" Ruth, easing along at three-quarter speed in batting practice, flicking the bat around, meeting the ball cleanly, cocking the bat back for the next pitch, is for me...the epitome of baseball, its ideal expression."
So writes Senior Editor Robert Creamer in Chapter I of Babe, an enlightening biography of George Herman Ruth, "the man who changed the face of baseball." In this issue SPORTS ILLUSTRATED presents the first of three excerpts from Babe, which will be published in August by Simon & Schuster and will be a Book-of-the-Month Club alternate selection.
Creamer grew up in Tuckahoe, N.Y., only 10 miles north of Yankee Stadium, and as a boy he saw Ruth play during his last few years with the Yankees. "I had an uncle who, when he found out I liked baseball, offered to take me to a game," Creamer says. "He was an old Giants fan and he loved John McGraw and those 1-0 games, so he almost winced when I said I'd like to see the Yankees. But we went—once. The Yankees beat the Athletics 17-11, and I thought my uncle was going to die. Ruth, of course, hit a three-run homer."
Creamer's research for his book began in 1969. He interviewed people who had known Ruth—players and managers like Waite Hoyt, Frank Frisch, Joe Dugan, Bob Shawkey, Ernie Shore and Casey Stengel; writers like John Drebinger, Bob Considine, Ford Frick, who became Commissioner of Baseball, and Ken Smith, now curator of the Baseball Museum at Cooperstown. He spent weekends and vacations in libraries in New York, Baltimore. Providence, Boston and Cooperstown, digging in old files and making notes by whispering into a tape recorder.
He found so much factual conflict, "there were stories that didn't check out, yet were not really untrue," that he soon realized he was going to have to build a day-by-day framework of events. It was a tedious process, but one punctuated by moments of tremendous exhilaration.
"I loved getting out a microfilm of an old paper and disappearing into it," Creamer says. "It was like a time warp. Suddenly you were in 1918 or 1919. I had to discipline myself or I'd never have gotten through it all. I had to learn to go past the front page, unless it related directly to Ruth's career, and straight to the sports pages."
It was this discipline that once threw Creamer into momentary confusion: "I was checking something out in 1923, and I looked at the scores from the day before and the paper said, 'All games canceled.' I thought, what is this? I went back a day and the games were all scheduled, and I went forward a day and they were all playing again. It didn't make any sense. Then I thought, oops, and went back to the front page. It said PRESIDENT HARDING DIES. I was rather pleased with myself for not having noticed."
It is more than 25 years since Babe Ruth died and almost 40 years since he played his last major league game, yet he still arouses interest in all of us because, as Creamer writes, "...nobody ever looked like Babe Ruth. Or behaved like him. Or did all the things he did in his repressed, explosive, truncated life."