By Ron Keurajian
About 10 years ago, I purchased a collection of vintage newspapers all related to Detroit Tigers legend Ty Cobb. Newspapers are a good way to build a collection without spending a lot of money.
In the group was a March 13, 1935, edition of the Palestine Daily Herald. A front-page headline stated that Cobb’s son, Herschel, had been charged with assaulting a 19-year-old woman. Being the son of one of the most famous (and richest) baseball players ever would naturally lead one to believe it might be a set up to extort money.
After reading Heart of a Tiger (ECW Press, 2013) authored by Ty Cobb’s grandson, Herschel Cobb, I have little doubt the headline was true. This is a story about young Herschel (Hersch to “Granddaddy” Ty) and a childhood filled with fear and torment and a grandfather who came to his grandson’s rescue.
The first couple of chapters are very disturbing. It documents the physical abuse young Hersch received at the hands of his father, Herschel Cobb Sr. Hersch recalls one frightening episode where his father shot him multiple times in the legs with a BB gun to toughen him up. The first couple of chapters are rather difficult to read. I liken it to watching a horror movie where you bury your head in a pillow and reluctantly watch it out of the corner of your eye. There were a couple of times I considered just shelving the book – I found it that disturbing. I did, however, press on and I am glad I did.
Herschel Cobb was Ty’s third-oldest child. Herschel is portrayed in this book as a man with a violent and unpredictable temper that could explode without warning.
Young Hersch’s mother was no better. She was an alcoholic and a drug user who neglected her children. It left young Hersch scarred. Herschel Sr. died at the age of 33. He was the victim of a massive heart attack. He was the first of Ty’s children to die young. Ty Cobb Jr. also passed away at a young age. Herschel’s death turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
Once you get through the beginning chapters, the book does a 180-degree turn. It becomes a truly enjoyable read. Hersch tells how Granddaddy Ty provided him with stability and love in an otherwise turbulent childhood. Summertime at Granddaddy’s lake home were some of Hersch’s fondest memories. The book becomes simply charming. It reaches out and gently touches your soul.
It is a side of the great Cobb that few have ever seen. The book portrays the aging Tiger Hall of Famer as a man deeply dedicated to his grandchildren. The book provides a rare glimpse into the private life of the Georgia Peach – a retired ballplayer who still loved the game he helped make the National Pastime. Hersch warmly recalls that Granddaddy Ty would often listen to ball games on the radio: “It really didn’t matter who was playing, so long as the company of his past was with him.”
The book details how Cobb, an extremely wealthy man, would hand out envelopes of cash to former teammates that were down on their luck. I love the tidbit where Hersch recounts finding one of Ty’s uncashed quarterly dividend checks from Coca-Cola for $83,000. Back in the 1950s, that was a ton of cash! Cobb’s business acumen is well documented in this book, as is his addiction to ice cream – peach of course.
For the baseball collector, there are stories that grab the imagination, including one about a “barrel full of baseballs” that Ty kept by the side of his desk and would sign for young fans. Hersch recalls Ty signing many baseballs that he and his friends would end up playing catch with! As a collector of autographs, that little anecdote made me cringe.
Hersch also tells of a garage full of Ty’s old baseball memorabilia that he would rummage through. I can only image what priceless treasures were in that old garage.
In one of the most moving passages, Hersch speaks of the closing days of his grandfather’s life and the funeral where hundreds of little leaguers lined the streets of Royston, Ga., to give the old Tiger’s warhorse a grand send-off.
Heart of a Tiger is currently available on Amazon.com. It is one of those sleeper baseball books that is destined to become a sports classic. It’s a must-read for any fan of the grand old game of baseball. It is simply a delightful book. My hats off to Herschel Cobb for writing this gem.
Ron Keurajian is a long-time contributor to SCD. He is the author of the book Baseball Hall of Fame Autographs, A Reference Guide (McFarland Publishing, 2012).