Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 2, 2019

Book Review: Ruth, Who Made The Game Great

Out past the deepest reaches of center field at the new Yankees Stadium, Monument Park is getting crowded. There are now thirty-eight plaques honoring former players, coaches, announcers, and executives of the most successful franchise in sports. And that number doesn’t include bronze tributes to three Popes who celebrated Mass at the Stadium, a remembrance of 9/11, and one honoring Jackie Robinson. Yet among all the testimonials to memorable careers and moments, one stands out. For all but one of the plaques describe in detail, either by words or a listing of career statistics, the accomplishments of the honoree. That consistency makes the bronze tribute to the greatest Yankee of all time, the player who bestrode baseball like a colossus and changed the game forever, especially striking. For on the plaque honoring George Herman “Babe” Ruth there is only this: A Great Ball Player. A Great Man. A Great American.

Those ten short words, beside the plaques of other Hall of Famers describing their accomplishments at length, remind everyone who passes through Monument Park before every contest that the Yankees play of the Babe’s unique presence in the Great Game. It is one that all those fans believe they know long before they set foot on Babe Ruth Plaza outside the main entrances to the Stadium.

Given that reality, of an outsized personality who died seven decades ago and whose life has since been chronicled by multiple writers, one might wonder what a reader could gain from spending time with the most recent addition to the Babe’s biographical oeuvre. The answer, in the case of Jane Leavy’s “The Big Fella” is far more information and factual detail in place of mythic aggrandizement than one would expect, making time spent with the accomplished sportswriter’s most recent work both informative and rewarding.

While writing for the Washington Post, and even before she published best-selling biographies of Sandy Koufax (“A Lefty’s Legacy,” 2002), and Mickey Mantle (“The Last Boy,” 2010), Leavy was contemplating a biography of Ruth. But recognizing the extensive coverage of his life and career already in print, she spent years searching for an angle on his story that she could call her own. She eventually settled on basing her book in the fall of 1927, just after Ruth smashed sixty home runs, breaking his own record set six years earlier and outdistancing his young teammate Lou Gehrig, who finished the season with forty-seven. After the Yankees swept the Cardinals in the World Series, Ruth and Gehrig embarked on a cross-country barnstorming tour, which began in Providence, Rhode Island on October 10 and ended in Los Angeles three weeks later.

Christy Walsh, Ruth’s longtime business manager, claimed after the tour that Ruth and Gehrig had traveled more than eight thousand miles while playing twenty-one games in twenty cities spread across thirteen different states. Along the way the pair had autographed more than five thousand baseballs, distributed to a small portion of the more than two hundred twenty thousand fans who thronged minor league parks to catch a glimpse of the Bambino and Gehrig, who captained opposing squads made up of local ballplayers at each stop. Thirteen of the exhibition contests ended short of the regulation nine innings due to “fan enthusiasm,” a polite description of the fact that with security limited to the local police force, first youngsters and then adults often rushed the field to get truly up close and personal with the Babe.

While some of Walsh’s claims are easily verifiable, it is impossible to say whether others are true. But that is in keeping with the story of Ruth. The subtitle of Leavy’s book is “Babe Ruth and the World He Created,” a reminder to readers of the extent to which Ruth’s personality transcended his sport. Ruth’s world, even when he was alive, was a mixture of fact and fiction, a blend of reality and myth, just as the man himself was part prodigious baseball talent and part showman who, with Walsh’s help, presented a carefully crafted image to the public, at least most of the time. Was he really an orphan? No. Did he really call his shot in the 1932 World Series? Probably not. Did that 1919 spring training home run, when Ruth was still wearing a Boston Red Sox uniform, really travel 587 feet? Quite possibly. But was that his longest clout, or did that one during an exhibition tour in 1926 at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania really go more than 600 feet? Who knows?

Her account of the barnstorming tour, with a separate chapter devoted to each stop, is a tale of Ruth as the first true sports celebrity, one who earned the modern equivalent of more than $300 million during his playing career. While that might not seem like a massive amount when set against today’s huge contracts, Ruth amassed his fortune decades before free agency was even a concept. Every ballplayer’s annual salary was dictated by his team, with almost no room for negotiation. Still Ruth managed to outstrip every other fellow major leaguer by signing for as much as $80,000 a year, or well over $20 million in today’s dollars. But most of his earnings came from endorsements and offseason work in movies and vaudeville, all made possible by his fame, and in his time no other athlete came close to earning what Ruth did.

In contrast, while today’s playing contracts may be larger, when Forbes published its 2018 global ranking of sports stars’ earnings, including both salaries and endorsements, the highest ranked baseball player was Clayton Kershaw, at number 37. And this year’s ESPN World Fame 100, a list of athletes ranked by a combination of endorsements, web searches, and social media following, includes just one representative of the Great Game, Bryce Harper, at number 99.

Intertwined with the story of his three weeks on the road with Gehrig in the fall of 1927, Leavy tells the story of Ruth’s life, covering all his accomplishments on the field of course, but also painting a full picture of a life that was complex and often difficult. While not an orphan he was the product of a badly fractured family. His first marriage was an unhappy one all around, and his devotion to the woman who would become his second wife before that marriage ended had Walsh scurrying to keep scurrilous stories out of the newspapers. Often taking the role of a kid who never grew up, Ruth had his share of on-field contretemps, some of which threatened, at least for a few days or weeks, his image as a national hero. Ultimately, they also likely cost him any chance of a managerial or executive role in baseball once his playing career was done, and that sad fact likely contributed to Ruth’s 1948 death at just 53-years old as much as the rare and aggressive cancer that was the official cause.

His passing triggered a period of national mourning unimaginable for any modern athlete. But then as “The Big Fella” makes clear, no other figure in sports has ever so fully created and lived in his own world as Ruth did. In the process he put the Great Game on his broad shoulders and changed it forever, carrying it from the dead ball era into modernity. All these decades later, fans making the pilgrimage to Monument Park, those taking their seats for a Sunday afternoon game at stadiums all across the land, and all the players they have paid to see, remain Babe Ruth’s beneficiaries.

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