There are historical figures that have all the characteristics of greatness and then there are those that define what greatness means. As far as baseball is concerned, Babe Ruth is the later. On the baseball diamond, Ruth redefined what makes a successful hitter – the ability to hit for average, reach base, and hit for power. Off the field, Ruth defined what it meant to be a superstar in both baseball and American sports in general. With his larger-than-life personality, theatrics, and just enough scandal and intrigue to keep things interesting, Ruth set the standards for the modern day superstar player and athlete. It is not hyperbole to suggest that Babe Ruth was the first modern day American superstar athlete.
Despite all of that acclaim, I felt that I did not really know all that much about Babe Ruth. Sure, I knew he was the greatest power hitter of all time and arguably the greatest overall hitter of all time. I knew of his beginnings as a pitcher in Baltimore and Boston and his end as an aging slugger on the Boston Braves in what amounted to little more than a publicity stunt. I knew he was a big guy with an insatiable appetite for . . . well . . . pretty much anything, with an equally large personality to match. I knew other tidbits – most of the famous stories and his “Ruthian feats” – but for such an important figure in the sport I love, I felt my Babe Ruth knowledge was woefully inadequate or at the very least, incomplete.
Robert Creamer – the author of Babe: The Legend Comes to Life – is more than aware of this quandary. As many of the superstar athletes that followed Ruth would find out, sometimes a public figure becomes so famous that the stories overshadow the man. “Has there ever been a grosser outline than that of Babe Ruth,” Creamer rhetorically asks his readers. “Ask anyone. Babe Ruth? Baseball Player. Home run hitter. Big fat guy, moon face, huge torso, skinny legs. Hit 60 home runs one year. Hit more home runs than anybody else. Tremendous home run hitter. Ate a lot of hot dogs. Love kids.” In a nutshell, that’s Babe Ruth – but there is more to his story, as there would be for anybody.
Creamer’s purpose in writing Babe is to pull back the curtain on Ruth and provide readers with a 3-dimensional view of a man whose extraordinary life and exploits have largely been reduced to 2-dimensions. “Story multiplied by story becomes legend,” Creamer writes. No figure in sports history – certainly no figure in baseball history – has had more stories told (and told over and over again) about him and therefore as become as mythicized as Ruth. Ruth is the George Washington of professional athletes – a figure so legendary and so famous, that the legend overshadows the actual person.
This is true for both Ruth the ball player and Ruth the man.
As a hitter, Babe Ruth quite literally changed the game of baseball. Ruth led all of Major League Baseball in 1919 with 29 homeruns. It was the most ever hit in a single season and one would have to go back four years – to 1915 and Philadelphia’s Gavvy Cravath – to find the last time before then that a player in the American or National leagues hit more than 20 in one season. The next season Ruth belted 54 home runs – 35 more than the runner up in that department, George Sisler. By the time Ruth became the first hitter to slug 60 homeruns in a single season in 1927, homerun leaders in both leagues were regularly belting 30 and sometimes 40 or more homeruns per season. Ruth had changed the way batters approached the game – looking to drive the ball for maximum results rather than simply making contact – and changed it quickly.
Ruth was not just the greatest home run hitter baseball had ever seen – he was the game’s best hitter, period. Creamer recalls Ruth’s on-field exploits in great detail by taking the reader on a game-by-game or sometimes pitch-by-pitch recount of Ruth’s career. The book runs the risk of getting bogged down in the details as Creamer provides what amounts to a day by day recap of Ruth’s early seasons – including Spring Trainings – but in this instance the level of detail serves its purpose. Remember, it is Creamer’s goal to take the reader beyond the legend and beyond the end results. He is not satisfied with simply telling us that Ruth hit an historic amount of home runs in 1919. By taking the reader through a game by game account of that historic season, we can better appreciate what a truly extraordinary and unprecedented feat it was. Likewise, the reader comes to appreciate how well-rounded of a player Ruth was. He ended his career reaching base in 47% of his plate appearances and his career slugging percentage and OPS (on base percentage plus slugging percentage) still stand as the best of all time. Even in that single season with the Boston Braves – often portrayed in theatrical recounts of Ruth’s life as a sad, washed up ball player struggling through a final season – Ruth had an OPS+ of 119 in 29 games played, meaning he was still a far above average Major League player even in his last hurrah.
In addition, Creamer spends significant time on Ruth’s early baseball years thereby paying appropriate attention to the Babe’s pitching career, which has become somewhat of a footnote to his historic body of work at the plate. The reality – as Creamer paints through detailing game by game results – is that Ruth was well on his way to a very impressive pitching career before devoting himself fulltime to hitting. He wasn’t just a great slugger that pitched – he was a great pitcher and a great slugger. The transition from pitcher to hitter – and how Ruth felt about it – is also brought to life in extraordinary detail by Creamer.
When it comes to his life off the field, Creamer utilizes the same level of scrutiny that he applies to Ruth’s baseball career – no stone is left unturned. It is all there. From Ruth’s difficult early life in Baltimore (he never even knew his actual birth date), his relationship with his father, his time at St. Mary’s Industrial School for boys and the relationship he forged with Brother Mathias, to his humble beginnings in organized baseball with the International League Baltimore Orioles. Ruth’s vices are discussed in appropriate detail – the womanizing, gluttony, and quick temper – as are the more positive qualities of baseball’s greatest hitter. Ruth also loved children, was generous and loyal to friends, and went about his life with a simple, charming outlook. He was a complicated person – as most are – and Creamer does a fine job in presenting Ruth from all angles with very little personal slants of his own.
There is much more to the story of Babe Ruth then the stories and legends. Robert Creamer does a fantastic job in brining those details – important, interesting details – to the surface. The book is well research and well sourced, while at the same time, reading more like a biographical story than an information dump, as any good biography will. For all baseball fans – or anyone who has even a passing interest in learning more about one of America’s pioneer superstar athletes – I highly recommend Robert Creamer’s Babe: The Legend Comes to Life.