The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created
By Jane Leavy
Harper; hardcover, $32.50; available today, Tuesday, October 16
Jane Leavy, has written award-winning New York Times bestsellers on Mickey Mantle, The Last Boy and Sandy Koufax, and she has now written the definitive biography of Babe Ruth, The Big Fella.
Ruth, who was dubbed “the model for modern celebrity” by legendary writer Roger Angell, lived in the present tense—in the camera’s lens. There was no frame he couldn’t or wouldn’t fill. He swung the heaviest bat, earned the most money, and incurred the biggest fines. Like all the new-fangled gadgets then flooding the marketplace—radios, automatic clothes washers, Brownie cameras, microphones and loudspeakers—Babe Ruth “made impossible events happen.”
Drawing from more than 250 interviews, a trove of previously untapped documents, and Ruth family records, Leavy breaks through the mythology that has obscured the legend and delivers the man.
Leavy looks at two crucial aspects of Ruth’s life that have not been examined by other biographers, his early childhood and his partnership with Christy Walsh, the original Jerry Maguire. Walsh was Ruth’s business manager, spin doctor, damage control wizard, and surrogate father, all stuffed into one tightly buttoned double-breasted suit, Ruth drafted the blueprint for modern athletic stardom.
Absent the boy, it is impossible to comprehend the full dimensions of the man he became and the complex inter-relationship between public and private, between the persona and person, between “the Big Fella” and Little George. Absent Walsh, it is hard to grasp Ruth’s full importance in the creation of celebrity culture as we know it today.
Leavy said of what made her think there was anything that she could find on The Babe that other biographies have not had, “It was a passing remark made by Babe’s daughter, Julia Ruth Stevens, when I first interviewed her in the summer of 2011. Julia was 95 years old then and I figured if I was ever going to make good on my 26-year-old promise to myself to write a novel about The Babe, I better not waste any more time.
“During our interview, Julia mentioned, in the nicest possible way, that Babe Ruth’s parents had been separated. Divorced, in fact. She didn’t seem to realize that the import of the revelation, which, having read every Babe Ruth biography and autobiography in preparation for our meeting, I immediately understood. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘I just thought everyone knew!’
“No one knew. Babe Ruth made sure no one knew. The facts were ugly, involving alcoholism and adultery. Who’d want to talk about that? Julia’s revelation provided the key to unlocking the mystery of her father’s childhood – the missing boy in the Babe Ruth Story – and a narrative that was surely as compelling as fiction.”
Ruth drafted the blueprint for modern athletic stardom, helped by a confluence of additional factors, including the time he hit the scene, his larger-than-life personality, unprecedented skill and fierce determination, the advent of mass communication and consumerism, historical imperative, and Walsh’s genius to make the most of it.
Ruth lived a life full of journeys and itineraries—from uncouth to couth, spartan to spendthrift, abandoned to abandon; from Baltimore to Boston to New York, and back to Boston at the end of his career for a finale with the only team that would have him. There were road trips and hunting trips; grand tours of foreign capitals and post-season promotional tours, not to mention those 714 trips around the bases.
Ruth’s stardom rose steadily when he was he was traded from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees in 1919, and it hit its peak in 1927 when he hit a record 60 home runs. That record stood until 1961, when Roger Maris, who was also a Yankee, hit 61 home runs. The fact that Maris did it in 162 games, compared to 154 for Ruth, prompted the famous asterisk to be put next to 61.
Leavy writes of the 1927 home run race, “All season he and Gehrig had chased each other and the home-run record few thought would ever be broken: Ruth’s fifty-nine home runs in 1921. Newspapers charted ‘The Great American Home Run Derby,’ as the Times called it, with hyperbole, charts, and diagrams. The World measured ‘The Fence Busting Heat’ against an illustration of a bulb thermometer accompanied by mug shots of the two protagonists.
“Gehrig refused to wilt in the heat of August. Then, in September, Ruth remembered who he was, hitting seventeen home runs in twenty-nine days. In Philadelphia, in September 2, he hit number forty-four; Gehrig hit numbers forty-two and forty-three and tied him three days later in the first game of a Monday doubleheader in Boston on Labor Day. Something, or someone, had to give. They played another doubleheader on Tuesday, and twenty thousand people took another day off in hopes of seeing who it would be. Ruth hit two home runs in the first game and another in the second; Gehrig managed just one. He would never come close again.
