I am continuing to read Creamer’s biography of Babe Ruth; it’s not a great book, despite the cover blurb, that says “The best biography ever written about an American sports figure. – Sports Illustrated.”
Perhaps I should have looked at the back cover of the book, where it says, “Robert W. Creamer is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated and has been a member of that magazine’s staff since its inception in 1954.”
So, in part, I think my expectations were raised a bit too high by that cover blurb. (Apparently, I was born just yesterday, and can be taken in by book cover blurbs.) Still, even before I saw the recommendation on the cover, I was expecting this to be good. Babe Ruth was a towering figure on the American landscape for a lot of years; his biography just had to be fascinating by default. He hobnobbed with the rich and famous during the jazz age, the roaring 20s, the depression, playing on the great Yankee teams, pitching, hitting, everything.
Well perhaps my expectations were too high. But Babe Ruth had a hard up-bringing, grew up in a catholic orphanage, did not get much education or much parenting. When he lived at home he ran wild in the streets. He grew up with scant role models and seems to have been remarkably self-centered for much of his life. In the book, Ruth’s friend Paul Carey was asked about Ruth’s feelings for his second wife, Claire. “I don’t think the Babe really loved Claire. I don’t think he really loved anybody.” Ruth wasn’t the sort that would write long introspective letters to friends for the benefit of later biographers.
Creamer attempted to get to primary source information by talking to many ball players who played with and against Ruth, and in those quotes and observations lie the strength and possibly some of the shortcomings of the book. However I think it telling that the best lines of the book on Babe Ruth showed up early, on page 18, in a letter written to the author by former Yankee pitcher Waite Hoyt:
“I am almost convinced… that you will never learn the truth on Ruth. I roomed with Joe Dugan. He was a good friend of the Babe’s. But he will see Ruth in a different light than I did. Dugan’s own opinion will be one in which Dugan revels in Ruth’s crudities, and so on. While I can easily recognize all of of this and admit it freely, yet their was buried in Ruth humanitarianism beyond belief, an intelligence he was never given credit for, a childish desire to be over-virile, living up to credits given his home-run power — and yet a need for intimate affection and respect, and a feverish desire to play baseball, perform, act, and live a life he didn’t and couldn’t take time to understand.”
It seems that Hoyt was right. The book ultimately does not succeed, I don’t think, (though I’ve still got a few chapters left.) Ruth remains a mystery, the stuff of legend, and in that area the book is on firmer ground, in more familiar territory, and does convey some sense of what a great baseball player he was, reciting the amazing statistics and feats.
Just one example: in the book, I have just finished the chapter covering the 1933 season. Babe Ruth is 39 years old, and his talents are fading. but he pitches the last game of the season for the Yankees. He has only pitched once in the previous 12 seasons. But he goes all the way, 9 innings, and the Yankees win, 6-5. And he hits a home run.