Friday, May 24, 2013

Grandson Humanizes Baseball Titan Ty Cobb

Book Review by Patrick Harwood
Heart of a Tiger: Growing up with My Grandfather, Ty Cobb
By Herschel Cobb
ECW Press
288 Pages

Gentle, patient and giving may not be the qualities most people would use to describe Ty Cobb, one of baseball's all-time greats. Gritty, aggressive, even dirty and racist might be the Cobb many people, past and present, perceive.

But readers get to see a different side to the legendary "Georgia Peach" in "Heart of a Tiger: Growing up with My Grandfather, Ty Cobb," by his grandson Herschel Cobb.

If you want a rich, insightful baseball story, you won't find it here. It's page 175 before young Herschel begins to realize his granddad's extraordinary exploits, which included an incredible 90 Major League Baseball records when he retired in 1928 after 23 seasons, all but one as an outfielder with the Detroit Tigers.

"Heart of a Tiger" is about relationships, especially about fathers and sons. In Herschel's case, as depicted in much of the book's first half, his father was an abusive tyrant who enjoyed teasing Herschel and his sister to the point of torture, on occasion. His mother was no gem either. She was a drinker (as was her husband) who sometimes said and usually acted like she wished she did not have children.

Herschel Cobb writes his book from his boyhood memories. He doesn't attempt to analyze too much the whys of his parents' conduct. But the reader is left wondering why was his father, also named Herschel, the way he was? Did his father, Ty, abuse him too?

A pivotol point is in 1951-2 when Hersch's (as the lad was called) reckless and cruel father dies of a heart attack at 33. The next year, Ty Cobb's oldest son, Ty Jr. (who was a doctor and Medical College of South Carolina graduate) died at 42 of a brain tumor that had him disabled for some time. The loss of two sons in two years ended any chance for Ty Cobb to mend the long standing strains he had with them. But even after that, he remained distant with his other three grown children.

Cobb's feelings of guilt and sorrow guided him to be more dutiful with his grandchildren, especially precocious Hersch. Much of this book focuses on the few weeks each summer Hersch got to spend with his wealthy grandfather in the San Francisco and Lake Tahoe areas. Oddly, to me, there are no mentions of other times spent with Cobb, such as at birthdays, Thanksgiving and Christmas, or of gifts Cobb sent to the boy on those occasions.

During several summer visits recounted in the book, Cobb did lots with Hersch and taught him many things. The boy slowly realizes the extent of his grandfather's fame. There are some good baseball insights about finding trophies, gloves, clippings and other memorabilia in Cobb's homes, and a few stories about Ty's relationship with other ball players such as Babe Ruth.

There are lessons to be taken from this story about family support and communication. If Herschel Cobb's goal was to show that his famous relative could be nice to young grandchildren (but apparently not so nice to his own children) and generous to some friends and acquaintances, then we will give Ty Cobb a base on balls free pass on those points.

But Ty Cobb may still deserve some high and tight "chin music" fastballs for being such a distant and mysterious father figure to those who also needed him- his own children. Yes, he seemed to support them financially but something's not right when all calls and requests from children to a parent must go through a house servant first to test the mood that day of the unapproachable patriarch, or when his daughter says if she called Cobb's house and he answered she would hang up the phone.

Read this book if you enjoy the complexities of human relationships. Grandson Herschel turned out fine in the end, thanks to Ty Cobb's guidance and support, so there's a happy ending in that sense.

--Patrick Harwood teaches communication courses at the College of Charleston


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