August 16, 2007

Book Review: The Big Bam By Leigh Montville

George Herman Ruth -- the greatest baseball player of all time -- died 59 years ago today -- August 16, 1948.

In remembrance of the man Boston Red Sox fans once worshipped as The Colossus (aka Tarzan, the Caveman), I have these notes about Leigh Montville's Ruth biography, The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth (Doubleday, 2006):

At the height of his baseball career, Babe Ruth was one of the most famous people on the planet, but much of his background was shrouded in mystery. Next to nothing was known about his childhood on the Baltimore waterfront, his parents, or his first marriage. Indeed, some biographical basics were unknown to Ruth himself; he did not learn his true date of birth until he was in his 40s.

Montville refers to these mysteries as "the fog", and now, nearly 60 years after Ruth's death, it's clear that the fog will never lift. Montville believes: "The fog will make everything greater. That is the weird beauty of the fog." I'm not so sure. I would not choose fog over facts. For me, learning about Ruth's life and career actually has made his story more unbelievable. The fog is not magical, it's maddening.

Montville accepts the fog and he know how to work with it. We enter The Big Bam on the morning of June 13, 1902. George Ruth is taking his seven-year-old son by streetcar to St. Mary's Industrial School. Those are the facts. Yet Montville spends nearly 10 brilliantly written pages imagining the scene from every possible angle.

In the mid-1970s, at least three Ruth biographies were published. No real significant information on the man has surfaced since. So what can Montville tell us about the man he calls "the patron saint of American possibility"?

Montville had access to the notes/interviews of three of those biographers – Robert Creamer, Kal Wagenheim, Marshall Smelser – as well as Ruth's personal scrapbooks. He also relied on a handful of more recent books (my book on the 1918 Red Sox was one of them).

Montville turns what seems like previously well-trod ground to his advantage. The Big Bam is not meant to supersede any of the older bios. The facts laid out in those books afford Montville an opportunity to stray from the main outlines of Ruth's story and examine other, less-known incidents, and shine a light on more obscure and arcane sources.

Montville's conversational style -- he writes of Babe enjoying the "24-hour buffet line of life" -- is perfect for the topic. He is adept at taking numerous accounts of an event and distilling and reporting its essence in a breezy, often humorous, way. The latter third of the book drags a bit, but Montville paints a vivid picture of the Yankees' rejection of Ruth after the 1934 season.


So how great a hitter was Ruth? Many of his records have been broken, but I maintain that he remains the best player to have ever played the game.

Ruth's Best Seasons Ranked by OPS+ (and their all-time ranking)
Year   AVG   OBP   SLG  OPS+  All-Time
1920 .376 .533 .849 256 4th
1921 .378 .512 .846 239 6th
1923 .393 .545 .764 239 6th
1926 .372 .516 .737 227 12th
1927 .356 .486 .772 226 13th
1924 .378 .513 .739 220 18th
1919 .322 .456 .657 219 19th
1931 .373 .495 .700 219 19th
1930 .359 .493 .732 211 26th
1928 .323 .463 .709 208 32nd
1932 .341 .489 .661 201 49th
TOTAL .342  .474  .690   207     1st
OPS+ is Adjusted OPS, which is on-base percentage plus slugging percentage, normalized to the league. So even though the counting stats of a player from 1930 may be wildly different from those of a player in 1968, their OPS+ may be similar.

Eight of Ruth's seasons are in the all-time Top 20 (check out those batting averages!). There are only two other players with more than one season in the Top 20: Barry Bonds with four (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 10th) and Ted Williams with two (8th and 9th). Bonds holds the top three spots, but after that his best seasons drop off to 10th, 36th, 40th and 90th.

Only ten players in baseball history have had even one season with an OPS+ of at least 207. That is Ruth's career average.

Ruth also pitched in 163 games (148 starts), with a record of 94-46 and a career ERA of 2.28 (122 ERA+). To even consider another player as the game's best is laughable.


Pokerwolf said...

While I agree that Ruth was one of the best ever, it needs to be mentioned that we'll never really know how great he could have been.

Not only was he suspended, which meant that some of his seasons were shortened, but he didn't play against the most talented ballplayers of his era. Segregation denied all of the ballplayers that played during the time when baseball was played in different leagues by different races the ability to really show off their skills.

redsock said...

Right. Though saying "he didn't play against the most talented ballplayers of his era" isn't really accurate. He certainty played against many of the best players of that time.

Plus if he had taken slightly better care of himself, he likely would have been even better. Montville goes into detail about how Ruth, woefully out of shape after 1925, worked out like a fiend that winter, never again got seriously out of shape and had a tremendous amount of success during his 30s.

L-girl said...

Two American icons both died on August 16, 29 years apart. Funny coincidence.


Re Pokerwolf's comment, I think that just further underscores how every player can only be judged against in the context of his own era. In one sense, no one has ever come close to Ruth, in that no one since then has stood so far outside the norm of his time.

L-girl said...

24-hour buffet line of life! That's wonderful.

For me, learning about Ruth's life and career actually has made his story more unbelievable.

I'd like to add that I never fully appreciated Babe Ruth until I read your book.