THE BIG BAM
Three years ago,
while taking aim at Babe Ruth's career hitting marks, Barry Bonds issued this
astonishing fatwa: "I got [ Ruth's] slugging percentage, I'll get his home
runs, and that's it. Don't talk about him no more!"
But even with
Bonds on the verge of eclipsing Ruth with his 715th home run, it's clear that
people will never stop talking about the Babe. Ruth's life was so endlessly
fascinating that succeeding generations continue to raise new questions about
it and argue over the answers. Was he the epitome of the American Dream, a
poor, unwanted waif who became a wealthy superstar through sheer talent and
hard work? Or was he a Dionysian nightmare, a broodhog of a man who gorged
himself on food, drink, cigars and females until his appetites destroyed
Leigh Montville's vivid, intimate account, the answer to both questions is a
ringing "yes." There's little new information here, but it's surprising
how fresh, riveting and by turns delightful and gruesome the Babe's familiar
story is in this skillful retelling.
former SI senior writer, admits that most of his material is gleaned from other
works, including Robert Creamer's comprehensive Babe: The Legend Comes to Life.
But Montville's unique voice--like that of a lovable, hammy sports-bar
raconteur--makes old yarns seem new. "The Babe in the baths was the best
scene," he writes. "He would arrive in a robe 'the dimensions of an
ordinary circus tent.'" Ruth would take a seat in the scalding water, his
skin turning pink, then red, then redder, until he looked so like a giant
lobster that Yankees teammate Joe Bush would call out, "More steam! ... I
still don't think he's done!"
distinguishes the book, however, is Montville's earnest effort to discover what
it felt like to be Babe Ruth--to be born in a slum known as Pigtown, where the
death squeals of hogs rose most of the day from the nearby slaughterhouses; to
have a mother who evidently suffered from a serious mental illness; to be
discarded at age seven by a saloonkeeper father and sent to St. Mary's
Industrial School for Orphans, Delinquent, Incorrigible and Wayward Boys.
The glimpses into
Ruth's life that Montville has assembled are harrowing. Years after Ruth left
St. Mary's, a visitor took a tour of the school and found one room filled with
terrifying leather lashes. "These," he was proudly told, "are the
straps we used on Babe Ruth." More painful, though, was the nickname Ruth
was given at the school: Niggerlips. Montville reckons that Ruth "heard the
n word more times in his childhood than ... any African-American slugger who
chased his records ever did."
What, then, did
it feel like for this unwanted boy, who once said his "one dream was to own
a bicycle," to suddenly find himself rich and desired beyond his wildest
imaginings? What were his sensations as he sat in a brothel, guzzling champagne
with prostitutes? What was it like to drive with him in his giant Packard down
Manhattan's Riverside Drive at the outrageous speed of 26 miles per hour? ( Ruth
actually spent an afternoon in jail for that hot-rodding.) And how did Ruth
feel about the death of his first wife, Helen--a woman he treated "more
like a servant or a slave than a wife," according to a neighbor--who was
incinerated in a suspicious fire, just three months before he married his
longtime mistress, Claire?