Imagine Babe Ruth with a Twitter account.
When we asked author Jane Leavy if the New York Yankees’ Hall of Fame icon might have taken to the social media platform of choice by the current President of the United States to make his bold proclamations, she snatched up a copy of her book, “The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created,” (Harper Collins, 656 pages, $32.50) and found of a photo of him standing next to a kid, Jack “Whitey” Stuart, who played the role of Ruth’s bat boy during an exhibition game in San Francisco in 1927.
“Look at the size of his hands,” Leavy said with amazement. “I describe them in the book as being the size of a back hoe. Twitter? I don’t think he’d have been able to Tweet with those hands.”
Ruth would have probably found other ways to become “The Babe.” Or hired a ghost-tweeter.
Leavy may be best equipped than anyone to re-imagine how Ruth could survive a 24/7, TMZ-driven existence in the celebrity world that exists as much for athletes as it does movie stars, social media celebrities or even someone with 15 minutes of fame in him or her. The one-time Washington Post sportswriter who covered the New York Yankees and had to battle all sorts of discrimination from players and manager in the process, said she would have loved covering Ruth back in his time. Only now would she likely get as much access.
In addition to our story in the Los Angeles Times on this subject, she added a lot more depth to this story:
Q: As a former sportswriter, would you have enjoyed covering the Yankees when Ruth played?
A: Are you kidding? I’d have loved it. I’d have killed to seen him. Oh my God. But I don’t know how Babe would tolerate women in the locker room. I always wanted to talk to him about his swing that changed the game forever. I think I could have got him to talk about it. In the little bits he did talk, it’s clear that he understood the weight shift, hitting with his legs and not his arms. I think he could have hit .600 if he just went to the opposite field. There are only a handful of athletes, because of their personality and neuromuscular genius, who change the entire way a game is played. And that game never goes back. Jimmy Connors returning a serve and making it into a weapon. Johnny Unitas as a passer throwing to so many different receivers. And Babe Ruth. He took away the way managers did things. So now, general managers take the game from the managers. Would Ruth have listened to that today? No, no, no …. And he would be no fan of ‘bullpenning.’
Q: Would today’s media world chew up and spit out Ruth? Maybe steal his mystique and identity?
A: There is a famous Paul Gallico quote about how Ruth learned the lesson of every American celebrity: Commit your peccadilloes in private. Babe Ruth wouldn’t quit being Babe Ruth after 1925. The fact Joseph Patterson (New York Daily News founder and publisher of the country’s first tabloid) decided to send a picture of Ruth’s mistress across the country, overnight in the middle of a scandal – that was huge. It was unprecedented. That could only happen because they had the technology that debuted in January 1925. The fact it was made national news was astonishing. And then Walsh went into damage control. Although, I kept looking for a word or phrase that would have said the same thing but I couldn’t find it. I couldn’t find a word that was the equivalent for ‘spin.’ I realized those ideas were new. You had to develop them as the technology developed to magnify your feats and your sins.
The sportswriters of the day, as Gallico also said later, sat above in the press box and didn’t go down and ask for quotes after games. They didn’t expect anyone to be literate enough to say something worthy of printing. Their editors didn’t want it, and the deadlines didn’t permit it. There was as much omerta in the press box as there was in the mafia. That’s why Patterson deciding to apply the rules of real journalism to Ruth was remarkable.
Q: Writers today would probably not have protected Ruth as much as they did back then, right?
A: It was complete collusion. There is a quote from Marshall Hunt (a New York Daily News reporter and Ruth friend on many tawdry excursions) when he was ordered by (managing editor) Phil Payne to ask about a paternity suit brought against Ruth, and Hunt didn’t want to do it. He had this telling quote: ‘We’re doing so much with him?’ Why would you want to kill your access. He may have reported things I’m sure Ruth didn’t like. But overall nobody was looking to rock that boat.
Q: The setup for the story – the 1927 barnstorming tour with Ruth and Gehrig – ends in L.A., even though it was supposed to continue in Long Beach, but it was rained out. Ruth in Hollywood. How did that go?
