Lawyer and first-time author Herschel Cobb didn’t have it easy growing up. The first few chapters of his recent memoir Heart of a Tiger: Growing Up with My Grandfather, Ty Cobb detail a violent and harrowing childhood, guided by a neglectful, alcoholic mother and an abusive, terrorizing father. There were times, he says, when he wasn’t sure he would survive another day.
Luckily for Cobb, he found a soft place to land with his grandfather. Ty Cobb is often grouped with players such as Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Jackie Robinson as one of the greatest to ever take the field. He wasn’t known for his gentle demeanor or soft touch. In fact, his reputation, even today, is as an aggressive player who didn’t adhere to the generally accepted code of sportsmanship. But that’s not how the younger Cobb saw and experienced his grandfather.
In this tender and honest memoir, the grandson of a sports legend details gentle moments with a man who enjoyed life’s small pleasures such as eating ice cream and duck hunting on quiet, still mornings. Herschel Cobb admits that he may have struck it lucky in his timing and that his grandfather could have been making up for missed opportunities or missteps with his own children. But he doesn’t go on to speculate. Rather, he talks about the comfort and security he found in his grandfather, a man who still holds the record for the highest career batting average.
What was the first step you took in the process of writing Heart of a Tiger?
The prompting inspiration was a question from my daughter asking me about my own childhood and not having any kind of answer for her. I told her some stories that I relished deeply inside of me of times that I spent with my grandfather at his home in Atherton, California, and at Lake Tahoe, Nevada. I was prompted to jot down these memories, as much because my daughter enjoyed them, my son enjoyed them and I enjoyed telling them. It worked to flesh them out and inspired my memory. I have a visual memory so it helped to be able to remember exactly where things were and how I walked through various settings, what people said and the circumstances. Everybody enjoyed it, and I just continued. Pretty soon I started typing them out, and I enjoyed the process of writing. I enjoyed the process of creating something, and the craft part emerged. I didn’t study English in college or graduate school, but the craft seeped in. Plus, I had a very good subject [to write about]. My grandfather was a very interesting, smart guy. He loved to read. He was always reading three or four books. He liked to read about people. He liked to read about things that had actually happened.
Aside from academic writing throughout your years of education, did you ever keep a journal or write for pleasure?
No, I was busy studying. I had assignments [at Occidental College in Los Angeles] that were writing, but nobody ever said: Herschel, you’re going to be a great writer. Nobody ever said: Wow, you and John Grisham have a lot in common. Nope. Nobody ever said that. And then I went to law school, and in law school you do learn to write clearly. But part of what happens when you go to law school is that the schooling process is a narrowing process. You focus on craft or profession, and that consumes your pleasure reading. As you read in Heart of a Tiger, my parents weren’t much of a guide. So when I went to graduate from college, I had no idea what to do. I basically looked around at who were the smartest guys I knew, and these guys were all going to law school. After law school and practicing law and becoming tired of lawyering, I decided I needed to educate myself in what I thought were important areas. I decided I wanted to educate myself because [during] my childhood, my primary impetus from a very young age was: I’ve got to survive. I’ve got to save my life. The process of exploration in a protective setting, or at least a setting that wasn’t constantly threatened, occurred in the second half of my life.
The first few chapters of Heart of a Tiger were quite difficult to read, so I can only imagine they were difficult to write. Was there a place in your head you had to go to put all that on paper clearly? Was it difficult to have to revisit that time in your life?
It was very difficult to revisit and re-experience. It was difficult to re-remember. Initially that phase of the book was a couple more chapters of those types of stories, and fortunately my agent said: That is way, way too much. You’re going to lose your audience because what they are going to be interested in is the good part of your life. So I cut out a lot. I had one agent I talked to early on in the process, and she had me read Angela’s Ashes [by Frank McCourt]. She said: Your story is a lot like that. I read it, and I said, no, nothing could be that horrible. And that’s when I decided, that’s not what I want to write about. I was very, very lucky to have a grandfather who was a very confident man, had a lot of laughs, liked ice cream, liked his grandchildren. Of course, he was tough. Sooner or later, you’ll find out you don’t get 24 years in Major League Baseball as the best player on the field without being fierce, competitive and tough.
As a lifelong softball player and Red Sox devotee, I am a big fan of the game of baseball in general.
It wasn’t until I was 12 or 13 that I actually fleshed out who my grandfather was in Major League Baseball. It was a surprise, and it was kind of scary because I didn’t want to lose my grandfather. I had really grown to use my experiences with him to help me deal with my mother. I know that he adored my sister, and I was next, and I was very, very happy to be at the age I was with my grandfather.
