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The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created

Review

The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created

Veteran journalist Jane Leavy gave baby boomer fans a couple of excellent bios of the heroes of their youth with SANDY KOUFAX: A Lefty’s Legacy and THE LAST BOY: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood. Both should be considered among the best --- if not the best --- about their respective subjects. What could she possibly do for an encore?

I am happy to report that THE BIG FELLA may be her best work yet. The topic is obviously not as personal to the author; she has been quite frank in her admiration for Mantle (at least until she had the opportunity to actually meet him while working on that book) and Koufax (the most iconic Jewish athlete for her generation), both of whom she had the chance to witness on the diamond. Babe Ruth, on the other hand, preceded her experience by a couple of generations.

"I am happy to report that THE BIG FELLA may be [Leavy's] best work yet.... Leavy deserves all possible credit not just in uncovering these gems, but also in presenting them in a lively and entertaining manner."

What she lacks in that “connection” is more than compensated for by her monumental research. In 1995, I delivered a paper titled “The Books on the Babe,” an overview of several biographies about the Hall of Famer, at Hofstra University during a centennial celebration of Ruth. None of the titles I mentioned --- including Robert Creamer’s seminal BABE: The Legend Comes to Life, which generally has been accepted as the definitive work on the subject --- comes close to THE BIG FELLA.

There are a couple of reasons for this. For one thing, Leavy does not cover much of the action on the field; those details have been done over and over again. She starts off each chapter with coverage of a barnstorming trip that Ruth undertook with Lou Gehrig in 1927. This is her way of explaining the impact that the Bambino had on the country, which did not have a chance to see him play in the handful of Major League cities at the time. She goes into further detail on his off-the-field antics, including his childhood and upbringing --- the topic of much discrepancy over the years --- as well as his “making up for lost time” in indulging his many appetites.

Recall that this was the Roaring Twenties, a time following World War I when the country was letting loose: jazz, flappers, bootleg liquor during a time of Prohibition. And no one was more of a poster boy for that attitude than Babe Ruth, who was the first professional athlete to really capitalize. He engaged what might be considered the first sports agent to negotiate his numerous endorsements and appearances, activities that earned him as much as, if not more than, the salary he received during his peak years with the New York Yankees.

Ruth also might be credited with making the sports section a major part of the many newspapers of the day (major metropolitan areas often had several different papers printing multiple editions during the course of the day), and making those who covered the game superstars in their own right. It might be hard to fathom in this post-paparazzi world, but back in the day, the media rarely reported on Ruth’s domestic life, his affairs and the drinking. Nowadays there might be entire cable channels devoted to his exploits. That’s not to say the press didn’t know about them, but it was a more genteel time.

Another key note to giving THE BIG FELLA a different perspective is the availability of and access to research materials that have improved tremendously since Creamer’s book was published in 1974. Leavy deserves all possible credit not just in uncovering these gems, but also in presenting them in a lively and entertaining manner.

With Mantle, Koufax and now Ruth in her oeuvre, one has to wonder if there’s a fourth legend for Leavy to add to her baseball Mount Rushmore.

Reviewed by Ron Kaplan on October 19, 2018

The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created
by Jane Leavy

  • Publication Date: October 16, 2018
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction, Sports
  • Hardcover: 656 pages
  • Publisher: Harper
  • ISBN-10: 0062380222
  • ISBN-13: 9780062380227