Reading of it in any kind of depth, Babe Ruth’s childhood was six parts David Copperfield, half a dozen parts Dead End Kid, and not entirely of his own making. It turned him both larger than life and not quite as large as his legend, one of the unmistakable faces of the Roaring Twenties and one of the most deceptive American myths.
Cast into his home state’s child welfare system by parents about whom cruel would be a perverse compliment, Ruth’s latest and perhaps greatest biographer, Jane Leavy, writes that he couldn’t bear to question the kind of parents who gave up one of their only two surviving children out of several offspring.
Some such children often grow up in spite of their root and sorrow to become self-made successes as adults. Others grow up to become self-immolating. The greatest baseball player of the game’s pre-World War II/pre-integration/pre-night ball era, left at seven years old to a group home for Catholic boys who called themselves its inmates, grew up to become both.
[H]e never shared his first impressions of St. Mary’s [Industrial School, to which his parents exiled the boy] with his family. He never spoke about what it was like to go from being one of two surviving children in a family defined by loss to being one of the many, what it was to go to bed that night wondering when or if he’d see that family again. He never said what it was like to sleep in ordered rows and dress in matching clothes, to share sinks and stalls in a communal washroom, to surrender to a system predicated on uniformity and routine.
As Leavy paints in detail rich, stark, and almost cinematic at once, in The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created (New York: HarperCollins; 620 pages, $32.50), Ruth might have been far more self-immolating had it not been for his manager/syndicator Christy Walsh forging him into outsized marketability, while actively and mostly successfully keeping his client’s least engaging sides from exposure and condemnation.
“If the twenties roared,” Leavy writes, “it was in large part because of new means of amplification: bylined sports columns, screaming tabloid headlines, and radio frequencies that broadcast voices with unforeseen clarity from sea to shining sea, and beyond. Fame got bigger, louder, more personal.”
Concurrently, she quotes an October 1927 column by the New York Daily News‘s Paul Gallico: “Ruth without temptations might be a pretty ordinary fellow. Part of his charm lies in the manner with which he succumbs to every temptation that comes his way . . . Ruth is either planning to come loose, is cutting loose, or is repenting the last time he cut loose. He is a news story on legs going about looking for a place to happen.”
The Babe was wholly unprecedented for marrying athletic achievement to metastatic mythology, the first man or woman in professional sports to be seen as an entertainer and a product, who “always envisioned for himself a bigger kind of stardom than baseball afforded,” as if being baseball’s first truly unquestioned king of swing in terms of power hitting was simply part time sufficiency.
A classic aphorism Leavy cites is E.B. White’s about the 1920s being a monument to modern man’s creative capacity for mischief, adding that Ruth was his time’s rule breaker in chief.
He never embodied the traditional public virtues that defined ancient celebrity, and he didn’t have to. Instead, he gave the public glimpses of a bad boy having the time of his life. Hadn’t they told him he was a bad boy? He did his adult best to fulfill the mandate: punching out umps, chasing after boobirds in the grandstand . . . sleeping with other men’s wives but ignoring his own. Everybody loved, forgave, and maybe envied the Babe for being himself.
If Hans Gumbrecht (whom Leavy cites deftly) was right when he wrote, in In 1926: Living at the Edge of Time, that Ruth “was an internationally innovative figure in the new twentieth-century stardom precisely because he was never qualified to fulfill the expectation of virtue,” then it must be that such stardom has aged poorly enough that no athlete, entertainer, or other public celebrity can get away now with everything for which Ruth got a pass and often still does. Those few who called it as it actually was about the Babe—as did The New Yorker in dismissing him as unfit “in any way to have a public”—would be ignored.
But even the hagiopgraphers Ruth and Walsh cultivated had limits, as at the end of August 1925, when the Daily News—once described as being Ruth’s personal back page—revealed Ruth’s comely full-time mistress (and second wife-to-be) and exploded the family man portion of the Ruthian myth, including the revelation that the mistress called on Ruth while he was hospitalised for (ahem) the world’s then-most famous stomach ailment, while the then-Mrs. Ruth was also a patient there.
