The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created
“The Big Fella is an essential addition to the Babe Ruth canon. For Jane Leavy, one of the top tier among baseball authors, it is a welcome addition to her canon as well.”
Several years ago, the television news magazine Sixty Minutes broadcast a segment on the publishing industry that included an interview with an editor at a major publishing house. During the exchange, the editor recalled his advising an author that his next book should be about Abraham Lincoln. The author objected, pointing out the innumerable books already written about the nation’s 16th president. The editor answered, “That is because people want to read about him.”
And so it is with Babe Ruth. Some may ask about the need for another book about baseball’s most enduring legend. But people still want to read about him 70 years after his death because the Babe is a fascinating character who fits neatly into the mythology of America, and his story is big enough that it lends itself to inspection from many angles. His is a name with which even non-sports fans are familiar.
That brings us to The Big Fella, Jane Leavy’s third and latest baseball biography following her outstanding books on Sandy Koufax and Mickey Mantle. How much a reader will enjoy this book will likely depend on that reader’s familiarity with Babe Ruth’s life and career. The more familiar the better.
Wisely, this is not a recitation of the great slugger’s career season by season. The book instead utilizes nonlinear approach, with Ruth’s 1927 barnstorming tour in the wake of his unforgettable 60 home run season serving as the titular conceit while the larger narrative traces and retraces numerous events through time and place. Those unfamiliar with Ruth may find this unsettling, but those knowledgeable about baseball and Ruth in particular will understand. Leavy takes advantage of the book’s nonlinear structure to take the reader down interesting side roads that branch off Ruth’s story before meandering back. As a result, the book employs some necessary repetition to provide context.
The narrative’s real focus is on Babe Ruth’s life and personality—what drove him and his fame—and what drove his agent and financial adviser, Christy Walsh, who masterminded the 1927 nationwide tour and helped shape Ruth’s legend.
Leavy’s most impressive research involves Ruth’s family background and childhood, especially the period prior to his sad dispatch at age seven to St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys. In documenting Ruth’s extended family, Leavy’s meticulous digging serves to confirm that Ruth and his siblings were victims of neglect—several of his infant kin died due to malnutrition or possibly the ravages of inherited syphilis. It is also made clear that Ruth never had a real relationship with either of his parents.
Leavy doggedly investigates the highlights and controversies of Ruth’s career—the “stomach ache” of 1925, the rumors that he was part African American, the controversy surrounding the origin of the Baby Ruth candy bar, “The Called Shot” in the 1932 World Series, the death of his first wife, his gargantuan appetites and numerous infidelities, his falling out with Lou Gehrig, the tour of Japan in 1934 that demonstrated that his fame had become world-wide, the painful end to his playing career in 1935, his final illness and death, and his futile attempts to convince someone he could successfully act as a manager.
In the last case, it has always been said that no one wanted to let Ruth manage a team. If he could not manage himself, so the story goes, how could he manage 25 other men?
Leavy makes the case for an additional reason—Ruth’s popularity among African Americans and his ease in interacting with them, along with the widely believed rumors he was part black, a myth that the author dispels. The suggestion here is that those in power feared Ruth would not hesitate to integrate a team he managed and that he possessed the name recognition and popularity to be successful in doing so. It is an interesting thought.
Leavy also delves into the life of Christy Walsh, who had significant influence on Ruth—more than anyone save his second wife. It was through Walsh’s exhaustive and exhausting efforts that Ruth was able to live comfortably in his post-baseball life.
Along the way, Leavy examines the relatively recent history of creating and promoting celebrity, allowing those with a public following to capitalize on fame outside of their primary means of support. In Ruth’s case, he was earning more off the field than on it. While this is not so surprising today, in the Babe’s time that was unheard of and it is entirely due to the Walsh’s foresight.
The author tracked down a number of family members who provided anecdotes centered on their famous relative. While one must always be careful in treating family stories handed down through generations as gospel, Leavy weeds through these and weighs their import, relevance, and veracity.
We all play roles in life—at home, in the workplace, and in public. Ruth had to play his role 24 hours a day. Almost paranoid about being alone, he never had to be if he did not want to—after all, no one would turn down an invitation from Babe Ruth. The resulting stories provide multiple perspectives of Ruth from the outside, but the man himself was rarely introspective. Leavy does capture some rare moments of self-reflection, glimpsed in a context made possible in retrospect. But they are fleeting and thus present a challenge for any biographer. Leavy navigates this as well as anyone before her and in uncovering some new material presents a Babe Ruth better understood.
The Big Fella is an essential addition to the Babe Ruth canon. For Jane Leavy, one of the top tier among baseball authors, it is a welcome addition to her canon as well.