June 25, Casper, Wy. – Yesterday we arrived in Casper, which lies about two hours south and west of Gillette in the wind tunnel known as Wyoming.
I can tell you nothing about Casper you couldn’t learn in a one-minute Internet search. I did that search myself and was surprised to learn that, at 56,000 souls, Casper is Wyoming’s second-largest city. We did visit the post office in adjacent Mills earlier today, our trip taking us along the comely North Platte River.
If the pleasing scenery outside the window of the Burger King we currently inhabit is any indication, we’ve wandered into the lower reaches of the Rocky Mountains. The squat, muscular hills that rise above the Dollar Tree and Walmart mock us for spending a gorgeous afternoon in one more corporate outpost.
Besides riding the boom-and-bust vicissitudes of the oil industry, Casper is a haven for outdoor adventurers, at least adventurers who sit halfway between road and mountain in the cockpit of their luxury RVs.
We haven’t had a lick of cell phone service since we drove out of Cody, Neb., 10 days ago. If you’ve tried to reach us, I apologize for any frustration. If not, how come?
We worked out and showered at the Casper YMCA yesterday. It was our first Y visit since May 29 in Carthage Mo.
We are not what you’d call pragmatic people. With no income whatsoever, with a rolling metal box that gets 14 mph on a very good day for a home, we have abandoned ourselves to the whims of America. Nonetheless, we still pay the YMCA $80 for the privilege of working out once, maybe twice a month.
In other news, our house in the methamphetamine wilds outside Gig Harbor remains on track to be sold at auction in less than a month.
Other than that, things are just fine.
In the endless quest to catch up on this rambling travelogue, I reach back to May 14, the day we finally broke away from Tallapoosa, Ga., after an 11-day stay we’ll be gushing about the rest of our lives.
I’ll get around to writing about our time in Tallapoosa. I made liberal use of my digital-voice recorder there, a dubious decision which leaves me facing untold hours of tedious transcription.
After a four-hour goodbye that included tractor rides and photo opportunities, we pulled out of the Williams’ driveway and turned left onto 78 Highway in the early afternoon. In three miles we were back in Cleburne County, Alabama, which we’d seen quite a bit of during our Tallapoosa sojourn. In another 40 miles, we were on the outskirts of Anniston, an old iron-and-steel mill town in eastern Alabama.
We had slid right on past Anniston on the road to Birmingham when something, I’m not sure what, prompted us to exit 78 and approach the city from the rear.
Back on Mother’s Day in 1961, Anniston earned monstrous notoriety when a mob firebombed a bus of Freedom Riders. Failing in their quest to hold the doors shut and watch their fellow humans burn to death, the thugs salvaged their day by greeting their victims at the door of the crippled bus and beating the daylights out of them.
As for me, simpleton that I am, I’ve always associated Anniston with one name: Ty Cobb. (Perhaps there’s symmetry there?)
As a kid, I found refuge from my own awkwardness in a colorful storehouse of baseball lore. In “Strange But True Baseball Stories,” Furman Bisher’s collection of baseball oddities that was first published in 1966, I discovered that the irascible Cobb (I like to think I’m not the only boy who first encountered the word “irascible” in its rightful place, immediately preceding”Ty Cobb.”) had spent some time in Anniston.
The story is old and often told. At a crossroads in his young career, having been dumped by a minor league team in Augusta, Ga., Cobb found salvation with a semipro club in Anniston.
While in Anniston, he did more than play baseball. He also wrote a series of letters to famed sports writer Grantland Rice at the Atlanta Journal. In the letters, which he signed with pseudonyms, he rhapsodized about a baseball prodigy in the bushes of western Alabama named Ty Cobb. A typical one raved about the “dashing young star from Royston” who had only recently hooked up with the Anniston club. “He is a terrific hitter and faster than a deer,” Cobb wrote. “At the age of 17 he is undoubtedly a phenom.”
Eventually Rice was persuaded to include a short note about Cobb in his column. Later that summer, Cobb was given another chance in Augusta. Whether Rice’s imprimatur had anything to do with this is debatable, but it wasn’t until later in life, long after he’d finished his career, that Cobb let Rice in on the ruse.
And so we stopped at the public library in Oxford, where I discovered there is another town in the deep south named Oxford. I got on a computer and searched for Cobb and Anniston, got directions to the library there and left Becky and Max behind.
