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The Great Bambino

By: Ed Bradley
May 31, 2019

ineteen twenty-seven was a magical year for Babe Ruth. The New York Yankees right-fielder had a .358 batting average, hit 60 home runs (a single-season record that would last for 34 years), scored 158 runs, and drove in 165. In the Yankees’ four-game World Series sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates, he batted .400, hitting the only two home runs of the series.

What immediately followed this triumphant season is the framework of Jane Leavy’s The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created. On October 10, 1927, Ruth and his teammate Lou Gehrig began a three-week, cross-country barnstorming tour in Providence, Rhode Island. The tour was the brainchild of Christy Walsh, a representative of Ruth and Gehrig who promoted the tour as a continuation of that season’s home run chase between his two clients. In addition to heading squads of local players at each stop of the tour—with Ruth’s Bustin’ Babes facing off against Gehrig’s Laruppin’ Lous—the stars visited hospitals and orphanages, gave speeches and radio interviews, attended banquets, and signed autographs. Combined with the World Series win, Leavy notes, the successful tour made for “the best month of [Ruth’s] life.”

That life began when George Herman Ruth, Jr., was born in a modest Baltimore row house on February 6, 1895. An unruly child who was starved for affection (“I think my mother hated me,” he said years later), Ruth was seven when his parents deposited him at St. Mary’s Industrial School for Orphans, Delinquent, Incorrigible, and Wayward. It was during his nearly 12-year stay at St. Mary’s that he met Brother Matthias, a 6’4”, 225-pound father figure of sorts who introduced the Babe to baseball. Late in life Ruth credited Brother Matthias with “teaching me how to play ball—and how to think…[he was] the greatest man I’ve ever known.” Within eight months of leaving the school, Ruth joined the Boston Red Sox, for whom he made his major-league debut on July 11, 1914, at age 19.  Nicknamed “Babe” by teammates because of his youth, he was traded to the New York Yankees five years later.

Over the next 21 years, Ruth would earn the title of the greatest player of all time. His career statistics, documented in a helpful appendix, are staggering: .690 slugging percentage (first all-time); 1.164 on-base plus slugging (first); .474 on-base percentage (second); 2,214 runs batted in (second); 714 home runs (third); 2,174 runs scored (tied for fourth); a .342 batting average (tenth); and a career pitching record of 94-46 with a sparkling 2.28 earned run average. The numbers show that Ruth revolutionized the game: in 1914 John Franklin “Home Run” Baker led the American League with nine home runs, and no one hit more than 12 dingers in 1916, 1917, or 1918. In 1919 Ruth hit 29, then 54 in 1920, and 59 in 1921. He led the majors in home runs each year from 1926 to 1931. “By the fall of 1927,” writes Leavy, a former sportswriter who has written biographies of Sandy Koufax and Mickey Mantle, “Babe Ruth had completely reshaped the game of baseball, bending it to his will. Little ball and…subtlety [were] banished. Clout was all.”

Ruth was just as revolutionary off the playing field as he was on it, thanks in large part to the efforts of Christy Walsh, a forgotten figure whom Leavy labels “the first sports agent.” A St. Louis native, Walsh had stints as a cartoonist and ad man before signing on to represent Ruth in 1921. The two made for an odd couple—Walsh the frugal, teetotaling mama’s boy, and Ruth, the profligate, bibulous rebel. Yet the partnership was highly beneficial to both men for 17 years. By 1927, Walsh was running every aspect of Ruth’s life: handling his investments, arranging endorsement deals and personal appearances, and covering up his epic philandering. “I did everything but sleep with him,” the proto-agent once said.

