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Leavy Rhymes With Heavy

December 3, 2018



The subject of Jane Leavy’s new 620-page biography, THE BIG FELLA: BABE RUTH AND THE WORLD HE CREATED (Harper, $32.50), is colossally well-known yet shrouded in the smoky veils of legend. Her strategy for dealing with these polar-opposite problems is to re-tell the legend out of chronological order with assiduously researched facts: cleverly, she keeps her readers from skimming over the more tiresome Ruth platitudes, or from jumping to the hot new Ruth research, by jumbling up time. The prologue opens in 1902, with a seven-year-old George Herman Ruth, Jr. being removed from his parents’ Baltimore home, then skips to twenty-five years later, with Ruth at his height of fame, on a raucous post-1927 World Series barnstorming tour, then returns us to Ruth’s parents meeting in the grimy waterfront neighborhood of his deeply disturbing childhood, then jumps ahead to a different leg of that 1927 barnstorming tour, then back again to his childhood with a look at his strange mentor, the giant (6’6") Brother Matthias who introduced Ruth to the game of baseball, tracing Matthias’ life from his Nova Scotian birth as Martin Leo Boutilier through his joining the Xaverian order to his death in 1944, by which time Babe Ruth had so thoroughly lost track of this man who, he claimed, was "the greatest man I’ve ever known," that an early ghostwritten autobiography had placed his death in 1935. From Matthias’s death in 1944, almost the end of Ruth’s own life, we rejoin the Babe with Larrupin’ Lou Gehrig on another barnstorming tour of the mid-1920s.  

And so on. By disorienting us in time like this, Leavy’s strategy makes the Babe’s story seem fresh and new, though we’ve all read bits of it, and distortions of it, a thousand times before. Leavy trusts that we know the basic narrative so well, we can get jerked around in time like this without resenting being jerked around. This book is one long tracer, in the sense that it corrects every previous biography of Ruth and sorts out the legends from the myths from the colorful BS that passed for sportswriting throughout the twentieth century. (Leavy quotes the great mid-century New York Herald-Tribune editor Stanley Walker ordering his sportswriters to stop "godding up" the players, a practice that had peaked with Ruth’s career—the "godding up" continued, however, throughout the century.) Those man-god stories, some of them deriving from Ruth himself, who seemed careless and clueless of his own history, are what sticks in our memories, so Leavy takes on the gargantuan task of tracing out how exactly each factoid got mangled in the first place (Ruth had a team of first-rate mythmakers working for him at all times, cleaning up after him and sanitizing or suppressing the nastier truths) and getting to the bottom of the even more riveting facts.

One odd fact I’d come across many times in my reading, but first noticed here is that the middle name of Tillinghast L'Hommedieu Huston, who co-owned the Yankees when Ruth was acquired, translates into "the man-god," a more fitting middle name than "Herman" was for Ruth. Perhaps his German ancestry, which Leavy runs down in fine detail, would make that "Der Mensch-Gott."  As a further example of contradicting the received wisdom, Leavy spins a fascinating account of how the seven-year-old Ruth (who thought he was eight years old at the time) first got delivered to St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys by a police officer, whose descendants she scrupulously tracked down and interviewed—Little George wasn’t under arrest, as some versions have it, nor was he brought there by his father, or by his younger sister, as others have it. Rather the policeman, a kindly Baltimore cop named Harry C. Birmingham, badge #469, agreed to escort the misbehaving boy to the Xaverian brothers at the request of Ruth Sr., not (as Ruth’s first biographer insisted) on the orders of a judge. 

The picture she paints of Baltimore at the turn of the last century as a thriving metropolis (it was the fifth-largest U.S. city at the time) and as a smelly, run-down, dangerous place to grow up in is vivid and affecting. The mean streets she describes are much the same as the ones depicted in THE WIRE a century later, the same exact streets that Edgar Allan Poe had inhabited (and had died on) fifty-five years prior, some of which have been gentrified today, thanks to the revived Inner Harbor and Camden Yards (in whose centerfield, she points out, Ruth’s father’s saloon stood from 1905 through 1912 when it was 406 West Conway Street).

