Heart of a Tiger by Herschel Cobb - Read Online
Heart of a Tiger
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The previously untold legacy of Ty Cobb

Ty Cobb is a baseball immortal, considered by many the greatest player who ever lived. In an age when the game was young and tough, he cultivated a reputation as the fiercest competitor of them all. Yet after he retired, he realized that the very qualities that helped him reach the pinnacle of his profession also undermined his relationship with his own children. He was deeply depressed when two of his sons died at a very young age. Cobb never had the chance to bridge the emotional distance between them.

Herschel Cobb grew up in a chaotic, destructive household. His father was cruel and abusive, and his mother was an adulterous alcoholic. After his father died, when Herschel was eight, he began to spend a portion of each summer with his grandfather. Along with his sister and brother, Herschel visited Ty Cobb at his home in Atherton, California, or at his cabin at Lake Tahoe. These days were filled with adventures, memorable incidents, and discoveries as “Granddaddy” warmed to having his “three redheads” with him.

Heart of a Tiger is Herschel Cobb’s moving account of how a retired sports star seized a second chance at having a close family, with his grandchildren the lucky recipients of his change of heart. He provided wisdom, laughter, and a consistent affection that left an indelible mark. He proved the enormous power of a grandparent to provide stability, love, and guidance. As he developed this new, wholly different legacy, in turn he would finally come to peace with himself.
Published: ECW Press an imprint of ECW Press on
ISBN: 9781770903821
List price: $18.95
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Heart of a Tiger - Herschel Cobb

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When Madelyn, our daughter, was of an age to be curious about me, we were looking at a photo of her as a young child chasing a duck along the edge of a large pond. I smiled to myself, recalling her childhood joy. She suddenly said, Daddy, tell me about when you were a little boy. I started to say something, caught my breath, rocked back on my heels, and stood speechless for a moment. I could not think of one single time with my father that was not filled with dread and terror. Each flashing memory of him made my stomach sick, my throat clamp shut, and my heart pound. Quickly, I grasped onto a story of catching crawfish with my grandfather at Lake Tahoe. I had been teasing my sister with the crawfish until she appealed to Granddaddy to stop me and he suggested one of his favorite pastimes, going out for ice cream. Madelyn and Ty, our son, wanted to hear more stories about Granddaddy, Lake Tahoe, his home in Atherton, and my adventures with him. Lyn, my wife, suggested I write them down before they were lost. I did and soon realized how much these times meant to me, and how I privately held onto them as a lynchpin between me and my grandfather, who had helped me so very much.

I decided there was a useful story in my childhood with Granddaddy. Growing up, my time with my grandfather was my bedrock. Those experiences were etched in my emotional memory, providing strength and guidance, in stark contrast to my life with my father and mother. I had steadfastly kept my recollections of Granddaddy private, not wanting share them for fear of seeing them and my grandfather float away from me. My children opened a part of my heart that I feared I would lose if I talked about it. Not so. Just the opposite. Madelyn and Ty laughed and giggled at stories of me and Ty Cobb, quizzed me for details and more stories, then retold the stories to their friends, who were fascinated. I realized the power of a grandparent to provide laughter, love, protection, and comfort to pass on to the next generation.

I knew that my story had to include my father and mother. The first chapters of this book were not easy to relive and write down, perhaps not easy to read, but nevertheless true. I am very lucky to have had my grandfather. The later chapters are about him. And me.

After a few years of writing in the evenings, there was a story, perhaps a book that others would read and see something they could relate to. I asked Madelyn to read some chapters. She told me, Dad, you’ve written a story from your heart, now write a book other people can read. I sought out an agent and was fortunate to be introduced to Jake Elwell, a sensitive and professional literary agent of the highest caliber and an endless resource. He introduced me to John Paine, a professional editor who helped me transform pages written from my heart into a book others might enjoy reading. Lyn, my wife, has been supportive and insightful throughout. Her encouragement to open up and tell full stories always produced a better chapter. The folks at ECW Press have been kind, incisive, and professional at every juncture. I thank all of these wonderful people. I especially thank our children, Madelyn and Ty, in whom I see the fruits of my grandfather’s true heart.

Herschel Cobb

Menlo Park, California, 2013


The Snake River, Idaho, 1949

I sat between my father and my grandfather in the front seat of my father’s Packard, being bounced around as we inched down a rutted dirt road. High above in the darkness loomed the rim of the Snake River Canyon. We were headed to my father’s small boathouse, set on the river’s edge. The headlights jumped up and down, left and right as we lurched from pothole to pothole. My father also shined a spotlight along our path with his outstretched left hand as he steered the car with his right, wanting to avoid a fallen branch or startled deer. From our house to the dirt road had taken only twenty minutes, but we would need another twenty-five minutes to wind down the face of the canyon. My dad told me we’d sleep at the boathouse, then get up before dawn to go duck hunting. I was dreading the opportunity. I was frightened whenever Dad had a gun in his hands, and this afternoon he had said it was time I grew up and learned how to shoot.

