To immerse himself in the lives of those he wrote about, John McCallum would spend extraordinary amounts of time with them, their friends and their families. He collected numerous tidbits and observations along the way, many of which he shared in his 1969 autobiography, Going Their Way.
Here are a few excerpts:
On the miserly nature of Ty Cobb
The notoriously mean-spirited and confrontational baseball legend had invested his earnings wisely and was still worth millions of dollars nearly three decades after retiring, which is when McCallum began profiling Cobb for the first of two books he’d write about the Detroit Tigers star. Cobb’s extreme thriftiness was among the many paradoxes that caught McCallum’s attention.
Ty Cobb was also the world’s champion pinchpenny. Some two-hundred fan letters reached him monthly, requesting his autograph. Many letters enclosed return-mail stamps. Cobb used the stamps for his own out-going mail. The fan letters he burned. I saw him do it.
In my own relationship with him, he had occasion to phone me in New York from the Coast several times, or failing to reach me by phone, he would wire me. The tolls always arrived collect.
I was driving Ty from New York to Cooperstown one summer to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame. We were about an hour from our destination when he suddenly made me make a right-hand turn off the thruway, taking us thirty-five miles out of our way.
“Why are we going this way?” I asked him.
“We need gas,” he replied.
“But there was a gas station just a mile up the highway from where we turned off.”
“I know that, but they give Green Stamps at the station down this road. I save them!”
We drove down the country road and finally found the station. Ty had stopped there before. While the attendant filled our tank, we got out of the car to buy soft drinks. Cobb automatically bought a bottle of Coca-Cola as the nickel he dropped into the slot would later come back into his pocket by way of the thousands of shares of stock he held in the Coca-Cola Company. Just to be different, I dropped my coin into the 7-Up machine. That was a mistake. All I heard the rest of the journey to Cooperstown was a tirade against the diversion of the five-cent profit that Cobb, Mr. Coca-Cola, felt I had personally taken away from him. At first I thought he was kidding. He wasn’t. He meant every word of it.
He grew reticent and refused to talk to me. At Cooperstown we had reserved a double room. For the next two days he wouldn’t even look at me. Whenever he wanted to communicate with me, he’d leave a scribbled note for me in the room. At night when he’d go to bed he would turn his face to the wall so he wouldn’t have to look at me in the adjoining bed. Finally, it was time to go back to New York and Ty’s icy silence still prevailed. He was giving me the total penalty — ostracism, which he regarded as the most dismaying of deprivations. Or as Ty, himself, would have said, if he’d been talking to me, “I cross you off.”
At the car, Cobb, still quiet, handed me a note. It read: “YOU DRIVE.” Three blocks from the hotel he handed me another note: “STOP THE CAR … I WANT TO DRIVE.” I pulled the car over to the curb and we exchanged places. Ty slid behind the wheel and, with screeching tires, shot off down the street. Suddenly the engine started to smoke. He jammed on the brakes. He got out and lifted up the hood. He examined the motor. He got back in. And then I broke the silence by pointing out the facts of driving to him, “I hate to tell you this, Ty, but you’ve been driving the last half-mile with the your emergency brake on.”
His eyes burned through me like live coals. And then he spoke for the first time in two and a half days, “OH, HELL … YOU DRIVE!”
With that he pulled out a flask of Scotch, downed half of it in one gulp, and passed out.
In one of his rare, isolated moments of self-confession, Ty’s guilt came through. He said to me, “People always talk about living their lives over if they had a chance. Well, if that were possible I’d change only one thing in my life. I’d try to make more friends. I’ve made a lot of enemies, and I can’t blame them. I put too much stress on winning … winning at all costs. I walked over a lot of people along the way, but, then, I couldn’t help myself. I was crazy with the urgency of living up to the promise I had once made my father — to be the best in my business. I’m afraid it blinded me to all else. It dominated my whole life, and has interfered with every phase of my relations with other people …”
Ty Cobb did have a good side, but he was always trying to conceal it.
Rare, candid moments with Grace Kelly
As a sports writer, McCallum knew Grace Kelly’s father, Jack Kelly, an Olympic gold medal rower who transformed his blue collar bricklaying roots into a construction empire. Jack’s brother, George, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and another brother, Walter, was a vaudeville star. McCallum had begun working on a book about the family’s climb from humble beginnings before Grace Kelly was discovered by Hollywood and well before she became princess of Monaco.
