Wednesday, February 17, 2010

He's a pain, but he's somebody's friend

I am just as guilty as anyone. When encountering someone who is a genuine pain in the arse, you wait until the person is gone before sharing tall tales with others who have experienced their pain-in-the-arseness. My recently deceased step-grandfather was one of the biggest bigoted curmudgeons I have ever met, always hacked off at something and ready to assign blame to whichever group of people he felt like hating that day, usually minorities or Republicans. But when our kids, not knowing of course how we felt about it, would crawl up to him and give him a big smile, he melted into a giant purring pussy cat. How often we forget that there are people who genuinely like, sometimes even love, those who cause us to involuntarily reach for the nearest gun or giant carving knife at the mere sounds of their voices.

Baseball fans know Ty Cobb as one of the greatest players of all time. If you keep score of such geeky stat boy things as I do, he is number three on the all time WAR (Wins Above Replacement) list, trailing only Babe Ruth and The Incredible Hulk (the former Barry Bonds). Most everyone also knows that Cobb could be one of the meanest men in America and, as he hailed from segregationist Georgia, was a virulent racist. During a game in 1912 in New York, Cobb was being mercilessly heckled by Claude Lueker, a man with one arm and only two fingers on his lone hand. Cobb restrained himself until Lueker called Cobb a "half-n*****." The "Georgia Peach" went into the stands and beat up the man. When stunned onlookers shouted for him to stop, saying Lueker had no hands, Cobb retorted "I don't care if he got no feet." So most people respected Cobb the ballplayer but hated Cobb the man. But to James Fargo Lanier, Ty Cobb was like a father.

When Mr. Lanier was a boy in an area of Augusta, Georgia known as The Hill, Ty Cobb and his family were neighbors. Mr. Lanier befriended Cobb's middle son, Herschel Cobb, and when Ty Cobb was home during his off-seasons from the Detroit Tigers, he treated Mr. Lanier as if he were his own son. "Mr. Cobb was as fond of my dad as he was of his own children," said one of Mr. Lanier's sons, James McCrary Lanier, in an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "My dad grew up like a lot of young people fascinated and enamored by sports heroes. He looked at Mr. Cobb through the eyes of a child, even after he became an adult." Their relationship eventually led to what most boys at the time would consider a dream job, being a batboy with the Tigers during the 1925 and 1926 seasons. Mr. Lanier held Mr. Cobb in higher regard than did some members of Cobb's family, and would continue to do so until he passed away this past weekend at the age of 93.

If someone as mean and nasty as Ty Cobb can have a devotee such as Mr. Lanier, perhaps we should remember that next time we want to rip a new one into our favorite human punching bags. For our own reasons, we may not be able to stand the sight or sound of that yappy great aunt or second counsin. We may think we hate Barack Obama or George W. Bush, Bill Clinton or Rush Limbaugh. But for every ounce of hate we have for that person, someone else has that much love for the very same person, and vice versa for the people we love. So sorry if I ruined your day of hatin' on someone. Reading about Mr. Lanier's love for Ty Cobb sure ruined mine.

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