“So, where’s your gun?” It was assumed, naturally, because I was American. This was in England, 1979, students sitting around a pint. They were big fans of “Kojak.” Yanks all carried guns. Not every American, I told them. It only seemed that way, especially now. And athletes do love them some guns. They shoot themselves in the thigh (Plaxico Burress), arrange to have girlfriends murdered (Rae Curruth), forget they’ve got them in their carry-ons (Shaun Rogers, et al), shoot their limo driver (Jayson Williams), or exercise their Second Amendment rights in other novel and often fatal idiotic ways. But, as we know, sports only mirror society. Why quibble?
The Pistorius trial has more than its share of peculiarities. In a general way it reminded me of two tragic, little-known gun in sports episodes. That they involve two immortals must, in some way, be telling. Both Ty Cobb and Ben Hogan took pains to avoid at least publicly reprising seminal events that defined their very core. Cobb biographer Charles Alexander pegged his subject as “a deeply flawed. fascinating personality.” The same can certainly be said of Hogan, who witnessed his father’s suicide as a child. Cobb carried a slug from a .22 in his shoulder from the age of 16 on, an accident, self-inflicted. His father stopped the bleeding, then put him on a train to seek treatment in Atlanta, a 75-mile trip, keeping in mind this was over a century ago. It healed nicely, but that incident was the least of it.
Just as he was becoming a very good ballplayer, his mother shot his father. Georgia, early August, what Cobb, in one of his only written explanations, would recall simply as “the blackest of days” when he got the news. The oddest circumstance, from Alexander’s account, is that his mother, alone in the house locked the bedroom windows “even though the temperature had been in the nineties that day and it was still w arm and humid.” She went to bed. Her husband had said he would be spending a few days out at the farm. Alexander mentions rumors of Amanda Cobb’s infidelity. Anyway, W.H. Cobb reappeared that night on foot in town. “Shortly after midnight Amaanda Cobb was awakened by a noise on the porch roof. A figure she could not make out was struggling to raise one of the windows to her bedroom Grabbing the loaded double-barreled shotgun that always stood in a corner of the room, she pointed it toward the window and fired once. After what witnesses later described as a considerable interval, she fired again. Approaching the shattered window, she peered into the darkness to find her husband lying in a widening pool of blood.” She was arrested and charged with involuntary manslaughter and later absolved at trial, which Cobb attended.
Hogan was nine when his father, Chester, 37, took a .38 to his temple. Hogan biographer Curt Sampson includes and considers two local obituaries in his biography. The impact is left to conjecture. “But,” Sampson wrote, “from a performance standpoint, Hogan understood himself better than any athelete ever. That was Hogan’s Secret. It didn’t become a book or a magazine series because mental toughness, self-control, focus, and the connectin between mood and performance couldn’t be photographed. It was difficult for him to describe and for us dilettantes to apply. He didn’t think we would understand.”
Hogan, of course, would later endure further tragedy, losing a collision with a Greyhound bus. His extraordinary courage in returning to golf and winning would cement his immortality. The accident changed him, obviously. It seemed “preposterous” that Hogan would play top golf again after clearly facing death, to people who’d covered him. Al Laney had watched him from before WWII to 1967. He saw a different Hogan. Gone, he wrote, “ was at least a part of the cold, indifferent, remorseless Hogan, consumed in the fires of the ordeal through which he had passed.”
There was no metamorphosis with Cobb. Sam Crawford played alongside him in the Tiger outfield for 13 years. Wahoo Sam told Lawrence Ritter in The Glory of Their Times that Cobb arrived in Detroit “with an antagonistic attitude, which in his mind turned any little razzing into a life-or-death struggle. He always figured everybody was ganging up against him. He came from the South, you know, and he was still fighting the Civil War. As far as he was concerned, we were all damn Yankees before he ever met us. Well, who knows, maybe if he hadn’t had that persecution complex he never would have been the great ball player he was.”
I wonder. Would Cobb have been Cobb, or Hogan Hogan without these tragic influences? Would they have been so driven to succeed? Would their ability have been so hardened to channel and compartmentalize the hurt? The mold was broken with both of them. Perhaps that wasn’t such a bad thing. Every pistol-packing and playing pro athlete should reflectively consider the Pistorius bathroom door testimony.