There are probably more books about Babe Ruth than about any other baseball player. By the Babe himself. By his second wife. By his daughter. By a classmate at Baltimore' s St. Mary' s Industrial School for Boys. By ex-teammates. By serious scholars and debunkers and hagiographers. There also have been two movies about him -- the 1947 version with William Bendix as Ruth and the 1992 version with John Goodman.
So coming to a fully realized picture of such an elusive man is difficult: There were many dimensions to his personality, and anyway he was, by his mid-20s, elevated to mythical proportions. Robert W. Creamer acknowledged as such in the subtitle to his biography, which was called " Babe: The Legend Comes to Life." Similarly, the other " scholarly" biography of Ruth, also published in 1974 and written by Kal Wagenheim, was titled " Babe Ruth: His Life and Legend."
It' s understandable. Ruth appeared larger than life during his playing career, and millions of words were written about him in newspapers and magazines. He was the dominant media figure of the 1920s, as omnipresent then as Michael Jordan was in his time. Is this much coverage warranted? For the discerning or not obsessed reader, perhaps not. Many books on Ruth, especially those written while he was alive, take on a certain sameness. Tom Meany' s 1947 biography, " Babe Ruth: The Big Moments of the Big Fellow," was typical. It perpetuated the image of Ruth as a childlike, carefree man with undisciplined appetites -- though mention chiefly was of his eating and not of his womanizing.
But Ruth was one of the most colorful figures of his time, and he was accommodating with the media. The sporting press of the time shamelessly pumped up his image, while hiding the worst of his off-field behavior.
In the 1960s and ' 70s, as Americans became less worshipful of sports heroes, new looks at the Babe emerged. In his 1969 expose of sports, " The Jocks," Leonard Shecter wrote: " In fact, he was a gross man of gargantuan, undisciplined appetites for food, whiskey and women." He concluded that " The fake Babe Ruth is more palatable than the real one."
Two years later, in the books by Wagenheim and Creamer, a more balanced view of Ruth was evident. Both books were meticulously researched, and both gave considerable attention to his night life. A reader could learn, for instance, that Ruth' s favorite bordello was one in St. Louis called the House of the Good Shepherd, a nugget that Meany declined to reveal in his gee-whiz book a few decades before.
But while the books detail his off-the-field activities, they are interested in more than debunking a hero. Creamer, a former writer for Sports Illustrated, wrote: " Ruth' s sins, while many and glaring, were not terribly purple. He went to bed with a great many women, but he did not make public capital of it, nor was he ever involved in an ugly bedroom scandal."
Indeed, Wagenheim, who also had written a biography of Roberto Clemente, retained a curiously retro view of Ruth. He opened the book with a long quote from Joe Dugan, a teammate of Ruth' s on the Yankees and a known carouser himself. Dugan cackled that Ruth " was an animal, a great animal. Fell from a tree." He recounts several drinking episodes with the Babe, then concludes: " There was never anyone like him. Nobody close. He was more than an animal. He was a god." A reader waits in vain for Wagenheim to distance himself from these remarks, or indicate that Ruth was a more complex person.
Creamer takes pains to establish exactly that, and thus his book is stronger. " Researching this book was an exploration into a curious world of misleading fact, perceptive misstatement, contradictory truth, substantiating myth," he wrote. Though Creamer finds Ruth fascinating, he' s detached enough not to become a fan or booster, as Wagenheim sometimes does.
Creamer also is less inclined to believe the conventional stories about Ruth. For example, in recounting the circumstances under which Ruth, as a 7-year-old, was admitted to St. Mary' s, Wagenheim simply passes on the old story that the lad was committed to the school after a brawl at his father' s tavern. Creamer acknowledges the story but concludes, " There have been attempts, none of them conclusive, to pinpoint the reason why Ruth was sent to St. Mary' s."
Where both books fail is in providing footnoting -- there is practically none. When a person such as Ruth has been the subject of so many rumors, gossip and exaggeration, it would be nice to know the source of some anecdotes in these books.
A useful counterpoint to Wagenheim' s and Creamer' s books is " The Babe: A Life in Pictures" (1988). Baseball historian Lawrence S. Ritter (" The Glory of Their Times" ) does a serviceable job with the text, but the photos that Mark Rucker selects are outstanding.
