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.

Review: The Last Boy

The Last Boy

The Last BoyJane Leavy. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.

Summary: A biography of the life of Mickey Mantle, covering his family roots, baseball career, and post-career life, including his injuries, alcoholism, affairs, and something of a redemption at the end of his life.

Every summer, I read at least one baseball book, and so when I received this book as a gift earlier this year, I knew what my book would be this year, not that I would need much persuading. Mickey Mantle was one of my childhood heroes, even though, as an Indians fan, he played for the hated Yankees. We all followed the rivalry between him and Roger Maris to see if either could break Ruth’s record of 60 home runs. We all tried to switch hit when we played baseball, something most of us did very badly. We debated, as this book explores, whether Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays was the better player.

I was also pleased to see this was written by Jane Leavy. I had thoroughly enjoyed her biography of another childhood hero, Sandy Koufax. Mantle, it turns out was a far more complicated person, a mix of the great and the tragic and the tawdry wrapped into a single individual.

She tells Mantle’s story around twenty key dates in his life, which sometimes involves some back and forth between the key date and events prior and following. She begins with his family, and the powerful influence of his father, Mutt, who did not want his son to spend his life in the mines, taught him to bat from both sides, and guided him just long enough for him to get a contract with the Yankees before he died at an early age from the cancer that seemed to run through the family. Long enough to push him to the edge of greatness, but not long enough to help him deal with that greatness.

We learn of Mantle the athlete and his incredible speed and power and the tantalizing “what ifs” of just how great he could have been. In his first season with the Yankees, in 1951, running for a fly ball in the World Series, he caught a cleat in a drain in the outfield left uncovered, and blew out his right knee before there was such a thing as ACL surgery. He was never the same, and part of the story was how he could play at such a high level despite the physical problems that multiplied over the years. Leavy chronicles in detail the home run out of Griffith stadium in 1953 and enlists physicists and witnesses to figure out how far it actually traveled. She even includes analyses of his swings from both sides of the plate, and the near perfect form Mantle had at his best. She recounts his last at bat.

One of the great “what ifs” has to do with how Mantle lived off the field, something sportswriters in the Fifties and Sixties kept hush-hush, at least until a Yankee brawl at the Copacabana. Mantle was a high-functioning alcoholic in these years, at some points even hitting home runs when he wasn’t completely sober. Only in the Sixties, did this begin to tell on his body, combined with his injuries. She also doesn’t shy away from his womanizing and the complicated relationship he and Merlyn Mantle had throughout his life,

After baseball, he was unable to find something to do with his life. He was troubled by thoughts of an early death, which ran in his family. The drinking and affairs continue. He doesn’t listen to the few who try to warn him. “Sudden” Sam McDowell, former Indians fastballer and a reformed alcoholic tried to organize an intervention, only to have it aborted after a “friend” tips off Mantle. He tried and failed at a number of ventures, went into the memorabilia business with one of his lovers, and even was banned from baseball for a period because of an association with an Atlantic City casino, where he was paid simply to appear so guests could say they met Mantle.

It is in this context that Leavy met Mantle in 1983 for an interview that shattered her own image of Mantle. She unfolds this weekend encounter through the course of the book, from his gentlemanly effort to get her a sweater to keep her warm on the golf course, to his drunken efforts to pick her up that end with him slumping over asleep in her lap.

The book ends with Mantle experiencing a sort of redemption. Late in life, he began the work of facing his inner demons, including childhood incidents of sexual abuse that might have influenced his sexual proclivities. With serious liver problems looming, he checks into the Betty Ford Clinic and manages to stay sober for the rest of his life. He makes efforts to reconcile with his sons and make amends with others. He experiences what seems like a genuine death bed conversion as former teammate Bobby Richardson ministers to him.

I’m not sure Mantle really was the last boy. The image in part is one of America losing its illusions in the late Sixties. But the truth is that athletes continue to reach the peak of their physical powers long before they mature as people, and while they can perform on the field, they are unprepared for the hangers-on, the fast lifestyle, and the sudden affluence that comes their way. Like others with power, they often have no one to hold up a mirror to help them see their true selves, no one who will tell them what they do not want to hear. Certainly Mantle bore responsibility for this, and more and more toward the end of his life he acknowledged it. What the “last boy” title fails to capture is that our culture of adulation towards sports heroes still celebrates the physical gifts of youth while failing to affirm the character qualities of maturity that distinguish men and women from boys and girls. Perhaps the most tragic figure in this story is neither Mickey nor his boys, but Mutt, who pushed his boy to succeed, and only realized when he was dying that no one had prepared him to handle success.