By Ralph Peluso, Literary Editor
A crowd of over 150 anxious baseball fans, literary enthusiasts and friends gathered at Washington D.C.’s popular bookstore, Politics and Prose, on Sunday, November 4, 2018. The New York Times best- selling author and former Washington Post writer, Jane Leavy, was on the agenda to introduce her recently released biography, The Big Fella – Babe Ruth and the World He Created.
Leavy opened the reading by admitting she reluctantly tackled George Herman Ruth, a man and myth who had already been written about over and over again. “Eight years it took me to complete this project. I can honestly say I hold the record of consecutive nights spent with ‘the Babe’.”
She further explained she had advantages over previous biographers, “The biggest change in writing this Ruth biography is the availability of information in the digital world. Records, documents and people once forgotten, now alive.”
The author was open and enthusiastic in what she discovered in her research.
Ruth was the first media superstar, but his destiny may have been very different. He may have benefited by being in the right place at the right time.
Ruth frequently said that as a child he never felt full. Maybe it was the limited food at St. Mary’s but more likely it was an emotional starvation developed during his early developmental years, when the lack of any real family connections was his steady diet.
The tales of Ruth’s excesses, crudeness, and of course, his remarkable baseball achievements are well documented, but the elephant in the room is one of a man-child thrown out into the cold world simply because he could pitch a baseball. A teenager haunted by the ghosts of abandonment, Ruth craved acceptance. His eager smile and giving nature blended perfectly with the changing times of communication. The cameras loved him. Celebrity and adoring fans became his surrogate family.
Leavy explained, “Ruth knew in public how to be audacious and he knew how to be alone. He was the model for celebrity: talent, aura and a broad smile. Ruth was not only famous; he wanted to be famous.”
Leavy deftly handled very intriguing questions about Ruth, including the dichotomous relationship with his two daughters. “Dorothy always felt the outcast. She rebelled regularly. Dorothy would have probably thrown herself in a coal bin if asked to dress up,” Leavy quipped. “Julia on the other hand unconditionally loved the Babe. And, she still carries that love today.” Julie Ruth Stevens is over 100.
And then came the most common question: How would Ruth do if he played today? “Ruth swung a 54 ounce bat. He was a man with remarkable eye sight and coordination. He always said he could have hit .600 if he choked up and hit to left. Her unstated conclusion was quite clear to the audience.
This book is insightful, a good read, and brings new perspective to Ruth. It is filled with piles of details and information available only because of the new information age.
As a backdrop to her narrative, Leavy uses the post-1927 World Series barnstorming tour. The World Series champs gradually made their way across the country, playing day after day in sold-out ballparks of middle-American towns and cities before enthusiastic star-struck crowds. Nearly a quarter of a million fans in 18 states came out to see the Babe shine.
The afternoon talk of baseball and reminiscinces concluded beautifully when a 94-year old woman spoke up from the small audience and shared her early experience at Yankee Stadium that occurred in 1928. Her dad took her to her first professional baseball game. Their seats were in the first row of the field boxes, located very close to the home team’s dugout. She spotted Ruth sauntering in from the outfield. Ruth always had a soft spot for children. He was especially a sucker for a pretty face. He stopped at the rail after he spotted her waving. “Ruth said hi to me. And then…then he touched my cheek. Right here. (She pointed to the spot on her beaming face) I will never forgot that moment.”
That is Ruth, forever memorable.