You see the classic shots -- Ruth standing with his father in the Ruth tavern in 1915 or 1916, looking amazingly like the old man; Nickolas Murray' s 1927 portrait of Ruth in which the slugger, dressed in pinstripes and holding the bat on his shoulder, peers intently at the reader; the haunting photo by Nat Fein at Yankee Stadium in June 1948 -- Ruth, his back to the camera, stands apart facing the crowd only months before his death.
But we also see such unusual shots as Ruth, outstretched on the ground, knocked out after running into the fence at Washington' s Griffith Stadium. There is a photo of him working out with boxing champion Jack Dempsey and one of him dressed as an old woman, with wig, bonnet and nightgown.
As for Ruth in the movies, the two biographies are simply dreadful. " The Babe Ruth Story" is hopeless because it has the unathletic Bendix portraying one of the great athletes of the 20th century. Perhaps Hollywood figured Bendix was appropriate because he looked a little homely, like the Babe, but he couldn' t even throw, let alone swing a bat convincingly. Bendix was the last person in America to convey a sense of power and vitality.
Goodman, who starred in " The Babe," is bigger -- enormous, in fact -- and manages to evoke more of a sense of the undisciplined boy in a man' s body than Bendix ever could. But again, the subject was a great athlete, and the blubbery Goodman suggests more the out-of-shape Ruth in decline in the 1930s than the extraordinary slugger of the 1920s. If a viewer can't sense exactly why Ruth was so great to begin with -- his matchless physical skills -- the rest of the movie is doomed.
My favorite movie image of Ruth, though, is when he played himself in the 1942 Lou Gehrig biography, " Pride of the Yankees." He' s on for only a short time, but you see his exuberance in one scene in which the Yankees celebrate a World Series victory. Ruth got so caught up in the festivities that he smashed a straw boater over one guy' s head and wound up cutting his own hand. Just right for a man who exemplified a life lived to excess.
THE BABE IN BOOKS
There's enough literature about Babe Ruth to last out any baseball strike. Tim Warren rates some on a scale of one to five balls:
' Babe: The Legend Comes to Life," by Robert W. Creamer (1974), is what a sports biography should be -- in fact, what any biography should be. The research is solid and the writing lively, but best of all, Creamer attempts to see Ruth as a person who did extraordinary things, not as a myth.
4 1/2 BALLS
" The Babe: A Life in Pictures," by Lawrence S. Ritter and Mark Rucker (1988), portrays Ruth in a way that words cannot. Through the hundreds of pictures, taken in widely different settings and many of them not related to baseball, one sees just what a cultural phenomenon he was.
" Babe Ruth: His Life and Legend," by Kal Wagenheim (1974), suffers from having been written from a fan' s perspective. Also, some of the writing is clunky and hackneyed, but the book is full of detail and has some great stories. The author tries hard -- sometimes too hard -- to place Ruth within the context of his times.
3 1/2 BALLS
" The Babe Ruth Story," by Babe Ruth with Bob Considine (1948), was completed shortly before his death, and has the feel of a rush job. Ruth glosses over a lot of things, such as his first marriage (understandably), but it' s an affecting book, with a sense of real power. His tales of growing up in rough-and-tumble Southwest Baltimore (" I had a rotten start and it took me a long time to get my bearings" ) are great reading.
" Babe Ruth' s Own Book of Baseball," by George Herman Ruth (1928), surprised many people when it came out because the Babe appeared perceptive and erudite about many things, and not just baseball. Speculation is that it really was written by at least one ghostwriter, possibly Ford Frick, but it' s still engaging. Ruth discusses such topics as whether college-trained ballplayers are better than non-college players, and passes on good inside stuff about hitting, pitching and such.
" Babe Ruth as I Knew Him," by Waite Hoyt (1948), is an earnest effort by a former Yankees teammate to show Ruth as more complicated -- more human -- than he had been depicted.
" Babe Ruth: The Big Moments of the Big Fellow," by Tom Meany (1947), perpetuates the commonly held images of Ruth. Like most sportswriters of the era, Meany was more interested in mythmaking than digging deep, but this anecdotal book is a good example of how Ruth got to be seen as he was.
2 1/2 BALLS
" The Life that Ruth Built: A Biography," by Marshall Smelser (1973), takes a fascinating subject and renders him dull. Smelser was a history professor at Notre Dame, and this reads like a history book: full of research and, unfortunately, awfully dry writing. The professor tries too hard not to be impressed by Ruth, and does so in 565 laborious pages.