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He had 'the mind of a 15-year-old,' but he made the Yankees, baseball great


The Big Bam

Leigh Montville

Doubleday / 366 pages / $26.95

From the day in 1914 that Babe Ruth walked out of St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys in Baltimore until the evening in 1948 that he drew his final breath, The Bambino careened through life at an unimaginable pace.

No thrill was too ordinary. No night out was too long. No feast of food or drink was too much.

Whether it was baseball, fast cars or faster women, Ruth savored the world spinning around his axis, swallowed it whole and reveled in its every moment. Life was there to be enjoyed and Ruth was not handicapped by fame or opportunity. After a pitiful beginning in Baltimore - he was sent to St. Mary's at age 7 - he had a lot to make up for the rest of his life. He did it splendidly and with great vigor.

To that end, Leigh Montville takes us on a nostalgic, sometimes hilarious, sometimes melancholy, tour of Ruth's life in the pages of The Big Bam. Researching tapes and transcripts from other Ruth biographers, Montville recounts how Ruth became baseball's biggest name, the home run king, the first celebrity superstar, the "man who built Yankee Stadium."

Unlike most of his predecessors - those writers being from a kinder, simpler time - Montville now shows us The Babe's indiscretions more earnestly, sorting through the chaos of his life, winding through the dark alleys and dead ends. While the author acknowledges there are many holes that can't be filled, he does an admirable job of offering perspective and probability to Ruth's life and it serves the reader well.

Ruth's was a "life of excess" with all its ragged edges. It was also like a first-run movie. What we see in today's world of sporting misbehavior - with giant egos, childish pouts and dreadful decisions - played out for the first time in those Ruthian years. Ruth was, in fact, the precursor of today's examples of insolence and belligerence.

In his day, he was suspended and fined as much as any player. He routinely threatened to punch his manager or an umpire in the nose. He once went after an unclothed Waite Hoyt in the locker room and tried to kick his New York Yankees' teammate with his spikes. Another time, he was attacked by a teammate - who tired of Ruth's endless harangues - in the dugout. He even went into the stands after a heckler and challenged anyone in the crowd to fight.

Like clockwork, after a good season - and there were many of those - Ruth would ask for a pay raise. He used as his leverage threats of retirement, vaudeville and boxing. At the height of his popularity in 1929, Ruth was untouched by the stock market crash. While many stood in bread lines during the Depression, Ruth wrangled the biggest contract of his 21-year major league career, getting $80,000 a year for two years.

Ruth thought he was impervious to the laws of the land and the rules of the game. He spent a day in jail during the 1921 season after going before the same judge for repeated speeding violations. At the end of that year, he challenged Judge Kenesaw Landis, baseball's dictatorial commissioner, on a rule that forbade postseason barnstorming games by players who had participated in the World Series. Ruth's impertinence cost him his World Series paycheck and the first seven weeks of the 1922 season in fine and suspension.

Baseball ultimately would acquiesce in its clashes with Ruth because, after all, he was the game's No. 1 attraction and his home-run bat knocked the Black Sox scandal of 1919 off the front pages with amazing speed. He got away with his many entanglements because of who he was and what he was able to accomplish on a baseball field. But trailing behind him was a feeling of resentment from those offended by his insouciance.

Montville reports that after Yankees manager Miller Huggins died at age 50 in 1929, Huggins' sister Mildred took this swipe at Ruth: "Babe Ruth took five years off my brother's life."

In the middle of another controversy, American League President Ban Johnson was moved to say, "Ruth has the mind of a 15-year-old."

Still, it is inescapable that Ruth, adored by the youth of America and most of the adults of his age, was a legend in his time, not just his mind. His home-run swing pulled baseball out of the dead-ball era and propelled the game to greater heights. Indeed, he made the Yankees and baseball great.

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