Unfleeting Fame

Review: 'The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created' by Jane Leavy

Babe Ruth / Getty Images

BY:

He was the Sultan of Swat in the era of swing. The Bambino, the Big Bam, the Behemoth of Bust. As a reform-school boy from Baltimore who made it good on the big stage of New York City, Babe Ruth belongs in the pantheon of great American tales. As a baseball player, he belongs in the Hall of Fame. And as a national phenomenon, well, where does he fit? Maybe in an F. Scott Fitzgerald story. Babe Ruth really was the diamond as big as the Ritz.

Now that the dust has settled, after the Red Sox's methodical demolition of the Dodgers in the 2018 World Series, maybe it's worth looking back at The Big Fella, Jane Leavy's account of Babe Ruth's life and times. HarperCollins published the book to align with the end of the baseball season, and reviewers dutifully noticed the book last month, using The Big Fella as an excuse for their annual Where are the boys of summer? pieces, cast in an October light and redolent with autumn's scent.

None of that was exactly fair to what Leavy is trying to accomplish with The Big Fella. Subtitled Babe Ruth and the World He Created, the book seeks some explanation for why certain figures become mythological—arriving at a fame beyond their talent at a popular activity, yes, but even arriving at something beyond the commercialization that worked so hard to give them fame. In 1930, Hack Wilson had a year for the ages, but who beyond fans of baseball statistics ever mentions him? Jimmie Foxx had world-class seasons, but his fame resounds in empty halls, echoing among the dusty pillars. Hank Greenberg's greatness remains, but his memory has been washed under by the wave of time. No one conjures with Rogers Hornsby's name anymore.

And then there's Babe Ruth. The 61 home runs Roger Maris hit in 1961 still dwell with their asterisk in mythological territory, far beyond the drug-fueled extravaganza that saw Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa surpass him from 1998 to 2001. But far, far beyond Maris's 1961 record lives the 60 home runs Babe Ruth produced in 1927. In truth, it wasn't Ruth's best season—but that's the point. Looking back, popular imagination chose 1927 as Ruth's most archetypal season. His most emblematic season. His most mythological. We would understand a great deal about the mechanisms of modern culture if we could truly grasp the reason that Babe Ruth became, and remains, so famous. Even as cautionary tales, exemplifying the fame of infamy, the selfishness of Rogers Hornsby and the hormone cocktails of Barry Bonds fall short.

All this is not to say The Big Fella is a great book. Leavy writes that her aim is to explore "how thoroughly modern" Ruth was "in the creation, manipulation, and exploitation of his public image." But, in truth, she fails in her quest to explain the world she thinks the baseball player created. Along the way, we learn details that thicken the story we knew of the popularizing of Babe Ruth. But the thing itself, the inwardness of the Ruth phenomenon, slips away. As a sociological account, The Big Fella brings up the right question without quite answering it.

Some reviews (notably John Swansburg's in the New York Times) have criticized the book for failing to psychologize Ruth—failing to penetrate beneath the myth to the man. But that particular criticism seems unfair. Leavy has never been a sportswriter driven to plump her subjects' souls. The Last Boy, her 2010 account of Mickey Mantle, contained some discussion of the personality that played baseball so well and life so poorly, but the book's subtitle, Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood, shows her sociological interest. Her bestselling 2002 Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy observes Koufax's cool persona, but it is as much concerned with the pitcher's place in a 1960s that was exploding around him.

And yet, a problem with The Big Fella is revealed by comparing it to those earlier books. In Sandy Koufax, Leavy organized her excursions into Koufax and his times by interspersing inning-by-inning accounts of a perfect game from the pitcher. In The Last Boy, she intersperses the moment-by-moment tale of a multiday binge by Mickey Mantle.

By the time we reach her book on Babe Ruth, the device has become mostly mechanical. After the Yankees' 1927 "Murderers' Row" season, Ruth and Gehrig undertook a three-week-long tour of exhibition games and personal appearances that would reach from New Jersey to California. In an exploration of baseball's nationalizing and commercializing, the tour deserves a place—but the author uses it as her central device, scattering moments from that cross-country trip throughout the book.

Leavy has also lost some discipline. Her prose remains steady, but where Sandy Koufax was a tight, fast-reading book, The Big Fella gets bogged down in places. She tells, for instance, the interesting story of the legal battle over the "Baby Ruth" candy bar, which stole Ruth's name. (The creator, Otto Y. Schnering, insisted he had named it after Grover Cleveland's infant daughter.) But I found myself looking ahead to find out how much more—a lot, as it turned out—I had to read about the courts' subsequent interpretation of publicity rights.

Still, The Big Fella is correct to make Christy Walsh the book's costar. Among the first of promoters to grasp the non-baseball opportunities created by the national interest in baseball, Walsh would sign up Ruth and other stars for ghost-written newspaper columns and movie cameos and product endorsements and personal appearances and hitting exhibitions and all the rest—everything that would become the standard income streams of popularity. The salaries Ruth achieved, as the highest-paid player in baseball, were cultural milestones. But an even more significant milestone was marked by the day his yearly extra-baseball income surpassed his yearly baseball salary.

From a sociological perspective, the connectivity of the telegraph, the wide distribution of movies, and the hunger of newspapers for copy created a national culture ready for something like Babe Ruth. And Christy Walsh's publicity schemes and commercializing ventures found the way to give the nation what it wanted.

But to her credit, Jane Leavy realizes that these are not quite enough to explain why it would be Ruth who filled the sociological slot—and far from enough to explain the mythopoeic status that the man would somehow find.

Part of the answer, of course, is that Babe Ruth truly was beyond great as a player. What he achieved would be nearly duplicated in future years, and sometimes only a few years in the future by the likes of Foxx, Gehrig, and Wilson. But Ruth did them first, teaching others just how much could be achieved with an uppercut swing. And Ruth did them best, playing baseball loudly and flamboyantly. Filled with a savage joy.

The Big Fella adds a little to the well-known story of Ruth's life and the even better-known story of his baseball successes. But the real point of the book is to look at commercialization and force us to consider the difficult question of how the cultural estimation of players sometimes moves from successful play to public fame—and then beyond fame to myth. I can't find it in myself to blame Jane Leavy for not having found the answer.

Joseph Bottum

Joseph Bottum   Email | Full Bio | RSS
Joseph Bottum is a professor of cyber-ethics and director of the Classics Institute at Dakota State University. His most recent book is An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America.

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