Granddaddy had arrived earlier that evening to visit us in Twin Falls, partly to hunt ducks with my dad, but really to see how my father was spending the huge sum of money he had given him a few years before. My father’s latest purchase was a new Chris-Craft speedboat, which was moored at the boathouse. My father was grim-faced as he drove. Both he and my mother despised being held accountable, resented any intrusion on how they spent the money that was given to them.

Granddaddy had visited us last year, and I had a vivid recollection of him. The hair on his head was thin, and he was roly-poly in the middle. Yet his voice was warm and direct, and when he picked me up, his grip was strong yet gentle. He took in everything around him, seemingly looking right into me and at the same time noticing every look and motion I made, and when he smiled, his eyes twinkled. When he greeted my sister, Susan, and me, I felt like he had come all the way to Idaho just to see us. He adored Susan, two years older than me, with her light red hair that hung in large curls and her lovely smile. She paid special attention to him, prompting him to laugh and tell her stories. He loved to sit her on his knee to talk about almost anything.

By the time of his visit this year, the leaves on the trees had already turned golden, then rust, and drifted listlessly to the ground. I liked autumn because snow would soon fall and I would have my seventh birthday at the end of the year, in December. So, I was excited my grandfather was coming—until Dad told me I was coming along with them to learn how to shoot a shotgun.

Granddaddy had come for dinner before the three of us were to leave for the river. Dad wanted to fix a fancy meal, but my mother objected. During the afternoon they started drinking whisky, arguing and yelling at each other. I watched from behind a doorway. My mother felt a special tension on these occasions. She knew how much Granddaddy disliked her. He regarded her as a grasping freeloader. He had heard an earful of her complaints that she expected to live the life of a socialite in L.A. and your son isn’t moving fast enough. He never forgot her selfish whining or forgave her liquor-fueled gripes. In revenge, she relentlessly belittled and henpecked my father.

When Granddaddy came to visit, she chafed at his disgust, but she didn’t dare say anything. She yelled at Dad instead, saying it was her house and she didn’t like his father telling her anything.

Dad became more agitated as the afternoon passed. He knew he would have to account for his new speedboat. As his anger built, I crept upstairs to hide. I knew his temper would rise like the pressure inside a geyser. Anything around him was in danger of being hit, smashed, and destroyed, and if he saw me, he would surely grab me and give me a beating. Susan was already hiding in her room, and when I appeared at her door, she told me, I knew this would happen.

Granddaddy arrived wearing hunting clothes, and he put his guns and gear straightaway in Dad’s car. His boots were laced up just below his knees, his pants were thick and stiff, and he wore three shirts bunched up by suspenders clasped onto his belt. He carried his tin cloth–hunting jacket on one arm. I knew he hunted every year with his friends in the mountains of Wyoming, and I wondered if he wore the same clothes there.

When we heard the doorbell, Susan and I rushed downstairs. Mother quickly emptied her glass of whisky into the sink. When she opened the door, Granddaddy brushed right past her and picked up Susan, hugging her and then me. He sat down in a big easy chair, put Susan on his knee, and began talking and laughing with her. I rested my chin on the armrest, hoping to be noticed. His big right hand came over and squeezed my nose, as if to tell me I was next. My brother, Kit, who was just two years old, sat nearby playing with his toys.

Yet beneath the surface, trouble was brewing. We knew the danger signals in our house. Mother was already mad. Dad appeared, ready to yell at her, saw his father, and abruptly left the room. When he returned, he suggested we have dinner right away because we had to get to the Snake.

Susan and I were used to eating dinners on tenterhooks, awaiting an explosion of anger, but we were spared that night. Granddaddy’s presence kept my parents at bay. They didn’t have their usual glasses of whisky at the table, and the meal passed without any of the yelling I had feared.

Mother even tried to be interested in Granddaddy’s chatter about duck hunting. Yet when she dared make a remark, he glared at her and bluntly asked, Say, what happened to that fellow whose house your husband filled up with water?

Mother started to fire right back, but stopped with her mouth open, unable to yell at my grandfather the way she would with my father. Instead, she sprang to her feet and retreated into the kitchen. Susan and I exchanged glances, hiding secret smiles. We knew what had happened.

