THE BRIL­LIANT BAMBINO

Bi­og­ra­phy of MLB’s great­est slug­ger a thor­ough, thrilling read

Winnipeg Free Press - - BOOKS / NON-FICTION - RE­VIEWED BY BARRY CRAIG

N the tem­ples of base­ball, Ge­orge Her­man Ruth Jr. would stand seem­ingly in­dif­fer­ent in the bat­ter’s box, as if he were await­ing pub­lic tran­sit.

Then, with an en­ergy sci­ence would much later prove was ge­nius, Babe Ruth would face the base­ball spi­ralling his way, cock his bat in the per­fect blend of sinew, sight and savvy, and, like the clash of a cym­bal, send the five-ounce guided mis­sile back to the pitcher so high and so hard he’d en­dan­ger low-fly­ing air­craft.

Ac­cord­ing to Amer­i­can sports­writer Jane Leavy, no­body could bring so much theatre into hit­ting a base­ball as the Babe, the Big Fella, Lit­tle Ge­orge, the Bambino, the Sul­tan of Swat.

And in the stands they loved him not only be­cause he was ar­guably the great­est ballplayer who ever lived, but also be­cause it seemed he was much like them — some­times happy, some­times sad, some­times bitchy, some­times bad. They en­joyed how he lived life to the fullest. They were sure he didn’t think he was bet­ter than them, even though to them he most cer­tainly was. They loved him not only for his tal­ent on the field, but also his he­do­nis­tic, colour­ful life off of it.

They loved him so much they be­came Babe Ruth vi­car­i­ously, although the Babe wouldn’t talk like that or even know what vi­car­i­ous meant.

Leavy’s study of the man who hit 714 ca­reer home runs in Ma­jor League Base­ball (in­clud­ing 60 in one year, the lat­ter a record un­bro­ken un­til long af­ter his death) play­ing for three teams — the Bos­ton Red Sox, New York Yan­kees and Bos­ton Braves — is

Inot just about base­ball, but also a psy­cho­log­i­cal por­trait: what shaped The Babe and what made him tick in a world that couldn’t get enough of him (he thrived on it) and sucked him dry. It is an ex­haus­tive visit in­side the head of Mr. Ruth and a snap­shot of his life bril­liantly de­scribed.

Leavy is a for­mer sports writer for the Wash­ing­ton Post and author of New York Times best­sellers about ballplay­ers Mickey Man­tle and Sandy Ko­ufax. Her re­search for The Big Fella in­cluded 250 in­ter­views.

Ruth re­tired from base­ball in 1935 and died in 1948, but Leavy main­tains that more than a cen­tury af­ter his ma­jor league de­but and 70 years af­ter his death in 1948, he “re­mains the lodestar (the epi­cen­tre) of Amer­i­can fame. And that star has never di­min­ished.” He still holds nu­mer­ous Ma­jor League Base­ball records, in­clud­ing hit­ting more than 40 home runs in 11 sea­sons.

In a de­light­ful sur­prise, the author in­tro­duces an un­named re­porter in Win­nipeg (yes, Win­nipeg) as an “as­tute” re­viewer in the Win­nipeg Evening Tri­bune of a silent film en­ti­tled Babe Comes Home show­ing at the Prov­ince The­ater. Leavy says the Win­nipeg writer saw some­thing in the Ruth’s per­for­mance on film not seen by oth­ers, and quotes the re­viewer: “A child­ish pathos is still in his eyes, and nei­ther fame nor for­tune has given him ex­ces­sive as­sur­ance. His nat­u­ral ges­tures are the ten­ta­tive ones of a child not quite sure that a re­buff is not wait­ing some­where.” (The un­ruly Ruth was sent away to a Catholic school for way­ward boys by his fa­ther when the boy was seven. He lived there for 12 years.)

Be­tween 1920 and his death, Ruth earned (in 2016 dol­lars) more than

US$124 mil­lion in base­ball salary and out­side rev­enue from barn­storm­ing, en­dorse­ments, etc. One ob­server said that was “chump change” in com­par­i­son to what he made with the New York Yan­kees. An­other said some­one of his tal­ent and celebrity would be mak­ing

US$60 mil­lion to US$90 mil­lion a year in Ma­jor League Base­ball to­day.

Leavy’s anal­y­sis of Ruth’s tal­ent from the view of sci­ence is com­pelling read­ing. She ex­plains that the great­est ath­letes (like Ruth and hockey’s Bobby Orr) are in­ven­tors who think out­side the box with their bod­ies.

“Ath­letic ge­nius — kines­thetic in­tel­li­gence — is the abil­ity to im­pose or­der on the hu­man form as it moves through space… while sum­mon­ing the mus­cle and the mus­cle mem­ory to cre­ate the most biome­chan­i­cally ef­fi­cient means to an end,” Leavy says. Only those with the high­est kines­thetic IQ can re­make a sport in their own im­age, as did Orr and Ruth. Orr rev­o­lu­tion­ized the role of NHL de­fence­men by at­tack­ing, Ruth trans­formed base­ball by de­vis­ing the mod­ern power swing.

An­other mea­sure­ment of Ruth’s great­ness, Leavy ex­plains, is a statis­tic known as OPS+, the mod­ern met­ric that com­bines on-base per­cent­age plus slug­ging to ac­cu­rately rate play­ers from dif­fer­ent eras (although there is more to the cal­cu­la­tion than that). Ruth is the all-time ma­jor league player with a rat­ing of 206. The leg­endary Ted Wil­liams is sec­ond with 190.

Ruth died of can­cer at age 52. There were 57 pall­bear­ers for his fu­neral in New York. The Big Fella:

Babe Ruth and the World He Cre­ated By Jane Leavy

Harper, 620 pages, $40

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