“Ruth’s splurge continued with two more homers the next day. he left Boston with forty-nine home runs; Gehrig wouldn’t hit another until September 27. Numbers fifty-one and fifty-two came in a doubleheader against the Cleveland Indians on September 13, the day the Yankees clinched the pennant, freeing him, he said later, to turn his attention to the record. Number fifty-six came on September 22 in the bottom of the ninth inning with a man on and the Yankees trailing the Detroit Tigers by a run. It was the Yankees’ 105th win.
“As he made his way around the bases, carrying his bat as he often did, a boy bounced out of the stands and chased him down between home and third, pounding the Babe’s back and grabbing ahold of his wood. ‘At last sight, the Times reported, ‘in a swirling crowd of other juveniles, the youngster was like the tail of a flying comet, holding onto the bat for dear life and being dragged into the dugout by the Babe, who raced to escape the rush.’
“Ruth had three more games to outdo himself. Number fifty-seven was a grand slam off Lefty Grove in Philadelphia. Numbers fifty-eight and fifty-nine came at home against the Washington Senators. The record-tying home run – a grand slam! -came off a rookie pitcher, Paul Hopkins, making his major-league debut. His catcher told him to throw only curves, so that’s what he did. The one Ruth hit, Hopkins told Sports Illustrated in 1998, was ‘so slow Ruth started to swing and then hesitated, hitched on it and brought the bat back. And then he swung, breaking his wrists as he came through it. What a great eye he had! He hit it at the right second. Put everything behind it.’
“Hopkins struck out Gehrig to end his misery, then retreated to the dugout and cried.
“‘Once he had that 59, that Number 60 was as sure as the setting sun,’ declared Paul Gallico in the Daily News.
“Luckless Tom Zachary was on the mound for the luckless Washington Senators the next day, September 30, 1927. He had helped the Senators to their only world championship, winning two games in the 1924 World Series, but had been shipped to the St. Louis Browns in 1926. The Nats had reacquired him in July, in hopes that his left-handed jink might stymie the Yankees’ left-handed hitting…
“By 1927, fans were accustomed to the size of the man and the size of the swing and had forgotten, perhaps, how revolutionary a thing it was, the weight shift that, in concert with his exquisite timing, generated such unprecedented power. It was a model of biomechanical efficiency, though no one possessed the language or the technology to understand it then. They saw the big chest, like an accordion with its bellows full, turning with the swing, and called him an upper-body hitter: a tornado on chopsticks. It would take decades to fully appreciate the modernity of his approach and technique.
“The third pitch was a screwball that broke down and into the trajectory of Ruth’s swing; he caught it flush. By the time he hit the ball, he had taken a long stride forward and had ‘turned his shoulders and ass and wrists into it,’ Shirley Povich of the Washington Post told Sports Illustrated in 1998. His upturned chin and chest, canted toward right field, were already moving out of the batter’s box as if yanked by the thrust of the ball. Dinneen rose out of his crouch and Muddy Ruel, the Senators’ catcher, rose, too, following with their eyes and their body language the trajectory of inevitability.”
After hitting his 60th home run in September 1927, he embarked on the mother of all barnstorming tours, a three-week victory lap across America, accompanied by Yankee teammate Lou Gehrig. Walsh called the tour a “Symphony of Swat.”
The Omaha World Herald called it “the biggest show since Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey, and seven other associated circuses offered their entire performance under one tent.”
In The Big Fella, acclaimed biographer Leavy recreates that 21-day circus and in so doing captures the romp and the pathos that defined Ruth’s life and times.
Leavy said of why she chose to structure this book around the 1927 barnstorming tour, “I wanted readers to be able to feel what it was like to be Babe Ruth, to be with Babe Ruth, at the height of his fame when fame, as we know it in the modern age, was new. He would never be more acclaimed than he was in the fall of 1927, when he hit his 60th home run, led the Yankees of Murderers Row to a four-game sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series, and then embarked on a victory tour across the American heartland with Lou Gehrig in tow. This was the exact moment in history when the machinery of celebrity and popular culture roared to life. When the World Series was broadcast coast-to-coast for the first time. When a new form of newspaper journalism, the big city tabloids led by the New York Daily News, was in full-flower, splashing him across the back page. When photographs documenting his feats and infidelities were wired overnight – thanks to brand-new technology – from New York to Chicago and Los Angeles. When the new arts of public relations and marketing, invented by Edward Bernays and Ivy Lee and adopted by Christy Walsh, were being used to sell products and personalities, none more bigger than Babe Ruth.”
