Imagine – Babe Ruth, The Bambino himself, slipping around on a pair of ice skates trying to give hockey a shot. I have to smile at that. Apparently, The Babe gave ice hockey a shot during his years with the Red Sox.
The Big Bam, by Leigh Montville, contains a lot of the same old things we’ve come to know and love. Yeah, we all know Babe Ruth was a relentless carouser who loved his beer, women, and franks. We all know he started loosening his belt at an early age and might as well have tried to eat and drink himself out of baseball. Now, I’d like to first point out that Ruth is another great myth about baseball, so those images don’t necessarily match up with the reality the way we expect them to. Hell, one surprising thing Montville argues is that Ruth turning Home Run King didn’t do anything to save baseball after the Black Sox Scandal of 1919. The people, it turned out, didn’t stop lining up outside the gates just because a few Chicago White Sox players decided they were going to cripple the rest of their team in the World Series.
But I want to point out an angle Montville took with The Big Bam which I thought was more interesting than any other. I’m not sure if it was Montville’s intent or not, but what Montville was really writing about in The Big Bam was the rise of an entirely new concept: Babe Ruth was the birth of what is now the modern celebrity. Babe Ruth was the first person to truly become an icon of the country, the first person to have someone manage his relationship with the press and public, the first one who had a public image which was at least somewhat crafted and cultivated, and the first one to ever have to issue a public apology. If you really think about it, Ruth’s PR man, Christy Walsh, is still working his magic in a way. Babe Ruth is a figure f baseball mythology. Not just baseball history, but baseball mythology, something that gives him superhuman abilities and makes him seem larger than life.
In some ways, Ruth WAS larger than life. The way he lived, the way he set records which are shockingly inhuman by today’s standards, and even the way he was sold to the New York Yankees, the latter of which is now being given a little bit of revisionist history to make Harry Frazee look a bit more savvy. Speaking of which, Montville confirms the originally written history that Ruth truly was dealt for a play which, a few years later, was turned into the musical No, No, Nanette. I had heretofore bought into the revisionist story about the Ruth sale, because the idea of a baseball guy making a galactic mistake like that in order to finance a freaking play was just way too absurd. But Montville says it happened, that Frazee’s first love and concern was the theater, and there’s even a documented quote in the book where Frazee says his plays aren’t doing very well.
Montville spends the first few chapters writing a lot about the fog, a metaphor he created in order to describe the fact that we know very little about Ruth’s first few years, before he was sent to the orphanage in Baltimore where he grew up. Instead of de-mystifying and therefore demythologizing Ruth, Montville does something unusual by actually adding another layer of fog. There is apparently just one single, lone picture of Ruth’s mother, and it’s a group photo. The story doesn’t really begin until Ruth is dropped off at the orphanage. Despite a couple of attempts by people to adopt him, his story always wound up back there, and he resided there through most of his childhood, until he was signed to his first baseball contract.
After Ruth gets sold to the Yankees, Montville begins filling up the book with rock star anecdotes and you’ll-never-believe-how-wild-this-guy-was stories. Ruth wasn’t just the first modern celebrity – he may have been the first modern rock star as well. A lot of the stories told in The Big Bam wouldn’t be out of place in the autobiography of Motley Crue or Guns ‘n’ Roses. Ruth crashed his cars an awful lot, saw a lot of women, and ate lots of food. The stories about his appetite for, well, everything are well-known and from the stories told in The Big Bam, his reputation for living large is well-deserved.
In the middle of all the fast, high times, Montville also paints a picture of a tremendous, dominant, and gifted athlete. One of the aspects of Ruthian mythology is the idea that he was a guy who paid no attention to his body and carelessly trashed it. Ruth’s career, though, ran for over 20 years, and people who beat up their bodies the way Ruth is said to have done are usually lucky to make it through only half that time. We are reminded constantly that Ruth, when he was first signed, was a marvelous athlete whose body was pure muscle. And even when he did start letting himself go a little bit, he started getting back in shape after awhile because his career was in danger of flaming out, just like that after a bellyache put him in the hospital. He found the gym of a man named Artie McGovern, who helped him return to baseball shape, and apparently was very serious about his body and the idea of taking things in moderation so he wouldn’t be put out of baseball before his time was up. Most of the insults tilted at Ruth were based more on race – Ruth was a target of racial epithets because he had “black features.” While the flap of The Big Bam claims the book explores the idea of Ruth having a black parent, Montville never actually does this.
Naturally, most of The Big Bam is taken up by The Babe’s adventures as a Yankee. Montville takes more time describing Ruth’s Yankee adventures than he does in any other place. We learn a lot about Ruth’s contracts, how wealthy he really got, how elaborate his spending really was, and even some of his favorite things to do during Spring Training. We’re also told about what his relationship with Lou Gehrig was really like, although Montville doesn’t expound a LOT of detail on just why the two of them eventually grew so distant. While it begins to feel a little repetitive after awhile, Montville regales us with a lot of fun anecdotes about Ruth’s life with the Yankees, and as he writes, he humanizes Ruth by concentrating more on Ruth the person than on Ruth the ballplayer. Even during descriptions of certain World Series games, there is very little buildup and time wasted on the games themselves, even when it comes to The Called Shot and the failed steal which ended the 1926 World Series, sealing victory for the St. Louis Cardinals. I like the fact that the focus is so little on the baseball itself because The Big Bam tells a story about a man, not just a man playing a game. Let’s face it, reliance of descriptions about the action during a ballgame can really slow down the flow of a narrative, so Montville minimizes the problem by writing more about Ruth’s adventures behind the scenes.
The Big Bam ends almost as inauspiciously as it begins. Once Ruth’s stint with the Yankees ends, there’s not much more to the book. One thing I did appreciate was the fact that Montville tells us just why Ruth was so ineffective when he signed with the Boston Braves, with whom he spent less than half a season. His body was starting to take too much of a toll by then. Ironically, around that time, there was a proposal for a player in the lineup who could take the place of a pitcher and be assigned to nothing but hitting – the first time the idea of the designated hitter was floated. I was very satisfied with the writing on Ruth’s time with the Braves. However, his years in retirement go by almost as quickly as his years as a kid. I guess I can grant Montville a pass on that, though, because Ruth really didn’t seem to have a lot going after retirement.
Of all the biographies I’ve read, The Big Bam was the most fun, and most rock star-like. It gives a little bit of the history of the whole concept of celebrity while being extremely entertaining at the same time. If you’re hoping to have the foggier areas of Babe Ruth’s life cleared, though, you’re going to have to wait a lot longer.