Review: The Big Fella

the big fella

The Big FellaJane Leavy. New York: HarperCollins, 2018.

Summary: A biography of Babe Ruth, with the narrative of his life connected with a day by day account of a barnstorming tour of the country after his home run record-breaking 1927 season.

He was big in so many ways. He could probably have been a Hall of Fame pitcher. He not only held one season and lifetime home run records for decades, but his day in, day out hitting and slugging percentages and many other statistics place him at the very top of all time hitters. He was physically big, in height and girth, in hands. He not only hit a lot of home runs, but hit with a much heavier bat than most players used, and with a swing studied for its efficiency. He had huge appetites, for food, for women, for clothes, for adulation. He not only negotiated record salaries (and Leavy suggests he could have received more) but earned record amounts on appearances and endorsements.

Leavy tells this whole story from the loveless marriage of his parents that ended in divorce, with George, Jr. at St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, and later St. James home, where he met Brother Matthias, who was probably the closest thing he really had to a father, and who taught him baseball. It is even thought that Babe modeled his swing on Brother Matthias. Leavy traces his career from the minors, his time in Boston and transformation from a pitcher to a hitter who played every day, his trade to New York.

She shows us a Ruth who tried to have a different life in his first marriage to Helen, yet whose appetites led to carousing and many women, and an increasingly distant relationship with Helen, who spent more and more time hospitalized or as an invalid, while Babe developed an extra-marital relationship with Claire who he married after Helen’s death.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the book was the role Christy Walsh played in making Ruth “big.” Long before agents became commonplace, Walsh worked tirelessly with Ruth to get him to amend his ways enough to stay out of trouble, play the game, endorse products, and make a fortune on post-season appearances. Walsh was the one who understood, in a way Ruth never quite grasped, how much Ruth was worth to the Yankees, and the limited time he had to capitalize on it.

Ruth, having not found love in his family, seems to never have been content with a family. He tried to keep playing when his body no longer could sustain it. Traded by the Yankees back to Boston, he hoped to manage a team, but was never given a chance. He got involved in a movie project that produced an inferior “B” movie. Then the cancer came. Ruth’s last years were hard and the “big fella” was reduced to 150 pounds by his tottering farewell appearance at an Old-Timers game at Yankee Stadium. A few months later, he was dead.

Leavy uses the device of a 21 day barnstorming tour across the country with Lou Gehrig following his 1927 season, the peak of his career. Each chapter covers one day of the tour and advances Leavy’s narrative of his life. The tour captures in miniature the story of his life from the game to the crowds including the kids, the after hours, and the adulation.

This was the one aspect of the book about which I was ambivalent. It captured an aspect of Babe’s life often overlooked in the accounts. But it also seemed distracting and one had to pay attention to when Leavy was writing about the tour, or moving forward the larger narrative of his life. It was an interesting device, but I’m not sure it worked for me.

However, Leavy gives us a portrait of both the power and pathos that were part of the Babe’s story. She helped me realize how extensive his accomplishments were long before today’s technology enhanced game, and how his presence changed the game. Christy Walsh anticipated the role agents would have in looking out for players’ interests, changing a game where the owners held all the power. It also raises the fascinating question of whether any of this would happen without the mentoring of Brother Matthias. One thing was sure. Ruth never forgot. And perhaps neither should we.