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‘The Big Fella’: The story of Babe Ruth and the celebrity industry - and America - he helped create

Jane Leavy's "The Big Fella" not only gives us a masterful bio of Babe Ruth, with plenty of new information; it also gives us a history of the early-20th-century celebrity industry, which, Leavy persuasively argues, Ruth all but created.

Jane Leavy, author of "The Big Fella."
Jane Leavy, author of "The Big Fella."Read moreSidney Takab (custom credit)

The Big Fella

Babe Ruth and the World He Created

By Jane Leavy Harper Collins. 656 pp. $32.50

Reviewed by Jackie Schifalacqua Atkins

In The Big Fella, Jane Leavy, former Washington Post sportswriter, goes a long way toward filling in many of the blanks in the story of George Herman “Babe” Ruth, and in the myths surrounding his exceptional talent. She argues persuasively that this slugger nonpareil helped create the modern celebrity industry. She also manages to write one of the best documentaries of America’s first decades of world domination. At well over 600 pages, The Big Fella, beyond being the premiere biography about the King of Crash, is a book for all history buffs, not just fans of the New York Yankees, baseball, or sports in general.

Myth One: The Name. Few American names generate as much recognition as Babe Ruth. Those who don’t already know him as a ballplayer extraordinaire might think he’s the name on the candy bar, which he isn’t.

Myth Two: The Origin Story. Babe Ruth was not an orphan. Born 1895 into a lower-middle-class German Catholic family in the gritty Baltimore of the times, he started his story as many of his peers did: unremarkable and predictable. He would have faced a short life living hand to mouth, but he was saved by an extraordinary chain of events. His father threw his mother out of the house for canoodling with a bartender, and young Ruth, only 7, was dropped off at St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys. There, he learned to play the game. “Baseball was to Catholics as basketball is to Blacks,” Leavy tells us, and who’s to argue?

So if he was an “orphan,” he was one whose parents were still alive. Ruth did not leave St Mary’s until he signed a contract with the Baltimore Orioles, promptly getting traded to the Boston Red Sox as a pitcher. After playing in three victorious World Series with the Sox, two of them as a pitcher, he moved on to the Yankees. The rest is history.

Baseball aficionados know his stats: 714 home runs, lifetime batting average .342. To these astonishing feats, add a similarly astonishing (if brief) record as a pitcher: 94-46 career record, 35 complete games in 1917, 29⅔ consecutive scoreless innings in the World Series. All are precisely cataloged by Leavy in her appendices.

But The Big Fella pitches a curveball, offering a social and popular-culture history of the Roaring Twenties and Ruth’s place in them. This vivid early-century Americana, enfolding her argument about Ruth and celebrity, is an inside-the-park home run. It’s also a fun read for the lost souls who don’t know or care to know about baseball.

Leavy introduces us to the prototype of the modern agent, Christy Walsh, truly the luckiest man in the world when the Sultan of Swat asked him to help augment his income with exhibitions of his hitting skills. How could this lawyer and former Hollywood press agent not succeed in selling the Big Bambino to eager fans? Walsh did not use Ruth’s talents to build a brand, as is done now; he merely played the shill, selling Ruth to enterprising promoters. As long as Ruth could make it around the bases after a homer, Walsh had it made.

Walsh also played the darker side of the modern flack, keeping bad-boy Ruth’s name out of damaging headlines. Sports writers cooperated with Walsh in suppressing the dirt because they succumbed to the power and romance of “The Boy who never grew up.” Walsh involved himself with every aspect of Ruth’s personal life, even introducing him to Claire Merritt Hodgson, a married woman with whom Ruth had a relationship for six years before they married (his second) in 1929.

After introducing Walsh, The Big Fella becomes a mini-history of agency and public relations in sports, sports as big business, and how U.S. popular culture turned into a media-based platform for consumerism.

In the meantime, the Bambino keeps circling the bases. Not a dimension, geographic location, weather report, archival detail, or physical characteristic, it seems, is left out of Ruth’s barnstorming days: things as silly as an egg-eating contest, the Babe’s role in popularizing the meal of ham and eggs, or his habit of eating puffed cereals for breakfast. Everything is detailed with Leavy’s fine eye for irony and wicked sense of humor. Fun reading.

A more simpatico side of Babe also emerges, particularly his feeling for the less fortunate, even a nascent sense of social justice. Leavy documents his many visits to orphanages. When he played exhibition games with players from the Negro Leagues, Ruth insisted that every player involved, black or white, receive the same pay.

She doesn’t leave out the seamier side of Ruth’s personality, either. You have to say: Having spent eight years dealing with every intimate detail of his life, Leavy can now say she spent more quality time with Ruth than any of his wives or daughters did.

Now for Myth Three: The Hero. George Herman Ruth Jr., “The Babe,” will probably always be a hero in the worlds of sports and celebrity. But as Jane Leavy makes clear in The Big Fella, at heart he remained a jock who never grew up. He didn’t need to. But America did grow, and his legend with it.

Jackie Schifalacqua Atkins is a retired jockey and current screenwriter living in Cape May.