Yet there were such editorials as Frank Wallace’s in the New York Post, pleading that, well, this was Babe Ruth and he kinda sorta was entitled to a more nuanced perspective. There are few such apologies more jarring than Leavy extracts from Wallace’s essay: “His is a big soul made bigger by our applause. And a big soul needs room to roam. Smaller souls might well close their eyes at times like these and let these big souls roam; else they stifle and die and lose the thing that makes them big.”
Leavy’s graces include that she writes soberly and lyrically without wearing a judge’s robe. But it’s tempting to invite you to ponder today’s athletic greats shown behaving with similar depravity while flouting professional protocols, being made not into rakish, quintessentially American big souls, but vermin weeks past the dates on which they should have been run out of town if not country.
Ruth lived large and unaccountable, but now, Leavy writes, the Daily News and the tornado-in-a-can it opened “put him on notice: he had to behave, or at least learn how to fake it.” Until his body threatened to go AWOL by 1935, he did just that at and away from the ballpark, somehow. He even allowed Walsh to put all his outside income in trust while limiting him to living and playing on his baseball salaries alone. (His second wife would see and raise, sort of: she limited him to $50 a week in his pockets.)
Leavy weaves the book around a barnstorming tour featuring Ruth and his Hall of Fame teammate Lou Gehrig, leading teams of all stars against each other for fun and profit, Ruth cheerfully thumbing his nose at commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis and at times the Yankees themselves for undertaking such tours. Barnstorming for Ruth was income and, in its way, social advancement: he thought nothing of pitting his all stars against teams of Negro Leagues all stars and other black talent. He knew it wasn’t his fault such talent couldn’t yet play “organised baseball” and wouldn’t so long as Landis was alive.
The further bad news is that all those years of behaving as a law unto himself may have cost Ruth a real chance at the one thing wanted most in baseball after his playing days ended. At the end of the 1934 season, his last as a Yankee, Tigers owner Frank Navin wanted to hire him as player-manager, figuring Ruth’s role as a player would end first. Ruth said he’d call Navin back only after finishing a tour of Hawaiian exhibition games. Navin hired Mickey Cochrane instead. The Babe let his faithful man Friday Walsh talk him out of accepting a job managing the Yankees’ Newark farm to gain experience enough that he might take over the parent club in due course.
Ruth fell for it hook, line, and stinker when the Braves, then in Boston, signed him as a part time player for 1935, to goose their weak gate. They also gave him the title of assistant manager, without a single intention of letting him be such or of becoming the woebegone team’s manager at any time. We feel sympathy for Ruth having been treated so shabbily. But we temper it remembering that the very thing for which some editorialists believed he deserved his leeway may also have been the very thing that turned the game’s less capricious overlords against entrusting him with team management.
Leavy’s account of Ruth’s final decade plus of life is as sober as it is touching and revelatory. You’ll wish only that she’d seen fit to include the whole of the Babe’s rasping farewell speech at Yankee Stadium, delivered from his cancer-eroded throat, incumbent Yankees (including Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, who posed nervously for a photograph with Ruth) up one foul line and Yankees past up the other, revealing the big kid humbled as a man at last:
Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. You know how bad my voice sounds. Well, it feels just as bad. You know, this baseball game of ours comes up from the youth. That means the boys. And after you’re a boy and grow up to know how to play ball, then you come to the boys you see representing themselves today, in your national pastime.
The only real game, I think, in the world—baseball.
As a rule, some people think if you give them a football, or a baseball, or something like that, naturally they’re athletes right away. But you can’t do that in baseball. You’ve got to start from way down the bottom, when you’re six or seven years of age. You can’t wait until you’re fifteen or sixteen. You’ve got to let it grow up with you. And if you’re successful, and you try hard enough, you’re bound to come out on top, just like these boys have come to the top now.
There’ve been so many lovely things said about me, and I’m glad that I’ve had the opportunity to thank everybody. Thank you.
When Leavy asked Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum director emeritus Mike Gibbons which book about Ruth he considered definitive, he answered, “It hasn’t been written yet.” If we mean which book about Ruth the abandoned boy and Ruth the self-made/self-immolating man behind the mythology, and not purely the baseball player, it’s been written now.