Grace was rather shy when I first talked to her. I hoped to get behind that enigmatic facade of hers. One person who had known her since she was a child told me bluntly, “You can dig until doomsday, but you won’t find out what’s beneath the surface.” Some warnings clawed more deeply. They said she kept her heart locked in a home freezer and referred to her as “the girl with stainless steel insides.”
It seemed strange to me that a shy and sensitive girl like this, who hated quarrels and felt at ease only with dolls, should have chosen a career in the theatre, where temperamental personalities explode regularly and exhibitionists willingly trade their private lives for publicity. Yet Grace’s decision to be an actress seemed almost predestined by her family background and her own needs.
The path to stardom had been blazed by her Uncle Walter and Uncle George. Then, too, she had been named after her Aunt Grace, a talented actress in Philadelphia who died before Grace was born.
“I hope to be so accomplished a dramatic actress,” Grace wrote, on applying for entry to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, “that some day my Uncle George will write a play for me and direct it.” Nothing was said about someday meeting a sovereign prince, wedding ring in hand.
Around the Kelly house, I could not help admiring Grace’s informality with her family, her disarming way of letting me in on her little, behind-the-scenes planning. Nor could I help but detect the domination her father still had over her.
I haven’t thought of this story for nearly a dozen years, but a revealing incident occurred during my first visit with Grace. On the occasion of her triumphant return home, after winning the Academy Award, she was in the living room with family and several special friends from the neighborhood. All the family were there but her father. He had been detained at the office on business. It was late in the afternoon, a couple of hours after Grace’s arrival from Hollywood. We were all having cocktails and Grace, who needs only a few sips of champagne to mellow miraculously, was feeling gay. I distinctly remember she was in the middle of the living room doing a take-off on Bette Davis — and Grace could be a wicked mimic — when her father walked in.
“Grace,” he said, “that will be enough. You’re among the family now. You don’t have to put on an act.”
Grace smiled, walked over, and kissed him — but for the next hour she was silent. Perhaps, to have had her father beaming approval at a girlish skit in her own living room might have been as satisfying as accepting an Oscar while the entire nation watched her over television.
Golfing with President Dwight Eisenhower
McCallum’s sports background, along with his Pacific Northwest roots, again proved key to making important connections. The president’s older brother, Edgar, headed up a Tacoma law firm and was a regular golfing partner with one of McCallum’s longtime friends, Larry Huseby, who set up a meeting and pitched the idea of a book about the president’s early years as told through the experiences of his brothers.
One afternoon, Ed, a four-time Washington State Senior Golf Champion, took Dwight out on his lawn and gave him a golf lesson, hitting plastic balls. Originally they had planned to play 18 holes at the Tacoma Country and Golf Club, located only a mashie shot from Ed’s place, but the heavy rain and wet fairways canceled their game.
What sort of golfer was the President? I put the question to Ed after his brother had left. He replied, “Ike has a good fundamental swing but does not shift his weight correclty. He over-pivots a bit, takes too long a backswing, and can’t quite get into position to hit the ball solidly. He has a good grip but has not developed a grooved swing. He is fully capable of getting seven or eight pars in nine holes, but he is also capable of getting an occasional eight or nine on any hole. His short game is weaker than his long, and he has a little trouble on the greens.”
One of Ed’s favorite golf stories about Ike dates back to 1954, when the President was playing a round at Augusta, Georgia under all the handicaps that a President of the Unites States puts up with when playing golf. He would take a shot, and then he would wait patiently while the familiar cordon of secret-service men moved down the fairway ahead of him clearing the way. It was slow golf, and it was accepted by everybody but one person. On the fifth green, the President bent over to address his ball, when the serenity of the course was abruptly shattered by a loud and assertive voice:
“GET THE HELL OUTTA MY WAY — I’M COMING THROUGH!”
The President paused momentarily and looked around, then resumed his stance. Again the sharp command from back down the fairway:
“DO YOU HEAR ME? I’M COMING THROUGH!”
The President of the United States curiously stepped to one side as the fiercest competitor in America’s sports history drove through.
It was the old Georgia Peach himself — spikes aglimmer — Ty Cobb!