The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created.
The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created By Jane Leavy
Reviewed by Zach Sanzone, Spitball Magazine
I have to admit that I rolled my eyes when I heard another Babe Ruth biography was being published this year. What could anyone possibly add to Ruth’s story that Robert Creamer, Leigh Montville, and many other baseball writers didn’t already cover? I started Jane Leavy’s book The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created with restrained optimism, hoping that her book wouldn’t be a retelling of the same old stories that baseball fans already know. Not only did I finish Leavy’s latest book feeling entirely satisfied about her contribution to Babe Ruth’s legacy, but I was more impressed by how she set a new standard for research.
Leavy begins in Baltimore where Ruth was born to neglectful parents who sent him off to St. Mary’s Industrial School for Orphaned, Delinquent, Incorrigible and Wayward Boys at the age of seven, which he interpreted as an outright rejection by his parents. Leavy employs this theme of abandonment and the need to always have company throughout her book. This theme contextualizes why Ruth struggled to stay faithful his wives, as well as from where his appetite for steaks, beer, and the New York City nightlife came.
Leavy delves deeply into the rumors that Ruth descended from black ancestry without wading into sensationalism, reinforcing Leavy’s impeccable research skills and professional writing. While Ruth’s other biographers have adequately explored his rumored black lineage themselves, Leavy masterfully presents additional information in an unbiased, strongly detailed, and thorough review of the circumstantial evidence and credible information that allows readers to draw their own conclusions about Ruth’s lineage. In addition to examining other aspects of Ruth’s life including his sale to the New York Yankees, his early days as a Red Sox pitcher, his feud with Lou Gehrig, and the last three home runs of his career that he hit in one game as a member of the Boston Braves in 1935, readers will also appreciate Leavy’s account of how Ruth’s first wife, Helen, died in a house fire in Watertown, MA several years after their estrangement. While most Ruth scholars believe that her death was an accidental tragedy, Leavy explores the contradicting details surrounding her death, including the (unlikely) idea that Ruth may have played a direct role in her death, as suggested by Helen’s nieces.
It is difficult to pick what the biography’s greatest strength is, but I’d say that Leavy’s decision to focus on the world around the Ruth and baseball is what makes this book not only stand out from other baseball biographies, but from biographies in general. Ruth hit homers and won World Series for the Yankees during the roaring 1920s when people defied prohibition (Ruth included), danced away to the jazz music that would set the standard for the musical genre, and saw the devastating effects of The Great Depression on American life. Leavy incorporates this history into her biography while avoiding distracting tangents. I wish more biographies would include this kind of contextualizing history. It makes the subject and their relation to the outside more interesting world while reinforcing key knowledge about 20thcentury American History that people should know.
One of the major traps that writers fall into when writing a baseball biography is how readers can quickly get lost in the specific details of what happens on the field. I love baseball, but even I get confused when a baseball writer spends too much time trying to describe the actions on the field such as who slid into what base, what catcher caught a pop up, or what pitcher threw five shutout innings. Instead of giving readers a play-by-play of Ruth’s most noteworthy games, Leavy discusses the causes and effects of well-known achievements on the field. For example, when Leavy explores whether Ruth called his shot against the Chicago Cubs’ Charlie Root in the 1932 World Series, she does not give us a detailed description of the event as it unfolded as much as she talks about it in a way that it connects to other aspects of his life, giving readers a well-rounded and vivid impression of who The Great Bambino really was, as she did with her previous Sandy Koufax, and Mickey Mantle biographies.
There is so much more that this review could discuss about Leavy’s masterful biography of Babe Ruth. Leavy’s reputation as a methodic researcher was already well established before she began writing her biography of Babe Ruth. Her ability to present original and remarkable research about men who need no introduction is an amazing feat in itself. Leavy’s The Big Fella reinvents her own research methods that set a new standard for journalism. The sources Leavy read and cited throughout the book makes it all but impervious to criticism. As is if was not enough to provide readers with a comprehensive bibliography of her sources, she adds roughly sixty pages worth of additional notes and materials that reinforce the integrity of her scholarship.
Baseball biographers hoping to make their own mark in the literary world should look to The Big Fella to ensure they are meeting only the finest standards of research and writing.
Reviewed by Zach Sanzone, Spitball Magazine