather’s Ty Cobb? Perhaps not. But Ty Cobb was Herschel Cobb’s grandfather. And the story Herschel Cobb tells reveals a far gentler side to his grandfather, one buried deep beneath the persona Ty Cobb created during his playing days.
“Heart of a Tiger: Growing up with My Grandfather, Ty Cobb” (ECW Press; hardback, $24.95, 279 pages) is a warm, sentimental memoir. Herschel Cobb is not trying to write a revisionist history of his grandfather; he is merely retelling the memories he had of “Granddaddy,” never realizing until he was a teenager that Ty Cobb was a famous — and sometimes polarizing — baseball player.
Herschel Cobb, his sister Susan and brother Kit spent summers with their grandfather in Lake Tahoe during the late 1940s and ’50s. Ty Cobb was their “bedrock,” which provided some comfort from the extremely dysfunctional household run by their parents. Herschel’s father was an abusive, cruel man who mentally tortured his children and also handed out ample doses of physical punishment.
“I could not think of one single time with my father that was not filled with dread and terror,” Cobb writes.
His mother was an alcoholic, pill-popper who was indifferent to her children and even admitted that she didn’t want them. She also turned a blind eye to her husband’s abusive rages toward the children.
Herschel lost his father when he was 8, when the elder Cobb died from a massive heart attack at age 33. His mother would remarry several times, and the children often were left to fend for themselves.
By the time Herschel and his siblings began spending time with their grandfather, Ty Cobb had been retired from baseball for many years. Shrewd investments in Coca-Cola and General Motors made him a wealthy man, but he never seemed to connect with his children. Another son, Ty Jr., died in the early 1950s, and his daughters were tolerant yet distant. Cobb was divorced from his wife, so he channeled his attention toward his grandchildren.
Herschel and his siblings responded warmly, and a bond was formed.
“Our presence … had opened a door for him to connect with his grandchildren in a way he never had with his children,” Herschel writes.
He connected in a way that was contrary to the reputation he earned as a baseball player, and that is what makes this book so endearing. What will disarm the reader is Herschel’s discovery, slowly but surely, that Ty Cobb was more than a benevolent grandfather who always had plenty of ice cream in the freezer and liked to take the children on motorboat rides on Lake Tahoe.
In the chapter called “My First Visit to His Office,” Herschel finally asks the question: “Granddaddy, what did you do? Who are you, really?”
In a detour leading to the answer, Herschel writes about his youth league career, and how expectations about him seemed to be so high. He never understood why he could never be good enough in the eyes of his coaches, teammates and even fans. When he told his mother about it one time, her answer explained it all: “Your grandfather.”
“The look on her face and her voice were full of contempt,” Herschel writes. “She turned on her heel, heading toward her bedroom. She never said anything more.
“I knew she resented him intensely, and I knew he disliked her. I didn’t mention the heckling at my games again.”
That day in Cobb’s “office,” Herschel watched as his grandfather signed baseballs and autographed photographs for young fans. Other times, he watched him stuff envelopes filled with $100 bills and give them to friends and former teammates who had fallen on hard times. Herschel also saw the trophies and awards, finally realizing what a titan Ty Cobb was when he played.
Ty Cobb’s persona was amplified in Al Stump’s biography and the 1994 movie, “Cobb” (Tommy Lee Jones played the lead role, with Robert Wuhl portraying Stump).
Herschel Cobb met Stump one summer, and his impressions were far different than the characterization played by the likable Wuhl. The sportswriter pumped him for answers, trying to find dirt on the elder Cobb, and even tried to sneak out with some autographed memorabilia.
Teammate Sammy Barnes summed up Ty Cobb’s personality during his playing days. “Off the field when Ty wasn’t upset about something, he wasn’t a bad guy,” Barnes, who was a Tigers rookie in 1921, told sportswriter Zipp Newman of The Birmingham News in a 1973 interview. “But when he put on that uniform it was a case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
“He the most aggressive and most fearless person to ever play in the majors.”
That’s the view most baseball fans have of Ty Cobb. His grandson presents a less-hardened edge in a very readable, sentimental memoir.