There was one big takeaway from author Jane Leavy’s appearance Saturday at the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum to autograph and answer questions about her latest book.
The Babe can still draw a crowd.
Leavy, the former Washington Post writer who also has authored bestselling biographies of Sandy Koufax and Mickey Mantle, certainly isn’t the first to try to dig deeper into the life of one of the most intriguing characters in the history of sports. What sets “The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created” apart from earlier attempts to identify the true essence of the man is an unprecedented look back into Ruth’s long-neglected childhood and a magnified focus on how his tremendous popularity helped birth the cult of personality in America.
The event brought out dozens of Ruth enthusiasts on a wet and gloomy afternoon to get their books signed, but also to get some more insights into what allows The Babe to still resonate with baseball fans more than a century after he made his major league debut with the Boston Red Sox.
He is, arguably, the greatest baseball player who ever lived, by virtue of the fact that he was both the greatest hitter and one of the greatest pitchers of his time. But with the help of relentless agent and promoter Christy Walsh, Ruth combined his on-field performance with his bigger-than-life persona to create the template for today’s societal obsession with celebrity.
“Babe Ruth created the modern celebrity,’’ Leavy said. “He’s the guy. We can hold him responsible. I think you can draw a direct line from Babe Ruth to Kim Kardashian’s butt.”
That line got a big laugh from the audience, but Leavy was only half-kidding.
“Seriously, because previously, you were famous for one thing — your deeds,’’ she said. “Now, Babe Ruth and Christy Walsh are making the argument … ‘No, I shouldn’t be remunerated just for the balls I hit out of ballparks. I should be remunerated as an entertainer for the tushies I bring into the ballpark.’
“That was a radical reinterpretation of how to look at athletes. That evolved decade by decade by decade into everybody’s famous for 15 minutes and now you’re just famous for being famous.”
To put this all in its proper perspective, Leavy takes Ruth all the way back to the birthplace where she was sitting Saturday, something that really had not been done so completely in any of the previous Ruthian biographies.
“When I started doing this, I refused to sign the contract until I read every other biography and every newspaper story I could get my hands on,’’ she said. “And I said to myself, ‘There’s something really missing here. They’re great books. Each of them contributes something really important along the way, but the first 20 years of his life — or maybe 19 — are absent. They just don’t exist.’ ”
Leavy credits the digital era with allowing her to go where previous authors had not gone before and reveals the truths behind some of the most enduring myths about Ruth’s childhood and beyond. She also said she owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to the museum and to many of Ruth’s living descendants and relatives.
Of course, she has revealed such truths in her previous two sports biographies, getting unprecedented cooperation from the intensely private Koufax (“Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy”) and examining the life of Mantle in “The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood.”
There could be no two historical sports figures with more different public personalities than Ruth and Koufax, which might explain Leavy’s fascination with both.
“Sandy Koufax was a man who eschewed celebrity as we know it today — the popular cultural machine that eats people alive,” Leavy said. “He is very smart, wery well-read, wery aware of who he is. … My next book was about Mickey Mantle, who I think was destroyed by celebrity.”
If it sounds as if Leavy is always seeking some greater truth in her three biographies, “The Big Fella” is full of interesting anecdotes about Ruth from throughout his life and is framed by his famous barnstorming tour with Lou Gehrig in 1927.
That was when the straight-laced Gehrig was 24 years old and still idolized the unrestrainable and dissolute Ruth. They’re relationship would become more complicated later.
“Gehrig said, ‘Yeah, it was really educational to travel around with the Babe,’ ” Leavy said. “You can only imagine what he learned.”
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.
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