Does the world need another biography of Babe Ruth (1895-1948)? If it’s this one, then the answer is an emphatic yes.
The ever excellent Leavy (The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood, 2010, etc.) brings her considerable depth of knowledge of sports history to her latest project. She also brings considerable empathy for a man who, though notably boorish, at least made an effort to be civilized. Ruth had reason not to be influenced by the world’s niceties. After all, as Leavy writes, he was only 7 when his parents sent him to St. Mary’s Industrial School for Orphans, Delinquent, Incorrigible, and Wayward Boys on the outskirts of Baltimore. As an adult, he was “six foot two and 215 pounds when he was in trim and made everyone else in uniform look like the boys who later played in youth leagues named for him.” He was also decidedly unsubtle: He smashed and hurled and fielded balls with a giant’s force, and he “taught America to think big—expect big.” Much of the narrative is a fine you-are-there reconstruction of Ruth’s big moments, including the 1927 race in which he smacked 60 home runs, led a Yankees four-game sweep of the World Series, and then went off barnstorming with friend and teammate Lou Gehrig. There’s tragic inevitability aplenty in that friendship, but Ruth’s end in particular, a terrible death to cancer, is particularly jarring. Fans of the latter-day Yankees should wince, too, at Ruth’s excoriation of the designated hitter. After another World Series sweep in 1929, Ruth “was back to offering opinions on things he knew about, expressing his disdain for a proposal to add a tenth hitter to the batting order to hit for the pitcher. He said it would take all the strategy out of the game.” A skilled strategist and nearly peerless player, Ruth proves himself worthy of, yes, yet another biography, this one warts-and-all but still admiring.
Sparkling, exemplary sports biography, shedding new light on a storied figure in baseball history.