- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 6, 2004

In “Babe Ruth: Launching the Legend” ($24.95, McGraw-Hill, 288 pages, illus.), author Jim Reisler describes the Bambino’s monumental first season with the New York Yankees in detail.

Agonizing detail.

Eighty-four years later, Ruth’s 1920 feats remain one of the most astounding offensive onslaughts ever on the far side of Barry Bonds: .376 batting average, .847 slugging, 158 runs scored, 137 RBI and, of course, a record 54 home runs (nearly doubling his then-astounding 29 of 1919 with the Boston Red Sox).

Reisler’s painstaking research undoubtedly will benefit future biographers, as will his description of the three-way American League pennant race among Cleveland, Chicago and New York, the revelation of the Black Sox plot to throw the previous year’s World Series and the death of Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman after being beaned by a pitch from Yankees submariner Carl Mays.

Trouble is, there are only so many ways a writer can say, “… And then the Babe slammed a fastball from [name of luckless pitcher] far over the right-field wall.” Every fan with any knowledge of baseball history is aware Ruth’s exploits on and off the field made him the most famous athlete of the Roaring Twenties and helped save the game from the widespread disillusionment caused by the perfidious Black Sox. Eventually, Reisler’s wealth of minutiae becomes tedious to the reader.

Some of the off-field stuff is more fascinating. Ruth’s lack of manners comes as a jolt, though the Babe’s persistent pursuit of wine and women, if not song, has been examined before. For instance, upon first meeting with his Yankees bosses after his infamous trade from Boston to New York, he tells co-owners Jacob Ruppert and Cap Huston, “Look at ya — too old and too fat to have any fun.” Then, gesturing at diminutive manager Miller Huggins, “As for that shrimp, he’s half-dead right now.”

And then there were the prostitutes; given his lack of moral turpitude and the quickness of most games in those days, the 25-year-old Ruth might have spent more time in houses of ill repute than in the Polo Grounds (the Yankees’ home in 1920). “You should have seen the dame I was with last night,” he tells a presumably envious teammate. “What a body, not a blemish on it!”

Of course, none of this saw the light of day in any of New York’s 11 daily newspapers.

Perhaps most interesting is the author’s ability to capture the language and spirit, as well as the statistics, of an era when America longed for simplicity and heroes after enduring the Great War, as World War I was called then. Ping Bodie, a teammate of Ruth’s, describes a slugging feat of his own by saying, “I really rammycackled the old persimmon.” And in one of the book’s many contemporary excerpts, the New York Times tells how Wally Pipp — yes, that Wally Pipp — “usurped Ruth’s throne as monarch of the wagon tongue.”

For better or worse, you can’t hardly find writing like that anymore.

• • •

Anecdotal books by sportswriters — “memoirs,” if you want to be artsy about it — seldom hold attention because old stories usually aren’t as interesting in print as they seemed at the time. But “The Bases Were Loaded (And So Was I)”by Tom Callahan ($24.95, Crown, 225 pages) is a quirky, rewarding exception.

Callahan, a native Baltimorean who has written for the Sun, the Cincinnati Enquirer, two Washington newspapers, Time and Newsweek over three-plus decades, has a rare talent for perceiving events and people from often askew angles. He also is a big, bluff man who does not fear the high and mighty (or low and mighty) denizens of sport.

In his book — Callahan admits he swiped the title from another writer who never got around to using it — we learn how he shared a hotel mini-brawl with the intimidating Sonny Liston, challenged Pete Rose to a breath of fisticuffs and obtained an exclusive interview with Nancy Lopez by picking her up at an airport and briefly identifying himself as a golf tournament official.

If this sounds as if Callahan is blowing his own bugle, forget it; his subjects always reside at center stage. It’s just that he refuses to swallow and wallow in all the blarney to which most of us in the writing business have become resigned. He’s a worthy successor to the legendary Jimmy Breslin as a puncturer of enormous egos.

Callahan can and does write funny, but when he turns serious and sad, he’s a good bet to break your heart. I’ve never seen anyone describe the friendship/rivalry between Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus as sensitively. And his piece on the demise of 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat is enough to make the toughest racetrack tout sob all over his Daily Racing Form:

“On the only day when people who don’t care about horse racing care about horse racing — the first Saturday in May — a red stallion with three white stockings finally reached the gates of heaven. … He was whole again and himself, a tremendous machine on the homestretch at Belmont, a living flame in the sky. In the distance, a speck became a dot became a blur. Because tears work like glasses for horses and humans, he could make out the miniature figure miles before it made him out. It was a little red colt with three white stockings.”

Going in, I wondered whether Callahan would mention how he and I managed to get ourselves locked inside Clemson’s football stadium after a game in 1978, a time when we both earned our daily bread at the Washington Star. He didn’t but no problem. The story about how he got to sleep with actress Marilyn Maxwell is much better.

• • •

If you’re a baseball nut case — the kind who loves the game no matter its many shortcomings — you also will love “1,001 Reasons to Love Baseball” by Danny Peary and Mary Tiegreen ($24.95, Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 320 pages, illus).

It’s fun to pick up the book, read a few pages and enjoy a marvelous assortment of old and new photographs. A couple of my favorite “Reasons”: “(No.404) The wonderful sensations of hitting, throwing and catching a ball” and “(No.941) The excitement of entering a major league park through the turnstiles.”

The authors should have left a few blank pages for readers to enter their own favorites, although not many imaginable ones are omitted.

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