“Babe: The Legend Comes to Life” by Robert W. Creamer, (Fireside, 1992), 443 pages.
Even the most baseball-belittling Brit has heard of Babe Ruth. He is recognised the world over as one of the greatest and most important sportsmen in history. Robert W. Creamer’s biography of Ruth, originally published in 1974, is often held to be the book that such a legend deserves. Having finished reading “Babe: The Legend Comes to Life”, you are left in no doubt that both Ruth’s status as a sporting great and this book’s status as a great biography are fully deserved.
In his Author’s Note before the main text begins, Creamer makes a comment that initially catches the reader off-guard: “Some of the baseball detail may prove tedious to the casual reader, who is given permission to skip such passages. Baseball fans are expected to wade through the whole thing”. It serves as a useful reminder that Babe Ruth was more than just a great ballplayer. He was a cultural icon, somebody whose personality and fame stretched far beyond the normal baseball-loving masses.
But more on his wider impact in a moment; we are baseball fans here and, as promised, there is much for us to “wade through”. Short of giving an exact game-by-game account of every occasion that Ruth took the field, this is as detailed an account of his playing career as you could hope for. Ruth began his professional career with a brief period as a member of his home-town Baltimore Orioles (not yet a Major League team), then made his Major League debut with the Red Sox in 1915 before his infamous trade to the Yankees in December 1919.
Each season during his career is taken in turn, with memorable moments highlighted before Ruth’s and his team’s year is reviewed and put into context. As you move from one exciting season to the next, two things really stand out. Firstly, that prior to his slugging super-stardom, Ruth was a genuinely brilliant Major League pitcher. Secondly, that his legendary status was fully merited: season after season he put up staggering numbers.
The mark of a truly great sportsman is that they change the way their respective sport is played. The Babe certainly did that. We take home run hitting for granted today, yet before Ruth the long ball was treated with relative ambivalence. The fact that other players have now surpassed Ruth’s home run feats does not diminish them. They are still extremely impressive compared to today’s players, and unbelievably so compared to his contemporaries. Ruth’s total of 54 homers in 1920, for example, was four more than any other American League team managed to hit combined that season (the Yankees hit 115 in total).
And it wasn’t just the number that Ruth hit which captured the imagination, it was their often majestic length (generally described as “Ruthian” home runs) and his violent all-or-nothing swing that really set him apart. “I hit big or I miss big. I like to live as big as I can” is an oft-repeated quote from the Babe and it sums him up perfectly.
The fact that Ruth liked to live “big” added another dimension to his legend. He commanded extravagant salaries, infamously earning more than the President in 1931, and was not shy in spending his money, dishing out ridiculously large tips to those who crossed his path. His huge appetite for food was only surpassed by his appetite for women, which was not the least bit quelled by his two marriages.
This introduces the less-savoury side to his character, the side of endless cheating on his wives and suspensions and fines for indiscretions on and off the field. Ruth was no angel, but perhaps that was no surprise when considering his journey from a restrictive orphanage, where he lived from the age of eight until he signed with Orioles when he was twenty, to fame and fortune at a level unheard of at the time. Creamer notes that despite his faults, few people who knew the Babe failed to smile at the mention of his name when asked to share their memories of him. He was a man with a presence, someone who could immediately light up a room when he walked in, and someone who was easy to forgive.
Ruth’s life has provoked a raft of myths and oversimplified, extreme caricatures of the man himself. This biography is a very deliberate attempt to counteract them. There is very little personal opinion or commentary from Creamer. He doesn’t go overboard in his praise of Ruth’s achievements, he simply recounts the details and lets them speak for themselves. He doesn’t engage in salacious gossip and neither condemns nor condones Ruth’s behaviour. He passes on the facts as he sees them following his rigorous research and leaves any judgements to the reader.
As a result, this book contains one minor omission. Aside from some brief comments in the opening chapter, there is no attempt to place Ruth, either as a ballplayer or as an American cultural icon, into some sort of historical context. Perhaps this would have required the type of subjective personal analysis that Creamer was seemingly trying to avoid (and the book was written in 1974 of course), but it would have brought this still great biography to a slightly more satisfying conclusion.
As it is, we briefly learn of Ruth’s frustrated attempts to become a Major League manager, followed by his deteriorating health and then his death from cancer. With no warning, the book ends abruptly there. This does have the dramatic effect of reinforcing the sadness of his death, but that seems misplaced precisely because the memory of Ruth lives on to this day. A short chapter explaining how and why this is the case would have wrapped this book up perfectly.
But it’s a minor criticism. This is a great biography about the greatest player the game has ever seen. No baseball fan should be without a copy.
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