Authors: Leigh Montville
This book is dedicated to
Jackson Nathaniel Moleux
Born: August 7, 2005
HE GRAND YEAR
for researching Babe Ruth biographies was 1973. Five writers traveled around the country, stopping at retirement homes and suburban neighborhoods to talk to the last old men who remembered their time as teammates or friends of the greatest baseball player who ever lived. Reminiscences of long-ago hijinks and debaucheries were jotted into notebooks, impressions captured on tape recorders before the stories and the storytellers left the flat face of the earth.
The timing was important. Henry Aaron of the Atlanta Braves was on schedule to break the Babe’s biggest record of all, 714 career home runs, in the first months of the 1974 season. The excitement of that moment would also turn the focus to the past, making not only the followers of baseball but the general public remember the outrageous character who had set the record in the first place. Each of the five writers figured he had found an untapped and marketable story.
The Babe had been dead for 25 years, hadn’t swung a bat in almost 40. The previous biographies, including two ghostwritten autobiographies, had woven fable and half-truths around the no-nonsense statistics of the box scores and record books. The feeling was that the real story finally should be told. Get it right. Get it out. Each of the five writers had decided independently on the same course.
It was a shock when each learned he was not alone.
“I was having a very nice lunch with Jumpin’ Joe Dugan,” Kal Wagenheim, the author of
His Life and Legend,
says. “Joe was a teammate and a friend of the Babe. I remember him saying—after he had told some wonderful stories—‘The Babe suddenly seems very popular.’ I asked what he meant. He said, ‘You’re the third guy who’s interviewed me, writing a book about the Babe.’”
“Almost the same thing happened to me,” Ken Sobol, author of
Babe Ruth and the American Dream,
says. “I think it happened to all of us.”
In another version of the deflating moment, New York sportswriter Harold Rosenthal, a friend of Bob Creamer’s, author of
The Legend Comes to Life,
sent a message to Creamer that someone named Kal Wagenheim was writing a Babe Ruth book. Rosenthal didn’t know Wagenheim and wrote, “I know what a Kal is, but what’s a Wagenheim?”
Everyone was stepping on everyone else’s toes. Everyone kept typing.
The strongest figure in the field, beginning to end, was Creamer. He had started first, seven or eight years before everyone else, and carried the most clout. He was a senior editor at
, a tall and erudite man in his early fifties who already had written as-told-to books on New York Yankees star Mickey Mantle, broadcaster Red Barber, and umpire Jocko Conlon. The Ruth book was a personal challenge to see if he could write a biography on his own without the tape-recorded aid of the subject. His pace had been relaxed, the project added to his weekly chores at
The approach of Aaron toward the record and the rumors of other Ruth books brought a call from the publisher. The relaxed pace was finished.
“My editor, Peter Schwed, asked me how I was doing, and I told him I already had 70,000 words written, long enough to be a book,” Creamer says. “I also told him that at the end of the 70,000 words, the Babe was 19 years old and just starting to play for the Red Sox. Peter told me to get moving. I promised I would be finished by the fall, the date of the autumnal equinox.”
None of the other writers was a sportswriter. Wagenheim had been a 37-year-old stringer for the
New York Times,
writing out of San Juan, Puerto Rico, when the plane carrying Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Roberto Clemente and relief supplies for earthquake victims in Nicaragua crashed while leaving the San Juan airport on New Year’s Eve in 1972. He covered the immediate story of Clemente’s death for the
and in the aftermath was contacted to write a book. His hurried effort,
, was a best-seller. His publisher, pleased with the success, asked him to try another baseball biography. Wagenheim picked the Babe as his subject.
Ken Sobol was a writer for the
His agent called him, suggesting a Ruth book. Robert Smith, 69, was a novelist, but also gravitated toward baseball nonfiction. Reviewers had called his 1948 book
the first true history of the game.
The fifth writer, Marshall Smelser, was an academic. He was a historian, a member of the faculty at the University of Notre Dame. His most recent book was
The Winning of Independence,
the tale of the American Revolution. Following baseball was one of his many hobbies—a large picture of the Babe had graced his office door for years. He decided to merge vocation and avocation to write “not a book for baseball people,” but “a baseball book for people.” The title was
The Life That Ruth Built
The five contenders followed separate but often overlapping tracks. Smith did little face-to-face interviewing, writing a book with a larger scope—a history of the period with the Babe’s life serving mostly as touchstone and timeline. The other writers contacted teammates, family, friends of the Babe. Smelser sent a mimeographed set of questions to the former Yankees teammates of Ruth who were still alive. Sobol, looking for some negative voices, found them in the wives of former teammates. Creamer, after a lot of work, finally convinced former pitcher Waite Hoyt, Ruth’s teammate on both the Yankees and Red Sox, to talk for three days in Florida about the Babe. Wagenheim found great help from former sportswriters who had covered the Yankees. Everyone rolled through miles of microfilm in his local library.
Four of the books appeared in the immediate glow of Aaron’s achievement on April 8, 1974, his 715th career home run, off Al Downing at Atlanta’s Fulton County Coliseum. Creamer’s 443-page effort was the acknowledged winner. Its publication was preceded by a three-part series of excerpts in
, and the magazine’s reviewer called it “the best biography ever written about an American sports figure.”
