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The Unvarnished Ruth
Charles Hirshberg
May 15, 2006
A new biography of the Sultan of Swat takes an intimate look at a familiar and fascinating subject
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May 15, 2006

The Unvarnished Ruth

A new biography of the Sultan of Swat takes an intimate look at a familiar and fascinating subject

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THE BIG BAM

by Leigh Montville

Doubleday, 366 pages, $26.95

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 him?

According to 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.

Montville, a 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!"

What most 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?

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