I recently finished making my way through Jane Leavy’s biography on the Great Bambino himself, entitled The Big Fella. Like anyone else, I have heard most of the stories, I’m aware of the ballplayer’s legendary status, and as a kid, I memorized the list of nicknames spouted off by the kids of The Sandlot. However, this is the first actual Babe Ruth biography I have ever read.
Fair warning: this biography is quite the tome. It’s not quite War and Peace, but sitting at over 600 pages, it’s not exactly Animal Farm, either. In my opinion, though, the journey through this volume is worth the time. Using the barnstorming tour Babe Ruth took with Lou Gehrig after the 1927 World Series as the framework for the book, Leavy injects details about Ruth’s life and analysis about his personality and character to paint a broad and detailed portrait of the man and the ballplayer.
My favorite feature of this book lies in how human it portrays the Babe. Ruth often gets depicted as this happy-go-lucky, larger-than-life figure who transcends not only baseball, but American culture itself. Not that Leavy ignores this facet of Ruth’s character. In fact, she goes into great detail about how this perception of the Babe pervaded American thought even during his lifetime. Ruth certainly lived large, and the public loved him so much, the press even willingly kept many of his indiscretions quite. When some of those indiscretions did leak out, fans were more than willing to overlook them, finding these to be a part of the ballplayer’s charm.
Leavy’s biography doesn’t focus just on this, however. Ruth’s life, especially as a youth, was not an easy one. The author includes stories about his birth, early youth, his life at St. Mary’s, and his introduction to professional baseball. She also talks about Ruth’s drinking and womanizing, and while she doesn’t forgive the Babe for these, Leavy does juxtapose that side of Ruth with his affinity for playing with and helping kids.
The book also delves deeply into Ruth’s relationship with his manager, Christy Walsh. We get an overview of Ruth’s personal finances, and Leavy demonstrates how much the Babe profited from Christy Walsh’s management. She conveys the impact Ruth and Walsh had on popular culture, foreshadowing the celebrity-obsessed society that followed them and continues to pervade our world today.
Leavy also does a good job giving us a glimpse into the Babe’s shortcomings as a family man and the impact this had on his daughters. There is also a great exploration of Ruth’s life after baseball, including the disappointments he faced as he continuously got turned down for management roles. Leavy goes into detail about his final days, as well, discussing his illness and, ultimately, his death.
Overall, I was impressed. I did, at times, wish that the structure of the book followed a more linear path, rather than bouncing around Ruth’s life the way that it does, but given the amount of research and detail included in these pages, it’s a shortcoming I’m willing to overlook.
The motion began in a gentle sweeping curve and culminated in a pose, held for an instant, of tense power. It was an exhibition of the perfection of masculine grace. Beautiful pitching like that is among the lost arts.
~James Weldon Johnson, from Along This Way
This parody of Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s “Casey At the Bat” was published in 2019 by Mitchell Nathanson, author of A People’s History of Baseball. Not only does it incorporate modern-day metrics like WAR, PitchTrax, and exit velocity, the poem also paints a frighteningly accurate picture of today’s in-stadium crowds. The piece is very well done, and in spite of shaking my head in recognition, I find that I rather enjoy it.
The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day;
The score stood four to two with but one inning more to play.
And then when Cooney whiffed again, the eighteenth K that night,
A sickly silence fell, for somehow baseball wasn’t right.
A straggling few got up and left, annoyed they even came;
And most who stayed were kind of drunk or wagered on the game.
Yet still to come was Casey, whom the fans had long extolled,
Though at the age of 31 the metrics deemed him old.
But first ahead was Flynn, a player much accursed;
His BABIP was atrocious, and his WAR was even worse.
Another guy came up as well, his name recalled by few;
Confusion sowed by double switches made in hour two.
But Flynn defied the numbers, making contact with the ball;
And sent it on a mighty arc — it caromed off the wall.
—The guy should be on third,— a salty graybeard spat and cursed,
As Flynn removed his batting gloves, a jogger still at first.
The other guy, as well, reached base, a waiver-wire addition;
Dropped by a last place club dumping salary without contrition;
And when the blaring music stopped, fans noticed what occurred,
Instead of crossing o’er the plate, young Flynn just jogged to third.
As Casey stepped into the box, the scoreboard roared “Make Noise!”;
Which the crowd most surely would’ve done, if not for all their toys.
About 5,000 hometown fans were checking in on Twitter;
So most remained oblivious to Casey as the hitter.
Ten thousand eyes were somewhere else as he scratched upon the dirt;
And Velcro-strapped his batting gloves and touched six places on his shirt.
And kissed his bat, then tapped the plate nine times or maybe 10;
Then from the box did Casey step, and start it all again.
The pitcher’s antics on the mound were also quite a show;
Whole seasons seemed to pass before he hinted at a throw.
