Of all the details—and there are tons—that come out in Jane Leavy‘s remarkable biography The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World he Created, perhaps the most intriguing to Yankees fans comes from a bit of math. Most followers know that Ruth was sold to the Yankees for $100,000 and an additional $300,000 loan by Yankees owners Jacob Ruppert and Til Huston to Boston owner Harry Frazee. (It wasn’t to finance ‘No, No, Nanette,’ but we’ll get to mythmaking later).
The loan was at 7% interest, which Leavy notes would mean that in six years, the interest payments alone would have exceeded the $100,000 purchase price: effectively, the Red Sox paid the Yankees to take the pitcher-turned-slugger. As Leavy notes, “Talk about cursed.”
That’s just one of the dozens of surprising, fun and otherwise interesting tidbits readers of The Big Fella will enjoy. Through newly available documents, thorough reporting (Leavy’s sportswriting chops are plainly evident) and an examination of Ruth’s life, particularly his childhood, through the prism of his three-week 1927 post-World Series barnstorming tour with Lou Gehrig give a fuller appreciation of some things that made Ruth tick, and some of the key relationships in his life that formed his larger-than-life personality.
Principal among these is his dealings with maybe the first “superagent,” Christy Walsh. Part promoter, part press agent, part business manager, part financial adviser, Walsh was largely responsible for turning the Ruth mystique into cash for the Babe. Through smart deals which saw Ruth hawking everything from candy bars (no, not Baby Ruth), to tobacco products to various brands of cola, Walsh helped Ruth accrue his fortune, and his business acumen allowed The Big Fella to keep it despite the Depression that wiped out many others.
The Big Fella is a deep portrait of the man, delving into his two marriages, anxiety rooted in the virtual abandonment by his parents and placement in St. Mary’s School for Boys, and his unceremonious departure from the Yankees (his #3 was issued to another outfielder, George Selkirk, the following spring) after the 1934 season.
As Leavy traces the “Bustin’ Babes” and the “Larrupin Lous” as they made their way west, it sets up the frame, affording the author the opportunity to look back or forward in the narrative, telling relevant stories that complete the Ruth picture. Of course, many of the stories take place in New York, where the Walsh magic helped the mythmaking flourish. It’s where he gained fame as the Colossus of Clout. It’s where he met and wed his second wife, Claire. It’s where fans cheered him two last times: Babe Ruth Day in 1947 and the 25th Anniversary of the Yankee Stadium opening in 1948. And where they mourned him a few months later after his passing.
Ruth’s life is well-trod ground, with numerous excellent books out there; Leavy brings plenty new to the table, though, and even avid fans of the Bambino will find it enlightening and interesting.