Ty Cobb


Finkel, Jan, Nine


Poe in Flannels

If finding something that passionately engages you is to be blessed, I've been doubly blessed because I have two--literature and baseball. The first fed me for most of my adult life, as I got paid to talk about it. The second has been with me since childhood, raising my hopes, breaking my heart, and everything in between.

But with blessings come curses, and here's mine. Literature and baseball become so intertwined to me that sometimes I can't tell them apart. For example, Honus Wagner takes on the traits of Lincoln and Twain; Chillingworth and Ahab emerge as Pete Rose; Babe Ruth becomes Gargantua and Falstaff and vice versa. And Edgar Allan Poe, had he worn flannels and played ball, might well have been Ty Cobb; conversely, had Cobb been born two or three generations sooner, he might well have produced Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque.

Strangeness personified, battling the same demons--paranoia, near-schizophrenia, perverseness, and self-destructiveness -- Poe and Cobb clawed their way to the pantheons of their respective professions with lives and psyches sufficiently parallel to make them seem, if not twins, certainly close cousins, and perhaps ultimately our cousins.

To be sure, each man had his more or less redeeming moments. Poe, when he wasn't accusing Hawthorne, Longfellow, Lowell, or someone of equal stature of plagiarism while committing it himself or drinking himself into a nightmarish stupor or using his editorial position to trash a rival writer, could be polite, even courtly, especially around women, and was a loving husband. Cobb, having finished spiking infielders or disrupting his team or getting himself embroiled in a game-fixing plot, came to the financial aid of old ballplayers in need, built a hospital in his hometown, and established a college scholarship fund for deserving students. Indeed, each man seems to have had his regrets over at least some of his behavior, but even to acknowledge some random good acts is akin to saying that Genghis Khan was nice to his mother and his dog, or that Al Capone (if Brian DePalma and Robert DeNiro are right) wept at the plight of Pagliacci; doing so neither explains nor forgives much. Underneath, deep inside, lay a p rofoundly tormented, warped psyche incapable of moving in a straight line.

To begin with, Poe and Cobb were both deprived of a father at an early age. Poe was born in Boston (a fact he never failed to mention to northerners he thought deemed him inferior) on January 19, 1809, to David Poe, an itinerant actor at best, and the former Elizabeth (Betty or Eliza) Arnold, who was a considerable star in music and comedy. David ran out when Edgar was two, leaving him an older brother (William Henry Leonard) and a baby sister (Rosalie). To make matters even worse, Elizabeth died in December 1811, about a month before Edgar's third birthday. The orphans were separated, and Edgar was taken into the household of John Allan, a prosperous Richmond tobacco planter and merchant. Although Poe took up the name Allan, Allan never adopted him and actually treated him coldly. In any case, when Poe deliberately got himself expelled from West Point (an appointment Allan had helped secure for him), Allan disowned him, and Poe used the name only a handful of times thereafter.

William Herschell Cobb (also known as "W. H.") was an autocrat, the prototype of the Victorian father; for reasons known only to himself, Cobb not only feared but idolized the man. Cobb was understandably devastated when his father was shot by either his mother or her (suspected) lover in August 1905, when Ty was just eighteen, playing at Augusta and soon to be on his way to the Major Leagues. As Cobb pointed out, his father's sudden, violent death infused him with much of the fire that he unleashed on the diamond. Although he appeared in support of his mother at her trial (she was acquitted of manslaughter under less than convincing circumstances, primarily because she was "a lady") and saw to her care later in life, they were never close, and he seldom spoke of her, sometimes saying only "She killed my father. …

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