The books by Wagenheim, Sobol, and Smith, each of them solid and taking a different tack on the Babe’s life, were mostly lost or disregarded in the backwash of the praise for Creamer’s biography. In a few cases, one or two of the other works were compared to Creamer’s effort, sometimes favorably, often not, but mostly the books weren’t reviewed at all.
Smelser’s biography did not appear until 1975. It was, as promised, a fat and scholarly book, 592 pages filled with footnotes. It was mostly well reviewed, but the marketplace moment had passed. Oddly, the book became a favorite of “baseball people,” but not “people.” Too many writers had tackled the same subject at the same time.
“It was all an education about the publishing industry,” Wagenheim, who never has written another sports book, says. “In the middle of everything, you had Watergate and all the books that came out of that. I remember calling my publishers after I learned that other books were being written about the Babe. I was thinking they would arrange some big public relations campaign. What they did—immediately—was cut back the press run.”
None of the books, not even Creamer’s, made the best-seller lists.
More than 30 years have passed since this biographical rush in 1974. The images of
breaking the record now seem dated: the uniforms just not right, the hairstyles odd, the film of the moment grainy and amateurish when played on a high-definition screen. Aaron’s feat has been assimilated into the history of the game with the same quiet grace with which it was accomplished.
The Babe remains remarkably vibrant. He probably is even more popular now than he was when the five books were published. The long-ball approach to baseball that he single-handedly brought to the sport now dominates it. The parks are built for home runs. The players are built for home runs. A cavalcade of home runs is shown every night on ESPN’s
baseballs hitting off foul poles and facades, landing in the Pacific Ocean, dropping into packed crowds of spectators who spill their $7 beers and lose their designer team caps in happy pursuit.
Threaded through all of this, however, are the drumbeat questions about steroids, about what is real and what isn’t, about cheating. The biggest names, the record breakers like Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds, are surrounded by suspicion. Were their feats concocted in laboratories as much as performed on the diamond? Who took what, and when? What exactly was “the clear”? A skepticism, a lack of full acceptance, taints their accomplishments. At the least, these were men who used as much legal modern science as possible to enable them to hit a baseball a long way. They weren’t walk-off-the-street human beings. At the worst, they cheated, injecting and ingesting illegal substances to make their bodies stronger.
The complications of it all—and the complications certain to arrive in the future with genetic engineering and other medical advances and God knows what—make a look back at Babe Ruth ever more inviting. Steroids hadn’t been invented when he did what he did. Beer and scotch and hot dogs were his nutritional supplements of choice! He is seen as a big and natural man who did big things that are part of our culture now, each passing year oddly making their distant glow a little brighter. The Babe never sat in front of a congressional hearing trying to explain himself! He sat in front of magistrates, describing why yet another car flipped while he was behind the wheel on yet another rainy night!
This book is an attempt to tell the story again for the
generation, to bring back the supposed-to-be-uncomplicated in the time of the complicated. The approach is not so much to tear down the myths that grew around George Herman Ruth as to explain how and why they developed in the time in which he lived. Why did an entire country fall in love, go gaga over him? Why was this one man so good, so much better than his contemporaries? That is a question accusingly asked in our time of steroids, and it can be asked about the Babe too. The answers are surprising and attack the well-constructed image of him as the totally self-indulgent fatso.
The authors of the 1974 biographies have been very kind. The old men they found across the country are all dead now, but they still talk in the research that these writers accumulated. Robert Creamer provided six boxes of material from
Babe: The Legend Comes to Life.
Kal Wagenheim provided tapes that he made with a bulky, first-generation recorder. Marshall Smelser, who died a year after the publication of
The Game That Ruth Built
, left all of his materials to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, which also supplied tapes from other researchers. Ken Sobol wanted to provide words but, alas, said, “I’ve moved 17 times since that book. I have no idea where everything went.”
Another wonderful book,
No Cheering in the Press Box
by Jerome Holtzman, also appeared in 1974. It is a collection of oral-history interviews of sportswriters from the twenties and thirties, men who dealt often with Ruth. Holtzman, now the historian for Major League Baseball, noted in his opening that the interviews were conducted over a three-year period and totaled over 900,000 words of transcript, of which approximately 10 percent were used in the book. Did he still have those original transcripts? Yes, he did. They arrived in a large cardboard UPS box. Again, dead men talked, telling colorful tales.
Holtzman, an authority on baseball literature, says that 27 books have been written on Ruth, the most for anyone who played the game. (Jackie Robinson is second at 25.) Many of those books have been written since 1974, notably
My Dad, The Babe
Young Babe Ruth
Babe Ruth and the 1918 Red Sox
, and have further filled out the picture of the man. In addition, numerous scholarly papers and articles have been written about the Babe, especially by members of SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research. A symposium on his life and career was held at Hofstra University in 1995 on the 100th anniversary of his birth.
It is from atop this mountain of information—plus interviews, side trips, phone calls, Google-found Web sites, and the requisite ancient newspaper stories—that the typing begins again (on a computer keyboard). The job is an honor. Babe Ruth’s story belongs to all of us.