Monday, February 18, 2019

The Big Fella Connects

I was a late arrival to the Jane Leavy party. Though her first baseball book, a much-acclaimed study of Sandy Koufax, one of my favorite players from childhood, was published in 2002, it took eight years for me to get around to reading it. It was well worth the wait.

Also in 2010, The Last Boy, her even more acclaimed book about Mickey Mantle, was published. Another eight-year gap followed during which I acquired the book but never got around to reading it. Last summer, I read it and saw why so many other people had responded to it. Like the Koufax book, it reflected Leavy's dogged research and a desire not only to pin down nagging questions about her subject's career and life, but also to frame these discoveries in terms of what they meant to the subjects themselves. One other thing--both books revealed Leavy to be a very fine writer.

I didn't dawdle this time. The Big Fella, Leavy's 2018 book about Babe Ruth, tackles an even bigger subject than Koufax and Mantle, idols of their times. The original sports icon, Ruth has always been a gargantuan target for authors, and Leavy's treatment of his oversize life and legend is correspondingly more far-ranging and depth-plumbing than the earlier books. If it isn't the definitive book about Ruth, we aren't likely to find its successor in our lifetimes, if for no other reason than the increasing scarcity of living people who knew Ruth.

I will lend my voice to the chorus of reviewers who marvel at Leavy's success in tracking down people who intersected with Ruth in some way. Not only did she find them, she unearthed their own life stories to see how an encounter with Ruth might have colored entire lifetimes. For instance, there are the brothers who insisted that they were in a photo taken with Ruth, displaying copies of the photos in various businesses and offices for decades, until learning that the photo was taken somewhere else, three years before the day they saw Ruth. The son of the man who had identified himself as the boy in the photo with the black eye and the cold sore decided to leave the photo on display. Ninety years after that day when Ruth came to town, people still cherish links to Ruth. One of the many beautiful things about this book is seeing how dramatically Ruth affected those who idolized him.

There is a wonderful two-word phrase in this book which Leavy uses to describe the birth of advertising and public relations in the 1920s--just in time to capitalize on Ruth. She calls it "opportunistic connectivity," a phrase which instantly brought an echo in my brain of that Shakespearean description in Julius Caesar of "multitudinous seas incarnadine," another polysyllabic summarization. She refers to the phenomenon of someone like Ruth creating an almost uninterrupted source of material for anyone who wanted to make money off his deeds and his fame. In fact, the phenomenon still exists in the two branches of Ruth's descendants, both mounting websites to claim their pre-eminence as the branch which should most benefit today, 70 years after his death.

One of the many highlights of this book (don't get me started on the delightful saga of Lady Amco) is Leavy's thorough--and thoroughly demoralizing--history of the Baby Ruth candy bar. Though demonstrably intended to exploit Ruth's name, the candy never earned a penny for him and his descendants, not even when the brand was sold a decade ago for $2.8 billion.

I'm a morning reader, and I have spent the past five mornings happily diving into the excesses, the glories, and the ultimate sorrows of Ruth's life. There is a wealth of detail here, and Leavy pinned down so many things. Her work on untangling various issues of parentage and cohabitation is probably heroic. If she didn't touch on something, it must be because she decided it was covered sufficiently elsewhere, such as Ruth's infamous piano or relations between Claire Ruth and Eleanor Gehrig during their shared status as revered widows. Still, I'd like to know more.

In a similar vein--that is, much like someone who has just devoured a feast worthy of a Babe Ruth breakfast, capped by six pieces of apple pie a la mode, yet still wishes there had been pecan pie as well--I want to say something about the photos. They are all remarkable and telling in various ways, and informatively captioned. The problem is that there aren't enough of them, only sixteen. A book like this should have had at least twice as many, particularly because Leavy goes to the trouble of giving readers vivid descriptions of many photos not on display here. As wonderful as her several hundred words are, the photos would have told us still more.

When I worked at the Hall of Fame library and gave tours that included the photo collection, I always showed off just one file, the one with photos of Babe Ruth and children. It wasn't the thickest Ruth file but it contained dozens of photos, many of which had never been published. Many were taken on barnstorming tours like the 1927 post-season tour around which Leavy frames her narrative. At every stop on the tour, Ruth's manager, Christy Walsh (given his full due for services rendered to Ruth over the years) arranged visits to hospitals and young groups (including Boys Town in Nebraska), at which Ruth obliged anyone who wanted to photograph him doing anything.

There was no pose too silly or trivial for Ruth, whose affinity for children is well-documented here and elsewhere. When I went through the file with people on tour, Ruth's childlike joy jumped out at us from so many photos--doing chin-ups with five-year-olds, playing Santa Claus, cheering sick kids--that it became an instant antidote to the urge to make something superhuman out of a man who, as Leavy shows us in many ways, couldn't stand being alone and had the most fun around people who were happy to see him, chiefly kids and fans.

Here's what Jane Leavy and I know about a different kind of connectivity from the opportunistic slant of the hucksters of the past century:  many of the photos in that file were donated by people in them. One I always think of showed Ruth on the field with a young girl who gazed raptly up at him. I recall the name of the girl as Jean Farrington, and the photo was taken during Ruth's career, perhaps on the tour chronicled in Leavy's book. It was donated to the Hall of Fame in the 1990s--by Jean Farrington.

Think about the lifetime that passed between the day she gazed up at Ruth and the day she decided to share her wonder with the Hall of Fame--and unknowingly with an uncountable number of people who have looked at it and will look at it. That is the meaning and the legacy of Babe Ruth, and that is what Jane Leavy has captured with sensitivity and eloquence in The Big Fella, the extraordinary tale of a man in whose aura we continue to bask.

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