The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth
by Leigh Montville
Published by Doubleday
390 pages, 2005
Wide Strokes for Ruth
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan
While Barry Bonds and his home-run hitting brethren have followed the "better living through science" route to fame, Babe Ruth did things the old-fashioned way: booze, babes, and BAM! It seems every time a contemporary baseballist threatens to bypass Ruth's 714 home runs, someone comes out with a new book in an attempt to a) reacquaint the public with the Bambino (for the historically-minded of us); or b) try to make a quick buck (for the cynical). When Henry Aaron hit #715 in 1974, for example, four such volumes hit the stores in the space of a year.
(Coincidentally, or not, the tradition has continued with Aaron as the focus of a new book by Mark Stewart and Mike Kennedy: Hammerin' Hank: How the Media Made Henry Aaron, Lyons Press.)
After 32 years, Montville, whose thoughtful 2004 Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Hero, continues the trend with The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth. Like the Williams book, Montville stays away from earlier biographies which focused mostly on the ballplayers' life on the field. This new look at an old icon is neither outrageously statistical, bogged down by numbers and detail, nor scholarly, bogged down by references, and as such is a welcome middle-of-the-road offering.
The author, a former senior writer for Sports Illustrated, makes no bones about it when he states that this particular Babe book is meant for the ESPN generation while he marvels at the discretion used by the sportswriters of Ruth's era. Where adulatory volumes of previous generations would never even imply the extracurricular activities of its heroes, Montville casts them in muted tones. "The Babe was an ultimate test in writing and reporting," he notes. "What to leave in? What to leave out? His pleasure-dominated life constantly put him in questionable situations. Was it news that he was drunk again late at night? Was it news that he had been with one, two, three women who were not his wife?"
This was not material for the paper. Should it have been? The curtain of good taste covered the situation The writers pounded away with their similes and allusions, constructed their grand rococo word sculptures, truly florid and inventive stuff. They worked within their limits.
Montville posits that New York was, in fact, the only city in which George Herman Ruth could truly have morphed into The Babe, the poster boy for a post-World War I generation eager to start living big again. Boston, where he began his big league career, was full of loyal, even rabid, admirers, but woefully lacking in the kind of buzz that helped secure Ruth's reputation.
Montville admits his book must be read through a shroud of fog. Many details of Ruth's early life will always remain a mystery: his actual date of birth (there's a year's discrepancy which the author frequently tosses out: He was "xx" years old, but thought he was "xx+1". It gets a bit annoying after the third or fourth time); the circumstances surrounding his placement at the St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys in Baltimore; his ethnic heritage, his first marriage. As the reader moves along the Ruth continuum, the facts are less questionable.
Anyone who has read about The Babe knows about his frequent run-ins with Yankees management and his subsequent promises to reform. One interesting chapter credits one of his frequent rehabilitations to Artie McGovern, a relatively unheralded spear carrier and a prototype fitness guru who virtually whipped the ballplayer into the best shape of his career.
Other bios focus on certain details of Ruth's career, such as his up and down relationship with teammate Lou Gehrig. Montville gives nods to such events, but does not overly dwell on them, leaving them for the scholars and nitpickers. Instead, he concentrates on wide strokes, which are quite adequate, even for such a figure. | June 2006
Ron Kaplan is the sports editor for the New Jersey Jewish News and a contributing editor to January Magazine.