As it is, it took Anniston a while to get around to celebrating its connection to the Georgia Peach. Given Cobb’s unsavory reputation, perhaps this reflects a civic reluctance to further Anniston’s association with racial hatred. Perhaps it simply was the result of civic inertia.
In any case, Cobb’s legacy has undergone a surprising rehabilitation in recent times, which neatly coincided with Anniston’s decision to raise a historical marker, which the city did on April 29, 2009, the 105th anniversary of the day the future legend signed a contract to play ball in this little town.
Making up for past indifference, the author of the inscription courted a bit of controversy by hailing Cobb as “the greatest baseball player of all time.” Well, that’s small beer. I’m not sure how much to read into the marker in any case, as the inscription undercuts its authority by getting Cobb’s age wrong (18 instead of 17) and referring to the Anniston club as the Steelers. It was the Noblemen.
I came into town on Quintard Avenue, the broad thoroughfare that divides Anniston into east and west. I turned left on 10th Street and parked in the lot behind the Public Library of Anniston-Calhoun County. I made my way upstairs to the Alabama Room and inhaled the deep, intoxicating aroma of history.
I asked Tom Mullins, the genial, professorial fellow at the desk. what he had in the way of Anniston newspaper on microfilm. I followed him into the microfilm room, where he unlocked the drawer and to our collective sadness, discovered their collection of the Anniston Star includes a three-year gap from 1903–06.
Eager to help in some way, Tom pulled the Alabama Room’s Cobb file, a meager volume of photocopies wedged into a single manila folder.
I sat down at table and pulled back the cover page, not knowing exactly which straw of history I grasped for. There wasn’t much of interest peculiar to Cobb’s stay in Anniston. Most notable was a copy of the contract the 17-year-old Cobb signed on April 29, 1904. In exchange for agreeing to limit his services to the Anniston club, Cobb was promised the sum of $50 per month.
Cobb’s dad did not approve of his son’s aspirations. This was a common phenomenon in the early 20th century. Baseball was an uncouth game played by ruffians and boozers, hardly the sort of profession respectable parents like William Herschel Cobb wanted for their children.
I scanned the assembled papers looking for something of passing curiosity. I didn’t find much of interest in the statistics. Cobb hit .336 in 110 at-bats, scored 20 runs, stole 10 bases and hit seven triples. Nice figures for most men, but almost underwhelming for a guy who would compile a .366 average in 24 big-league seasons, a figure no one has come close to matching.
As I sat there scuffling to find a promising thread and racing my dying computer battery, I had the good fortune to be accosted by a friendly southerner. His name is David Hodnett. He’d seen me fumbling with the file and asked if I was a Cobb aficionado.
What to say? I might’ve told him I am either a fool or a madman, frittering away a spring afternoon a thousand miles from home looking for a story about Ty Cobb and Anniston, a story at any rate unlikely to move any self-respecting, money-conscious publisher off his or her perch of disinterest.
Turns out David is chasing a story of his own. For years he’s been researching and writing about the vanished Alabama town of Vienna (down here they say “Vye-enna”), where his people came from. He’s already written two volumes about Vienna and is at work on a third.
He told me about his grandfather, William Battle Peebles, who enjoyed a tenuous connection to the Georgia Peach. Mr. Peebles played baseball for a man named George Leidy at Marion Military Institute, which still does business 140 miles south and west of here in Marion, Ala.
A year after his Anniston stint, Cobb played for Leidy in Augusta before his contract was sold to the Detroit Tigers of the American League.
I turned the tables on David, who was gracious enough to sit still and let me record two short videos where he described some of his research.
Here’s the first one, where he talks about his grandfather’s flirtation with baseball history. I apologize for nipping off the top of his head;
I’m not sure it would matter what he said, whether he talked about his grandfather or gave me directions to the nearest Piggly Wiggly. I am infatuated by the Shelby Foote quality to his voice. The poetic cadence and lilt infuses his Alabama accent with a Faulknerian gravity. I only wish I had more time available on my camera card.
With only about a minute to spare, I got David to talk briefly about his obsession with Vienna, which captivated him long ago.
I thanked David for his graciousness. He asked me to take a pass through Vienna if it wasn’t too far off our path.
I said we’d be happy to do so.
And so was my haphazard trip from Oxford to Anniston redeemed. Now we had a purpose, which is something we often have trouble finding out here in America’s unpredictable backyard.