The previous summer, we had returned from a June vacation to discover that the entire outside of our house had been painted bright pink. The scale of destructive pranks Dad and Mom played on their circle of friends had escalated over the past few years. Even though they paid for repairs, their antics had passed the point of being funny or clever, becoming more ruinous and grotesque. Dad was furious and stormed around the neighborhood, knocking on doors trying to find out who had painted his house. Eventually, Dad found out the culprit.

In August, the man and his family left town on their own summer vacation. The next afternoon, Dad called, Hersch, come with me. We’re going to have some fun.

I followed him to the man’s house. He found a window he could open, ran a garden hose inside, turned the faucet on full blast, made sure the room was filling with water, and left. Two weeks later, the family returned home to find the whole first floor and everything in it floating in three feet of water—all of their things had been ruined. The man stormed to our house, waving a shotgun, looking for my dad. My mom called the police, and they forced the man to give up his shotgun and took him away.

Dad complained that he was just getting even. Although he paid for all the damage, he never apologized, and the episode became a story he bragged about to everyone. It was easy for him to lash out, destroy things, because he never had to suffer the consequences. He did have to suffer, however, the humiliation of his own father calling him out on his vicious prank. That was another reason I was dreading going to the Snake River to hunt. The pressure inside my father was building, and just about anything now was liable to make him blow up.

We slowly wound down the narrow dirt road toward the Snake River, bounced around by ruts and hairpin turns. Babe, our small chocolate Labrador retriever, rode in the back seat. Each time I bumped into Dad, he gave me a shove with his elbow and told me to watch out. After an extra hard shove, Granddaddy cradled his arm around me and pulled me over toward him, and we bounced together.

How far to your place? Granddaddy asked.

My father glanced over at us. Not that far, but with these switchbacks, twenty minutes or so, maybe a little longer.

Granddaddy responded, Well, then, take it easy. It’s bumpy as hell. Oh, sorry, Hersch. He looked down at me, apologizing for the swear word he’d used. He had to be aware that I heard far worse in my household. He lifted his left arm off my shoulder and unzipped the gun cover he was holding next to his legs. Twin barrels of a shotgun appeared, and Granddaddy flicked on the dash light and the overhead. The barrels were nearly black, with a dull sheen finish. He pulled the gun cover down the barrels, revealing the steel near the trigger guards and part of the stock.

You sure that’s empty? Dad asked.

Sure. I’ll show you. Granddaddy broke open the barrels and stuck his fingers up inside. Safe as can be.

My father had plenty of guns, but he had never shown me how they worked and I was not allowed anywhere near them. I was fascinated to be sitting so close to a real shotgun.

Granddaddy nudged the gun cover toward the floor and the rest of the shotgun emerged. It was still broken open where the ends of the barrels met the stock. He smiled at me and said proudly, There you go, Hersch. Twelve-gauge, side-by-side, double triggers, forward and back. Beautiful.

I didn’t know what he was talking about, but I did notice that the whole steel plate above the trigger guard and half of the barrel was carved with a hunting scene of a small lake, reeds, a hunter holding a gun, birds flying overhead, and engraved words.

In the dim light of the dash, I could read, Presented to Ty Cobb and City of Detroit. There was more writing and a date. I knew the words Ty Cobb—that was my granddaddy. But I’d never heard of City of Detroit and didn’t know what that meant. That didn’t bother me, though, because I was awed that someone was able to carve into steel so beautifully. I touched the barrel and the side plate, tracing Ty Cobb and the hunting scene with my fingertips.

Granddaddy put his left arm back around my shoulder and held his shotgun in his right hand, braced against his leg. I haven’t used this much, Hersch. It’s mostly for show. But I thought I’d bring it along to show you, and maybe test it out. He turned out the overhead light but left the dashboard light on. I sat in silence, eyeing his shotgun and looking out the window, hoping to see a deer or some other animal.

Nobody talked for a while, until Granddaddy asked my father what I liked to do best. Does little Hersch like to hunt or fish more?

Neither, really. Hasn’t fired a gun yet. Still a sissy, I think. Plays with his stuffed toys.

Daddy’s voice was muffled, but the gruff answer cut into my thoughts. I was always on alert if he sounded like he was angry. I didn’t know what sissy meant, but it was true that I liked my stuffed animals. Granddaddy’s hand squeezed my shoulder and then patted it. He didn’t say anything but winked at me. I liked that he thought stuffed animals were just fine.

The deeper we descended into the canyon of the Snake, the darker it became. I was afraid of the dark because nighttime was full of bogeymen, or so Dad told me. He had told me about the bogeyman from the earliest time I could remember. Every time I didn’t behave or he wanted me to do something, he told me the bogeyman would get me.

