New Biography Chronicles Ruth in October 1927, Before His Fall
Biographies of famous people can be exhaustive, and exhausting. Legends are especially hard to wrestle into an easily digestible form, and no legend looms larger over baseball than that of George Herman “Babe” Ruth. Up until now, I’ve been content to let the countless biographies of the Babe pass me by, because I already knew the legend: orphan kid writes his own ticket out of poverty to become baseball royalty, and then declines due to age and encroaching cancer. I thought I knew the story, but I’ve been proven wrong by Jane Leavy.
The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created takes the Walk Hard biography format (“Dewey Cox has to lean against that wall and think about his entire life”) and runs with it with a level of success that I didn’t anticipate when I started. Leavy, author of two previous and masterful baseball bios on Sandy Koufax and Mickey Mantle, cohesively weaves the many threads of Ruth’s life into a narrative while also telling the story of his October 1927 barnstorming tour with fellow Yankee great Lou Gehrig. Coming off a legendary season (the ’27 Yankees are still the gold standard by which modern behemoths are measured), Ruth sits on top of the world. He seemingly has so much more to look forward to. Leavy shows, however, that this was Ruth’s high point; everything that came after would be anti-climax.
Leavy’s not interested in drowning the reader in stats or the legendary, albeit legendarily embellished, tales of Ruth’s home-run feats. Instead, she looks to the beginning of Ruth’s journey when, as a young child, his very much still-alive parents left him in the care of a Catholic orphanage. How incorrigible must a kid be to be dumped off at the orphanage at the age of seven? How does that affect his outlook on life, and his desire to never return to such a condition? Leavy demonstrates that, to understand why the Babe became “the Babe,” you have to first understand that abandonment at a tender age, and the damage that it caused.
Throughout the book, Leavy uses the present of October 1927, and the barnstorming tour, to put Ruth’s past and future into context. We get a deep dive into the media world of the 1920s and how it was tailor-made for an outsized personality like Ruth, and even a discussion of chickens bred to produce record-breaking amounts of eggs. We see Ruth evolve from a great pitcher to an even better home-run hitter, and we get the tragedy of his home life and unsuccessful first marriage.
When Leavy starts to unravel how the Babe’s story will end, with the indignity of being kept out of the discussion to manage his beloved Yanks, and the eventual cancer that ends his life at fifty-three, it puts the tour of ’27 in that much more perspective. Leavy writes that she believes that the month of October in that year was Babe Ruth’s happiest; it’s hard to argue against her.
I grew up loving baseball, and I wanted to know more about Babe Ruth at the time. The 1992 biopic starring John Goodman put an end to my curiosity. What a shame that Leavy’s book wasn’t around yet to change my mind, because I can see now what a multilayered, tragic figure that Ruth was. The world bestowed greatness upon him, and then a great fall. It’s hard not to see the Greek tragedy in all of that.