Book Review: The Big Bam

The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth

By Leigh Montville (Doubleday, $26.95)

Every generation has a right to its own voice, to provide its own take on history, to see events through a different lens, a different sensibility. Thirty years ago, Robert Creamer wrote the first serious biography of Babe Ruth, but so much has happened to baseball and our definitions of heroes that Leigh Montville has decided to take his generations’ look at the Bambino.  

Creamer told us the Babe was a serial adulterer, who drank, cussed and belched in public.  It opened the private world of athletes like never before, and laid the groundwork for other writers to reveal warts and worse about their subjects.

Montville did that with his superlative biography of Ted Williams, but unlike that effort, where he was able to locate sources from Williams’ grade school, his mother’s family (who were Mexican), teammates and co-pilots to give a 360 degree view of his subject, there aren’t many notable factual revelations in “The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth.”  Montville acknowledges his debt to Creamer and other biographers who provided their source material.  In addition, he uses material unavailable or overlooked by earlier writers to offer some explanations about the Babe:  

Ruth was infamous for never being able to remember names, exuded restless energy and slept little. He might have had Adult Deficient Hypertension Disorder. Montville quotes his granddaughter on the topic, saying her brother was the same way. But wait, Ruth and his first wife adopted their daughter, Dorothy. How could her children inherit Ruth’s traits? Maybe, writes Montville, Ruth was Dorothy’s biological father. Documents on Dorothy’s adoption are lost, so who’s to say if this is true or not. Montville lets the reader decide.

Then there’s the legend Ruth was black and “passed” as white. At St. Mary’s, the Baltimore school (for orphans and incorrigibles, and Ruth was the later) where his father deposited him when he was eight, Ruth’s nickname was a racial epithet. Ruth looked just like his father, so could either of his parents been partly black? The evidence does not support this, but a conclusion is left to the beholder’s eye.

Montville’s contribution to the Babe’s history–besides an engaging narrative–is placing his subject in the context of the “times”: World War I, the Roaring 20s, Prohibition, The Great Depression. There are snapshots of those eras–some merely pad the book, others provide a backdrop to the Babe’s story. The 20s did roar, and Ruth roared the loudest. If the jazz age led Americans to believe anything was possible, and life was a wild ride, nobody embodied this ethos more than the Babe.

If you’ve never read a biography of Ruth, start with this. If not, Montville’s gifts as a writer make repeating the journey worthwhile.