In the spring of 1923, the New York Yankees moved into their new digs, the House That Ruth Built, and proceeded to run away with the American League pennant. That summer, F. Scott Fitzgerald began writing the Great American Novel. For a while he wanted to title his book “Trimalchio,” after the character in the Satyricon, to convey in a word the poignancy of Jay Gatsby, that “elegant young roughneck” who joined new money to bad taste because he grew up poor and, in his boyish romantic enthusiasm, didn’t know any better. His rival, Tom Buchanan, joined older money to bad taste laced with vinegar because, in his laziness and arrogance, he didn’t care. Buchanan is repugnant. For Gatsby, we feel embarrassment. The Germans have a word for it: Fremdscham.
Like Gatsby, Babe Ruth was born poor, got rich, and retained a stubborn streak of vulgarity. He was one of the “celebrated people” at Gatsby’s gaudy summer-evening parties on Long Island, or could have been, as I came to imagine halfway into The Big Fella, Jane Leavy’s monumental biography of the Bambino, the Sultan of Swat, the King of Crash, a baseball grandee too illustrious for a single title to do him justice. With the help of his shameless business manager, Christy Walsh, Ruth cultivated and grew his celebrity and cashed in on it big-league. It was extraordinary, of a magnitude unprecedented for an American athlete. Ruth was shameless too, so blush not for him, and more amoral than immoral, so temper your head-shaking at his Rabelaisian overindulgence in food and sex.
Leavy makes no excuses for his legion marital infidelities, but she gives her narration of his life a certain coloration. She nudges you to mitigate if not suspend your judgment on his sins. His first wife, Helen, was “a mysterious and ultimately tragic figure,” an “unfinished woman.” Half of her appearances in the book involve hospitals, vague illnesses, or swooning. George Herman Ruth Jr. was 19 when they married and in his mid 20s when they separated. Divorced from Ruth and now remarried, she died when he was in his early 30s. A few months later, he married his paramour Claire Hodgson.
With Helen, Ruth had a daughter, Dorothy: That was the polite fiction promulgated by Walsh, whose press releases the rah-rah reporters and editors of the day were happy to take at face value. They too had a stake in Ruth’s fame and stature. His name sold newspapers. It also made their jobs easier — it was a ready hook on which they could hang their fast, easy, breezy copy. Early on, journalists settled on a stock character, almost a stick figure, and for the first few years seldom deviated from it. The Babe Ruth they hawked to the public was an endearing bad boy who lived large, ate too many hot dogs, and broke curfew but could be forgiven all because he was just a kid at heart. Also, he launched rockets over outfield fences. A divorced man who when still married had fathered a child with a woman not his wife would have been a different story. Ruth and the New York sporting press had an understanding, a relationship that was “cozy, complex, and complicit.”
In 1925 it began to unravel. While Ruth fizzled and the Yankees tanked, the publisher of the New York Daily News ran photos of Claire, Ruth’s mistress. Ruth the faithful family man was exposed as a fabrication. In her will, made public shortly after her death not four years later, Helen referred to Dorothy as her “beloved charge and ward.” Aha. Newspaper accounts of Ruth’s wife and daughter hadn’t always added up, and now fans could fill in some of the holes in the hagiographical treatment that sportswriters had given his personal life, although by itself neither the news about Claire nor that about Dorothy betrayed the full extent of Ruth’s womanizing.
“I think my mother hated me,” he said in a publication from the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum in Baltimore. As for the father, George Sr., he beat the kid, according to the kid’s sister. “You dirty old SOB, I hate you,” George Jr. snarled. He was seven when Mr. and Mrs. SOB sent him to live at St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, in 1902. There he remained, for the most part, until 1914, when he began playing professional ball, months shy of his 20th birthday.
“He never posed, publicly, the question that begs asking,” Leavy remarks. “What parents give up one of their two surviving children?” Several siblings of Ruth’s died in childhood. His mother was “a serious alcoholic,” or so it “seems,” a descendant of her sister offered. “It makes you wonder about fetal alcohol syndrome.” Mrs. Ruth was accused by her husband of being promiscuous. Her fling with a bartender who worked at the saloon that George Sr. owned and operated may have been her last as a married woman: Shortly thereafter, armed with a confession signed by the bartender, he divorced her. George Jr. was already several years into his exile at St. Mary’s.
