Review: Books About Babe Ruth – The New York Times

from the book review archives
In 1974, Roger Angell celebrated four new biographies of the Bambino.
Credit…Paul Rogers
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Review first published Oct. 13, 1974
With vim and verve he walloped the curve
From Texas to Duluth,
Which is no small task, and I rise to ask;
Was there ever a guy like Ruth?
—John Kieran
No, never. He stands alone, the ultimate American sports hero, sufficient in feat and person to sustain the myth and all our boyhood memories.
Last April, 39 years after Babe Ruth’s final major-league game, his lifetime record of 714 home runs was tied and then broken by the Atlanta Braves’ Hank Aaron. This alteration of baseball’s favorite statistic has been celebrated as the premier sports event of the year, yet its ultimate effect may be to fasten our attention more securely on the old champion. Hank took over the record, but the Babe is getting the ink — four new biographies. He would have loved that, just as he would have relished the way in which Aaron did the job last spring, hitting the tying homer with the first swing of his bat in the 1974 season, and breaking the old record with his first swipe in the Braves’ home opener. Quite a feat — positively Ruthian.
The eponyms, the reincarnations go on, apparently immune to wear. As Robert Creamer points out in “Babe: The Legend Comes to Life,” Willie Sutton was known as “the Babe Ruth of bank robbers,” somebody else was recently called “the Babe Ruth of water skiing,” and so on. For many of us, too, the image of the man remains so deep as to seem familial: the melon face; the cheerful, mindless grin; the massive gut; the awesome, body-wrenching swing; the formal, delicate time-step around the bases; and, at the edge of the dugout, the little wave and pleased upward glance, acknowledging the bombardment of our cheering. Reading these books, I found myself smiling again and again over some rediscovered feat, some gesture restored to my inner portrait of the man: Yes, that’s the Bambino, all right. That’s the Babe.
It was the manner of his hitting, almost more than its results, that utterly transformed the game. No one before Ruth had ever swung at a baseball the way he did. (Ty Cobb once observed that it was Ruth’s first career as a pitcher that allowed him to perfect his reckless, from-the-heels, all-or-nothing cut, since nothing much was expected of pitchers at the plate.) Before Ruth, baseball was a tight, strategic, steal-and-sacrifice sport — an insider’s game, most typified by the play of John McGraw’s Giants. Ruth, whose Yankees shared McGraw’s own Polo Grounds when he first came to New York, blew that all away forever, and simultaneously gave birth to the era (an era so far unended) of gigantic American sport.
The 1920 Yankees were the first team in any sport to draw over a million spectators, almost double their 1919 gate, and the style and habit of the big game, watched by enormous and exuberant throngs, became a national phenomenon. Other sluggers quickly flourished, but the Babe continued to lead them all. He was the first man to hit 30 home runs, the first to hit 40, and 50, and 60. By the end of 1928, the 40-homer level had been attained 10 times — seven times by Ruth. As Creamer says, “The home run was his.”
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The fact remains that the Babe’s exploits, on and off the field, were sufficient to herniate the strongest hyperboles.
All this was watched and rhapsodized over by a gratified corps of New York sportswriters: W.O. McGeehan, Westbrook Pegler, Dan Daniel, Grantland Rice, Heywood Broun (“The Ruth is mighty and shall prevail”), Damon Runyon, Marshall Hunt and the rest. Kal Wagenheim’s book, “Babe Ruth: His Life and Legend,” is especially rich in press-box yarns. Ken Sobol, in “Babe Ruth and the American Dream,” derides some of the excesses of Ruthian coverage and Ruthian imagery (Paul Gallico, describing Ruth’s famous visit to the bedside of an ailing boy named Johnny Sylvester, wrote: “It was God himself who walked into that room … God dressed in a camel’s hair polo coat and flat camel’s hair cap, God with a big flat nose and little piggy eyes and a big grin”), and suggests that the sportswriters to some degree invented Babe Ruth, but the fact remains that the Babe’s exploits, on and off the field, were sufficient to herniate the strongest hyperboles.