Under Walsh’s tutelage, Ruth became one of sports’ first “crossover” superstars, exploiting the burgeoning mass media (the 1927 World Series was the first one broadcast on radio coast-to-coast) via ghostwritten sports columns, radio interviews, gramophone records, vaudeville tours, movies, magazine covers, and photo ops with generals, royalty, animals, U.S. presidents, and other athletes. The list of his endorsements included Bambino Cola, Babe Ruth Big League Chewing Gum, Babe Ruth Fro-joy Ice Cream, Babe Ruth Pinch-Hit Tobacco, Raleigh Cigarettes, Murphy-Rich Soap, Barbasol Shaving Cream, Cadillac, Louisville Slugger, Spalding, board games, rifles, dolls, and underwear.

Among the few products not endorsed by Ruth was a certain chocolate confection. In 1919 the Curtiss Candy Company introduced the Baby Ruth candy bar—named, according to company president Otto Y. Schnering, for Ruth Cleveland (daughter of President Grover Cleveland), who had visited the firm’s Chicago factory. This claim, Leavy argues, was ridiculous, not the least because by 1919 Ruth Cleveland had been dead for 15 years. Soon Schnering was raking in $1 million a month, prompting Walsh to form the George H. Ruth Candy Company in 1925 and to put out the Ruth’s Home Run bar the next year. Walsh also filed a fruitless suit against the Curtiss Candy Company in patent court for unauthorized use of Ruth’s name. But Ruth had waited too long to contest, and the case dragged on for years. Meanwhile, by 1927 one billion Baby Ruth candy bars were sold annually, and Ruth “never earned a nickel” from the one product most associated with his name.

Not that he needed the extra income. In 1927, Ruth earned $73,247 in “by-product” money—$3,247 more than his Yankee salary—“making him undoubtedly the first professional athlete to earn as much or more off the field as on it.” According to an economist at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Ruth’s total take-home pay that year was the equivalent of $26 million in 2018 dollars, and rumor had it that his life insurance policy was second in value only to that of department store magnate John Wanamaker. Combined with his sporting exploits, Ruth’s seeming ubiquity away from the ballpark made him “the most famous man in America” by the time of his barnstorming tour.

Unfortunately, this centerpiece of the book is also its least engaging. The games themselves were forgettable, save for the moments when Ruth and Gehrig pitched to each other or when adoring children clung to the Babe’s limbs as he ran the bases. Leavy devotes too many pages to uninspiring sidebars, such as Ruth’s Nebraska photo-op with a record-laying chicken or a brief biography of a chiropractor who treated Ruth in Marysville, California. Moreover, the structure of the book is somewhat confusing—each chapter starts with a stop on the tour before digressing to other parts of Ruth’s career. On just one page, Leavy bounces back and forth between three years.

Yet if The Big Fella’s barnstorming portions disappoint, the book shines elsewhere. Particularly rewarding are the many delicious details that Leavy sprinkles throughout:

The Progressive-era Baltimore of Ruth’s youth was the largest unsewered city in the country;

In the same game in which Ruth hit his 60th home run of the 1927 season, he caught the last out in right field off a ball hit by legendary Washington Senators pitcher Walter Johnson, pinch-hitting in his final major-league appearance;

George Sr.’s saloon at 406 West Conway Street is now center field at Oriole Park at Camden Yards;

Among the attendees of Ruth’s “called shot” game in the 1932 World Series were President Franklin Roosevelt and a 12-year-old John Paul Stevens, who would become the third-longest serving United States Supreme Court Justice in history.

The Ruth-Christy partnership ended in 1938, and the subsequent years were not kind to either man. Christy’s business ventures went nowhere, and in 1943 the FBI investigated him on suspicion of disloyalty. Ruth, meanwhile, had played his last game in 1935. His subsequent attempts to secure a managerial job were in vain, and by 1945 he reduced himself to refereeing wrestling matches. That same year marked the onset of the nasopharyngeal cancer that would ultimately take his life.

Yet if Walsh was “completely forgotten” by the time of his death in 1955, Ruth’s legacy lives on. In 2012 one of his game jerseys sold for $4.4 million, a record at the time for any sports memorabilia item. The Big Fella, as Leavy might say, is still big business.