When Pete Rose finally broke Ty Cobb's record I was glad for Rose, but I felt a twinge of regret that Cobb was no longer the greatest ballplayer of all time. And when I read some of the descriptions of Cobb in the newspapers—that he was hard, cold, bad-tempered, impossible to get along with—I wondered if they were talking about the same man I once knew as Uncle Ty.
My father, Oscar Miller, had been a sportswriter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. After he left the paper to take over his father-in-law's broom manufacturing business, he still sat in the press box at every home game. Occasionally, he even went on the road with one of the St. Louis teams, the Cardinals or the Browns. My father knew all the players, of course, but one of his best friends was Ty Cobb. Whenever the Tigers played the Browns, Uncle Ty would come over to our house.
With us, he was invariably soft-spoken and polite, a result, no doubt, of his Southern upbringing. Nowhere evident was the pugnacious competitor. The man we knew was pleasant and courteous, with a pink, smooth face and a ready smile. His eyes, often described as glittering coldly, seemed to me to twinkle.
His visits to our house were part of a regular family routine during the baseball season. Every Sunday morning my father and his brother went to the ball park, where they pitched for rival businessmen's teams. They played as many innings as they could until the grounds-keepers arrived to prepare the field for the major league game that afternoon.
Then both men came back to our house for lunch, during which they rehashed the game. After lunch it was back to the ball park, occasionally with my mother in tow. When I got a little older I was sometimes taken along. After the Browns-Tigers games, my father often brought Cobb home. Usually he would stay for dinner, but sometimes he would just sit on the front porch with my parents and have a few beers. It seems now, in retrospect, that our close family and home life offered Cobb a respite from baseball and from his need to prove himself. There were no challenges at the Miller house, only acceptance and, of course, no small amount of juvenile hero worship.
Whenever Cobb was there, the kids in the neighborhood seemed to sense it. One by one they would appear silently in the warm twilight, sneaking up behind trees and bushes, slipping through gaps in the hedges. Maybe the three adults on the porch didn't hear the giggles and whispers, but then again maybe they just pretended not to know what was going on. Now that I'm grown up, I tend toward the latter view.
When Uncle Ty did stay for dinner, I reaped a harvest of pennies, or maybe a top without a string or some marbles—all for letting the kids creep quietly up onto the porch. From there they could look through the French doors of the living room and see Cobb at the dining room table.
One summer day I really hit a bonanza. My parents were also good friends of Rogers Hornsby and George Sisler. Hornsby was with the Cards, Sisler with the Browns. Although the press played up a rivalry between them, they were actually friends who hunted and fished together, often sharing family vacation trips. Mrs. Hornsby and Mrs. Sisler were sitting on the porch with my mother when my father drove up with Cobb. The two were just back from a fishing trip on the Meramec River. Hornsby was catching a train for Chicago that night. He and Sisler had stopped by the house to pick up their wives, who were having tea with Mother.
Well, did I hit the jackpot that evening! This time I had to keep the kids off the porch, but there were plenty of climbable trees and bushes big enough to hide three or four kids at a time. I collected two aggies, six jacks, a grasshopper in a bottle and various less precious payments, such as pennies.
Once, I recall, Uncle Ty brought me a ball, one, he claimed, he had hit into the bleachers that day. I took it to my school, Mary Institute, and showed it to our athletics instructor, who asked if she could borrow it some day and let her nephew see it. I showed it to my art teacher, who wanted to know if Cobb was really the Southern gentleman he appeared to be, because, she said, there was no one more gentlemanly than a Southerner. The principal studied the ball and told me wistfully that he had played baseball as a youth and had hoped to make the major leagues, "until I was forced to wear glasses." That ball made me famous on campus for quite a while.