Some of the fresh research Leavy presents is of the more salacious sort, even shocking in its revelations. Of saintly Brother Matthias, for example, she unearths the information that in his late 50s, he was seen by "vigilant neighbors" skulking through the parish "at all hours of the day and night for at least six months" presumably romancing but certainly "consorting with a young woman, Helen Bownes." On the testimony of these neighbors, "Brother Matt was reassigned to…Massachusetts, and ordered by the archbishop not to return to Baltimore," which orders he promptly disobeyed to see Ms. Bownes again. Disgraced and shamed for his unseemly sexual appetite, Brother Matthias now appears to have provided Ruth with a far more complicated role model than the straitlaced one provided by previous Ruth biographers.

More shocking than Brother Matthias’ tale is the salty, eye-opening language contained in Leavy’s account of the young Babe’s wildly discordant home life, particularly one piece of documentary evidence that was key to his parents’ divorce. It had long been disproven that one bit of the Ruth legend, that he had been orphaned, was simply a misunderstanding of the nature of St. Mary’s School, which housed plenty of orphans but which also took in "incorrigible" boys, although the degree of parental neglect that Ruth suffered is almost worse than it would be if he had been orphaned. While his father, George Herman Ruth Sr., was far from the most caring parent imaginable, he does seem to have been the aggrieved party in the divorce: his wife, who soon died an alcoholic’s death at the age of 39, had, perhaps as a means of procuring drinks from one of the bartenders working in Ruth Sr.’s saloon, slept with that bartender, a fellow named George Sowers, whose written testimony is quoted in full:

"I the under sign fucked Mrs Geo. H, Ruth March 12 1906 on her dinging room floor whitch She ask me to do Geo Sowers."   

As plain-spoken as you can get (I omitted all the "[sic]"s that Sowers’ sentence requires, but I did proofread it letter-by-letter several times for transcriptional accuracy), that simple declarative statement was sufficient for a judge to declare the Ruths divorced in the spring of 1906. George Ruth, Jr. had been in (and out of and in again) St. Mary’s School for four years by 1906, but we do get a clear picture of the atmosphere of his early home life from Sowers’ testimony. Even clearer indications of that sordid home, perhaps, are the deaths of various Ruth siblings during and after Ruth’s earliest years. Although the childhood mortality rate in Baltimore at that time was a grim 10%, Leavy informs us, it was close to 70% in the unwholesome Ruth household: four of the six Ruth children died of malnutrition, pneumonia, asthma and spinal meningitis. The Babe was lucky just to survive his childhood.

"I think my mother hated me," he said, not without reason, bringing to mind other great hitters like Ted Williams and Ty Cobb, who also had troubled relationships with their mothers, though in this, as in other regards, Ruth seems to edge out his great rivals. If not for the small sample size here, one might conclude that having an abysmal maternal relationship would be a prerequisite to becoming a superlative batter.

Apart from the scrupulously supported details of Babe Ruth’s life, and the careful separation of them from those of Babe Ruth’s myth, Leavy devotes her sharp attention to the second half of her sub-title: "AND THE WORLD HE CREATED." This claim is larger than even the super-human feat usually attributed to Ruth, that of building Yankee Stadium himself. The God-like metaphor describes a confluence of events that might have occurred even if Ruth had never survived his perilous childhood, but which his presence made manifest.  He was (in several senses) the largest celebrity of the 1920s, an age whose prosperity, technological advances, cultural upheavals, and mass marketing demanded large, visible, colorful celebrities.  Ruth was an innovator, not only of the way baseball was played, but also of how celebrities behaved and how their celebrity was rewarded.

"What was new in 1927," for the first time in recorded history, Leavy informs us, "was the marriage between mass production and the mass distribution of goods and mass communication and mass psychology." Baseball players before Ruth’s time had, of course, endorsed products: Honus Wagner had "touted the ‘vim and vigor’ of cocaine-infused Coca-Cola in 1908," Leavy takes care to point out, and as far back as George Wright in 1874, famous major leaguers had given their imprimatur to cigars, to beer, to toothpaste, but the invention of mass-market advertising on a systematic scale in the mid-1920s put Ruth in a position no previous athlete had ever been in. Leavy traces the rise of propaganda, "a word that had not yet acquired a pejorative connotation," and Ruth’s already-towering presence in the 1920s, to put him in a revolutionary position, one which he took full advantage of. Well-paid endorsers before Ruth’s time had gotten lucrative fees for their appearances in ads—amounting to generous tips, in effect--but Ruth actually earned more money from endorsements some years than he had earned from playing baseball—and it was a lot easier work. Ruth wasn’t just an occasional endorser of products—he was, as Huston’s MAN WHO WOULD BE KING puts it, a going concern. He was a one-man industry.

