Early in June 1952, the summer of my 16th year, my old man drove his truck out to the west side of Birmingham at dawn, hugged me once, slammed the door and left me with my thumb up, holding a cardboard suitcase and shivering in the dew on U.S. Highway 78 west. The adventure had begun. I had maybe 10 bucks in my pocket and 500 miles of hitching ahead of me. I had answered a small ad in The Sporting News for the Ozark Baseball Camp near Salem, Mo., and I had sent in the money I had made delivering The Birmingham News over the winter and spring. "Professional contracts offered to those showing promise," the ad had said. So here I was. That's all they had to tell me.
I suspect they still have these camps—if there are summer "computer camps," why not baseball camps—but in those days the Ozark Baseball Camp was truly rough and truly a camp. It was run by a crotchety old New York Giants bird-dog scout named Carl Bolin, and it was situated in a farming valley adjacent to the Montauk State Park, where rich old boys from St. Louis descended with their fly rods and wading boots and elegant family tents to catch trout and drink bourbon. In the meantime we 80-odd boys of different ages and backgrounds lived in tilting cabins and ate at a mess hall and labored under the Missouri sun in order to learn how to catch and hit and throw baseballs. Bolin was always about, wearing a patched gray Giants uniform, teaching us infielders how to catch the ball on the short hop. Old Elmer Brown, who lived nearby in the town of Salem, showed the pitchers what he had learned pitching for the St. Louis Browns and Brooklyn Dodgers. And Goldie Howard, a hulking preacher with a gold tooth who had enjoyed some prodigious home run years for the Newark Bears, would entertain us from time to time in the batting cage by hitting balls over the cows and into the trout stream beyond.
But then, in the midst of our reverie, came Ty Cobb. We didn't have to be told about Tyrus Raymond Cobb of Narrows, Ga., because he was in the Hall of Fame and known as maybe the best man who ever wore a baseball uniform. Also the meanest. "Now, boys," Bolin instructed us after supper on the evening of Cobb's arrival, "Mister Cobb is sensitive about that. You've probably heard the stories about how he sharpened his spikes in front of the dugout before a game just to scare the other team and how he'd lay down a bunt and run over a pitcher he didn't like. Maybe it's true. Probably is. But don't make him mad by asking him." Cobb was coming for a week as a guest instructor—he was 65 years old then and he would still do anything for a buck—and he wound up spending a second week either because it rained all the time or the whiskey was good or he wanted the money or he simply liked being around us boys.
It could have been the latter. Every evening after supper he would sit on the steps of the veranda of the camp lodge that overlooked the playing fields, a gaggle of sweaty boys at his feet, and ramble. He had a creased face and rheumy eyes and he always wore a bow tie and a white dress shirt rolled up to the elbows and there wasn't very much hair left. After about a week of his sitting there talking about why he held the bat with his hands apart and so forth, one of the kids blurted out, "Mister Cobb, did you really try to spike people?" Cobb's eyes turned fierce. "Darn right I did," he said, and from there on you couldn't shut him up. He named names. He told why. He remembered the precise dates. He made no apologies. He said he would dearly love to do it again. And then, one afternoon at the end of his stay, I caught up with him as we all left the fields for the mess hall. He wore wing tips and khaki britches and an OZARK BASEBALL CAMP T shirt. I told him I could only slide on my left buttock, for some unknown reason, and was there anything he could tell me that might help. "I was the same way, son," he said. "Stand back and I'll show you how I did it." Then that old man—Ty Cobb, maybe the greatest there ever was, 65 years old and still fighting, mean as hell—tore out for third base in his khakis and wing tips and T shirt and showed me how he would slide past the bag and then hook it with his left hand before the third baseman had grasped his scam.
Now it is the autumn of my 47th year. Much has happened since 1952. Cobb is long gone and so is my innocence. But as I sit here at my old manual Royal typewriter, with all sorts of depressing things going on in my life, I look up and see the picture somebody made of me and Mister Cobb together at the Ozark Baseball Camp in that summer of '52. I'm scared and skinny. There are three other kids in the picture, just as scared and skinny, and Cobb is in his bow tie, bat in hand, demonstrating how he held his hands apart. As I recall it, Bolin somehow conned The Sporting News into running the picture. I know for a fact that my mama got it planted in our weekly neighborhood paper in Birmingham. And there is a scrap of paper inside the K mart frame holding the picture that says: "To Paul Hemphill, From His Friend, Ty Cobb, 7/15/52."