Now that the 2019 Major League Baseball season is underway, and many fans are wondering whether the Boston Red Sox will repeat as World Series champions, or that the $430 million dollar man Bryce Harper will help lead the Phillies to a pennant, it’s always important to look back at the players from another era whose accomplishments on and off the diamond helped to bring the game to what it is today.
One dominant figure in the history of professional baseball who certainly cannot be ignored is George Herman Ruth, aka “Babe” Ruth. During his 21-year career in baseball, for the Boston Red Sox, the New York Yankees and the Boston Braves, Ruth and his ability with the bat brought the game up from the Deadball Era to a time when hitting home runs were – and still are – key to a team’s success in the standings.
However, Ruth’s exploits both on and off the diamond made him a larger than life figure, not only to the growing army of sports writers who filled the press boxes of each ballpark or stadium he played at, but also in the eyes of millions of youthful fans who looked up to the Babe and wanted to duplicate his remarkable home run hitting feats.
Veteran writer and author Jane Leavy understands what makes a pro baseball player a legend and an idol, which she proved to great success with best selling biographies of Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax and Mickey Mantle. And now she gives the Bambino his biographical due with her latest book The Big Fella.
But this is not your average chronological biography of Ruth. Although it covers the rather short but unforgettable 53 years that made up Ruth’s life, Leavy wisely decided to focus on how Babe Ruth’s career became the catalyst to how we watch, understand and appreciate the game of baseball for the more than 100 years since Ruth made his major league debut.
The premise of the book is the three-week barnstorming tour that Ruth and fellow Yankee Lou Gehrig embarked upon across the U.S. in the fall of 1927. This occurred following what was probably the greatest season in Ruth’s career; he just set the record for hitting the most homeruns in a single season (60), and he lead the “Murderer’s Row” edition of the Yankees (which is regarded as the greatest baseball team of all time) to victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates in that year’s World Series.
Each chapter in the book is represented by every stop during the tour, which not only brought a taste of major league baseball to cities and towns that have never experienced it before thanks to exhibition games in which the “Bustin’ Babes” and the “Larrupin’ Lous” faced off at smaller scale local ballparks, but somehow introduced or strengthened the new ways that would forever change the game.
This includes the introduction of the sports agent (thanks to the work of Christy Walsh, who not only increased Ruth’s stature with the public, but also helped him to manage his finances so that he could live comfortably when he retired); the world of celebrity product endorsements (which is exemplified by the heated battle between the Babe Ruth Candy Company and the Curtiss Candy Company, which made the Baby Ruth candy bar, which was always mistaken for being named after the Babe); the first emphasis on the science and logistics of hitting (which happened about 20 years before Ted Williams made it a focus of his career); and the beginnings of the professional sports player as media star (especially with Ruth’s outlandish and controversial exploits off the diamond, which kept Walsh plenty busy by doing a great deal of damage control to the press).
Perhaps the saddest part of the book deals with Ruth’s later years from his retirement as a player in 1935 until his death from cancer in 1948. Basically, it was like baseball’s greatest player, who rescued the game from the damaging Black Sox Scandal, was discarded from his world because it had no more use for him (even Gehrig’s widow Eleanor insisted that Ruth should not be used in solo scenes when the biopic “The Pride of the Yankees” was filmed in 1942; instead, he was used in scenes where he was seen with a group of people). And ironically, that sense of indifference led to the establishment of another pro sports tradition: the retirement of one’s sports jersey number. Ruth got the first of such an honour at Yankee Stadium in June of 1948, in which he made his final personal appearance at the “House That Ruth Built” just two months before his death.
The Big Fella is a baseball biography that is as sweeping as a typical Babe Ruth homer. Jane Leavy gives the reader a portrait of a larger than life sports figure who was filled with natural talent and personal complexities. And through the story of Babe Ruth’s abilities as a ballplayer and as a celebrity to millions, we learn how he paved the way to how professional athletes today are perceived and recognized as inspirational – and controversial – figures.