Efficiently, Leavy describes that industry’s rise, masterminded by advertising giants like Ivy Lee, Bruce Barton, and Edward Bernays, splicing Ruth’s commercial appeal into the biographical story neatly. She relies on the work of historians to bolster her broader claims, and all her sources are thoroughly indexed and recorded in her ten-page bibliography (including two erudite cultural historians I was privileged to study with in college, Ann Douglas and Leo Braudy)—this biography shows how Ruth was exploited by commerce and how he exploited it. The complicated legal history of the Baby Ruth candy bar, for example, is outlined in fine detail, illustrating a rare instance of Ruth’s name (or seven eighths of it) being used without his collecting maximum revenue for that use—that section also debunks the claim that the candy bar was named for "Baby" Ruth Cleveland, daughter of the 22nd and 24th President. (And, no, that’s not two different men who contrived somehow to create a child—don’t be a smartass.) This is a delightful yet scholarly account of an athlete’s life, persuasive of the very real importance of studying athletics in understanding history, and brilliantly crafted.

Leavy’s narrative structure is astonishing, almost as if someone had bet her that she couldn’t possibly write a biography of Babe Ruth that paid so little attention to linear time, and (even more astonishing) so little attention to Ruth’s on-the-field activities during the regular season and the post-season. Instead, the bulk of Leavy’s baseball coverage here is devoted to the barnstorming tours, the exhibition appearances, the off-season trips to hundreds of tiny towns throughout the world where he spoke a few words to his fans, took a few swings on meatballs from amateur hurlers, poked a few homeruns out of local yards, and hopped on the next train to the next whistlestop.  You’d almost conclude that this, and not MLB, was his primary occupation, and you’d almost be right.

This seemingly perverse proportion of attention paid to the baseball seasons and the off-season activities here amounts to a stroke of genius, allowing Leavy to elide past all the Ruth stories we all know all too well by summarizing them after the fact in the course of recounting some off-season event. She reveals how Ruth felt about breaking his own home run record in 1927, for example, not by re-telling that well-known story at length as it occured, but in the course of quoting extensively from a post-season interview Ruth gave aboard a train to two California reporters while Lou Gehrig was driving the locomotive (!) from Benicia CA to Oakland to make yet another November barnstorming appearance. There is enough material here set in California alone, with its pleasant winter weather, to fill a small volume of fresh Ruth lore. The barnstorming tour extended itself to several other states and countries where winter baseball could be played, starting in mid-October facing black players (against the Commissioner’s decree) in Dexter Park, a Brooklyn/Queens ballpark I described here, and following the sun around the world. Ruth expended endless energy, summer and winter alike, in what we now would label a branding extravaganza.

The man was a marketing genius, and a self-promoter of the first order, though much of the credit for that genius must go, in Leavy’s telling, to Christy Walsh, Ruth’s agent, business advisor, deal-maker, publicist, fixer, and all-around go-to guy. Not to say there weren’t slip-ups in the promotion game: Walsh booked Ruth into so many non-stop off-season engagements, they sometimes thwarted Ruth’s deepest wishes. Ruth’s wish to become a major-league manager, for example, was foiled in the winter of 1933-34, when the Tigers’ owner asked for and received the Yankees’ permission to offer Ruth the gig of player-manager, but Ruth, playing exhibition games in Hawaii,  answered Frank Navin that he’d negotiate contract with him upon returning stateside. By the time he got back, though, Mickey Cochrane had been offered the gig, and had jumped at it. Ruth then spent the rest of the decade yearning for another such offer.

At his peak of fame, some of the things Ruth didn’t do attracted more attention than the things he did:  he refused to fill in the space that Who’s Who in America left on their application for his occupation. "If they don’t know," Leavy quotes him saying wickedly, "let them have their best guess." Oddly, though Leavy admires Bill James, whom she calls "another baseball revolutionary," she does allow him to be identified in his panegyric blurb on the jacket cover as "baseball writer," which seems as redundant (and reductive) as calling Ruth a "baseball player" in Who’s Who. Her sole quote from James, by the way, is NOT on the subject of statistics, or sabermetrics, or anything remotely numerical, but on the subject of Ruth’s psychology, the willful "defiance of authority" that elevated Ruth above mortal man even more than his athletic ability did. James explains how Ruth’s "cheerful, agreeable…way of saying the ‘rules don’t apply to Babe Ruth’" led directly to "his success as a player," a defiant trait that also applies to James’ own success.