Yet here it came, the cowhide sphere, arriving at great speed;
‘strike one,— the umpire firmly called. But PitchTrax disagreed.
The fans who watched upon their phones could see it plain: outside;
Unless their phones had zero bars, or batteries had died.
“Kill him! Kill the umpire!” the fans all stood and roared;
At least so roared the older ones, the younger ones seemed bored.
Two strikes remained. The oldsters, fretting, began to wring their hands;
While younger fans, in hour four, sped toward concession stands.
Then Casey dug in once again; the second spheroid flew,
But Casey still ignored it, and the umpire said, ‘strike Two.’
“Fraud!” cried the maddened few at all the blue-clad, rulebound fools,
While waving off the heady clouds sent up from nearby Juuls.
Now Casey’s face grew stern and cold, the fans all rose as one;
As midnight neared their hope was clear: just let the game be done.
As Casey runs the metrics, and adjusts his swing for lift;
The fielders check their little cards, and drift into a shift.
And now the pitcher fires a rocket off, despite his ample gut;
And now the air is shattered by great Casey’s uppercut.
Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sport is as it used to be;
And fans still hang on Casey’s fate, not exit velocity.
But that era’s gone — don’t cry into your $15 beer;
While all the laughing children shout, “Football season’s here!”
In our national pastime, each player is a member of a team, but when he comes to bat, he stands alone. One man. Many opportunities. For no matter how far behind, how late in the game, he, by himself, can make a difference. He can change what has been. He can make it a new ball game.
~Bette Bao Lord, from In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson
Every night I stood in front of the television watching the game and practicing my swing. I always swung for the seats. I even practiced fouling the ball off my foot. Mom would come in the den and find me limping around the rug, walking off the pain. I never said a word and neither did she. By the time I was nine I knew you gotta play hurt.
~Jane Leavy, from Squeeze Play
Just enough breeze to lift the flags along the upper edge of the north stands and let them fall again lazily. The diamond and outfield, sharply cut, were a bright velvet carpet to Joe’s eyes. As the players ran back and forth on it he could feel with envy its turfy spring and wished for — something, nearer definition now than ever before in his life.
~William Carlos Williams, from White Mule
There’s nothing cooler than a baseball glove. You put one on and all of a sudden it’s like you’re a wizard. People might be showering you with rockets or pelting you with eggs, but it doesn’t matter, because everything goes quiet inside the glove. Maybe a bat looks like a magic wand, but a glove feels like one.
~Jim Naughton, My Brother Stealing Second
This poem is short and sweet, and it’s one that so many folks can identify with. We can’t all be great ballplayers, but one doesn’t have to be able to hit a fast ball to be in love with the game. I came across this one in Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.
I didn’t even make
the seventh grade
girls’ third team
Last Easter, scrub game
with the kids,
a foul right through
Captain Kelly’s French doors,
had to pay.
Still, these sultry
the dark ballet
of players sliding
and shout “Safe!
He’s safe! He’s home!”
and so am I.
I have to absorb the new season like sunlight, letting it turn my winter skin pink and then brown. I must stuff myself with lore and statistics until my fingers ooze balm.
~W.P. Kinsella, Shoeless Joe
In Elysian Fields, released by Tom Evans this summer, proves itself a fascinating read. The events of this novel take place in the late-1950s, and the feel of the book definitely fits with that time period. Luke Allen is a major league ballplayer in the final season of his career, hoping to have a shot at finally winning a championship before he retires. Luke is having one of the best seasons of his already-Hall of Fame worthy career, due in part to the influence of a series of anonymous notes sent to him from a secret admirer.
The secret admirer, the reader learns, is a poet by the name of Norah Dailey. Norah admires Luke from a distance, and while the two do not physically meet for a very long time, they are nonetheless drawn to one another. The two dance around a desire to meet one another, yet not feeling sure whether they really should.
In the meantime, the reader learns a lot about each character’s background. Each has had a challenging life, in their own way, and each grew up to devote their lives to their respective passions — Luke to baseball and Norah to writing. If you’re the kind of reader who likes to hear about the backstories of a book’s characters (which I am), then you will love the details provided about these two.
As someone who loves baseball and literature, this book proved quite engaging and satiating for both interests. I have long felt that baseball and literature are excellent complements to one another, and the attraction between Luke and Norah serves as a great metaphor for this. Overall, I found the book quite enjoyable. It had hints of The Natural and of Bull Durham in its story line, and yet manages to stand unique, especially in terms of character development. I do wish the story would have continued on a bit longer than it did after Luke and Norah finally do meet, if only to wrap up Luke’s career and establish their relationship a bit more neatly. But again, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and I suppose that sometimes, the next chapters of our favorite characters’ lives are best left to the imagination.