In anticipation of the 1992 release of a god-awful movie about Babe Ruth, starring John Goodman, I chatted with Nick Urzetta for a column about the time the Sultan of Swat made a barnstorming appearance in Rochester. Nick, who was in his 80s at the time, recalled in vibrant detail how Ruth walloped a cloud-kissing home run that sailed over a row of poplar trees beyond the right field fence at the old ballpark on Bay Street. Nick remembered pogoing on the wooden bleachers and screaming until he was hoarse as the Babe jauntily pigeon-toed around the bases and doffed his cap with a showman’s flair before touching home plate.
“I was just a kid at the time, and so many years have passed,’’ he said. “But that memory is as vivid as five minutes ago.”
I told him I envied him. I wished I could have seen the Babe play.
Thanks to a wonderful new biography I just finished reading, I feel as if I have. Jane Leavy’s “Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created” is a time machine that allows the reader to experience this colossus just as my late friend, Nick, had nine decades ago. Leavy frames Ruth’s story around a 21-day, circus-like, cross-country exhibition game train tour the Babe and teammate Lou Gehrig embarked upon just two days after their New York Yankees swept the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1927 World Series. Fresh off a record 60-homer season, George Herman Babe Ruth had established himself as the most popular man in the United States, and small-town Americans from that pre-television, pre-internet era couldn’t wait to see him in the flesh.
“I wanted to be on the field when the stands emptied and marauding mobs waylaid him on the base paths, tackling, besieging, and occasionally holding him hostage to a new kind of love,’’ best-selling author Leavy writes in the book’s intro.
Tackling a subject as large as Ruth is no small feat, given the billions of words that already had been written about him. After reading marvelous Babe biographies by Robert Cramer and Leigh Montville, I thought there was nothing more to say about the Big Fella. But, thanks to a true Ruthian research effort, Leavy has mined new material, and has shined a deserved spotlight on Christy Walsh, the pioneering sports agent whose visionary marketing exploited the celebrity culture the legendary ballplayer collaborated to create. We see Ruth endorse every product imaginable, thereby establishing the template later employed by transcendent athlete/endorsers such as Mickey Mantle, Michael Jordan and current-day mega star LeBron James.
Leavy also delves deeply into how the boy shaped the man—how the Big Fella never stopped being Little George. “If Ruth’s adult life was large and joyous,’’ she writes, “his childhood was small and mean.”
His alcoholic mother never displayed much affection to him or his siblings, and his saloon-owning father occasionally beat him. At age seven, Ruth’s divorced parents sent him to St. Mary’s Industrial School for Orphans, Delinquent, Incorrigible and Unwanted Boys on the west side of Baltimore—not because he was beyond redemption, but rather because they couldn’t be bothered. They showed no inclination to visit. The Babe would never stop being that abandoned child.
St. Mary’s was not a pleasant place; some described it like a prison. Food was rationed. Ruth never “felt full.” He would spend the rest of his life attempting to sate his appetite for food (including gluttonous amounts of hot dogs and beer) and the affection of fans and women.
While at St. Mary’s, he met Brother Matthias, a hulking, 6-foot-4, 225-pound man who took a shine to him and became the first of several father figures. Matthias introduced him to baseball, and Ruth took to it immediately. Years later, when Jack Dunn contemplated signing the 19-year-old to a professional baseball contract, he asked Matthias if Ruth also could pitch.
“He can do anything,’’ Matthias said.
That he could. He established himself as a Hall of Fame caliber pitcher during his early years with the Boston Red Sox, but his power was too prodigious to ignore. He made the switch to everyday slugger, not only saving the game from the 1919 Black Sox gambling scandal, but also forcing a seismic strategic shift from small ball to long ball. As Leavy points out, Ruth’s baseball greatness has stood the test of time, with him continuing to hold top spots in the modern metrics used to measure a player’s true value.
Ruth’s impact would be felt beyond the diamond as he changed the game’s salary structure and confronted the commissioner’s authority to dictate how players made money in the off-season. Writes Leavy: “He challenged the notion that stardom was the sole province of saints and movie stars.” The Yankees made $20 for every dollar it spent on Ruth. He believed he deserved a bigger cut of the pie he helped bake.
Walsh, we discover, was the true template for Jerry Maguire, the Tom Cruise-played sports agent who ranted the movie catch-phrase, “Show me the money!” In the book’s appendix, Leavy works with an economist and financial advisor to calculate the Babe’s on-and-off-field earnings in today’s dollars. Thanks in large part to Walsh’s business and marketing acumen, Ruth’s yearly earnings peaked in 1932 at a staggering $27.8-million dollars. He clearly showed Babe the money.
There is so much more fascinating stuff in this book, including how Ruth defied the racist norms of the day and did things most white ballplayers refused to do—such as play barnstorming games against Negro League players, pose for photographs with players and fans of color, and visit African-American hospitals and orphanages.
If you want a better understanding of how Ruth “taught America to think big and expect big,” give the book a read. You’ll feel like my friend Nick did when the Sultan of Swat launched that indelible homer over the trees behind the fence of a long-gone baseball park in Rochester.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.