Readers may be both impressed and bored by Leavy’s intricate exposition of the family background. My eyes glazed over at some of the detail — Ruth’s genealogy here has many branches, twigs, and roots, and I couldn’t visualize the map that would show how all of them relate to one another — but at least I know where to turn if ever I need to explain how the Ruth clan, German-American, largely Catholic, got started in the lightning-rod business in Baltimore in the 19th century. Much of the city was squalid back then, and most of the time the Ruths managed to live just an inch outside the worst of it. “Working-class,” Leavy calls their circumstances. “Lower-middle-class,” one could argue: George Sr. and his brother owned a business that they “advertised prolifically.”
Did someone say “advertise”? The boom in the ad industry during Ruth’s lifetime is what enabled his career to grow to such spectacular proportions. The budding profession of public relations grew up alongside it. Newspapers abounded and proliferated. In 1927, twelve dailies festooned the newsstands of New York. The man whom Ruth played on radio, and whom others played for him in his ghostwritten newspaper columns, was the invention of interlocking networks of assorted hacks engaged in the business of promoting personalities who could promote consumer products.
Endorsements, royalties, appearance fees, and the like accounted for nearly half of Ruth’s income ($125 million in 2016 dollars) in the 29 years from 1920, his first year with the Yankees, until his death. His longest-running gig of that sort was with an underwear manufacturer. Ruth, who “had been known to eschew underwear, winter and summer,” Leavy reports, “became adept at slipping mentions of his skivvies into routine news coverage.” Christy Walsh taught him well. If The ig Fella were a movie, Walsh, “a devout Catholic and son of Ireland,” whose “slicked-back black hair might have been parted with a nun’s ruler,” would win awards for Best Supporting Actor. “His birthday suit was probably three-piece.”
Leavy writes lovely, lively sentences and, as in her other big baseball biographies, of Sandy Koufax and Mickey Mantle, coordinates her head with her heart. Her research is thorough, and she works the material hard. She knows the score. She likes her subjects sometimes despite it, or comes to like them, or to feel sympathy for them.
“I guess I’m too big and ugly for anyone to come see me,” Ruth told a chum at St. Mary’s when yet another Sunday had passed without any visitors. “Maybe next time.” Later in life,
on those gala evenings when he got all dressed up in a tux with his white silk scarf to greet his public at some banquet or other, daughter Julia recalled, he would stop at the front door to the apartment to allow for a moment’s inspection, asking the women in his life:
“Am I a handsome fella or not?”
Ruth’s impact on baseball could hardly be overstated. He changed forever how the game is played. “The choke hitter was all right,” he said. Note the past tense. “But he couldn’t give you much of a thrill.” The Big Fella includes some big-picture baseball analysis though not much granularity outside a couple of appendixes. There Leavy provides statistical windows into Ruth’s accomplishments on the pitcher’s mound and then in the batter’s box and, throughout his adult life, at the bank. Readers can find plenty of that elsewhere.
Her original contribution is to the chronicle of his life outside the lines. Each chapter of the book is framed by the account of a game, often in a small heartland city, featuring Ruth and Lou Gehrig competing against each other on opposite teams during their barnstorming tour after the Yankees’ epic 1927 season, the year Ruth hit 60 home runs. The device creaks a little, but the music of the writing drowns most of that out.
A woman who as a child was an acquaintance of Ruth’s after he had retired from baseball thought that he had “sad eyes.” In a newspaper review of Babe Comes Home (1927), a silent film (no known copies have survived), the anonymous critic commenting on his performance wrote that
a certain pathos is still there in his eyes, and neither fame nor fortune have given him excessive assurance. His natural gestures are the tentative ones of a child not quite sure that a rebuff is not waiting somewhere. Something is there which never fails to rouse the maternal instinct.
“Except, it seems,” Leavy adds, “in his own mother.”
In time, that early deficit of female attention was succeeded by a glut of it, but it couldn’t correct his “homely mug” or undo his experience of being cast out by his parents when he was still a tyke. To judge from the platitudes and clichés that form the skeleton of most of what he’s on record as having said, Ruth was in some respects a shallow fellow, not much of a thinker. Like anyone, however, he had feelings, which, because he was famous and photographed, he continues to telegraph to posterity. Leavy, too, finds his countenance “glum.” He had an “underappreciated dignity,” she insists. He was a “force of nature,” in the popular cartoon versions of his life; in her telling, what emerges over the 53 years from his birth in the Pigtown neighborhood of Baltimore to his funeral Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue is a remarkable specimen of the self-made man. As Nick Carraway is to Jay Gatsby, Jane Leavy is to Babe Ruth, who represents everything for which I have an unaffected scorn. She persuaded me to cut him some slack.