Extravagant lives are hard to get on paper. Robert Smith, the author of “Babe Ruth’s America,” has compounded the problem by attempting to bring us not just Babe Ruth the man, but his times as well: the Boston police strike, women’s suffrage, Fatty Arbuckle, Al Capone, Teapot Dome, Texas Guinan, Leopold and Loeb, Jimmy Walker, Bruno Richard Hauptmann, sit-down strikes — the works. This is useful reading as an adjunct to an American history course, but for most of us it seems a longish and familiar journey, marked by some fearful screeching of the wheels as we go over the switches.
Sobol, as previously suggested, has written a dour and cynical book, an extreme example of the “aw, nuts” genre of sports reporting. He dwells upon the ugliness of the Baltimore slums where Ruth was born and the Alcatraz-like atmosphere of the Catholic industrial school where the Babe was sequestered for 10 years as a youth. These are perhaps crucial elements in Ruth’s life, but Sobol seems actually to dislike almost everything about his hero, and emphasizes his physical ugliness, his coarse language, his asserted cowardice in man-to-man fights, his foul temper, his exorbitant egoism and his possible involvement (entirely unsupported here by facts) in a rape. He attributes Gehrig’s famous consecutive game streak to “a monumental vanity,” and speculates that the daughter adopted by Ruth and his first wife was probably Babe’s child by another woman. This sustained tinge of hostility, so at variance with Ruth’s open and boisterous style, seems almost puritanical in its cumulative effect, and thus probably works against Sobol’s own intentions.
Why then does one finish these books with sadness, with such a sense of loss?
Wagenheim’s Babe Ruth is graceful and anecdotal and uncommonly readable (and the only one of the four books to include the almost essential lifetime records), but it is clear that Babe Ruth has at last found the biographer he deserves in Creamer. “Babe: The Legend Comes to Life” is the longest and most painstaking of the books, and perhaps the best portrait yet struck off of an American sports hero. It is intensely detailed, at times bringing us 60-year-old weather or the play-by-play of a busy inning in Babe’s first major-league game, but the writing is swift and clear and stamped with a confirming intelligence: “Everything about [Ruth] reflected his sexuality — the restless, roving energy; the aggressive skills; fastball pitching; home run hitting; the speed with which he drove cars; the loud, rich voice; the insatiable appetite, the constant need to placate his mouth with food, a drink, a cigar, chewing gum, anything.” Above all, Creamer’s tone seems right — level but cheerful, without awe or cynicism, plain-spoken and yet celebratory of a unique American figure, an extinguished great star that still lights our sky.
Why then does one finish these books with sadness, with such a sense of loss? It is not the loss of the American ’20s, of an era excessively sentimentalized even as it was happening, of a time so dumb and unsentient as to embarrass us in retrospect — surely we are beyond that. What we miss must be something closer, something within ourselves. It is the death of attention.
All through these books, one reads of enormous crowds waiting and watching, not just in big league stadiums but in little railroad stations and vaudeville theaters and back-pasture ballparks across the country, where the Babe and his fellow stars barnstormed every year in the off-season, traveling thousands of miles every year to bring a glimpse of themselves (for money, of course) to people who would talk about the moment later, for months and years to come.
Today, homers and heroes come into our lives by television, without our effort or planning. They are simply there, right in the living room, every evening and every weekend of the year, and we no longer really notice them. Hank Aaron’s record-breaking homer was watched by more people than those who saw Ruth in his entire career with the Yankees, but how many can still see it at this moment and how many of us care? The games and the All-Stars and the championships and the epochal feats roll on without cease, and vaguely and irritably we long for something else — something or somebody who can stop it all for a minute and fix an image in our memory. What we get for our prayers is Evel Knievel, but never, no, never again, a guy like Ruth. — Roger Angell
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