Book Review: Jane Leavy’s ‘The Big Fella’

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Book Review: Jane Leavy’s ‘The Big Fella’
Dec 11, 2018

By Ethan Cadeaux

When I was growing up, the first athlete I remember hearing about was Babe Ruth. Early in my sports fandom, I became aware of just how great the 1927 New York Yankees were. Between Ruth and fellow Yankee Lou Gehrig, many believe this team possessed the greatest lineup in the history of baseball.

A man of many nicknames, such as “The Bambino” or “The Sultan of Swat,” Ruth was much more than just a baseball legend. After reading Jane Leavy’s book, “The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created,” it’s evident Ruth’s impact on pop culture was just as powerful off the field as it was on the diamond.

Leavy’s book takes a unique approach, chronicling the three weeks following the New York Yankees 1927 World Series victory, a clean sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Rather than celebrating for a few days following another World Series triumph, Ruth, alongside fellow future Hall of Famer Gehrig, decided to take a three-week cross-country journey. The plan was simple: Ruth and Gehrig, sporting “Bustin’ Babes” and “Larrupin’ Lou’s” jerseys, respectively, would hop into certain amateur or smaller professional league games all around the country and join opposing teams, playing for those teams for a day. From Providence to Trenton to Los Angeles to Fresno, and many others, the two Yankee icons traveled for 21 days, connecting with some of baseball’s biggest fans at the time. Something like this would certainly seem impossible today.

Leavy takes an approach similar to the one that Gay Talese took when writing “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” In Talese’s piece, which many still regard as one of the best pieces of journalism ever written about a celebrity, he followed the singer around for three months toward the end of Sinatra’s career. Talese’s profile on Sinatra revealed the truth about the legendary singer, warts and all. What made Talese’s piece so special was that he followed Sinatra around without ever conducting an actual interview with him. Leavy’s piece is similar, in that she was not alive during Ruth’s barnstorming tour, but her extensive research and quality of writing makes readers feel as though they are right there with Ruth. Leavy and Talese did an excellent job of capturing as much of a man’s true personality as they could during a short period of that subject’s life.

Before delving deep into Ruth’s and Gehrig’s barnstorming tour, Leavy gives a bit of an anecdotal introduction. She writes about taking her son to the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum in Baltimore, and seeing the house where Ruth grew up. She writes that Ruth had an “impoverished beginnings and guttersnipe childhood,” which seemed a little odd considering what she saw at the museum. She describes Ruth’s place of living as:

“Angels perched on the whitewashed mantel above an impossibly small wooden cradle. A marble washstand with a pink-and-white porcelain basin and pitcher, lace curtains, and brass wall sconces on either side of a double bed with an ornate mahogany headboard filled out the room, set off from the public by velvet ropes and stanchions – reminiscent of a presidential birthplace.”

For a quarter of a century, Leavy – a well-established writer who has written several books on baseball immortals such as Mickey Mantle and Sandy Koufax – tried to figure out which angle she wanted to take on Ruth.  After she visited his birthplace, she found it. She explains this revelation by writing:

“It would take the better part of twenty-five years for me to put my finger on the precise nature of the disconnect: the myths and misconceptions about Babe Ruth begin at his birthplace. Only the dimensions of the familial still life and the outsized man Ruth became were incontrovertible. Everything else was conjecture.”

Leavy became intrigued by the myths that surround Ruth’s career, as well as his private life. She figured that this tour, which captures Ruth at the height of his stardom, would be a unique, worthwhile, and telling angle to use in explaining the power of his personality. And she was right.

Each chapter of the book covers a different date on the tour. It’s a well-executed literary tactic, as the flow and continuity serves to keep the reader engaged and aware of the significance of each date. No two cities offer Ruth and Gehrig, and by extension the reader, the same experience; each city had a different way of showing Ruth’s impact on the culture of the time.

