- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 13, 2006

THE BIG BAM: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF BABE RUTH

By Leigh Montville

Doubleday, $26.95, 390 pages

Reviewed by Eric Wills

In this era of steroids, baseball fans may be tempted to hark back to the good old days, when beer was the performance enhancer of choice and baseball the undisputed national pastime.

Who more than Babe Ruth reminds us of that era? A hot-dog-eating, hard-drinking, home-run-hitting natural, Ruth continues to loom large as an embodiment of the game’s golden years.

He especially looms over Barry Bonds. The San Francisco Giants’ left fielder is currently chasing Ruth’s all-time home run total of 714 (as of Friday afternoon, Bonds had 713). Fans have vilified Bonds because he is a reputed steroid user with all the warmth of a windy Bay evening. (“The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco,” or so Twain supposedly said.) But the fact remains that Ruth is a difficult act for any player to follow.

In “The Big Bam,” Leigh Montville seeks to explain how and why Ruth gained such mythical stature. Who was he really? And will anything we learn about his life change how we view baseball today?

Among other books, Mr. Montville has written a well-received biography of Ted Williams. His subject this time is not just Ruth’s life but the fog that encircles it.

The slugger was born in Baltimore in 1895. At age seven he was sent to St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, which enrolled orphans and ill-behaved children.

The rest is obscured by haze. Why was Ruth sent to St. Mary’s? As an adult, he said only that he was a “bad kid.” Perhaps it was because his mother was mentally disturbed and unfit to be a parent. Her cause of death at age 39 was listed as exhaustion. Maybe it was because of a shooting in a tavern owned by Ruth’s father, which led the authorities to conclude that the child’s welfare was endangered.

Mr. Montville writes that “the boy is seen only in outline.” He continues, “There he is, running down the street with a pack of kids, throwing something at some merchant directing a horse-drawn cart. There he is … where is he?”

At St. Mary’s he spent most of time on the baseball diamond. After Brother Matthias Boutlier stoked his interest in the game, he played as many as 200 games a year at the school, or so he said later. Scouts came. At age 19 he signed a contract with the Baltimore Orioles, then a minor league team, for $200 a month.

Fresh from St. Mary’s — where he reputedly received his share of lashings for disobedience, fulfilled his work requirement by sewing shirts for a tailor, and learned how to write in perfect cursive (a couple of whacks from a wooden ruler an omnipresent threat) — Ruth entered a world where the “no’s” would come few and far between.

“His wants and longings while at St. Mary’s would drive much of his future behavior,” Mr. Montville writes. “A degree in psychology wouldn’t be needed to see that fact. If you never have had enough of anything and everything as a child, how much is needed to fill that hole?”

The answer was, more than anyone could have imagined. He met a 16-year-old waitress named Helen Woodford in Landers Coffee Shop in Boston — supposedly on the morning of his first major league win as a pitcher for the Red Sox — and married her. The union in no way hindered his carousing.

Members of the press befriended Ruth and played cards with him, drank with him, waited in the main room of countless hotel suites while he entertained a lady in the bedroom. Word spread that during spring training in 1921, the wife of a Louisiana legislator chased the slugger through a train wielding a knife. A scorned lover, perhaps. None of it made the papers.

In 1923, a pregnant 19-year-old from the Bronx named Dolores Dixon filed a $50,000 paternity suit against Ruth. Marshall Hunt, a New York Daily News reporter who shadowed Ruth, later said he knew the slugger was lying when he denied knowing Dixon. But he opted not to press the issue. Dixon dropped the suit after Ruth’s lawyer said he had a witness who planned to testify that the slugger was being extorted.

After Ruth’s relationship with Helen dissolved, she took up with a doctor named Edward Kinder. On a January night in 1929, his house in a Boston suburb burned down, and Helen died in the fire. Her sister cast suspicion on Ruth when she reported that he had chased Helen with a gun a few years earlier, threatening to kill her. The district attorney ordered a second autopsy and inspection of the burned house. The coroner confirmed that no foul play was involved in Helen’s death; the fire inspector said there was no arson.

Ruth’s reputation went largely unscathed by these scandals, writes Mr. Montville, because he was for the most part untouchable, a demigod. “This was the apogee in the age of new heroes,” he writes. “They were delivered to the front door now, these heroes, consumed like breakfast cereal. They weren’t long ago characters of mythology or simple words on paper; their voices could be heard on the radio, their pictures could be seen in the paper, in the news shorts at the theater … this was a time for large and outrageous deeds.”

Ruth’s outrageous deed was to change baseball, making the home run the main spectacle in what was previously a game of singles and strategy. He had some help. In 1920, baseball outlawed pitchers from doctoring the ball, preventing deliveries such as the spit ball that fooled batters with their unpredictable twists and turns. Moreover, baseballs began to be made with a better grade of Australian wool, and machines wound the yarn tighter. These new, livelier balls replaced the “dead” ones of years past. Pitchers thus lost some of their advantages against sluggers like Ruth.

Ruth also worked hard. After a subpar season in 1925, rumors abounded that his career was on the decline. He sought out Artie McGovern, a physical trainer whose clients were the creme of New York society. The stationary bike, the rowing machine, boxing, handball — Ruth did it all. He lost 44 pounds in six weeks, and for the rest of his career spent the winter training with McGovern. Few, if any, players matched his off-season regiment.

Ruth’s feats were not just the result of his natural ability. But such myths are nevertheless perpetuated, cobbled together to create a feel-good representation of a bygone era. And so fans have not been kind to those who have challenged the slugger’s records.

It is difficult to feel much sympathy for Mr. Bonds, at least not the way one feels for Ruth in the closing pages of “The Big Bam.” Unable to land a managerial job after he retired, Ruth struggled to find his rightful place. During the New York winters he would bowl at an alley in the basement of the Riverside Plaza Hotel, sometimes as many as five days a week, sometimes alone. Then cancer struck and ate a hole in the back of his throat. He was soon gone, dead in 1948 at age 53.

Mr. Montville clears away little of the fog that surrounds Ruth’s life, but maybe that’s an impossible feat. “I am convinced YOU WILL NEVER learn the truth on Ruth,” wrote Waite Hoyt, one of his former teammates, to another Ruth biographer in the ‘70s. “There are a HUNDRED facets to Ruth’s complex character, yet he was [also] so simple as to be difficult.”

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