Ty Cobb has a reputation as a ferocious player. Your book stands apart because it is your specific experience with him, which is quite opposite from the perception that is still around today. Were you trying to enlighten people about this side of him?
The part of my childhood that I wrote about took a lot of energy. There were a lot of evenings that I finished writing and had a very tall glass of white wine. I just wanted to wash it away. And then when I got into the stories with my grandfather, it was really a pleasure reliving all that stuff. It has been people who have interviewed me who have asked this type of question, because I get introduced as Ty Cobb’s grandson. But I will tell you honestly, he did not ever sharpen his spikes. Those [rumors] were gratis of Al Stump. I read the first chapter of Stump’s book [My Life in Baseball: A True Record, written about Cobb], and I laughed out loud. He made so many factual errors that could never have happened, but it set the tone for the entire book. Much of that characterization and exaggeration has stuck in the way people describe Ty Cobb. I know for a fact he was a fierce competitor, he was very determined, he was the type of guy who would never back down from anything. He was determined to win and wanted to be number one. All of that is true. He pushed the envelope of what was possible in baseball. Cobb provided that role for all of baseball. And for himself, he was just a fierce competitor who wanted to win. I touch upon his generosity as I knew it. Rather than being a writer, I was a narrator of the movie in my brain.
Where did you write? What was your process?
This is kind of bizarre, but I get a creative phase beginning about four o’clock in the afternoon. Most people say: Do everything important right away and then do the little stuff later. But around four in the afternoon when everybody else is saying, phew, the day is done, I get this surge. I had to re-edit my book a lot. And each time I had to reread and rework the first three chapters, the scratches on the chalkboard began to heal. You just go over it and over it and over it. It has really started a healing process that I am very grateful for.
As a first-time author, did you enjoy the experience of working with an editor?
[My editor] is very professional. He doesn’t balance good or bad. He just balances what is going to make this more readable and more organized. I never saw [Ty Cobb] play. I was not there. My book is all personal experiences that I can say are as best as I can remember them.
How did you go about reconstructing large chunks of dialogue that occurred so many years ago?
Most of them are pretty etched in my mind. They look like they are big chunks of dialogue, but they are pretty short encounters. I may have missed a word here or there, but I certainly knew exactly what the core of those conversations were. I can remember some of the things my mother said so vividly that I look outside and say, how did I ever survive that? When I was with my grandfather and he sent me up into the attic to fetch an item, I can remember his voice guiding me along the rafters, as if it were just right there. So that is what I put down.
Both of your parents have passed away. Did it make the writing process any easier knowing they would not read the book?
That didn’t cross my mind one way the other. I guess it’s a funny word to use, but once I got into it, there was a gift that was occurring. I was putting out on pages stuff that I had held inside for years, and I could honestly tell it was having a physical effect. It wasn’t eating at me so much. I wasn’t venting. I was just putting it somewhere else. I can now remember times with [my mother] that were gifts. She taught me how to play golf. I can find things to be thankful of, and when I begin to do that, I realize that’s a good thing.
Aubrey Everett is managing editor of The Writer.
From Heart of a Tiger: Growing Up with My Grandfather, Ty Cobb
By Herschel Cobb
We sat at the table in the kitchen. In the dull light, glancing at each other, munching away. I enjoyed being with Granddaddy, alone, eating Ritz crackers, late at night. I didn’t want it to end, so I kept eating crackers and sipping milk. Then he stood up and went to the sink to get a glass of water, and I saw his legs again.
“Granddaddy, what happened to your legs?” I was hesitant to pry, but shocked and couldn’t imagine how much they must hurt. I wanted to know what had happened to him.
He looked down at himself, almost as if he were discovering something new. “Oh, that.”
“Do they hurt?” I asked.
“They ache a little. More at night.” His voice was withdrawn, having to talk about a pain that would never go away. I continued eating crackers, waiting for him to say more. The questions on my face were unavoidable, and so was the silence that began to build up.
Finally, he broke it. “When I first started, you know, broke into the majors, I was pretty fast. I figured when I got to first base, the base path to second and third belonged to me. That’s the rule. I liked to steal second, and third. It really rattled the pitcher and his infield. And I was pretty good at it. You know, I told you about the sliding pit in my backyard. I started practicing before I was fifteen. So I stole as often as I could.”
He sipped his water before he went on. “I guess, at first, they figured I was lucky, but my hook slide worked nearly every time. In my second year, I started stealing again, as often as I could. They had to try to stop me, so they used their spikes on me. They wanted to scare me.”
Excerpted from Heart of a Tiger: Growing Up with My Grandfather, Ty Cobb © Herschel Cobb, 2013. Published by ECW Press.