The appendices to THE BIG FELLA contain plenty of statistics, for those desiring a full numerical accounting of Babe Ruth’s career numbers, batting, pitching, post-season, etc., but the more interesting, and more detailed, appendix #2 provides ten pages of numbers showing Ruth’s earnings, from his annual revenues from corporations whose products he endorsed, to his investments, his bank balances and so on.

Since it is incumbent to point out Leavy’s errors here as well as her home runs, I will note that she wonders if the death of Ruth’s first wife, Helen, reminded him of his "mother’s death in 1912, when she was thirty-two, just a year older than Helen" (p. 351), contradicting her earlier statement that Ruth’s mother died at age 39.  (The latter age is far more probable, since Ruth himself was born in 1895, making his mother only 14 at his conception, an age that was startlingly young even for the nineteenth century. If she died at age 39, however, then she would have been more like 21 or 22 years old in 1895, a far more likely age for a young bride and mother.) Leavy also refers to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s "1932 short story ‘My Lost City,’" which was in fact a personal essay, not a short story (it is the title essay of Cambridge U. Press’s definitive edition MY LOST CITY: PERSONAL ESSAYS 1920-1940​p/1107690838 ), and in the interest of full disclosure, I must note that Jane Leavy and I took a few writing seminars together in college a lifetime ago, though neither of us remembers the other very distinctly.  (We just figured out that we were in the same classes last week.)

Where facts are unverifiable (Brother Matthias may have gone 6’6", 300, as one source informs Leavy, or merely 6’4", 225, as another source has it) she doesn’t attempt to assert her opinion, though where they’re in dispute, she judiciously tries to settle the disputes with wisdom and reason. If you think you’ve read enough stories about Babe Ruth to last a lifetime, think again. If you haven’t yet read THE BIG FELLA, you’ve got some catching up to do.


COMMENTS (17 Comments, most recent shown first)

Well the plain fact is there HAVE been too many books on him, and Mantle, and Lincoln and the Founding Fathers etc. You all know that. Creamers was great, the Big Bamm was MEH, I read it and just shrugged, thinking really? and I know I've waded thru another one from the 70's that was just okay. Heck I'm about a third into Chernow's U.S Grant Slab, it's really quite good, but I've read others about him before-Grant Takes Command by Bruce Catton for example. Mining the territory is like the box of chocolates or my namesakes' moods on game day-random and you donno what yer getting.

As for the book in question, of course I intend to read it. I'm like that.
5:16 PM Dec 7th
Steven Goldleaf
Thanks to you, ajmilner, she has corrected the typo (presumably for the next printing--I don't expect the correction will somehow show up in my printed copy).
4:17 AM Dec 7th
AJ: Not that I ever heard either word before but that's a funny kind of mistake for her to have made.
Maybe she was watching a Seinfeld episode at the time....
9:48 PM Dec 6th
Babe Ruth's life story is so incredible that it might be impossible to write a lousy biography of him. If an author has any writing ability and does any original research, as Leavy does, you've got a classic.

One minor typo I spotted in the text: Leavy refers to the manipulated photos (think VERY primitive Photoshop) 1920s tabloids ran as "cosmographs." The proper term for this improper practice is "composographs."
6:54 PM Dec 5th
Steven Goldleaf
On order. Amazon is Amazonly slow sometimes. I wrote Rob that I was ordering two copies, plus a Power Scrotum to hold them in, and he seemed to like that.
11:08 AM Dec 4th
This book is in the to-read queue of my Kindle. Leavy's Mantle and Koufax books elevated her onto my automatic-read list, joining the likes of Roger Angell, Robert Creamer, Pat Jordan, Roger Kahn and Bill James (baseball books only). This excellent review might move me to jump it a few notches in the queue.

Another automatic-read is Rob Neyer, in whose Power Ball, Steven, an article of yours on this site is quoted. I recommend it, not only for that reason.
10:56 AM Dec 4th
For Manushfan and others who think there have been too many Babe bios: Leavy quotes a Ruth expert (the director of the Ruth museum, as I recall) answering her question, early on in her project, about the earlier books. She asks him what he thinks is the best Ruth biography and he says, “It hasn’t been written yet.”

