April 22, 2019

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The brilliant Bambino

Biography of MLB's greatest slugger a thorough, thrilling read

The Associated Press files</p><p>Babe Ruth, seen here in 1923 when he played for the New York Yankees, set home run records that stood for decades and remains one of baseball’s defining figures.</p>

The Associated Press files

Babe Ruth, seen here in 1923 when he played for the New York Yankees, set home run records that stood for decades and remains one of baseball’s defining figures.

In the temples of baseball, George Herman Ruth Jr. would stand seemingly indifferent in the batter’s box, as if he were awaiting public transit.

Then, with an energy science would much later prove was genius, Babe Ruth would face the baseball spiralling his way, cock his bat in the perfect blend of sinew, sight and savvy, and, like the clash of a cymbal, send the five-ounce guided missile back to the pitcher so high and so hard he’d endanger low-flying aircraft.

According to American sportswriter Jane Leavy, nobody could bring so much theatre into hitting a baseball as the Babe, the Big Fella, Little George, the Bambino, the Sultan of Swat.

And in the stands they loved him not only because he was arguably the greatest ballplayer who ever lived, but also because it seemed he was much like them — sometimes happy, sometimes sad, sometimes bitchy, sometimes bad. They enjoyed how he lived life to the fullest. They were sure he didn’t think he was better than them, even though to them he most certainly was. They loved him not only for his talent on the field, but also his hedonistic, colourful life off of it.

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In the temples of baseball, George Herman Ruth Jr. would stand seemingly indifferent in the batter’s box, as if he were awaiting public transit.

Then, with an energy science would much later prove was genius, Babe Ruth would face the baseball spiralling his way, cock his bat in the perfect blend of sinew, sight and savvy, and, like the clash of a cymbal, send the five-ounce guided missile back to the pitcher so high and so hard he’d endanger low-flying aircraft.

According to American sportswriter Jane Leavy, nobody could bring so much theatre into hitting a baseball as the Babe, the Big Fella, Little George, the Bambino, the Sultan of Swat.

And in the stands they loved him not only because he was arguably the greatest ballplayer who ever lived, but also because it seemed he was much like them — sometimes happy, sometimes sad, sometimes bitchy, sometimes bad. They enjoyed how he lived life to the fullest. They were sure he didn’t think he was better than them, even though to them he most certainly was. They loved him not only for his talent on the field, but also his hedonistic, colourful life off of it.

They loved him so much they became Babe Ruth vicariously, although the Babe wouldn’t talk like that or even know what vicarious meant.

Leavy’s study of the man who hit 714 career home runs in Major League Baseball (including 60 in one year, the latter a record unbroken until long after his death) playing for three teams — the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Boston Braves — is not just about baseball, but also a psychological portrait: what shaped The Babe and what made him tick in a world that couldn’t get enough of him (he thrived on it) and sucked him dry. It is an exhaustive visit inside the head of Mr. Ruth and a snapshot of his life brilliantly described.

Leavy is a former sports writer for the Washington Post and author of New York Times bestsellers about ballplayers Mickey Mantle and Sandy Koufax. Her research for The Big Fella included 250 interviews.

Ruth retired from baseball in 1935 and died in 1948, but Leavy maintains that more than a century after his major league debut and 70 years after his death in 1948, he "remains the lodestar (the epicentre) of American fame. And that star has never diminished." He still holds numerous Major League Baseball records, including hitting more than 40 home runs in 11 seasons.

In a delightful surprise, the author introduces an unnamed reporter in Winnipeg (yes, Winnipeg) as an "astute" reviewer in the Winnipeg Evening Tribune of a silent film entitled Babe Comes Home showing at the Province Theater. Leavy says the Winnipeg writer saw something in the Ruth’s performance on film not seen by others, and quotes the reviewer: "A childish pathos is still in his eyes, and neither fame nor fortune has given him excessive assurance. His natural gestures are the tentative ones of a child not quite sure that a rebuff is not waiting somewhere." (The unruly Ruth was sent away to a Catholic school for wayward boys by his father when the boy was seven. He lived there for 12 years.)

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division</p><p>Babe Ruth was the rare player who excelled as a pitcher and later as a hitter.</p>

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

Babe Ruth was the rare player who excelled as a pitcher and later as a hitter.

Between 1920 and his death, Ruth earned (in 2016 dollars) more than US$124 million in baseball salary and outside revenue from barnstorming, endorsements, etc. One observer said that was "chump change" in comparison to what he made with the New York Yankees. Another said someone of his talent and celebrity would be making US$60 million to US$90 million a year in Major League Baseball today.

Leavy’s analysis of Ruth’s talent from the view of science is compelling reading. She explains that the greatest athletes (like Ruth and hockey’s Bobby Orr) are inventors who think outside the box with their bodies.

"Athletic genius — kinesthetic intelligence — is the ability to impose order on the human form as it moves through space… while summoning the muscle and the muscle memory to create the most biomechanically efficient means to an end," Leavy says. Only those with the highest kinesthetic IQ can remake a sport in their own image, as did Orr and Ruth. Orr revolutionized the role of NHL defencemen by attacking, Ruth transformed baseball by devising the modern power swing.

Another measurement of Ruth’s greatness, Leavy explains, is a statistic known as OPS+, the modern metric that combines on-base percentage plus slugging to accurately rate players from different eras (although there is more to the calculation than that). Ruth is the all-time major league player with a rating of 206. The legendary Ted Williams is second with 190.

Ruth died of cancer at age 52. There were 57 pallbearers for his funeral in New York.

Barry Craig is a retired journalist.

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