He started to say something, then caught his breath and stood speechless.
"I could not think of one single time with my father that was not filled with dread and terror," he writes in a new book. Instead, he told Madelyn about his happy times fishing with his "Granddaddy" at Lake Tahoe during the summers of his youth.
As he told the stories on that and other occasions, the family encouraged him to write them down. He said he came to realize that "my grandfather meant a lot to me."
That grandfather was legendary baseball player Ty Cobb, and he is the focus of Herschel's book, "Heart of a Tiger: Growing up with my grandfather, Ty Cobb."
The book has won for Herschel Cobb, a resident of Menlo Park, the 2013 CASEY Award for the Best Baseball Book of the Year. The book beat out more than 150-plus baseball books published in 2013, said Mike Shannon, editor of Spitball, a literary baseball magazine that sponsors the award.
But the book is not about baseball. It's about the relationship of a grandson and a grandfather, who happened to be one of the greatest baseball players of all time.
"He was funny and energetic — I was lucky to have granddad in my life," says Mr. Cobb of his grandfather, a fiercely competitive and controversial player who, starting in 1905 at age 18, spent 24 seasons in the majors (22 with the Detroit Tigers), and still holds many Major League Baseball records, including a career batting average of .367.
"No one who reads 'Heart of a Tiger' will ever view Ty Cobb quite the same again," said C. Paul Rogers III, a baseball author and law professor and one of the three judges of the 2013 CASEY award.
"In a beautifully conceived and written memoir, fashioned without apology and set in the backdrop of a dysfunctional family for which Ty Cobb was undoubtedly to blame, his grandson shows the loving, caring and giving side of Cobb, who is trying to make amends for his earlier failings as a parent," Mr. Rogers wrote. "It is a compelling book which is hard to set aside and which stuck with me long after I closed the covers."
Many members of the Cobb family have local ties, and much of the story takes place in and around Atherton and Menlo Park. Ty Cobb resided on Spencer Lane in Atherton from the early 1930s until his death in 1961, when Herschel was 18. Herschel's grandmother, Charlie Lombard Cobb (Ty Cobb's first wife), lived on Bay Laurel Drive in Menlo Park, where Herschel, his sister and brother would visit during the summers.
Beverly McLaren, Ty Cobb's fourth child, lived in Atherton, in the home next door to her father's on Spencer Lane.
Shirley Cobb, Ty's second child, was well known locally for her Shirley Cobb Bookstore next to the Varsity Theatre on University Avenue in Palo Alto. She died in 1991, about four years after closing the bookstore she owned for 45 years.
Herschel's wife, Lyn Jason Cobb, grew up in Atherton, at a home about a block way from Ty Cobb's home. But she and Herschel met much later, while playing tennis in Mill Valley in Marin County. They married in 1987, and in 1991 moved to Menlo Park because it looked like a good place to raise a family. They happened to move just two or three blocks from his former grandmother's home.
Herschel and Lyn's son, also named Ty Cobb, is one of the athletes in the family. He was all-league in football, basketball and baseball at Sacred Heart Prep in Atherton, and now plays varsity basketball as a senior at Occidental College in Los Angeles.
Their daughter Madelyn takes after her mother and is a competitive polo player. She led her Cal Poly women's polo team to compete in collegiate national championships for four years. She also plays at such venues as the Menlo Circus Club in Atherton.
Herschel points out that Madelyn and Ty have two great-grandfathers in a hall of fame: Ty Cobb in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and Bill Gilmore, Lyn's grandfather, in the Polo Hall of Fame.
The stories in "Heart of a Tiger" are personal accounts of a young boy's summer experiences visiting his grandfather at his Atherton home and at Ty Cobb's cabin at Lake Tahoe. The young Herschel saw a completely different side of Ty Cobb than the usual portrayal of the aggressive and mean ballplayer known for sliding into bases with his spikes high.
Ty Cobb provided the young Herschel with the comfort and care that his parents didn't. "My parents were just terrible," says Herschel, who writes of a abusive father who died at age 33 when Herschel was 8 and an uncaring mother who drank heavily.
Herschel went on to earn a law degree from Berkeley and is a managing director of the hedge fund Peninsula Point. In March, he will travel to Cincinnati to receive the CASEY award for his book and a specially made blue and gold Louisville Slugger baseball bat.
"Heart of a Tiger," published in 2013 by ECW Press of Toronto, can be ordered from Kepler's as well as Barnes & Noble and Amazon.