A: The decision to use the barnstorming tour was on purpose to navigate the reader but it also really underline how athletes had become entertainers. That’s the trajectory of the book. Ruth was coached by Christy Walsh to tell (Yankees owner Jacob) Ruppert: ‘I’m worth more because of what I bring in.’ During the tour he did all sorts of things. He was elastic in a way. He filled whatever stage he was on.
Q: Of the 250-plus people you talked to for this book, Vin Scully relayed a story. How did that one go?
A: It was one that he told on a broadcast during one of his final seasons. I called him and he explained that how he was a kid in the Police Athletic League and there would be New York Giants games when the kids like him would be let in for free in the outfield seats at the Polo Grounds. He couldn’t pinpoint the year – probably between 1935 and 1940. What made it so striking to him was he said he was in this rowdy crowd of kids and all the sudden out of nowhere Babe Ruth appears in that unmistakable camels hair coat. What was going on? Why was he there? Vin said that never occurred to him. ‘Maybe he just needed to see some kids,’ Vin said. It’s an indication of how Vin today can remember something so clearly about Babe Ruth and still hold onto it. He remembered also that Ruth saw the number of kids and said, ‘Hold on, I’ll give you autographs,’ and pulled out a stack of cards from his jacket with pre-signed autographs. Who did that before then? Vin said all he could figure was that maybe he didn’t want to get pen markings on his coat. ‘And then he just disappeared,’ Vin said. Talk about a film scene, right? It was like the ghost of Ruth haunting the grandstands looking for a crowd to want to be with him. He didn’t go to games often. The Yankees never gave him a lifetime pass.
Q: There are 70-some pages of notes and research included in this. A lot of it was at the Baseball Hall of Fame archives. Much of it was services that allow old newspapers to be scanned. Was today’s technology a real reason why you were able to get it done rather than try to interview people who aren’t alive anymore?
A: I completely thought I should not write this. I couldn’t imagine how to do it with all the people I’d need to talk to not being alive. Where do you go? But there are other people who are more trained as historians and archivists who wouldn’t be as shocked to find things and how much is available now. It was a revelation for me. I was a newbie for this kind of stuff.
I’m not an historian. I was trained to find people and talk to them, maybe even get them to say things they didn’t want to say. This was daunting. I had to learn to be an historian and be granular in my research. It was this gigantic mosaic to construct with shards of bright shiny shards of information to create a whole picture. You could see the outline and make them fit.
In the year I spent preparing to do this, I read so many other books from that period. In doing the research, I knew I had to find Little George in order to make sense of the Big Fella. In the time I spent reading I knew that kid was AWOL in his life story.
It seems to me you always have to have a touchstone, a thing so authentic about that person that you can trust. These documents provided that. There was also a story I found in the Baseball Hall of Fame research library that Jhan Robbins wrote (in 1963 for Sport magazine).
Editor’s note: Robbins was a 14-year-old from Brooklyn writing for his school newspaper and interviewed Ruth in his last year as a player in 1934. Ruth was inhaling peanuts and drinking soda. Robbins had read a column that wondered why Ruth thought he could retire and become a manager “when he can’t even manage himself.” Robbins eventually got around to asking Ruth about that, trying to ask a grown-up question. Ruth responded: “That’s the trouble with you newspaper guys. You never forget the past. You never give a guy credit for learning anything. Maybe I lived it up in my time; but don’t forget. I did the papers a favor – I gave you plenty to write about. I’ve settled down now. All I want is a chance.”
What makes it so modern and pivotal to me was I believed it was really hearing his voice. Robbins kept those notes and used them when he became a professional writer to construct a story for Sport magazine. It showed how many celebrities of the modern era get trapped in that persona they created and then can’t get out of it. Again, there’s the Babe, standing next to pink and white striped underpants and guzzling soda and protesting he’s not the guy that he helped construct. And if he was, he wasn’t any more. That struck me as being caught in the celebrity trap. That too was all a new concept. You didn’t have the means to create a persona like that. Alexander the Great could put his face on a coin but it didn’t have the same circulation.
Q: Explain the experience more of doing this versus when you did the books on Sandy Koufax and Mickey Mantle?
