Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Jane Leavy's The Big Fella

I read Jane Leavy's new biography The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created, which takes the perspective of how the Babe changed professional athletes. More to the point, his personal manager Christy Walsh did so for him. The book focuses far more on the barnstorming he did (often with Lou Gehrig) and the many endorsements he did than on his regular play and salary. Walsh managed his money well, forcing him to save, and organizing all the barnstorming. Importantly, Walsh did not negotiate with the teams, which meant he was not quite the modern agent, but a precursor. The Babe made so much of his money outside the regular season.

Ruth's well known larger-than-life life comes out plainly. It's hard not to given how much he craved the spotlight, a product of his youth as one of many in a Catholic boarding school, where his parents dumped him. He didn't know how to be alone. He did just about everything to excess, which included both meanness (cheating all the time) and kindness (he loved children and spent tons of time with them). His inner thoughts are unknown to everyone. Certainly he didn't write them down, and it was not an era for introspection. Leavy was thorough in criss crossing the country to find everyone and every archive that offered clues.

Of particular interest are the rumors about how he might be partially African American because of his facial features and darker complexion (opposing players would even scream the N-word at him, which I didn't know). Leavy suggests this is doubtful, but clearly he went out of his way to play Negro League teams when barnstorming, and the African American community loved him.

If you like baseball, you will like this book. For the sabermetric minded, she even has an appendix discussing how people have worked to translate his performance into modern statistics.


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