BOOK REVIEW: The Big Fella Is A Home Run

Just when you thought you knew everything there was to know about Babe Ruth, Jean Leavy’s The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created comes along, digging deeply into uncharted territory to capture the making of America’s first celebrity and his substantial influence on sport and culture.

Leavy leaves the actual play on the field for other fine books such as Robert Creamer’s definitive BABE: The Legend Comes To Life (1974) and Leigh Montville’s masterfully written The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth (2006).  Instead, she uses a barnstorming tour headlined by Ruth and Lou Gehrig to frame the story of Ruth’s rise to celebrity.  

On the heels of the New York Yankees sweeping the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1927 World Series, Ruth and Gehrig embarked on the mother of all barnstorming tours, allowing fans from coast to coast to witness the exploits of the baseball’s most transforming players.  Ruth was fresh off a record-setting 60 home run season — breaking his own record of 59 homers established six years earlier — while Gehrig had recently been named the league’s Most Valuable Player.  

The two Yankees sluggers would join opposing local teams across America, which were rebranded for the day as the Bustin’ Babes and Larrupin’ Lous.  Together, they created “the biggest show since Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey,” in the words of the Omaha World Herald. Leavy’s years as a staff reporter for the Washington Post is on full display as she uncovers details of each game in each city from Trenton to Omaha to San Jose.  Within this 21-day odyssey, Leavy explains how the complicated, often sad and lonely life of Babe Ruth was transformed into America’s biggest personality.  

The barnstorming tour was the brainchild of Christy Walsh — agent, attorney, business manager, spin doctor, and perhaps surrogate father to Ruth.  Walsh created the blueprint of modern stardom, using Ruth as the subject. Describing Ruth’s and Gehrig’s three-week cross-country victory tour as the “Symphony of Swat,” Walsh was the director behind Ruth’s many endorsement deals and syndicated newspaper columns, which were ghostwritten by an array of sportswriters who also covered Ruth’s exploits on the field.

Leavy effectively narrates how Walsh was able to enterprise Ruth to reflect the temperament of the country during the Roaring Twenties.  In the aftermath of World War I, attitudes were far more relaxed. People across the land openly defied prohibition and indulged in new styles of dance and dress, while rejecting many traditional pre-war standards.  Who better exemplifies the have-fun-at no-cost attitude than Babe Ruth?  

Tabloid newspapers, which became  more popular and accessible in America following the war, chronicled Ruth’s on-the-field and off-the-field exploits and transgressions with full front and back page photos throughout the country, giving Walsh the means to build baseball’s first legend.  Ruth, more than anyone else, is responsible for making the sports section a key component of everyday life.

As the result of eight years of meticulous research, Leavy also uncovered new information about Ruth’s difficult childhood, which eventually led to indulgence in every aspect of his adult life, which is explored in  great detail throughout the book. Courtesy of more than 250 interviews and a trove of previously untapped documents, Leavy presents a fast, lively account of the legend that became Babe Ruth. Even if you consider yourself an expert on Babe Ruth, The Big Fella offers something new. 

Book Review: Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty

Whether you fancy yourself a baseball historian or a baseball fan with at least a remote interest in the game’s glorious history, Charles Leerhsen’s Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty is an absolute must read.

Leerhsen’s wide-ranging reporting and storytelling skills are on full display as he debunks the myths and sheds light on the complicated but brilliant career of Ty Cobb. Most of what we knew about Cobb was written in 1961 by biographer Al Stump, a man who seemed to have a personal grudge against the highly toxic Cobb. Looking for a quick profit and instant fame, Stump did not allow the truth to interfere with a sensational story. Many of Cobb’s digressions — and there were many — were greatly exaggerated to make for a better read.

Leerhsen looked deeper into the myths and embellished stories surrounding Cobb. His account of the Georgia Peach is based on information derived from tireless research and interviews. What he found was a flawed, complicated man with unfathomable determination who happened to be one of the greatest baseball players to ever live.

What Leerhsen does best is put Cobb’s life story in perspective with baseball and American life during the rough and tumble times of the early 1900s. Cobb was a smart, young upstart athlete from the south, a fierce competitor who rubbed many the wrong way. He found rookie hazing unacceptable, which did not sit well with veteran teammates. His aggressive, hard-nosed approach to the game threatened teammates who feared losing their jobs and opponents who were being tested in new ways.

During a time when disputes were often settled with fists both on and off the playing field, Cobb had his share of fisticuffs with teammates, opponents, umpires, groundskeepers, hotel staff and even fans — or “cranks” as they were called back in the day. Leerhsen explains how some of these stories were true, others greatly exaggerated, and some completely false. He sheds light on how Cobb struggled with being the first celebrity athlete; the most famous athlete beyond his hometown; the athlete the President wanted to meet.

We may never know all the facts surrounding Cobb’s life, but Leerhsen’s meticulously researched account gives baseball fans much to think about regarding the first player elected to the Hall of Fame and how he helped to shape baseball’s “Deadball Era.”