Today, there is no question that athletes are some of the world’s greatest cultural stars. But back then, it was a much less common occurrence. What Leavy portrays throughout her novel is how Ruth became America’s first true sports superstar and icon of pop culture.

In 1927, Ruth was coming off the best year of his life, at least baseball-wise. He hit 60 home runs, rewriting his own record of 57 that he set in 1921. Ruth, who started his career as a respectable pitcher, re-invented himself as the greatest hitter of all time. But despite his outsized personality, the book reinforces the notion that the biggest reason the Great Bambino connected with the crowd so well lay in his ability to launch the ball out of the park, and the style with which he did it. Leavy writes:

“He exploded notions of the doable. He swung the heaviest bat, earned the most money, and incurred the biggest fines. He had altered the dimensions of the game, its architecture and equipment. And every ball hit over every fence altered baseball’s relationship with those seated behind it, a revolutionary change noted by Waldo Frank, writing under the nom de plume Searchlight, in the May 16, 1925, edition of the New Yorker: ‘The Babe’s home run is an effort on the part of the machine to connect with the crowd. When the ball reaches the bleachers, contact is established. The game and the watchers of the game for that instant have the ball in common.’”

While on the three-week tour, Ruth’s presence was more important to many of the actual baseball games he played in, or more accurately, interrupted. In Omaha, one of the cities the tour stopped in, Ruth’s first at-bat was interrupted by a “ceremonial egg” presentation. When the game resumed, Ruth hit two home runs, and “pointed to center” before hitting them, “just like the movies,” Leavy writes. Ruth then took the mound and pitched the last three innings of the game, concluding the contest with a strikeout of Gehrig (also one of the best hitters on the planet at the time). Rather than ending the game, however, Ruth continued to pitch to Gehrig until Lou got ahold of one and hit it out of the park. This took so long that it “thereby delay[ed] the first pitch of the city championship game to the point that it had to be called on account of darkness.”

In one of the final games of the tour, in Fresno, Duke Perry, a police officer playing for the opposing team, gladly took the mound in order to “groove” a pitch to Ruth, so the Great Bambino could hit one out and satisfy all the fans that came to see him. Leavy takes an excerpt from a 1959 recollection to describe the instance:

“’I motioned to Ruth to indicate where he wanted the pitch,” [Duke Perry] told the San Jose Mercury-News in a 1959 retrospective. “He shouted out to me, ‘Anywhere around the plate.’  On the second pitch, Ruth connected, and as Leavy writes, “As he did, the wind died.” After clearing the fence by “at least 50 yards,” he couldn’t even complete the trot around the bases, as “young enthusiasts intercepted the Babe between second and third and hoisted him high upon their shoulders,’” Leavy writes. This was a common theme throughout the tour, as about two-thirds of the games (13 of 21) were interrupted by fans coming onto the field.

Ruth’s presence was magnetic, and his status as a global icon was solidified on this tour. Leavy describes it thusly:

“What is most striking about Ruth at this remove is how thoroughly modern he was, not just in the way he attacked a baseball, but also in the creation, manipulation, and exploitation of his public image at the precise moment in history when mass media was redefining what it meant to be public.” Ruth’s forward thinking, challenging past precedents, and fighting for what he believed was best shows how he was able to use his platform in an influential way. He challenged the authoritative figures of the sport, and “the notion that stardom was the sole province of saints and movie stars.”

When Ruth was playing, athletes did not have the platform that they do now. But Ruth used his platform to become more than just a superstar on the baseball diamond; he challenged precedent and played an influential role in society. There are few athletes today that will ever reach the height of stardom that Ruth did, despite having many more ways of reaching the public due to the explosion of mass media.

Ruth was far ahead of his time, and he had the perfect combination of athletic skill and personality to be the world’s first sports superstar. Leavy’s documentation of this three-week period in Ruth’s life offers ample proof of his impact, not just on the baseball diamond, but on society as a whole.

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