A wave of anxiety overcame me, and I suddenly pleaded, Hurry up, Daddy. The bogeyman’s out there. I pointed out the windows of the car.

The what? my grandfather boomed in my ear. What did you say? What’s out there? he was asking my father.

It’s nothing, Dad. I’ll tell you later, my father responded quickly. Hersch, he said, stop your fretting. We’ll be there soon enough. He gripped the top of the steering wheel with his right hand, curling his shoulder upward, partially shielding his face from view.

With the dash light still on, I could see Granddaddy was examining his son severely. He’d heard what I’d said. I moved closer to Granddaddy. His arm wrapped around me, and I relished the comfort it provided. My father never held me this way.

Granddaddy didn’t say anything the rest of the way to the boathouse, and I didn’t dare open my mouth. I knew Daddy was seething because he drove faster, hit the bumps harder, and wrestled the car sharply around the tight turns. I didn’t know what scared me more, the bogeymen outside the car or my father inside.

We’ll be there any moment now, my father finally announced. He rolled down his window, letting cold air and the rushing sound of the Snake River fill the car. I breathed in deeply. The air tasted clean and exciting. Even though I knew what was lurking out there in the dark, I loved the excitement of just barely being able to see through the trees, and at the same time, being able to look straight up, overhead, and see millions of stars.

Daddy parked in front of the boathouse, rushed to open the front door, and yelled back to us, Wait a minute, I’ll get the lanterns lit. The boathouse didn’t have electricity, so we used kerosene lamps for light and a propane stove for cooking. It had an icebox, but we didn’t bother to bring in any blocks of ice because we weren’t staying long enough.

Granddaddy opened his door and said, Come on, Hersch, we’ll unload the trunk.

I scooted out and stood upright, holding onto the car door. My eyes hadn’t adjusted to the dark, and I couldn’t see anything beyond the car. I felt Granddaddy’s hand take mine and shove something heavy into it.

Here, take this. You hold the light, and I’ll open the trunk. He led me around to the rear of the car and opened the hatch. Inside lay the shotguns in their cloth cases, resting on top of sleeping bags, a box of food, and a dozen boxes of shotgun shells.

Your dad packed enough guns, that’s for sure, he said almost to himself. I’ve got my side-by-side up front, my twelve-gauge over-under here. Really nice gun, Hersch. Bit much for you until you’re bigger, though. And I see your dad’s twelve-gauge, a twenty-gauge over-under, and two others. The sight of them made him pause. Wonder what he wants those for? Well, I suppose he wants all of them inside.

Giving me a job, he moved the guns to one side and handed me the box of food. Sure hope there’s some ice cream in there, Hersch. He smiled as he handed the box to me. Go ahead. The light is on inside, so leave the flashlight here.

Where one of the lanterns in front of the cabin provided a funnel of light, I peeked in the box of food, and sure enough, I saw a carton of ice cream, marked chocolate. It still had that frozen hard look. I knew Granddaddy loved ice cream, so I put the box on the small countertop, took out the ice cream, and put it into the icebox even though we didn’t bring ice.

With my father’s large bulk filling the space, I remembered how small the cabin was. The cabin and boathouse were really one building, with the cabin erected on the bank of the river and the boathouse built out over it. The light from the lanterns reflected off the yellow linoleum countertops and the yellow linoleum floor. Except for a small throw rug, the floors were bare. The small kitchen adjoined a small eating area, which was right next to the built-in bunk beds. The bottom bed was larger, and sometimes we used it to sit on while we ate at the table. The toilet was outside and around the corner, outhouse style. The living and eating areas were close and crowded and not very comfortable, but that wasn’t the purpose of the boathouse. It was supposed to protect Daddy’s new speedboat, moored in the water, always ready to go. The doorway down to the boat was right behind me, guarded with a padlock.

Granddaddy walked in, carrying three guns over each shoulder, and nearly shouted, Well, where is this beauty? He was talking about Daddy’s new Chris-Craft inboard. The speedboat had arrived in June, and Daddy had showed it off to all his friends during the summer. I want to see where all that money you’re making is going.

I wasn’t sure exactly what he meant by this, but the tone of his voice was more of a demand than a question. Daddy had bought an airplane a couple of years before, and I overheard him when he called Granddaddy to tell him about it. The phone call turned into a shouting match. I could tell Granddaddy wanted to know why he had bought an expensive airplane because Daddy kept yelling louder and louder that he needed it for something or other.