Here are some highlights of Ruth’s barnstorming tour:
October 9 – The Bronx, New York – Scheduled doubleheader against the Lincoln Giants of the Eastern Colored League at the Catholic Protectory Oval cancelled because of rain.
October 10 – Providence, Rhode Island – Ruth is greeted on the steps of City Hall by Mayor James E. Dunne, promoter Judge James E. Dooley, and former teammate Jean Dubuc, then conducts interviews at the Biltmore Hotel before the game at Kinsley Park, home of the Providence Grays and NFL Steam Roller. At home plate, he is subsumed by a troop of vaudevillians led by his old friend Jean Bedini, who cancelled the opening performance of his new show “Cock-a-Doodle-Doo” rather than compete with the Babe. All seven packs of balls are gone by the eighth inning.
October 11 – Trenton, New Jersey – After paying a call on Governor A. Harry Moore at the state capitol and causing all state business to cease for the afternoon, Ruth his three home runs off aging Negro League legend Dick Redding of the Brooklyn Royal Giants, circling the bases with children dangling from four appendages. After the third homer, a mass of boys chases him into the dugout of a high school field, where he collapses in the mayor’s lap.
October 12 – Brooklyn/Queens, New York – On Columbus Day at Dexter Park, home of the semi-pro Brooklyn Bushwicks, and site of the former Union Race Course, twenty thousand or more fans show up to see Ruth and Gehrig unveil their “Bustin’ Babes” and “Larrupin’ Lous” tour uniforms. A riot ensues. Police escort Ruth from the field.
October 13 – Asbury Park, New Jersey – Ruth and Gehrig seek shelter in a suite at the newly opened Berkeley-Carteret hotel, refusing to take the field until the promoter produces the promised $2500 guarantee. The new field, built for the Asbury Park High School, is one of three from the tour still in use today. When Ruth and Gehrig finally arrive for their rematch against the Brooklyn Colored Giants reminds the Babe, “We’ve got to catch a train west at 5:30 p.m. and it’s three o’clock now. Hit a couple out of the park about the sixth inning and I’ll sic the kids on you and break up the ball game.”
October 14 – Lima, Ohio – Aboard the Manhattan Limited en route to Lima, Ruth orders triple portions of the best Pennsylvania Railroad stewards have to offer plus a quart of fruit juice, into which he pours a fifth of bootleg gin. Persuaded by a $5000 guarantee from Ruth’s friend Bernie Halloran, owner of the Lima Beans, he and Gehrig detrain long enough to visit St. Rita’s Hospital, the Allen County Children’s home and the Rose School before going door-to-door shaking hands, hosting a party in town and playing a nine-inning game in a previously scheduled county championship. Less than five hours later they are en route to Kansas City via Chicago, where they stop just long enough to pose trackside with Marion Davies, William Randolph Hearst’s girlfriend, who is promoting her new movie.
October 26 – San Jose, California – After visiting the newsroom of the San Jose News, sponsor of that afternoon’s game at Sodality Field, and posing with publisher G. Logan Payne in front of a delivery truck, Ruth and Gehrig hustle off to the Rotary Club, and then the new Theodore Roosevelt Junior High School – where, with a straight face, Ruth warns students about the evils of smoking. The game is threatened by a small fire set beneath the grandstand by four brothers creating a diversion while sneaking into the ballpark. The game ends when Ruth launches a ball over the right field fence, which lands just beyond the city limits. The day concludes with dinner at the home of Stanford football coach Pop Warner, also a client of Christy Walsh.
October 27 – Santa Barbara, California – Rain threatens the game played at Peabody Field at Santa Barbara High School. Gehrig captains a group of Santa Barbara bush leaguers; Ruth plays with a team of Seabees from the U.S.S. Colorado, in port for navy week. The makeshift diamond, laid in a sea of mud, is not big enough to hold Ruth and Gehrig, who drive home runs into the adjacent parking lot. Ruth takes a shine to the pastry chef at their hotel and gives her his Bustin’ Babes cap, the only personal item from the tour to reach the marketplace, selling for $155,000 in 2013.