Book Review: The Big Fella, Babe Ruth and the World He Created

Writing a biography on Babe Ruth isn’t something new. People have been writing about Babe since he smashed his way into the League. There are a plethora of Ruth biographies not including his own autobiography, the autobiographies of his sister and his two daughters. In other words, there is not shortage of opinions and stories about Babe.

Yet still, the Babe is a fascinating person. His life could be pulled from the pages of 2019 gossip column, yet he lived it during the 1920s, where the life he lived was unheard of. The author of the newest Babe Ruth biography, Jane Leavy, tries to tell the story in a fresh, new way. Anytime I read of a biographer trying to be fresh and new, I immediately get nervous.

Leavy is attempting to tell the story of Ruth through the eyes of the celebrity status he created. He was the biggest star in the world and he loved the celebrity. His manger, Christy Walsh was the first agent of his kind. He took control of his finances, making it so the Babe safely weathered the Great Depression and also controlling his press, he was a public relations department to himself. He sent Babe and Lou Gehrig around the country on barn storming tours. They played exhibition games, held chickens and made lots of money for it on their off season. This was the first time a player used his celebrity this way and it was met with consternation by the decision makers in professional baseball.

Leavy’s most interesting discussion was her look at Babe’s relationship with the Negro League and his black supporters, which were plenty. She talks about how there were constant rumors that Babe was actually a mulatto. There is no evidence of this, but in the 1920s intellectuals and commentators tried to make sense of the freak-of-nature Babe was by saying he was part “negro”. The black fans were just as eager to claim him as their own.

There is a story retold in this book of the 1930s, after Babe’s retirement, when he hit against Satchel Paige, the greatest pitcher of the Negro Leagues. On the first throw by the great Paige, Babe hit a home run. Paige followed him around the bases and asked him to sign the retrieved ball for him. That is is the kind of story I picked up the book for. But that is all we got, 4 sentence of Babe Ruth against Satchel Paige.

Leavy’s look at his celebrity and “the world he created” was interesting. But she left out most of his actual baseball history.

Her organization of the book was atrocious. If I wasn’t so interested in the subject matter, this book never would have been read past 100 pages. She is constantly flipping about in the time line of the Babe’s life. It is impossible to keep it all straight. Biographies are meant to be simple in their organization, yet this one is anything but simple, and it was maddening.

Though of course she mentions and discusses the Babe’s personal life, it isn’t discussed with nearly the intensity as his relationship with Walsh or his summer barn storming. I did feel like you got to know the Babe a little better, but a reader also felt like there was more to tell.

Leavy was trying something new. It didn’t work.

I would not recommend this book unless you are very patient or very interested in the development of PR around athletes. An agent or those working for athletes may enjoy this book much more than a simple sports or baseball fan would. No time is spent talking about Ruth in the throes of Murderer’s Row. Very little time is spent on the World Series or the records he set. Except for Lou Gehrig, there is no discussion on his relationship with his teammates on the greatest baseball team of all time.

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