In the coming weeks, if we are able as individuals to stay healthy, we may all be looking at books in our “to be read” pile to fill up this time of coronavirus. For very good reasons sports leagues and tournaments are shutting down. Opera houses and theatres are going dark. Schools are closing. Restaurants may be next on the list. Watching cable news is just too damn depressing (and not always very informative). As I was writing this, Major League Baseball cancelled the rest of spring training and has pushed back opening day at least two weeks.
If you are looking for a good sports book to fill up your hours, I wish I could send you to Jane Leavy’s 2018 The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created with more enthusiasm. Those who know my reading habits are aware that I always read a baseball book as part of my personal spring training. (The other part of the regimen is watching Bull Durham, the best baseball movie ever.) In 2020, The Big Fella was the book of choice.
While there are stories and sections to like in this hefty new biography, there is — as is often the case — too much of a good thing.
Leavy has gone all Ruthian on us with prodigious amounts of material. But, just like the Babe, she plows through almost 500 pages without a sense of discipline in deciding what’s worth keeping and what is best left untouched.
Leavy has structured her story around a three-week barnstorming tour that the Babe and fellow Yankee Lou Gehrig took following the 1927 season. It was during that historic year in baseball when Ruth broke the seasonal home run record with 60 blasts. “Let’s see some son of a bitch try to top that one,” he reportedly said at the time. Gehrig, who batted behind Ruth in the Yankees order, was the winner of the league’s Most Valuable Player award. After the season ended with a Yankee sweep in the World Series, the two players headed out across America, playing in games featuring local talent renamed the Bustin’ Babes and the Larrupin’ Lous for the day.
Their agent Christy Walsh is at the heart of this story, and much of what works well throughout the book involves the descriptions of how Babe and Walsh quickly understand and take advantage of the possibilities of synergy in building fame. Leavy is working to show how Ruth became our first modern celebrity, and she pulls together a number of disparate threads to make that argument.
I couldn’t help but think of the current occupant of the White House when reading Leavy’s description that “Ruth’s relationship with New York’s sporting press was cozy, complex, and complicit.” One sportswriter of the era said Ruth had more talent for staying on the front page than your average earthquake. Sound like anyone we know? But Ruth produced in his chosen field: on the baseball diamond. As he said in a different context, when asked about making a higher salary than the president, “I know, but I had a better year than Hoover.”
The structure of the book doesn’t always work, and I would get lost in the back and forth between the tour and the biographical information. Leavy can write a terrific sentence. But as they pile up one upon another, the reader often loses sight of those disparate threads. She can go on and on about the legal issues surrounding the naming of the Baby Ruth Candy Bar and lose our interest in the process. (Short story: Babe didn’t get a penny, although it was clearly named for him.) And she often writes about specific and sometimes iconic pictures (the best example being Nat Fein’s Pulitzer Prize winning photo of the Babe’s final appearance at Yankee Stadium) without including them in the book’s collection of photos. It is frustrating to read her wonderful description of how Fein came to capture that moment, and then look for the well-known picture of Babe standing at the top of the dugout steps, leaning on a bat, taking in the adulation of a full house just months before he died, and finding it absent.
In Leavy’s portrait, Babe Ruth comes across as the man who helped shape many facets of modern America that we know today. His love for baseball, food, beer, women, and attention are at the forefront of this work. Unfortunately, the excesses of modern life in the new age of celebrity also come across in ways intended and unintended in The Big Fella. The end result — perhaps like an episode of The Apprentice* — is something less than fully satisfying.
More to come…
*Full disclosure: I never watched a single episode of The Apprentice. Even then I couldn’t see why anyone would waste any time on Donald Trump.