Baseball Books Reviewed: Heart of a Tiger: Growing Up with My Grandfather, Ty Cobb

(ECW Press, 279 pgs., $24.95) HB, 2013.Ty Cobb, the defiant monomaniacal competitor and brilliant batsman, is one of the most famous players in baseball history. He has been written about more extensively than any other player excepting perhaps Babe Ruth, his quasi-contemporary and main challenger; and much of this writing, especially Charles Alexander’s monumental biography published in 1984 by Oxford University Press, has been devoted to debunking myths about the subject. Most recently, researchers have called into question the accuracy of the sensationalized portrait painted by Al Stump of the elder Cobb as a half-crazed out-of-control wild man. Nevertheless, the primary public image of Cobb as pretty much a mean bastard has remained intact, which makes the latest book about the former Detroit Tigers great, a memoir by his grandson Herschel, a most welcome addition to the Ty Cobb canon. Had Herschel Cobb found his grandfather to be the man of popular legend there would have been little point in his producing a book merely to reinforce the stereotype. Thus, the reader should hardly be surprised that he has quite a different story to tell. And what a story it is! The first part of Heart of a Tiger is a painful-to-read recollection of Herschel’s horrible childhood, which makes the book baseball literature’s equivalent of Mommie Dearest.

Poor Herschel (and his slightly older sister Susan and younger brother Kit) was burdened not with one bad parent but two. A lifelong alcoholic with absolutely no maternal instincts whatsoever, Herschel’s mother openly declared that she didn’t love her children and had never wanted them in the first place. She didn’t love Herschel’s father (one of Cobb’s sons, also named Herschel) either, and her extramarital affairs made him miserable and drove him into violent frenzies, which often descended upon his children. The three-hundred-pounder also had a sadistic streak which he freely indulged at the expense of his defenseless offspring. One of the worst things you will ever read in a baseball book is the author’s account of the time his father gleefully used his little legs for b-b-gun target practice. Worse than empathizing with the author over the physical pain he endured is imagining the boy’s horror at realizing what kind of a person he had as a father, and his feeling of helplessness (his mother watched impassively) with nowhere to run to. The author’s father also spanked Herschel and his sister often, raised welts on their little bodies by snapping wet towels at them during bath time, practically choked Herschel to death in wrestling holds to get the boy to cry “Uncle,” scared him with lurid tales about the bogeyman, and terrorized him with reckless maneuvers while they sped along in a boat or a small prop airplane.

The only relief Herschel and his siblings got from this abuse came in the summers when they were allowed to visit their grandfather at his grand home in Atherton, California, or at his cabin at Lake Tahoe, Nevada. Slowly but surely, the psychologically battered Cobb grandchildren learned to trust and then to love their grandfather, who was not a sports celebrity to them but a desperately needed source of kindness, understanding, and mutual love. One of the greatest achievements of the fierce Tiger, who neither gave nor asked for any quarter during his long baseball career, turned out to be the rescue of three grandchildren from a miserable start in life.

This reclamation, as true love always is, was a two-way street, and it benefitted Cobb almost as much as the children. Cobb’s total dedication to baseball came at a tremendous cost: the alienation of his wife Charlie and their children; and the lingering evidence and effects of the bad relationships Cobb had with his immediate family linger like cacophonous background music throughout the narrative. This side of the Ty Cobb story is appropriately relegated to the background not only because it has been covered elsewhere, but also because it is in keeping with the point of view of the author: that of a young, often confused, boy with limited knowledge. Two of Cobb’s grown sons (Ty and the author’s father) died at relatively young ages without ever being fully reconciled with their father, and Cobb’s loving relationships with the author and his siblings helped him deal with his grief.

As the author grew up around his grandfather he witnessed other examples of a Cobb personality that don’t fit the popular conception: Cobb mastering his anger and avoiding a fight with a drunk who was cruising for a bruising, his quietly giving envelopes stuffed with hundred dollar bills to down-on-their-luck former teammates, and his providing substantial sums of money to fund hospitals and college scholarships. Herschel even describes an encounter with controversial Cobb biographer Al Stump that reflects poorly on Stump’s professionalism and honesty and which further calls into question the truthfulness of the garish portrait which Stump published in a men’s magazine. Of course, as these events unfolded, young Herschel did not realize the significance of them. It was only later, after he had begun to discover who his grandfather was to the wider world, that he understood there was a difference between the Ty Cobb he knew and loved and the one the public thought they knew. And that there was something he could do to bridge this gap. Part cathartic autobiography, part loving tribute and literary rehabilitation, Heart of a Tiger is a book that baseball fans will not soon forget.

Reviewed by: Mike Shannon (March 26, 2013)