Now it has.
10:36 AM Dec 4th
Steven Goldleaf
And by the way, "Leavy" DOES rhyme with "heavy," which I just learned last week--I'd been mispronouncing it as "Levy," rhyming with "Stevie." Of course THE BIG FELLA is one very heavy tome, literally and metaphorically.
4:55 AM Dec 4th
Steven Goldleaf
It's funny, David Todd, but I'm actually completing a book entitled ONLY MOSTLY TRUE (an excerpt from it was published yesterday here​0VmIzGY0bBMWuhirA0 ) that questions (I hope "demolishes") the distinction between the (non-fiction) personal essay and the (fictional) short story, which has grown hazier and hazier during my lifetime. The academic world still respects that sharp distinction, as seen in Cambridge UP's devoting a volume of their Fitzgerald series to personal essays, but I'm not sure I can see a clear line between the two genres any more.
4:50 AM Dec 4th
Gary: I hope some time you'll do a post or two about what we don't know about politics!
9:16 PM Dec 3rd
If her Ruth book is as great and far-reaching as her Koufax book, and as personally insightful as her Mantle book, this should be a treasure.

A mentor of mine, Arthur Finkelstein, was fond of saying, "The most overwhelming fact of politics is what people do not know." This concept has been a recurring theme of Bill James's writing and analysis about baseball, and Leavy has proven it through her books. The world, and especially the human experience, is far richer and more complicated than we can conceive. Biography (done properly) reveals more facts and (crucially) their context. The truth is out there, right in front of us -- we just don't see it yet.

Thanks for the review.
8:14 PM Dec 3rd
"Leavy’s narrative structure is astonishing, almost as if someone had bet her that she couldn’t possibly write a biography of Babe Ruth that paid so little attention to linear time...." So glad that you noted this. I think the book is a marvel, and the daring structure gives me heart for my own next thing.

8:11 PM Dec 3rd
Steven Goldleaf
We are ALL sick unto death about reading Babe Ruth stories, Manushfan--that's what makes this book so improbably good. She worked on it for eight years, and it shows.
6:37 PM Dec 3rd
I have a copy of her book on the Mick, it's pretty good if depressing. I'm one of those 'ANOTHER BABE RUTH BOOK?!' people, it's like the recent Robin Hood movie that tanked. They've already done 23 of them, you need to see this Again?! I do like her writing, so at the least I will give this a look-see. The review is well done.
5:36 PM Dec 3rd
I loved Robert Creamer's Ruth book (and his Stengel), and I'd read this one too. I'll be honest, though: I didn't care for Leavy's Koufax biography.
5:06 PM Dec 3rd
Interesting review. Question: how many athletes have really transcended their sport and are famous for things other than athletic accomplishment? Mohammed Ali for sure. Jackie Robinson. Gehrig comes close with his 'Luckiest man on the face of the earth' speech. But will they be remembered as long as The Babe? Maybe nowadays we are too iconoclastic but I cannot think of any of today's athletes reaching these levels.

An anecdote: I grew up in West Central MN. There is/was a locally popular place to stay on a lake near by (Green Lake). When I was in high school in the 1970s, people would still mention that Babe Ruth had stayed at that resort. And that had to have been at least 40 years before I heard the story. FDR came through town on whistle stops: my oldest brothers saw him. Volstead who sponsored prohibition was from near by. Many politicians came through: Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, etc. But what people remembered and still talked about was the one time The Babe stayed nearby.
4:59 PM Dec 3rd
Great job. Terrific review, terrifically written, and gives (I assume; how can I know if I haven't read the book, but I don't want to just say "seems to give") a vivid picture of what the book is.

A few things (none of them criticisms, for a change :-) since I don't have any):

Of course Gehrig drove the locomotive -- he was an "engineer," right?

Leavy isn't the only one who ever mistook an essay for a short story. In 7th grade we were assigned to read a short story and write a report on it. In the library I found a baseball book that had a chapter, "Who is Greater, Mays or Mantle?" and used that. The teacher said, very interesting but that's not a short story, it's an essay. I think she hadn't explained what "short story" means (or maybe I just wasn't paying attention). I figured anything was a story, and if it was just a few pages, it was a short one.

About that 'salacious/shocking' story about saintly Brother Matthias -- the way we take it can vary according to our mindsets. To me, it's a positive and it gave a sigh of relief, because before that, I felt bad for him being either abstinent or a closeted something.

"Ruth had a team of first-rate mythmakers working for him at all times, cleaning up after him and sanitizing or suppressing the nastier truths" -- so, the Michael Cohens of the world had ancestors.....

Speaking of whom, I wouldn't necessarily take that bartender's testimony as gospel. It's not unknown for such claims by a guy to be not exactly true. Not that it really matters....​
12:08 PM Dec 3rd
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