Sunday Stories: Major League Memoirs #6 – “Babe: The Legend Comes to Life” by Robert Creamer

14 02 2016

A little less than a year ago I did a bunch of these baseball/culture posts centered around Babe Ruth.  I read one book, by Bill Jenkinson, that detailed the exploits of the Babe’s longballs.  I wanted to read a true biography of the Bambino, and from everything I’d read, the best one was a book by Robert Creamer.  I was a little hesitant, since it was written in 1974.  My general understanding of journalism, research and the types of things associated with these kinds of books is that “the truth” is much more likely to be found in a newer book – even though time has passed.  For instance, the original biography about Ty Cobb painted him an extremely negative light.  It has since been proven to be, at best, sensationalized, and, at worst, fiction.  Yet it influences how Cobb is viewed more than any other publication.

I didn’t find that to be the case here.  I read that this is still the definitive Babe Ruth biography, and I wholeheartedly agree after reading it.  Creamer doesn’t come across as someone who idolized Ruth – he seems to tell it like it is.  It’s a long book, but it’s one of the 2 or 3 best baseball books I’ve ever read.  I finished the book yesterday, in the waiting room of a Mazda dealership.  After being wrapped up in the book for the past few weeks, the last chapter covering Ruth’s death was moving, and I’d probably have needed a tissue if I wasn’t in a public place.

In short, out of the 30-40 baseball books I’ve read in my life, I’d recommend this one over the others.

book cover Babe Legend Comes to Life

Title/Author/Publisher:  “Babe: The Legend Comes to Life” by Robert Creamer (Simon and Schuster, 1974, 468 pages)

Description:  There have been quite a few Babe Ruth biographies – but this one is truly the definitive one.  It’s a long book, over 450 pages.  That makes sense.  Babe packed about as much living as you could imagine into his 55 years (or 56, as the book details, there’s some uncertainty surrounding his birth date).  And Creamer covers it all – from his youth in Baltimore, his pitching days in Boston, his fame as a Yankee and the last few years after his career ended.

This book was written in 1974, when Hank Aaron was busy passing the Bambino on the all-time home run list.  Ruth had been dead for 25 years when this book was written, but it wasn’t so long after his playing days that Creamer couldn’t talk to a number of live participants in story of the Sultan of Swat.  He interviewed numerous teammates, family members, and friends to showcase an honest portrait of Babe’s life on and off the diamond.

Ruth with brother Matthias

Ruth with Brother Matthias

It’s a chronological biography split into two parts:

  • Ruth’s birth in 1894, childhood in Baltimore, and his first days as a major league ballplayer in Boston
  • His 15 years with the Yankees and the time after baseball leading to his death in 1948

My review:

Sports Illustrated has called this the best sports biography ever written, and I won’t argue with them.  Babe was larger than life, and the book really shows that.  As a third person biography, it describes the facts Creamer had meticulously gathered.  But it still allows you to feel like you can understand Ruth’s perspective.  It also shows how much of an icon he was – his impact on society in the time after World War I to the beginning of the Great Depression.  The book is written with the right level of skepticism for the legends Ruth left behind, and also with a tinge of awe that’s appropriate for a man who many consider the greatest sportsman of all-time.

There’s a lot of detail, from his time at St. Mary’s school in Baltimore where Brother Matthias oversaw the Babe as he learned how to make shirts.  In case the baseball thing didn’t work out.  There are some great anecdotes; like the first time he saw an elevator when he paid the attendant to take it up and down over and over again.  Or in game 1 of the 1918 World Series when the Red Sox claimed Ruth wouldn’t start game 1, sent Bullet Joe Bush out for warm ups, and then brought the Babe on anyway.  Or how Christy Walsh became the Babe’s publicist by pretending to be a beer delivery man.

Other Notable nuggets:

Creamer also does a great job describing what was going on in the world of Major League Baseball at the time – you can see how the politics and business of the game influenced Ruth’s career.  I found the contract negotiations – between Babe and his owners, or his owners and potential trade partners – to be incredibly interesting.

  • Jack Dunn, who originally signed Ruth out of St. Mary’s for the minor league Orioles, wanted to keep him as long as possible.  The minor leagues weren’t as directly subservient to the majors as they are today.  The AL or NL could draft a player in the offseason from an International League team like the Orioles.  But it was better business to sell him midseason for a substantial sum.  In 1914, Dunn signed Ruth and the Orioles were leading the International League for the first half of the season.  But the Federal League, a third major league, had just started up.  Since there was a Baltimore team in the FL, Dunn couldn’t draw effectively and had to sell all of his ballplayers.  He held on to Ruth for the longest time.  Ruth played a month or so with the Red Sox that year, but was rented to their farm team, the Providence Grays, and he naturally led them to the International League pennant over, among other teams, his former Baltimore Orioles.
  • Ruth almost left for a shipyard team in the middle of 1918, as many players were defecting to war-appropriate occupations, where they would just play baseball for the shipyard, stockyard, etc., instead of for the American or National League.
  • Ruth tried to get a cut of the money the Yankees sent to Harry Frazee when Boston’s owner sold him to New York.
  • Ruth defied baseball’s rules and went barnstorming after the 1921 season, and the new commissioner Judge Landis was forced to suspend him and Bob Meusel for the first month of the following season.  Landis actually pushed to have the rules changed the following year so players from the World Series teams could barnstorm.
  • Babe Ruth StoryEvery time his contract came up, Ruth would have a relatively friendly standoff with Jake Ruppert, the Yankee owner.  One of these standoffs is what led to the most famous quote attributed to him.  Ruth was asked if it made sense for him to make more than U.S. President Herbert Hoover. He responded “Why not?  I had a better year.”
  • Creamer goes into detail of the sale to the Braves and the contract Babe believed would lead him to become the Braves’ manager.  He never did get to manage a game in the Majors.

Like I said above, this was probably the best baseball book I’ve ever read.  Certainly in the top 2 or 3.  It’s worth a read – Ruth is still the most fascinating, and probably the greatest, baseball player of all-time.

For a card to go with this book – I’m going with the 1992 MegaCards set of Babe Ruth.  This took pictures of the Babe from the Conlon Collection of photographs.  Card #14 has the photo that Creamer used on the original hardcover version of his book released in 1974.

1992 MegaCards Ruth 1922 year

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