A: How often do you get to write about somebody you really like? When I was doing the Koufax book, a friend who had been with me at the Washington Post who left journalism to be a physician said: ‘You have no idea how lucky you are to be able to write about something you really like.’ I was worried about doing this book because I don’t want to spent eight years and have it not work. I admired him so much more than I expected. Someone left by his parents to create a life. He did it. With Walsh’s help, he creates a persona and envelopes that life and has a purpose.
Another touchstone I had was his daughter Julia telling me that only thing he ever said about his childhood was ‘I never felt full.’ He lived his life as an adult filling himself with women and beer and food and cigars and adulation to make up for that emptiness, all that the between the space and time on the field. His granddaughter said he was a ‘window wisher’ – he’d see a family around the table and wish that was his family. Some people wanted to portray him as this reckless child who somehow fell out of a tree and wasn’t human. He didn’t run amok in the streets of Baltimore in his lower middle class of childhood. His first instinct was to create a family he never had and didn’t know how to make it work.
Q: Who in today’s world compares to Ruth at all?
A: I think in the same way Michael Jackson was a crossover from Motown to white Rock ‘n’ Roll, Babe Ruth was the crossover from athlete to entertainer. He clearly perceived himself that way. Maybe LeBron James (is a comparison).
Q: You talked to two major sports agents to size up Ruth in today’s world — Scott Boras and Leigh Steinberg. What did you come away from that input?
A: Scott was impatient with notion of Walsh being successful. Nobody got into the room then (during owner-player negotiations). I was happy to find a column that showed Walsh made an attempt to get into the Yankees negotiation with Babe. But talk about a uneven playing field. Ruth was in there arguing dollars and cents, explaining what he brings in … he intuitively knew what it was about.
When I talked to Leigh Steinberg about Ruth today, he said that Ruth would have to do ‘this and this and this…’ But he did that. He even had a foundation that didn’t survive but he would have taken up causes synonymous with it. I remember asking him what kind of endorsements would he have created for Babe as a brand. My thought was maybe a Cartier watch, because he was always late for everything. Leigh thought he would go for something like Rochester’s Big & Tall men’s suits. My thought: That wasn’t classy enough for the Babe. And Leigh said: That’s the idea, you bring class to the product. I’d still rather see him with a watch.
Q: What are the thoughts about turning this book into a screenplay of some sort?
A: I’ll probably know better when see how the book sales go. It’s still not clear that people want to read about anyone this old. I would love a film to capture the way people wanted to be around him. There is a photo used on the front and back inside cover of the book of Babe with a group of kids in 1925. They’re all draped on him and smiling. It’s the landmark shot. But look at it again. There’s only one kid there wearing a beanie that’s actually looking at Babe. Everyone else is looking at the camera. That’s a picture that captures both his magnetism and appeal and his need for that swarming kind of love. It’s also another pivot point where the history of being seen is as important to them as being seen with him.
Q: Forget William Bendix, or John Goodman or even Stephen Lang (a NBC made-for-TV try in 1991). There’s even Joe Don Baker as the Ruth-inspired “The Whammer” who appears in the Robert Redford flick “The Natural.” Is there someone you have in mind ot play Babe Ruth in a movie today?
A: Yes — John C. Reilly. He could get the pathos of Ruth just from his eyes,” she said. “Look at how is face is built in compartments. The lower half could be a crooked grin but his eyes would be pulling down in how he really felt about things.
Q: There is a full page of Babe Ruth nicknames – actually page 17 spilling onto page 18. What was your favorite?
A: I really like ‘Infant of Swategy.’ I think hat came from Damon Ruynon. ‘Potentate of Pounders’ ain’t bad. There’s ‘Diamond-Studded Ball-Buster.’ And ‘The Swattingest Swatter of Swatdom.’ Surely, it has to be a joke among the sportswriters. I actually just found another one – going back to that complete-game 14-inning win he had against the Dodgers in the 1916 World Series when he was with the Boston Red Sox. Someone called him ‘The Baltimore Blizzard,’ and his pitches were called ‘whistling chutes.’
Q: But would ‘The Big Fella’ work today? It’s not he would stand out so much as a 6-foot-2 athlete.
A: In his time, he dwarfed everyone. I would have to say Aaron Judge might make him look like a Little Leaguer.