Be right there, my father said. He was looking over his shoulder, fiddling with one of the kerosene lamps as he answered. Got to get this lamp set so it doesn’t fall over. The key to the padlock is in the drawer, right behind Hersch. Taped to the left side in the rear.

I knew what he meant and immediately opened the drawer to look for the key.

Hersch, leave that alone, he ordered me, his voice loud and sharp. I could tell that he was close to yelling at me: his eyes and face were rigid, holding back a torrent of anger. I quickly backed away from the drawer and let my arms hang stiffly at my sides.

Granddaddy set the guns and cases in the corner and walked over to the drawer. He felt along the left side with his hand. Hersch, I think I feel it, but my hand’s too big. See what you can do.

Glad for the chance to help, I stepped forward, quickly found the key taped to the side, and pulled it off. As I handed the key to Granddaddy, Dad advanced on us, breathing hard. He didn’t like anyone countermanding his orders. His face was flushed, but he didn’t say a word. He grabbed the key to open the back door himself.

Yet he fumbled with the padlock, unable to fit the key into the slot. One of the kerosene lanterns was shining a flood of light onto Daddy, and I could see his left hand gripping the lock so tight, his knuckles were white. Frustrated, he kept trying to jam the key into the lock. He started cursing under his breath; I knew that something like this was sure to set him off. I slipped around behind my grandfather and quickly edged toward the bottom bunk, wanting to be as far away as possible.

He muttered under his breath, yanked the padlock futilely, cursing in a low voice, Goddamn lock. I should have gotten the key myself.

I had seen him like this hundreds of times before, when his temper built to a peak and he lashed out in violence. The eruption could happen in an instant. Yet as mad as he was getting, he kept himself in check. Granddaddy was slightly behind him, leaning against the counter, watching. I realized that Granddaddy was the reason he hadn’t exploded. My father didn’t dare fly into a violent rage with Granddaddy around.

I watched with intense interest. I had rarely seen my father hold back about anything. My eyes darted back and forth between them, waiting to see what would happen. The yellow light of the kerosene lamp glowed eerily over my father and grandfather, and they seemed to stand still like a tableau. Deep inside, I felt an invisible wish to be as powerful and confident as my grandfather. He watched for another few seconds and said, like he didn’t care one way or the other, Herschel, want me to take a try?

Shit, Dad. Something’s wrong. Goddamn lock, Daddy replied, while moving aside. He handed the key to Granddaddy, then leaned on the counter, gripping the edge tightly. He glared at his father but didn’t look at me. I barely breathed, not wanting to draw his attention.

Granddaddy turned the bottom of the padlock upward, peered at it, then retrieved a small pocketknife from his pants pocket. He stuck a blade into the cylinder and jiggled it a few times. When he tried the key again, it slid smoothly into the cylinder chamber and turned. He let the open padlock hang on the hasp and tossed the key onto the countertop. When it landed, it made a dull clink, but the room was so quiet, it sounded as if someone had hit a doorbell.

They stood side by side, and though they were about the same height, Daddy was much bigger. He often said that he had to stay away from three hundred. And I knew he meant how much he weighed.

Granddaddy stepped aside and said in the same even voice, Lead the way, son.

My father’s knuckles were white from gripping the countertop, and I half expected him to rip it off. Instead, he took a deep breath and grabbed the lantern hanging on a nail, pulling it so hard the nail sprang out of the wall. Even more embarrassed by that, he barged through the doorway and down the stairs to where his new Chris-Craft was moored.

Granddaddy turned to me and held his palms out, telling me to stay put. He must have sensed the building rage as much as I had.

As I sat on the edge of the bunk bed, Babe came over to me, nuzzled my leg, and wagged her tail happily.

Well, come on. Here she is, my father said in the distance. His voice was full of disgust and finality, wanting to get the examination of his boat over with as soon as possible.

Granddaddy went down the steps to where the Chris-Craft inboard was tied up. I could hear the sound of the river splashing against the poles holding up the boathouse and the voices of the two men. The sounds bounced off the water and the sides of the boathouse and echoed up through the door to the kitchen.

That’s her, I heard my father say. I imagined he was pointing to his new inboard.

So, this is what I gave you all that money for. And the airplane. Toys. I hope you sell plenty of Cokes, replied Granddaddy. He sounded like he didn’t care what the Chris-Craft looked like.

I heard someone climbing the steps, and my grandfather appeared. That night I didn’t understand what he meant about the money, but some years later I learned how Daddy was able to buy a Coca-Cola franchise in Twin Falls, a house, airplane, speedboat, racing boat, plus two new cars. He seemed to prosper selling cold soft drinks in a place that ironically was cold eight months out of the year. My grandfather knew where